Did Britain’s approach to copyright just grow up?

Piracy, it's a crime - by flickr user Stephen DannJust a few days ago, a judge in the Britain’s high court backed the argument of the Hollywood studios by ruling that the nation’s biggest ISP should block a Usenet tracker, Newzbin, that helped people download copyright-protected movies. The news was greeted with derision by digital rights campaigners, who felt that this new liability was the first step towards broader national online censorship, but the U.K.’s minister for culture came out all guns blazing, using Twitter to support studios like Warner Bros.

Today, however, the government delivered a surprise to those who thought it was in the pockets of rights holders’ lobby groups, by announcing that it plans a radical overhaul of several important intellectual property laws — including some which seem to clash with that court ruling.

In an announcement this morning, ministers said that the system needed serious updating if it was going to reflect the changes in the real world that have happened over the last generation.

“Opening up intellectual property laws can deliver real value to the UK economy as well as the creators and consumers,” said business secretary Vince Cable. “We can’t carry on saying that businesses should embrace technology but then not allow consumers to use everyday technology to play works they’ve paid for.”

The move comes as a response to a public investigation into intellectual property, the Hargreaves Review, which made a series of specific recommendations about how U.K. law should be changed. All of those, the government said, will be implemented in a series of moves that will rid of some of its most archaic laws and “free up innovative British businesses to develop new consumer technology”.

You can dig through the complete list of plan in the full report, but here are a few highlights:

Vince Cable by dspender

  • Piracy blocking dropped: The government had planned to force Internet Service Providers to block websites accused of infringing copyright as part of the recent Digital Economy Act, a piece of legislation passed in controversial circumstances. However, those plans have now been dropped. The proposed laws were “not tight”.
  • Private copying legalized: Until now, it has actually been illegal under British law to shift a piece of media from one format to another — meaning that anyone who rip the CDs they’ve bought so that they can listen to music on an iPod, for example, was technically breaking the law. The law has rarely, if ever, been enforced, but neither has it been challenged. Now copying for private use will be allowed.
  • Fair use for parodies: Despite Britain’s rich tradition of satire, copyright laws are so tight that they often prevent parodies and spoofs — for example, recently preventing a broadcast of The Daily Show that lampooned U.K. politicians with footage of parliament and famously leading to the takedown of a parody of Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind. The new laws will allow satirical fair use.
  • Digital Copyright Exchange: The government accepts that the current landscape is too confusing, with the question of who owns what, how it can be used and how to pay to license it often highly obtuse and opaque. To fix this, it proposes the creation of a new body that makes it easier and more transparent to license copyrighted material — building what it says will be “a comprehensive and accessible source of information on rights ownership that would make innocent infringement of copyright less likely and deliberate infringement more culpable”.
  • Data mining protected Researchers who try to process large amounts of data without licensing it all have faced problems in the past — for example when trying to conduct investigations into medical data locked away in journals or corporate documents. They will be excepted from copyright laws in the future to allow their research to take place.
  • There are more parts besides: a new system to allow the licensing of orphan works and an agreement not to extend the patent system into new areas. And it’s still early days, since these proposals all still have to be pushed through into law. Nor are they going to be welcomed by everybody — some rights holders have already expressed dismay. Lavinia Carey, director general of the British Video Association, told the Financial Times that it was “extremely damaging”, for example.

    But the reality is that at least now the status of any copyright claim, or website takedown, or licensing issue can be tested and challenged in a court of law, rather than simply lobbied into legislation without proper public scrutiny.

    And that should certainly make life easier for a lot of startups and technology companies that currently spend more time worrying about the legalities of their business than getting on with their work.