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New Statesman - and companies that want "free" use of others’ intellectual property view copyright as a cumbersome and outdated regulation.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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.