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Friday, 16 August, 2002, 08:11 GMT 09:11 UK
Shouting about copyright
Technology consultant Bill Thompson
Technology consultant Bill Thompson is angry and frustrated over forthcoming changes to the copyright laws in the UK.
Until last week I thought that I had sorted out my views on the way the net should develop.

I firmly believe that we need to make the internet a central part of our daily lives, and the only sensible way I can see to do that is to allow it to be regulated, managed and defined within our political system.

My argument was simple. Forget the idea of 'cyberspace', accept that being online is no different from being in Basildon, and let the rule of law apply.

Doing this will lose us some freedoms in the short-term.

But in the long-term it should allow us to put far more effective pressure on countries like China to open up to free speech, because we will not have to fight the battles separately on and offline.

It will also allow us to have a part of the net which reflects European culture and values, instead of letting US laws decide what we can and cannot do online.

Flawed system

I still think that we need to start anchoring the online world to the real world, building national boundaries in cyberspace and allowing each state to decide its own rules and laws.


This controversial and corporate-inspired law makes it a criminal act to find a way to break any copy protection system used by copyright owners

Unfortunately events have conspired to make me think again about the likelihood of achieving this goal under our existing political system and with our existing politicians.

The problem is with a document published last week by the UK Patent Office. It details the proposed changes to UK copyright law needed to bring it into line with the European Union's Copyright Directive.

The scope and extent of these changes, and the total lack of any protection for the principles of fair use of copyright material, have forced me to accept that sometimes politicians do exceptionally stupid and dangerous things, and our existing system is flawed enough to let them get away with it.

In essence, the changes update the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act to give it the same scope as the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

This controversial and corporate-inspired law makes it a criminal act to find a way to break any copy protection system used by copyright owners to limit the distribution of their materials.

Copying DVDs

The best example is a small program called DeCSS, which cracks the protection used on DVDs and allows them to be played on Linux computers.

CD being placed in computer
Copying that CD could make you a criminal
DeCSS is illegal in the US. Even linking your web page to a copy of it, held outside the US, is illegal.

At the moment using DeCSS is also illegal in the UK, but anyone using it could argue that they were asserting their legal right to make a safe copy of copyright material, or provide access on a non-supported computer.

It is not illegal to have a copy, which is just as well as I have it on my laptop. But under the new law these rights will go.

The direct result of this will be that we will get CDs and DVDs that do not play properly because of copy protection, but the contract that we make when we buy these shoddy goods will have more legal weight than our rights under copyright law.

We, the public, could also lose many of the fair use rights which were previously guaranteed to us, like the right to lend CDs or DVDs to our friends, or to resell them once purchased.

The companies love this, and they were the ones who lobbied the European Commission so hard to get the original directive passed.

Losing the battle

Now, whatever we may think about the new law, it is too late. The changes being proposed to UK law are not negotiable, because all they do is implement the EU directive.


We have to start changing the system from within, by electing people who understand the net

From 22 December, when they come into force, we will have lost a significant battle.

These proposals, and the blatantly corporate agenda which lay behind the original EU directive, are so appallingly bad that I have to think again about whether I really want political control of the web.

The alternative - the information anarchy of the cyber-libertarians - still seems worse. I continue to believe we should work within the framework of law.

Of course, doing this does not mean meekly accepting every legislative error made by politicians. It means engaging with the political system instead of just standing outside it, complaining about what is being done, and trying to change things.

Campaigning for change

My desire to hand the net over to the politicians is still there, but I'm now beginning to see how enormous a task it is going to be.

We should remember that the MPs who will turn these proposed changes into law are elected by us and are accountable to us. We made them, and so we have to take some responsibility for the fact that they are making a big mess of the net and copyright.

Since our existing system doesn't let you vote for nobody, abstaining does not let you off the hook.

We have to start changing the system from within, by electing people who understand the net, by campaigning for change, and by educating the legislators.

If every internet user who was worried by the implications of the new proposals wrote to their MP explaining why they want to keep the benefits that copyright provides and not just hand over control to the corporations, it might start to change a few minds.

At some point somebody may have to go to jail for this one, but bad laws can be repealed and better ones introduced.

In the end, I still believe in politics, and I still believe that technology should be at the service of the people, not the other way around.

For me, that means collective action by citizens through democratic institutions and I think it can be made to work.

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The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology



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