Anthony Doesburg: Copyright law seen as stifling creative voice

By Anthony Doesburg

Here's an irony for you. According to a poll on the Library Association (Lianza) website, librarians (presuming they're the site's main visitors) will be voting overwhelmingly for Labour and the Greens on Saturday.

Of more than 420 votes cast, Labour had 47 per cent support and the Greens 26 per cent.

The irony is that in the present Government's last days, it passed a piece of legislation affecting the librarians' profession, which a number of groups believe has at least one serious flaw.

The offending legislation is the Copyright (New Technologies) Amendment Act, designed to bring copyright law up to date with the digital age. It took effect at the end of last month, with the exception of section 92A, which won't kick in until the end of February next year, while everyone works out how to implement it.

That section requires internet service providers to disconnect subscribers caught downloading copyright material. The internet service providers and other industry groups object to having that responsibility placed on them.

As far as the music industry is concerned, section 92A is the highlight of the new law.

According to industry body Rianz, 20 billion illegal music tracks a year are being downloaded worldwide, accounting for 80 per cent of ISP traffic.

In fairness, there's no real reason to expect this provision of the new law to colour librarians' voting preferences. However, it was a talking point at the Lianza conference in Auckland on Tuesday.

The copyright question was brought into focus during one of the headline acts at the event, an address by Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is - or was - a leading light in campaigning for limitations on copyright, and a specialist in cyberspace law.

In fact, he didn't want to dwell on copyright because these days he is directing his activism at political corruption, of which he provided numerous American examples. However, he was happy to offer his view of section 92A and, in the eyes of the new law's critics, the even more troublesome 92C.

Lessig has a proposal that would do away with the need for section 92A at a stroke: legitimise illegal music downloads, if for no other reason than to remove the law-breaker stigma from the millions of (mainly) young people around the world doing it.

For a decade prohibitionists have been waging a war to stop downloads, but he says their failure can be seen in the fact that file sharing is increasing, not falling.

"I think what we need to do is recognise that it's time to seek a peace in this war and find other ways to achieve the objectives of copyright without trying to control every time a copy is made.

"If we had done that a decade ago, we would have had 10 years of artists getting more money, we'd have fewer competition rules for new businesses to figure out how they can create great new products from these digital technologies but, most important for me, we wouldn't have a decade of our kids being criminals."

Raising a generation of pirates is "corrosive and corrupting of the rule of law", Lessig says. He advocates the deregulation of "amateur creativity" so that young people, for whom it comes naturally to create work using music and video clips plucked from all kinds of sources, can do so legitimately.

"No kid should have to have a law degree in order to use a computer to create great new work."

At the same time, collective re-use licences needed to be developed to compensate - perhaps on the basis of popularity - artists whose work is passed between file sharers.

Section 92C puts into law a policy that is followed by YouTube, Lessig says, and which is having the unintended consequence of stifling political debate. The law says that if an ISP receives a complaint that a website it hosts breaches someone's copyright, the ISP has to take the site down.

ISPs are concerned the law will be used for malicious intent, which Lessig says is exactly what has been happening at YouTube. He represented a client whose YouTube video about hate speech was summarily removed by YouTube after an unsubstantiated copyright complaint by someone whose real motive was that they didn't like the video's message. "This [section 92C] is exactly the wrong way to deal with these problems in my view."

He is pessimistic about the United States showing the way in creating workable copyright rules for cyberspace. "The United States is too captured - and that's the Democrats and the Republicans - by extremist positions in this debate."

But he thinks a country like New Zealand - and trusted groups like librarians - can. "What's really important is that mature, respected reasonable democracies lead this discussion, and that's you."

- NZ Herald

Our previous poll asked: How does the current economic climate affect IT spending in your business?

I expect it will increase - 29%

I expect it will decrease - 36%

It will not be impacted - 36%

This week's question: In the current economic climate, what impact do you foresee on your personal spending on technology items (including gadgets)?

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