Thursday, 23 April 2015

Green Party sustains gunshot wound to foot over copyright, of all things

Who would have imagined that the biggest policy gaffe of the election would be over the duration of copyright? Well, go back a few years and it could have been "New" Labour swallowing the "Cliff's Law" argument hook, line and sinker, but actually this goes completely the other way. The Green Party, which had already ensured that it would not be getting my vote* by accepting the endorsement of the dreadful Russell Brand, announced that if elected ("if" being a very important word here, as the Greens had a single MP, their first, in the last Parliament) they would take us back to 1709 or 1710 (it always depends on whose calendar you use) and reduce copyright to 14 years. From creation or publication, it was not entirely clear, but certainly not PMA which might have been a bit more comprehensible.
It transpires - allegedly - that 14 years came from a Cambridge University postgrad student. Isn't that how the Iraq war started, too? To be fair to the Green Party (and of all the political parties they are the only one to which one should have any reason to be fair) this is mentioned in the same breath as their "Citizen's Income" idea, although the two policies seem to be associated because the latter would ensure people had time to devote to cultural activities which would (they imply) somehow justify reducing the term of copyright protection (the total volume of copyright, works multiplied by years protected, would remain much the same, on my reading of the policy). Had they said that because everyone will have the Citizen's Income there will be less need for people to earn money from copyright, it might have made a little sense: but as it is there is no logic underlying it at all, except for Mr (or presumably Dr now, as his work seems to date back to 2007) Pollock's thesis.
I have found myself participating in a couple of discussions on Facebook about this crazy idea, and it is clear that the Greens have upset a lot of creative people who might otherwise be more-than-averagely likely to favour them. And in addition to the damage they have done to their own support, how do they imagine it could be achieved? 14 years would not comply with the Berne Convention, so the UK would have to denounce (I think that's the right verb) that, and other international instruments. TRIPS probably isn't the Greens' favourite international agreement anyway, and certainly it has plenty of questionable things about it, but this is surely not the issue on which to challenge it. What about the directive? Copyright duration would be an odd reason for a Brexit. Then there would be inevitable claims under the European Convention on Human Rights, that copyright owners had suffered the loss of property. At least Cliff's Law would be a thing of the past.
There is plenty wrong with copyright, but anyone proposing to reform it would do best to consider its breadth rather than its depth. It is the omniverous nature of copyright, the indiscriminate way in which it confers protection on works with minimal originality, permitting big businesses to bully small users and reap super-normal profits, that should be addressed, and to my mind the way to do that is to reconsider the originality requirement (along with the notion of what constitutes a copy of an earlier work, in the case of sound recordings and films: given that "original" means, basically, "not copied", this amounts to the same thing). But I don't think that presses the right buttons in a general election.
The Greens also propose to legalise peer-to-peer filesharing where it is not commercial, and to "liberalise" the rules about fair use (which of course are absent from our copyright law entirely at present - "fair dealing" being rather different, a distinction which seems to have escaped the Greens). They claim they want it to apply outside academia, which - correct me if I am wrong - I thought was one of the places where fair dealing didn't run very far anyway. Still, we needn't worry too much: few people will vote Green just because of these policies, and they aren't within sight of even holding the balance of power in Parliament (are they?).

*I plan to support whoever is most opposed to the desecration of the North Wessex Downs AONB by massive housing developments, as per the draft Local Plan which the Conservative Group on our District Council voted through without demur. Unless that's the Greens, who won't get my support because of this copyright gaffe and the Brand thing. My local MP also alienated me by "cutting" me at the All Party Writers' Group winter party in December, and lost any possibility of getting my vote. Just so you know.

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