- 30 Apr 09, 12:56 GMT
Did the patent system slow down or speed up the development of the steam engine in 19th century Britain? Just one topic for debate at a conference I've been attending in Prague on the impact of patents and other forms of intellectual property protection on innovation. It might seem a dry topic - but it sparked some impassioned arguments between Europe's creative businesses and the ICT industry.
Round One saw John Kennedy of the IFPI - the music industry body which led the fight against Pirate Bay - laying into all and sundry with some gusto. The Swedes behind Pirate Bay were "not Robin Hood but robbers", backed by a "right-wing fascist", hiding money away in overseas banks accounts and stealing from artists and the Swedish taxpayer.
But that was just for starters - his real target was the internet service providers and Europe's politicians. The ISPs needed to step up to the plate in the battle against piracy - they hadn't even blocked Pirate Bay since the IFPI's court victory - and Brussels was hesitant at a time when strategic leadership was needed. "Engaging ISPs in the battle against piracy, " he ended, "is the single most important priority for the music and creative industries today." An Italian consumer organisation fired back with protestations that it wasn't the job of ISPs to police the net - but Mr Kennedy was on the front foot.
But it was the content creators who were on the defensive in Round Two at a seminar on a subject which may shock British readers. How would you like to pay a "private copying levy" every time you bought an iPod, a printer or a blank CD? No, I thought not - but in many countries across the EU, it's the norm.
Europe's consumers are "lucky" - according to a media rights organisation at the seminar - to be granted an exemption from copyright law allowing them to make private copies of films, musics, and articles they own. But in return a price is paid by the electronics industry in the form of levies, with revenues going back to the content creators.
Apple and HP are among the companies who must exact these levies - and their representatives outlined in hair-raising detail what it meant. In Belgium, according to the woman representing HP, you can end up paying a levy on a printer which is more than its basic cost. In Sweden, countered the man from Apple, the levy on an iPod was related to its capacity - and with Moore's Law continuing to operate, that meant the cost was rising to ridiculous levels.
Each country applies the levies in a different way, and the Apple and HP executives both described the system as a "nightmare", fiendishly complex, and costly to administer. But neither was arguing for its abolition - a hopeless quest apparently - just for a bit more uniformity in its application, and for consumers to be told why they were paying.
So does it serve any purpose? The woman from the media rights organisation said the levies supported artists and media companies across Europe - and, confronted with my slightly amazed questioning, she pointed out that the BBC was a keen collector of some of the cash from countries where its programmes are sold.
But an executive from Nokia insisted it was a brake on innovation - his company had chosen to launch its "Comes With Music" service in Britain partly because the levies were not applied here.
So is there any chance that UK consumers could eventually be "lucky" enough to be forced to pay up too? Under UK legislation, copying music or video to a blank CD or an iPod is still technically illegal, and there's talk of a change in the law. The UK music industry says that if that happens an "iPod tax" should be brought in here, although it's difficult to see ministers selling that to the public.
But make no mistake: content creators who are struggling to get consumers to pay for movies or music in a digital world are on the warpath. They're telling ISPs and consumer technology firms that they must help plug the hole in the creative industries' finances caused by file-sharing or copying. And they seem increasingly confident that governments will listen to their message.
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