Monday, March 14, 2011

Cameron 'too close to Google' whines copyright industry

When David Cameron says he wants a copyright regime in the UK that's closer to that of the US, you'd probably be surprised to hear that he's thinking of a more liberal regime.

Based on America. Where, if you say "I don't think I've ever had an original thought in my life", a squad of lawyers descend on you to find out whose copyright your thoughts has been infringing.

What it boils down to is that Cameron appears to have been persuaded by Google that there should be a stronger fair use component to the law. It's business driven, of course, so there doesn't seem to be any proposal to protect parody in the same way.

And, naturally, being a Tory policy, it's got nothing to do with any deep philosophy and everything to do with who is buying the drinks:

Google has its claws in Cameron, say the critics. Rachel Whetstone, Google's European head of communications, is married to Steve Hilton, the prime minister's director of strategy.

And the prime minister's declaration that he wanted to see a US-style relaxation of IP laws, creating a "fair use" exemption – giving space for startups to copy and create innovative products, sourced from material which might be copyright-protected – was top of Google's legislative wishlist.
Still, even Thatcher had the odd decent policy - Channel Four and... well, launching Channel Four. Even if it was motivated by a desire to spite the BBC.

Naturally, people who make money farming copyrights are aghast at even such a mild reform to copyright law:
"I was a Cameron supporter but he has been deceived by the people whispering in his ear," says Mike Batt, the songwriter, producer and founder of Dramatico, Katie Melua's record label.
"I was fine when he was tipping the disabled out their wheelchairs to make them work, butchering the NHS, closing down SureStart centres and making hundreds of thousands redundant. Hell, that doesn't affect me. But the moment he starts saying that he might think the law should let a guy overdub a Katie Melua song on footage of fighting kittens - well, that's where I've got to say no."

I would have given a large cake to have been able to see the look on Batt's face when the penny dropped that the business people who pay for Cameron's suits and haircuts did so not out of the kindness of their hearts, but in order to influence policy.

Batt believes that copyright law isn't the problem:
"It's complete bollocks. The reason Google started up in Silicon Valley is because they have banks that understand the entrepreneurial thinking behind startups. We don't."
Given that Batt has chosen to use bollocks as a measure of validity, let's just check Batt's own balls here.

First, copyright is territory-dependent, whereas banking finance is global - so you can sit in Durham and access American finance, but not work under American copyright law.

Second: most internet start-ups don't come from a background of "entrepreneurial thinking". Even the ones which try to make money don't really come out of a framework of entrepreneurship - the guys behind Spotify weren't trying to come up with a way to sell thirty-second radio ads.

Third: The reason Google started in silicon valley was because it was started by Americans, surely? Again, it was a project to do something useful which turned out to be able to make money.

Fourth: If arranging the finance is the problem, how come so many UK start-ups have managed to at least get to the point where they sell out for large sums, like IMDB and Last FM did?

Batt might know a lot about Wombles; he should stick to his area of expertise.

Feargal Sharkey, naturally, also runs around claiming the sky will fall:
Feargal Sharkey, the chief executive of UK Music, argues that under the current copyright law, legal music download "startups" are flourishing, with 72 competing sites generating £350m in sales last year. He warns of the danger of taking "50,000 jobs from the music industry to create 20,000 in technology."
Obviously, Sharkey's chicken little panic is missing the point - this isn't just about the music industry, Feargal - but it does raise an interesting thought experiment: would the UK economy be better off with EMI and HMV, or Google?

Heartening, though, to hear Sharkey defending so robustly the very copyright regime he's been damning for the last few years as too weak.