Copyright-dependent industries risk alienating the public and undermining intellectual property laws with their unregulated and aggressive tactics, according to an historian who has studied nearly 400 years of piracy and intellectual property law.
Adrian Johns, a professor of history at Chicago University, told technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio that the behaviour of large multinational companies whose business is based on copyright, such as record labels, publishers and broadcasters, threatens to turn the public against them.
"There's a trend towards almost absolutism, which I think is very unfortunate and could in the end be self-defeating," he said. "The big concern that I have is not the one that most people have which is that this is going to crimp the future of cultural change, though I think it may do that. It's that eventually the nit-pickiness of this kind of move might create a backlash that is more damaging than what it is trying to prevent."
Johns has just published a history of piracy, noting that the concept was first applied to ideas, rather than maritime theft, as early as 1650. He said that current industrial practices relating to the defence of intellectual property are risky.
"The policing of piracy, the detection of it, the interdiction of it – those have become extraordinarily large and diverse multinational industries," he said. "There's a potential issue there in that they're largely unregulated and the codes by which they operate within civil society have not really been articulated."
"There's an increasing body of evidence that the policing of intellectual property has too often involved impinging on civil liberties, freedom of speech, privacy concerns, things that society may actually value at least as highly as intellectual property itself. There's a risk of an explosion there, I think, and it's a risk that the defenders of intellectual property themselves would do well to take note of," he said.
Johns said that he was not an advocate of the free culture movement which seeks radically to reduce the power of copyright laws, but his analysis will be welcomed by those who think that multinational companies are exerting too great a political and social influence in the name of protecting their income streams.
The UK's Digital Economy Bill has been a focal point for protest, particularly the parts of it which will force internet service providers (ISPs) to cut off internet access points used by people accused of copyright infringement.
There was further outrage this week as it was claimed that an amendment accepted in the House of Lords forcing ISPs to block access to entire websites accused of hosting copyright-infringing material was lifted directly from proposals written by record label trade body the BPI.
The Bill will face further debate in the Lords before passing to the House of Commons. Politicians face a race against time in getting the Bill through both houses before Parliament dissolves for this year's general election.