September 27, 2013

New report on British Intellectual Property laws criticises UK government, hints at an ‘underlying agenda’ between Google and government

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Google stands accused of being ‘derisorily ineffective’

In a new report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, entitled “Supporting the Creative Economy”, the committee has strongly criticized the Hargreaves Review’s proposed changes to copyright and condemned the motives of big tech companies such as Google and the agenda of the British government. For those unfamiliar with the workings of British government, the committee is appointed by the House of Commons and is made up of MPs whose job it is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The Hargreaves Review of Intellectual Property and Growth was published in 2011 but after ‘subsequent public consultation’ and discussion, the committee has now published its own views on that review.

The report makes bold assertions on the question of Intellectual Property. Quite literally; the below point is printed in bold in the report, and it’s worth quoting in its entirety:

Following all the evidence we have received, we think Hargreaves is wrong in the benefits his report claims for his recommended changes to UK copyright law. We regret that the Hargreaves report adopts a significantly low standard in relation to the need for objective evidence in determining copyright policy. We do not consider Professor Hargreaves has adequately assessed the dangers of putting the established system of copyright at risk for no obvious benefit. We are deeply concerned that there is an underlying agenda driven at least partly by technology companies (Google foremost among them) which, if pursued uncritically, could cause irreversible damage to the creative sector on which the United Kingdom’s future prosperity will significantly depend.

The point about Google is an important one in the thorny issue of copyright change, because it is chiefly companies like Google who are pushing for changes which would make their objectives and plans for content domination easier to achieve. The report goes further in this regard, noting the ‘numerous complaints across the creative spectrum about the perceived power and influence of Google in the Government’s inner, policy-making sanctum.’ It then quotes the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Intellectual Property, Viscount Younger of Leckie (now my favourite Viscount):

“Google is one of several search engines…and I am very aware of their power, put it that way. I am also very aware, I think, that they have access, for whatever reason, to higher levels than me in No. 10, I understand.”

His highly suggestive comments do well to echo the concern of many in publishing and in other creative industries that cabinet ministers are holding private meetings and are keen to curry favour with the big tech companies, while they possess too little concern for the creative industries. The report also raises the issue of corporation tax, which these companies do not pay and which the government has been slow to tackle, perhaps because of the cosy situation described above by my new favourite Viscount. Claire Enders of Enders Analysis, a company which provides a research service covering the media, entertainment and communications, is quoted saying:

“unless this organisation … is prepared to contribute to the skills base, to the education base, to the fabric of our society from which these creative works are developed, then I just don’t buy their argument at all because they are the prime beneficiaries of America fair use provisions. Therefore I mistrust their motives.”

Significantly, Google is held to account for its ‘derisorily ineffective’ response to preventing its search from leading users to sites that abuse copyright laws. The committee, again in bold, writes:

We do not believe it to be beyond the wit of the engineers employed by Google and others to demote and, ideally, remove copyright infringing material from search engine results. Google co-operates with law enforcement agencies to block child pornographic content from search results and it has provided no coherent, responsible answer as to why it cannot do the same for sites which blatantly, and illegally, offer pirated content.

Worryingly, many who offered their opinions spoke of a belief that the government, too, seemed less interested in protecting individual property rights than was necessary. The committee identified a need within government for ‘a powerful champion of IP with a duty to protect and promote the interests of UK IP…too often it is seen as wishing to dilute copyright rather than defend and enforce it.’

That champion is yet to emerge but it is a relief to finally hear legitimate concerns raised and upheld by a committee that wishes to protect individual artists in the digital world. The report is also proof that we still have far to go, with a government who does not appear to be in our favour.

 

 

Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.

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