NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Copyright conflict is a clash of cultures

Debate over new legislation highlights fact that business must evolve to work with file sharing. Photo / Supplied
Debate over new legislation highlights fact that business must evolve to work with file sharing. Photo / Supplied

Wading into the debate about the Copyright Amendment Bill is terrifying because it is a hot topic for the lawyers of giant multi-national corporations on one side and the highly motivated uber-geeks on the other.

But that didn't stop Government MPs like Katrina Shanks and Jonathan Young having a go this week. If they were debating the topic in a pub you'd say fair enough. But as they were debating a real law being pushed through Parliament under urgency, it was all a bit embarrassing.

The failure of National to articulate the issue was pretty obvious. Young compared the internet to the evil Skynet from the Terminator movies. Fans may recall the main difference there is that Skynet tried to wipe out human life.

So was he arguing that the bill was designed to fight the internet? That's actually what its critics were arguing.

Shanks backed up her case by saying she was pretty savvy on computers. That's like saying that because you are savvy at existing within the dimensions of space/time you're qualified to wade into debates about quantum physics.

Okay, sorry - that was the kind of nerd joke that also gets people's backs up.

Opponents of the bill need to be careful about mocking politicians (easy as it is), or they will turn the public off. It should be okay for people with fewer than 1000 Twitter followers to talk about technology.

The reality is that neither side has articulated the debate in a way which has engaged the wider public.

But someone really should tell Shanks that this is not a debate about computers. That box on your desk is relevant to the internet in much the same way a printing press is relevant to a newspaper or a satellite dish is to television broadcasting.

This is a debate about content and the way that it is distributed on the internet. Fundamentally, it is a cultural clash. This is about proponents of a new business model battling proponents of an old business model.

The Government's task was to craft a law that balanced a) the need to maintain an environment where the internet thrives, encourages business growth, transforms our economy and so on, with b) the traditional property rights of content creators and owners.

Critics argue the damage this bill does to a) is far too high a price to pay for b). And, they say, it is protecting a model that is outdated anyway. They call the companies seeking to protect copyright this way dinosaurs and argue they are shooting themselves in the foot by clinging on to old ways.

But big corporates will say they are evolving, that they are embracing new business models. But they say the cold reality is that right now the new business model - with its promiscuous attitude to content sharing - just doesn't generate enough revenue.

Yes, they are trying to protect profits, but they are also protecting jobs and existing structures which have produced some impressive movies, music and video games over the years.

Yes, the free content model has been great for upstart start-ups but who said that model has an automatic right to supersede copyright laws that have existed for many years?

The Government, for better or worse, has delivered a law that comes down on the side of old-fashioned property rights. This legislation enhances the ability to police online copyright infringement.

To supporters of the brave new world of web-based commerce, it looks a lot like big business has been handed a blunt tool to do that job.

There is concern about collateral damage with some individuals being unfairly targeted and a dark pall cast across the creative environment.

Disappointing as it may be, it shouldn't really be surprising that this Government has erred on the side of traditional property rights.

This is the National Party. A deep respect for the property rights of individuals and companies is part of its core values. National MPs might have come off better if they'd just stuck to arguing on this basis. At least we would have understood what they were on about.

The opponents of the bill can take some heart from a deeply held belief that it won't actually work.

Of course it won't. The internet and file sharing are one and the same thing.

First there was file sharing via computer networks and then someone called it the internet.

This bill is a stalling measure; even supporters must know that. It may slow the revenue decline from file sharing of copyrighted content to allow the industry to continue a migration to a more profitable model. Then again, it may not.

Trying to hold back the internet is like trying to stop Skynet - you haven't got a hope unless you have a terminator to send back in time. Perhaps they could send Jonathan Young.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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