08 March 2007

Fair trade or foul play?

To the British Library, for an evening debate organised by ALCS, the collecting society that kindly sends me a modest cheque from time to time. (The chief executive, Owen Atkinson, whose Welsh origins are belied by his Geordie accent, tells me a cheque should be on its way as we spoke: he had pressed the big red button to start the process only that day.)

The panel, chaired by John Humphrys, contains if not the usual suspects then at least representatives of the groups from which the usual suspects would be drawn - a screenplay writer (Alan Plater, responsible for Lewis), a novelist and academic writer (Maureen Freely), a novelist and columnist (Joan Smith), a publisher (Anthony Cheetham), and James Lancaster, head of rights and business affairs from the BBC. Oh, and an MP, Ian Gibson.

Most of the contributions come from the floor, though not from me despite raising my hand at that early stage before large numbers gain the confidence to seek to have their say. The screen behind the panel displayed a quote from the Gowers Review (though in fact it transpired that it came from the NUJ's evidence to Gowers, and was coined by Mike Holderness, whom I was pleased to meet in real life after many years bumping into him on-line), bemoaning the lack of public legitimacy of intellectual property. The lack of what?

This was taken as a statement about how little the laws of copyright are generally understood, though when Mike got a chance to make a comment he explained it rather differently. But the point about lack of public understanding is important, and I wanted to be able to make a point about the failure of the media to get anything about intellectual property right – with John Humphrys in the chair, I was keen to say that the Today programme is as bad as anyone, and perhaps even that my email to the programme just a few weeks ago has gone unanswered. Ian Gibson even contrives to give me more ammunition by talking about copyright in the human genome. Well, it all turned out to be academic because I didn’t get called.

But the debate had moved on anyway, and the moment (if it ever existed) had passed. There was a lot of heat but little light, and some ill-informed comments from the floor and from the panel. People have extravagant ideas about what copyright law can do for them: if a newspaper publishes someone’s article, and then presents an agreement under which it takes all the rights, as speakers complained, that’s not the fault of the copyright law. It does, however, point up the fact that there is a lack of practical remedies, and later Mike Holderness mentions the NUJ’s suggestion, ignored by Gowers (who seems mainly to have been interested in making the world safe for hip-hop), that there should be a small claims jurisdiction in the county courts to hear copyright claims. He told me, over a glass of wine at the reception afterwards, that getting judges acquainted with the law of copyright is not as far-fetched as I imagine. It would certainly fill a need, and I wonder what we can do to support the campaign.

The most interesting suggestion (to my mind) is that of Anthony Cheetham, who expresses himself willing to publish a sort of copyright “Highway Code”, so I approach him afterwards and offer my services. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea – though the images of road signs given new meanings that I conjure up probably raise more copyright problems than they could ever solve.

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