Hargreaves Review: Who has won the copyright wars?

  • 17 May 2011
  • From the section Technology
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Newport State of Mind
Spoof videos can fall foul of current copyright laws

It's the document that could, according to which lobby you believe, either kick-start innovation in the UK or deal a fatal blow to our creative industries.

The Hargreaves Review of copyright is published on Wednesday and I've now got a pretty good idea of what it will look like.

So who has won the battle between the radicals who wanted sweeping changes to our system, and the conservatives who said it was working just fine?

What the review does not do, according to several people in the know, is go down the radical route suggested by the prime minister last November.

'Google review'

David Cameron pointed to the "fair use" doctrine in American law, which he said had allowed companies like Google to flourish without fear of infringing copyright.

Those in the creative industries who dubbed Professor Hargreaves' mission "the Google review" feared that our copyright regime would be torn up and replaced with a fair use law.

That, I'm told, will not happen. While the Hargreaves panel was convinced by the argument that the American system was friendlier to innovative young firms than our own, it also accepted that fair use just wasn't going to work in the UK.

For one thing, it would mean convincing all the other EU countries to go down the same route. One-nil to the conservatives in the creative industries then, and what one of their lobbyists described to me as "a slap in the face for the Google/Cameron nexus."

Even if it does not recommend a whole new system, it seems the Hargreaves report will call for extensive reforms to the existing regime.

Copy-protected

In particular, it will say that recommendations in the last report on copyright, the Gowers review, which were ignored by ministers, should now be implemented.

Will a fair use law be among the recommendations?

These include getting rid of restrictions on "personal format shifting" - in other words, allowing you to copy music from a CD onto an MP3 player, or "rip" a copy-protected movie from a DVD so that you can play it on a computer.

In reality, nobody has gone after consumers for these copyright offences, and even the content industry lobbyists accept that the law is now daft in this area.

Mind you, some in the movie business still seem concerned that any change will encourage a practice which is still a bit too geeky for most DVD buyers.

There will also be a recommendation that use of video for parody should be protected from copyright suits - so that makers of videos like the Newport State of Mind parody on YouTube should not find themselves getting threatening letters from record companies.

One-stop shop

In general, Hargreaves will seek to ensure that the spread of copyright law into areas where it was never supposed to apply is halted.

The most radical idea in the review may be the attempt to shake up the licensing of copyright works, a process which both young technology companies and small creative businesses told the review panel was a nightmare right now.

The plan seems to be to launch some kind of one-stop shop with automated processes, a digital exchange for licensing. The music industry says there isn't a problem - just look at the number of new digital services with licensing deals.

But talk to the likes of Spotify about the endless meetings and uncertainty involved in licensing music and you get a different picture.

On Wednesday you can expect the Hargreaves review to be painted as a radical document which will make the copyright regime less confusing and more equitable, while making Britain a more hospitable place for innovation.

One way to judge how radical it really is will be the reaction of the creative industries. Perhaps they will jump up and down shouting foul about measures to allow format shifting or parody videos.

But my suspicion is that they will be cracking open a few bottles and celebrating the fact that the "Google review" has not delivered the recipe that the search giant had recommended.

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