Just 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:
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.