The perils of a "use now, pay later" approach to intellectual property

Andy Williams, Managing Director of ITN’s licensing arm, makes his argument for a robust and fair copyright framework.

This article is a reponse to Benjamin White's piece "Copyright for a digital age", which recently appeared on the New Statesman blog.

It’s hard to get excited about copyright but the argument of what constitutes fairness in copyright and how intellectual property law can stimulate the economy is now the subject of Parliamentary and industry debate concerning controversial measures in the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill and an impending announcement from the Intellectual Property Office (IPO).

On one side, rights holders like ITN are deeply concerned about the proposed dismantling of a robust intellectual framework that underpins significant investment in content creation and preservation. Meanwhile public bodies such as the British Library - whose Benjamin White recently voiced his opinions for the New Statesman - and companies that want "free" use of others’ intellectual property view copyright as a cumbersome and outdated regulation. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, the impact of the decisions made in coming months by Parliament, the Government and the IPO will be enormous.  

A relaxation of copyright law may help the British Library cut down on the time it takes to clear rights and digitise its materials, but the extent of the radical proposals on the table for usage of orphan works, introduction of new and wider exceptions for "free" usage of copyright material, and a scheme for Extended Collective Licensing will go much further than just helping public sector institutions to better serve researchers. The very same measures could stifle actual creation of content in the medium to long term, devastate vast swathes of the creative industries - which employ two million people and contribute 6 per cent to GDP - and permit those who don’t invest in UK original content to freely benefit from others’ work.

The creative industries rely on a business model underpinned by a fair and robust copyright framework to discourage and legislate against illegal use. There are quite rightly instances that allow for free use of copyright material – for example an exception to copyright for news reporting is vital to freedom of speech and expression; but the IPO has proposed that a wide range of free usage could be introduced in instances of parody, education and a particularly grey area of "quotations". The policy statement confirming which additional exceptions they plan to implement is due before the end of the year. However, in calling for a lowering of the barrier for free usage of intellectual property, technology companies, public bodies and consumer groups may well find that if they get their wish then the content they want to use freely rather than pay a licence for will simply dry up or not be digitised for mass usage. It’s a commercial reality that if there isn’t a financial incentive then investment in content creation and preservation will suffer.

In addition, proposals for Extended Collective Licensing may seem attractive in offering a time-saving rights clearance mechanism for the British Library, but the opt-out nature of the scheme and scant detail could lead to organisations springing up to license others’ content on their behalf without their knowledge and consent. There are fears about lack of transparency, inappropriate use of sensitive material, undercutting of prices and what US photography groups describe as a “firestorm of international litigation”. It’s bizarre that this is seen as necessary when a Copyright Hub is being developed by Richard Hooper and companies are already investing millions to digitise content and put it online to make it easy to find and be licensed.  

There are, however, potential benefits to establishing a way to license orphan works – whether through UK legislation or implementing a recent EU Directive - as this could free up content that would otherwise lay dormant; but the system must protect creators’ rights by having appropriate safeguards such as clear rules on what constitutes a diligent search to find the owner of a particular piece of intellectual property. A "use now, pay later" approach as advocated by Benjamin White concerns me greatly as less scrupulous organisations could see an orphan works system as a means simply to avoid paying for a licence.

It’s also worth thinking back to the origination of all of these proposals – the Hargreaves Review, which hailed evidence-based recommendations that such measures could help grow the economy by £5.5bn per annum. ITN, along with many of the other 471 respondents to the subsequent IPO Consultation on Copyright, has helped to show that this projection simply doesn’t stack up. Rather, unpicking our copyright regime will take money out of the UK economy as inward and domestic investment and syndication of original content is stalled or cancelled.

The risk becomes even more urgent when you consider that the copyright measures as currently drafted in the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill before the House of Lords would enable much of this sea-change to happen by secondary legislation. Whether in favour of a change in copyright law or against it, no one should want fundamental alterations to be made without full parliamentary scrutiny and debate when there is so much at stake for public bodies and the commercial sector alike.

Andy Williams is Managing Director of ITN’s licensing arm ITN Source

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Q&A: Would Brexit really move “the Jungle” to Dover?

The 2003 Le Touquet treaty was negotiated outside the EU.

What is David Cameron’s most recent claim about Britain leaving the EU?

The Prime Minister is claiming that Brexit could result in France ending the agreement by which British immigration officials carry out checks on those seeking to enter the UK in France.  

More specifically, Cameron thinks that a vote to leave the EU would give the French government an excuse to revoke the Le Touquet treaty of 2003, and that this would cause refugee camps akin to the Calais “Jungle” to spring up along the English south coast.

What’s the Le Touquet treaty?

In February 2003, Tony Blair went to the northern French resort of Le Touquet to try and persuade President Jacques Chirac to support British and American military action in Iraq. (He failed). 

Blair and Chirac hogged the headlines, but on the summit’s sidelines, Home Secretary David Blunkett and his French counterpart, an ambitious young politician named Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated a treaty establishing juxtaposed controls at each country’s sea ports.

This agreement meant that British border police could set up and run immigration checkpoints at Calais – effectively moving the British border there from Dover. The treaty also enabled French border police to carry out checks in Dover.

British border police had already been operating at French Eurostar terminals since 2001, and manning the French entrance to the Eurotunnel since 1994.

What’s all this got to do with the EU?

Technically, nothing. The Le Touquet treaty is a bilateral agreement between the UK and France. Both countries happen to be member states of the EU, but the negotiations took place outside of the EU’s auspices.

That's why eurosceptics have reacted with such fury today. Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU, said the Prime Minister was “resorting to scaremongering”, while Ukip’s migration spokesperson, in a surprising role-reversal, said that Cameron’s argument was “based on fear, negativity, and a falsehood”.

Cameron’s claim appears to be that Brexit would represent such a profound shift in the UK’s relationship with other European states that it could offer France an excuse to end the agreement reached at Le Touquet. That is debatable, but any suggestion that the treaty would instantly become void in the event of a vote to leave is untrue.

Does France actually want to revoke the treaty?

Local politicians in Calais, and in particular the town’s mayor, have been arguing for months that the treaty should be abandoned. Le Monde has also criticised it. The current French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, hinted today that he agreed, saying that a British vote to leave “will always result in countermeasures”.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, Rob Whiteman, a former head of the UK Border Agency, said that it was “almost certain” that the treaty would end if the UK left the EU. He said that France has benefited less from the deal than it expected:

“I think at the time the French felt there would be an upside for them, in that if it was clear that people could not easily get to Britain it would stop Sangatte building up again. The camp was closed. But history has shown that not to be the case. The French authorities still have a huge amount of pressure on their side.”

That said, the French government receives money from the British to help police Calais and its camps, and various French officials have acknowledged that their ports would receive even more traffic if refugees and migrants believed that it was easier to travel  to the UK than before.

If the treaty ended, would “the Jungle” just move to Dover?

There’s little doubt that because of linguistic and familial ties, and perhaps the perception that the UK is more welcoming than France, many refugees and migrants would come to the UK as quickly as they could to claim asylum here.

Whiteman also said on Today that since the 2003 agreement, the annual number of asylum claims in the UK had declined from 80,000 to around 30,000. So the UK could expect a significant spike in claims if the treaty were to end.

But the British asylum process makes it unlikely that anything like “the Jungle” would spring up. Instead, those claiming asylum would be dispersed around the country or, if authorities are worried they would flee, held in an immigration detention centre.

Why is Cameron saying this now?

This looks suspiciously like one of the Tories' election strategist Lynton Crosby’s dead cats. That is, in an effort to distract his critics from the detail of the renegotiation, the PM has provoked a row about migrants and refugees. Cameron is clearly keen to move the debate on from the minutiae of different European agreements to bigger questions about security and terrorism. Though getting bogged down in competing interpretations of a treaty from 2003 may not be the best way to move onto that broader terrain.