Copyright: The Google question
Imagine it is the mid-1990s and a couple of smart Cambridge computer science students come up with a brilliant new way of searching the web. They drop out of college to try to start a business called Google - but give up because they discover the UK's copyright regime is just too restrictive.
It's just a story, of course, but an important one - because it was the inspiration for a major government review of our copyright laws. When David Cameron announced the Hargreaves Review into the intellectual property system and growth back in November he said this:
"The founders of Google have said they could never have started their company in Britain.The service they provide depends on taking a snapshot of all the content on the internet at any one time and they feel our copyright system is not as friendly to this sort of innovation as it is in the United States."
Now the Hargreaves Review panel, whose members visited Google and other Silicon Valley firms, are due to hand over their findings by the end of the month. The entertainment industries have been lobbying hard against any major changes to the copyright system, and grumbling that the government seems more inclined to listen to Google than to British creative businesses which contribute far more to our economy.
So two questions - is it true that Google could not have started here, and if so what should change?
First of all, it's quite hard to find out when and in what context the founders of Google said that - and whether they explained what they meant in more depth. After all, it's clear that there were all sorts of factors that meant Google started in Silicon Valley - the culture, the availability of capital, and the fact that Larry Page and Sergey Brin were students at Stanford: a place with a long history of innovation and entrepreneurship.
But the prime minister in his speech in East London last year referred to America's fair use provisions, "which some people believe give companies more breathing space to create new products and services".
The laws in the UK do give some protection to firms wanting to copy material online, but not the blanket fair use provision that exists in the US. In its submission to the Hargreaves Review, Google suggests that the UK should learn from the American experience: "We believe that the US regime - with its inherent flexibility - is a better way to ensure new and untested innovations are not killed before they get off the ground."
But this review is about making the ground more fertile for future Googles - so I asked a small British search company whether it felt our copyright regime posed a threat to its existence.
True Knowledge is a fast-growing semantic search business - or "answer engine" as it describes itself - founded in Cambridge by William Tunstall-Pedoe. He told me that it was far too simplistic to say that the UK copyright regime would have prevented the birth of a Google - and it obviously hasn't stopped his firm getting off the ground.
"There's only one internet, with a lot of internationally accepted norms," he said, giving as an example the Robots Exclusion Standard, a convention governing how search engines are allowed or barred from crawling content on the web.
Mr Tunstall-Pedoe did feel that the UK would benefit from greater clarity about copyright law: "It's not going to be transformational but it would be helpful," he said.
So what can we expect from Hargreaves? Given the circumstances under which the review was set up, you might think it was a racing certainty that it would recommend the adoption of America's fair use regime in the UK.
But here's a funny thing - those lobbyists from the creative industries who were so angry about the way the review was framed now appear a lot more relaxed. "It's going to be a damp squib," one of them told me this week.
There have been repeated attempts to tinker with the UK's copyright regime, the most recent being the Gowers Review of 2006. Its main impact was to prevent a strengthening of the regime by an extension of recorded music copyright to 95 years.
Now we wait to see what this latest review decides on the balance between protecting our creative industries and encouraging innovative start-ups. Right now, the media giants seem confident that Google's story has not proved as convincing to the Hargreaves panel as it did to the prime minister.