October 31, 2008

I am very much aware that the Internet is plagued with copyright protection problems. Two articles in this issue are concerned with those problems so I could hardly be ignorant of the problems. But it was a bit of a surprise nevertheless to discover recently that SCL itself is plagued with those problems. We operate a policy of one member, one access but it is clear that many firms are using password holders who allow non-members access to our restricted material. Tut, tut.

At first it felt like the time I gave my father my Smarties to look after and returned to find only four were left (another 45 years and I’ll be over it). But, on reflection, it is hard to do more than shrug when even the guardians of the copyright sweeties are sticky-fingered. Perhaps it offers an important lesson to SCL about making lawful access easy. And not making unlawful access too easy. It is clear that we do not draw the lines clearly enough between the areas that are free content and the areas that are ‘members only’ –that might be easier when our new site launches later this year.

The lasting disappointment arises from the realisation that not enough of our constituency actually joins. Some are happy to just get access to the material on the site, which (free or restricted) encompasses all that is in the magazine and, with the advent of the podcasts of meetings, many of the meetings, conferences and seminars too; I suppose the non-joiners do not see the need to engage beyond that. They miss out on the chance to gain CPD from the many online courses but, so long as they can square their conscience on the ‘questionable’ access to some of that material, don’t see themselves as missing out on much else.

But SCL is more than a provider of articles, news stories and courses. It has a representative role, exemplified by its current involvement in three official consultations, in expressing the views of the lawyers operating in the sector (and the new web site will lead to much greater interaction). It also takes its charitable role seriously and not only helps fund BAILII but also funds educational initiatives and research. And, for the more materially minded in hard times, it is worth remembering that it is a networker’s paradise. If you are a non-member reading this, you really should join – if only to avoid the embarrassment of being the IT lawyer who was caught with pirated copy. You can join SCL now for just £50. And SCL members should actively encourage their colleagues to join rather than restricting departmental membership, as I know is common.

The SCL experience is an atom in the drop in the ocean of copyright breach. The truth is that all our attitudes on access to material on the Internet are coloured by the availability of so much valuable material that is free. One effect is that words and actions rarely match – all polls show that people will gladly pay for legal music downloads and stark reality shows that they will gladly get it illegally for free. More and more ‘free’ sites are underwritten by advertising and, beyond ongoing issues relating to true independence, they may well find themselves in recession-related difficulties, especially if the random effectiveness of such online advertising becomes more widely understood. We may see a real shift in the next few years towards effective access control of sites of value. My fear is that the habit of free access is so deeply ingrained that all the traffic will flow towards free access sites of no real value, lacking principles and accuracy.

Hats Off!

One group of SCL members deserves congratulations.

4 Pump Court have just won the Chambers Bar Awards IT Set of the Year Award for the second year running and also the IT Junior of the Year Award for the third year running (Terry Bergin 2008, Alex Charlton 2007, Duncan McCall 2006). Their IT Group is now 27 (out of  51  in chambers) and all are members of SCL.

Now I am not saying that’s cause and effect …