Digital Economy Bill: Govt Rejects Format-Shifting, Right-To-Link Requests

The UK government politely refused some of the boldest proposed late changes to the Digital Economy Bill, as the House Of Lords finally finished debating the bill on Tuesday night.

Conservative Lord Ralph Lucas had proposed guaranteeing rights to format-shift, link to websites, fair-use protection for search engines and a fairer deal for artists whose material is used by rightsholders that take equity in online services like Spotify (see our full story detail yesterday).

But the government’s Lord Bryan Davies, who is steering the bill through Lords committee stage, briefly rejected the whole shebang in a late-night debate, forcing Lucas to withdraw his amendments.

On format shifting: “We have concluded that a UK-only solution will not be able to deliver the kind of access and use which private individuals would like while, at the same time, respecting the needs for rightsholders for appropriate remuneration,” Davies said. “A solution for the digital age can only be delivered in an EU-wide context; we’ve got more work to do in this area.” Enshrining a right to copy legally owned content from one format to another was a recommendation of the Gowers IP review but the government already said in October it would seek Europe-wide implementation of such a right.

On linking: Lucas said “assertions by some major groups that to link to their material on the internet is to breach their copyright” are “an extremely undesirable development and one which we should state we will take action against”. “It merely starts to balkanaise and destabilise the web,” Lucas said.

On search engine immunity: “What a search engine does by taking a small extract of material should be regarded as fair usage and a proper part of the way in which the system and the copyright holder interact,” Lucas argued in the house. His amendment would have given Google (NSDQ: GOOG) unlimited protection to excerpt news websites.

But the government’s Davies countered on both points: “Interfering with the balance of rights and exceptions currently in place would have far-reaching consequences for those running web services, rightsholders and consumers. There’s a danger of unintended consequences when legislating for technology-specific issues. The amendments may legislate some aspects of unlawful filesharing, so would conflict with some of the aims of this bill. We don’t think it would be right to legislate further in this area without exmainiang fully whether an exception is necessary.”

The debate happened so late in the House Of Lords that nobody was much interested in arguing the points in detail, so Davies said he would write privately to Lucas with fuller explanations, but all the ideas are off the agenda for now. The Lords have now finished debating the bill at committee stage – it will go to report stage within 14 days, before third reading and passage to the Commons for another series of perusals.