Mobile navigation


Response to Hargreaves

Digital Opportunity, A Review of Intellectual Property & Growth, by Professor Ian Hargreaves, was published this week. Mark Owen gives his reaction.

By Mark Owen

The Review seems to be careful and balanced, it is unlikely to frighten rights-owners while managing to identify a number of areas where IP rights and their management can be improved. In its proposal for a Digital Rights Exchange based in the UK, it also has one big new idea.

Most of the sectors the report affects, whether creators, owners or users of rights will find things to quibble with. Some of its proposals are not feasible, or are not much more than good intentions. It is also determinedly non radical, which will disappoint some who expected big immediate changes. But it is important to remember that this is a prospectus, which lays out the scope of what should be looked at, but with plenty of scope still for detailed policy consideration and argument. And the report's approach recognises that simplistic broad strokes are difficult to make in the complex, and interconnected world of IP.

The people who face the most challenges from the report are the government, as Hargreaves repeatedly makes the point that the changes he advocates have to be brought about through serious governmental effort and application. This may not be what the government were after and much of this work will be costly.

When David Cameron set the review up he made much of the benefits he saw from introducing a fair use right and cynics detected in this an attempt to appear pro innovation without the government having to do much, in particular not spend money such as through tax breaks. As plenty of commentators said at the time, EU law would not allow this. Hargreaves has echoed that and dismissed the possibility of a fair use law. Instead he has listened and listed a large number of less radical changes government must consider.

The changes he suggests to basic copyright law are relatively minor. The suggestion of a format shifting right was widely predicted, not least as the previous government had said it would introduce such an exception in 2006 but never managed to do so. A parody right is also given another outing despite having recently been considered in detail by a government review and rejected. Perhaps the most important idea is that the UK should introduce the same exceptions to copyright as the rest of the EU. Bringing our law more into line internationally is worth considering. From the perspective of important trading partners such as the US and the EU, much about UK copyright law seems odd and out of step, and this costs us.

Many of the review's suggestions are around copyright licensing. It will be interesting to see whether government can actually do anything here, other than encourage existing negotiations to continue.

There are good ideas in other areas, such as the often overlooked field of design protection, where the laws are an impenetrable thicket and do little to help anyone. The idea of a small claims IP court is also a good one. Even for large companies, UK litigation is expensive, especially compared with Germany which has more sensible answers to many IP issues.

Will the Review end up making any difference? The Gowers Review of IP in 2006 was also well-written and thought out, with many interesting proposals. Many of the easy ones were eventually implemented but plenty were ignored by government. Hopefully this time the government will do more and will learn from the Gowers experience, so we are not having yet another trumpeted review of IP in 5 years time.

A full copy of the report is available from the IP Review website.