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Friday, 1 April 2011

Digital Economy Act April Fool

If only it received Royal Assent one week earlier...!
No need for cutting satire or schoolboy jibes; enacted April 2010 The Digital Economy Act is an April Fool. That's why today is #deactday!

Over a year since I marched outside parliament with my flag, some of my friends, even, don't understand why a law-abiding software engineer who's never been in to free downloads of copyrighted content - ever - is still going on about this foolish law.

To mark its first birthday I thought a quick summary is in order.

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It's a costly solution to a complex problem that, according to the government's own predictions, will increase the cost of broadband for everyone.

This sledgehammer of a law might not even crack the nut, if early studies from France (where similar legislation - HADOPI - came into force last year) are anything to go by.

The burden of detecting, determining copyright ownership (far from trivial) and enforcement probably won't see a single extra penny go to help struggling artists and song writers.  The Act was described by the Earl of Erroll as "A dream for lawyers" as the bill passed the Lords for the final time [Hansard].  I predict a whole industry of detection and complaint-filing agencies will develop to facilitate the anti-file sharing measures in the Act, in addition to the lawyers the Earl mentioned, needed to fight cases for the wrongly accused.

In addition, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, whose government is now defending the bill in the judicial review brought by Talk Talk and BT, was in opposition critical of the measures:
In short, we could have had a proper Digital Economy Bill. We wanted an iPod, but we got an Amstrad. 6th April 2010 [Hansard]
Libraries, universities and schools - in fact any person or business who provides access to a shared internet connection - will be at risk of civil action from rights holders or having their internet connection throttled or disconnected (dressed up as "technical measures" to get the act through parliament in a rush last year)  should three of their staff, students, colleagues or customers be detected sharing copyrighted content.

In light of this, the IFPI, voiced their opposition to sections of the act.

A strong copyright model is probably not well suited for the digital age.  The measures outlined are fundamentally illiberal. IP addresses cannot be relied upon to prove individual guilt (even to a civil standard).  Enforcement carries unintended consequences like a private army of data police monitoring individuals on the internet.

It's fair to say the software industry has brought matters of copyright to a head, where copyright over very basic and obvious chunks of code has been claimed.  If can't be right that the first person to solve a problem can prevent anyone else solving the same problem until 70 years after their death!

Patents last only 20 years, with the clear aim of limiting the monopoly each new invention has.  But patents must prove "inventive step" - they have to be a new idea.  This isn't true of copyright, where someone claims to have copyrighted π (pi) - you tube videos have been taken down on this claim.

Furthermore, a patent term of only 20 years hasn't prevented massive investment of hundreds of millions of pounds in industrial research and development.  So what's the argument for such lengthy copyright terms?

Yes there is a challenge.  We don't have a solution to the paradox that without strong rights protection, creative works can't contribute to the economy, yet with strong rights protection, creative innovation is hit.  We need to look at the overall value digital content has in enriching our lives, not just at economic GDP.

Alas this is only a brief summary of the issues with the Digital Economy Act 2010.  I'm not even going to mention possible contraventions of EU free market rules in the telecom sector. I'll leave that for the judicial review to decide!


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