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Hargreaves copyright report gets cautious welcome

Copyright holders and campaigners for reform today gave a cautious welcome to the Hargreaves review of UK intellectual property law, published today - but both sides point to a difficult path before any of the legal changes advocated by the report find their way into law.

In the document, DigitalOpportunity: A Review of Intellectual Property and Growth (PDF), published today, Professor Ian Hargreaves issues a ten-point plan to reform Britain's intellectual property laws.

Hargreaves argues that existing laws have failed to keep apace with a digital age in which the copying of text and images have become routine, and frequently essential.

But while those laws are now deemed "counter-productive to innovation", Hargreaves stops short of recommending the kind of "fair use" defence that has allowed content aggregators like Google to build their businesses, without fear of prosecution, using other people's content.

The review, initiated by the coalition government in November, concludes that such a system is "not appropriate for the UK", arguing instead for greater co-ordination in the network of copyright exceptions that allow a degree of flexibility across Europe.

Hargreaves also advises a raft of reforms including the creation of a Digital Copyright Exchange - a sort of 'one-stop shop' for digital rights clearance; the removal of restrictions on the right to parody copyrighted material; and a change that would allow material to be used even when the rights holder is unknown.

The report also advocates scrapping the outdated - if rarely invoked - rules that make it illegal for users to rip music from their own CDs for use on an MP3 player. Hargreaves also advised the British government to make the creation of a unified European patent system a priority.

Legal reaction
While supporting the report's aims, Simon Mounteney, a partner at copyright lawyer Marks & Clerk, believes the way ahead could be difficult: "The review provides a welcome signal that the Government is keen to address the situation. However, the implementation of many of its proposed solutions may prove extremely challenging."

Warning that the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled decisively against a unified patent litigation system just two months ago, Mounteney adds: "Britain's IP laws are so dependent on myriad international and European treaties that unilateral reform of our copyright and patent systems is impossible to achieve. Real reform will need to be pursued at a European or international level, and many of the proposed solutions will need significant attention to detail in order to become viable."

The voice of industry
UK-based rights holders lobby group the Creative Coalition Campaign welcomed Hargreaves' outright rejection of a 'fair use' provision', but signalled the first volley in its battle ensures that any changes would be there to benefit business, not end users.

"The decision to omit the US style 'fair use' system is recognition that the UK already has a flexible copyright framework that facilitates fair dealing," the group said. "With today's fragile economy, we need to nurture jobs and growth. This is especially important in the creative sector which supports tens of thousands of jobs. There is much to consider in today's report and we are keen to work with the Government to ensure that any changes are business led, not regulatory fixes."

Look set to dig their heels in rather harder were Hollywood copyright hawks the Motion Picture Association of America, a previous target of 'hacktivist' collective Anonymous for their hardline stance on piracy.

In a statement, the MPAA said: "We welcome the assurances regarding better enforcement at home and abroad and the measures to assist in rights clearance where there is market failure but we are concerned about a number of recommendations which will have an impact on the film industry including proposals related to exceptions on copyright and linking the Digital Copyright Exchange to enforcement."

Don't hold your breath...
Also offering a cautious welcome to the report was the Open Rights Group - though group campaigner Peter Bradwell didn't sound like he'd be holding his breath for its legislative fruits:

"This is one more evidence-based review calling for a change of course. Most famously the Gowers Review in 2006 made a series of similar recommendations that were ultimately dropped," he said on the ORG's website.