Hargreaves and a Scent of Direction

May 18, 2011

My first reaction to David Cameron’s call for a review of IP legislation last November was ‘What? Another one?’ Because the Gowers Review seemed like only yesterday, even though it actually had reported well over a fortnight earlier (OK, five years to be slightly more precise). My second thought was that David Cameron (who called for the review) was under SamCam’s thumb: what sort of real man asks for directions when trying to reach his destination? I favour the technique of driving in circles while declaring, in increasing shrill tones, that ‘I am pretty sure it is just over there’. But having now looked at the report from the review team, I suspect that David Cameron and the government will revert to standard male practice: express fulsome thanks to those giving the directions, whisper your doubts to your fellow travellers, follow the directions until the director is out of sight and then follow your instincts as before. Governments employ people full time to spin the pathetic ‘he said left at the traffic lights, but I think straight on is left enough’ (which I am alleged to have said, just once) into an apparently cogent argument that will grace a politician’s lectern.

I should say at once that I am impressed by {i}Digital Opportunity{/i}. I like two things about it especially: (i) the acknowledgement that there are real limits to what the UK can do because so many issues are resolvable only at the EU level and (ii) the strong implication that decisions affecting IP rights have not been based upon much credible or ‘objective’ evidence. The latter is epitomised by the notorious decision to extend copyright periods for music, based on an EU-wide panic over the ability of Cliff Richard’s grandchildren to maintain Caribbean villas (or some such muddled thinking). For the most part, the specifics seem fine too, although I am not sure that the Digital Exchange has been thought through or costed properly, and without that it can never be more than an interesting idea.

But if action on a partial legalisation of ripping and parody versions did not happen after Gowers (what was the barrier?), one has to ask why it will happen now. Is it likely that we will see IT policy switch so as to be based on objective evidence, balancing measurable economic objectives against social goals and potential benefits for rights holders against impacts on consumers and other interests? In the slightly hysterical environment that sees a problem that requires a second wide-ranging review in such a short time, objective evidence might well have led the reporting group to abandon the task half way through, saying ‘you don’t need us, the UK digital creative industries are doing well – but you might want to have another glance at that Gowers report’. That might have defused some of the crisis atmosphere that pervades discussion of IP rights reform in the digital environment and is largely inappropriate. If I am not sure that even the Hargreaves Review team itself was working entirely objectively, what hope for the rest?

Of course, there are things that need clarification and mild reform. But, as so often when trying to find the final destination, the best thing to do might well be to stop, abandon the high-powered vehicle, look at the locality carefully and, most important, smell the blooming roses – the UK’s digital economy has many beautiful roses. Then you may realise that you can walk the rest of the way quite easily. That might be an especially attractive option in this context because it means that we will have to leave most of the baggage behind.