Over the weekend the British press was full of headlines likely to alarm iPod owners: Why You Are Breaking the Law Every Time You copy a CD to Your iPod, Stop Treating iPod Users Like Criminals, and Call to Exempt iPod ‘Rippers’ From Prosecution. Given such disquieting prose you’d think the British government was preparing to throw anyone sporting a pair of white earbuds into the Tower of London’s moister quarters.
Not so. It turns out that, given that the British Isles have a written legal legacy that harkens back to the days when its population spent much of its time singing madrigals, quaffing mead from oak-hewn tankards, and gamboling about in green tights, crossbows, and gaily-adorned felt hats, there are a few laws on the books that, by today’s standards, are considered quaint.
Specifically, the cause of this fuss is a 300-year-old law that may read something like this:
Proclaimed this day, protected, as property whole and true, are the inscriptions and performance of works both tuneful and dissonant by their creators and representatives. Efforts to deriveth acclaim or recompense from the distillation of existing works (barring compositions composed entirely of repeated three-times-I, two-times-IV, three-times V, and two-times IV—a respected tribute to monarch Louise II—which shall, forever, be deemed Executable Property of the Fraternity and therefore reproducible in every form) is prohibited.
Which, as you can clearly see, bars British citizens from ripping CDs to their computers and, eventually, MP3 players.
The spark that fired these headlines is Public Innovation: Intellectual Property in a Digital Age, a report published by England’s Institute for Public Policy Research. The gist of the report is that, thanks to technology, the interests of intellectual property owners and consumers have increasingly come into opposition and that new ways must be explored to balance these interests to not only provide incentive for property owners to continue creating, but also allow consumers (and academic researchers and archivists) to use that property without unduly harsh limitations.
More specifically, the report recommends the following:
• An intellectual property model must be developed that puts public knowledge ahead of private asset. This isn’t exactly a license to rip a CD and post it, for the benefit of all, to your local BitTorrent server. Rather, the executive summary states:
We argue that this should not be perceived as ‘anti-business’; instead it will deliver both cultural and economic benefits and will underline the economic importance of IP protection as benefiting the rights holder in order to ultimately benefit the public.
• The notion of public domain should have the same kind of political clout as the interests of intellectual property owners. (In this county that would pretty well spell curtains for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.)
• Provide better protection for consumers, librarians, archivists, and commercial researchers to use property without fear of prosecution. (Again, bye-bye, DMCA.)
• Help creators use the intellectual property system—specifically, devise less expensive methods for enforcing their rights and register patents across Europe.
• Empowering the Patent Office to peek into this whole IP versus consumer rights business. (This likely wouldn’t fly with the “less government” crowd in this country, but it offers the benefit of putting the power of prosecution in government’s hands—where some argue it should be—rather than in the private hands of groups such as the RIAA.)
Oh, and then there’s the bit about striking down that archaic law I mentioned earlier (excluding the “Louie Louie” clause, of course) because “everyone seems to be doing it, dash it, so to blazes with it!”
All of which seems eminently fair to me. This is one worth keeping an eye on. Those of us struggling with these issues in the States could learn something along the way.