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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Copyright for the digital age
Arguments about intellectual property go far beyond the rights and wrongs of movie piracy, says technology analyst Bill Thompson.

Two Chinese policemen holding pirated CDs
Piracy is widespread in countries like China
Two very different politicians had lunch together last week.

One was James Purnell, the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde who became Minister for the Creative Industries and Tourism after May's General Election.

He shared what was by all accounts a remarkably pleasant meal at London's Royal Society of Arts with Gilberto Gil, the Brazilian guitarist and songwriter who happens to be his country's current Minister of Culture.

Mr Gil and Mr Purnell were together at the Royal Society of Arts for the launch of the Adelphi Charter on Creativity, Innovation and Intellectual Property, an attempt to set out new principles for copyright and patents in the digital age.

It proposes what its authors believe is a compelling new way to balance the economic rewards offered to creative individuals and companies, with the less obvious benefits that come from the widespread circulation of their works and inventions. It might even help governments when it comes to passing the new laws on copyright and patents which we seem to need these days.

Sadly, I was not there for the lunch, or the launch, but there is a nice photo of the occasion on John Naughton's weblog.

Intellectual ammunition

I understand that our minister was rather less relaxed and chatty than his counterpart, but that may just be because they are very different politicians.

Bill Thompson
The principles go far beyond our current obsession with music downloads and movie piracy
Mr Purnell, like most ambitious New Labour MPs, presumably sees himself as passing through the Department for Culture Media and Sport on his way to high office in one of the major ministries of state.

I would suspect that Mr Gil, who has worked with Yes, Pink Floyd and Jimmy Cliff in his musical career, cares rather more about the impact of new technologies and the internet on creators and consumers of music and other art forms. He has worked closely with Creative Commons, the world wide organisation seeking to encourage creative expression and sharing, and is an influential advocate of open software and open standards.

Mr Gil can be relied on to understand why the law should "ensure both the sharing of knowledge and the rewarding of innovation". As for Mr Purnell, the RSA's charter is pretty short, at just under 450 words, and fits nicely on a single side of A4 paper so it will not fill his ministerial red box.

If he reads it carefully, he will have some intellectual ammunition to use against the representatives of the music industry who are currently lobbying hard for an extension of the copyright term on recordings, which currently stands at only 50 years.

Last week I argued that Google should go ahead with their project to scan and index millions of books, even those that are still in copyright, because it serves the public interest.

The Adelphi charter is clear on this, stating that "the public interest requires a balance between the public domain and private rights. It also requires a balance between the free competition that is essential for economic vitality and the monopoly rights granted by intellectual property laws".

The time is clearly right for this discussion.

Piracy obsession

The charter was launched the week after a government-sponsored conference on the creative industries, and follows a general election in which Labour said in its manifesto that "we will modernise copyright and other forms of protection of intellectual property rights so that they are appropriate for the digital age".

Gilberto Gil in Paris
Last week France made Gil a Grand Officier of the Legion d'Honneur
In fact the RSA, or to give it its full name, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce, has a long and distinguished history of saying what needs to be said to those in power.

It was founded in 1754 to "encourage the development of a principled and prosperous society". Like other 18th Century foundations, it was driven by the industrial revolution and an awareness among the rising elite of the time that the new economy required a new dispensation.

The old rules could no longer be relied upon to deliver wealth, happiness or even that small degree of social justice that was considered necessary for a stable society at that time.

The charter continues that tradition, trying to make sense of a body of intellectual property law that is increasingly seen as unsupportable and damaging both to the development of the new economy and to the creative freedom that new technologies should make possible.

It is, according to John Naughton, one of the authors, "an attempt to formulate a sane set of principles to guide law-making on intellectual property in a digital age".

The principles go far beyond our current obsession with music downloads and movie piracy, and extend to tests for genetic predisposition to breast cancer, Aids drugs and other life-saving inventions that matter far more to humanity than being able to sample great music, even Gilberto Gil's.

This should not surprise us, since the commission who wrote it included people like Sir John Sulston, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist who did much to decode the human genome.

It is far too easy to act if the internet is the only challenge to today's intellectual properly regime. It is also easy to be sceptical about the ability of politicians at any level to engage in these issues, and this creates a danger that those campaigning for change will simply ignore the political structures and avenues for debate.

But effective change will only happen through the political process, even if the pressure for that change is created by technological innovations. And even if national policies are constrained by international agreement, change is possible. It just takes time and concerted effort.

The broad perspective and commitment to an international approach which the Adelphi Charter demonstrates makes it an excellent rallying point for all those who feel it is time to rethink intellectual property law.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital



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