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Opinion

19 September 11

Pressure from those who seek free internet access to copyright material should be resisted, to protect an important sector of the economy

by Pete Wishart

It’s an issue that barely registers a column inch north of the border, but intellectual property (IP) and the legal framework that supports it are becoming increasingly important to Scotland and the whole Scottish economy.

Currently IP accounts for about 8 per cent of the UK’s total gross domestic product.

Some £65 billion was invested in IP-supported industry in 2010, and the creative industries alone account for 2.7 million jobs. In Scotland the sector supports more than 60,000 jobs, generating some £5 billion of economic activity.

Where the UK seeks to be the number one hub for the creative industries in the world by the end of the decade, our ambition is to secure average growth in our creative sector that exceeds the rest of the UK.

Being creative and inventive is also just something that we do well here. Whether it is the great inventions of the Scottish Enlightenment, or the contemporary innovations of our bio-tech and digital media sectors, we continue to be world leaders.

However, the last decade has brought exceptional technological change that has forced us to look at all our assumptions about IP.

Advances in technology have created new ways for people to enjoy creative content, shop online, and access a wealth of information and services. But they have also created a new attitude to IP that somehow treats this online world differently to the retail world of the high street.

Many people who would not think of shoplifting a CD or DVD, appear to consider illegally downloading that same content from the internet entirely acceptable behaviour. And this has created the great faultline in the contemporary debate about IP.

It pitches artist and rights holder against digital rights campaigner, and there is very little consensus on the way forward in what has become a fractured debate.

This is where Government comes in – and in its typical hamfisted way Government not so much comes to the rescue, as possibly makes matters worse.

The last Labour Government, to try and resolve some of these issues, brought in the Digital Economy Act (DEA) in its dying days, provoking fury from an articulate and engaged online community, and a backlash that almost crashed individual MPs’ inboxes.

But the motives behind the DEA are actually quite simple, and that is to reconnect the casual internet consumer – the so-called “lost generation” of (mainly young) illegal filesharers – with the legitimate market.

The big and contentious issue that has attracted all this ire is that in order to pursue this mission successfully it is necessary to take sanctions against those who still wish to acquire their wares for free.

So, the DEA proposed for the first time a range of what are described as “technical measures”. These range from notifications (letters to identified illegal downloaders), to internet bandwidth throttling, to the final sanction of temporary suspension from the internet for the most recalcitrant freeloaders.

But Government has been reluctant to follow through with what has been agreed. Prevaricating on the DEA, the coalition, through the Prime Minister, initiated the Hargreaves review of IP. Taking a personal interest, he asked if our IP laws would inhibit the development of a company comparable with Google.

This set more alarm bells ringing within the creative industries, as Google has traditionally been what can only be described as cavalier with IP rights.

Whereas Hargreaves was denied his “fair use” initiative by European laws and treaties, the Government has accepted the rest of his 10 recommendations.

IP, then, is quickly becoming a political football and its future seems to be determined by those who go in hardest, with the way forward still to be settled.

The key issue is that, if we want a successful and vibrant creative sector, IP has to be respected and valued, and IP-protected products are not seen as something that people have the right to access for free, just because technology enables them to do so.

We cannot continue to give away our great recorded works, threaten our film industry, compromise our publishing houses, and leave our artists and creators without reward and protection, just so that some people can illegally take their work for nothing.

Our creative industries are among the most dynamic parts of the economy and the provider of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

More and more of our services and businesses are being migrated to the online environment and they must be protected. We have not done too badly so far with our IP and copyright laws, and nothing must be done to compromise this success or threaten the industries that they support.

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