Bright ideas to bring IP into the digital age

Prof Ian Hargreaves’ influential report into the UK’s intellectual property (IP) system has generated much discussion globally


When Prof Ian Hargreaves answered his mobile while out walking his dog, to find a minister at the other end asking him to do a report on copyright reform in the UK, he had no idea the document would become the subject of global discussion.

“I have been astonished at the level of international interest in it,” says Cardiff University’s professor of digital economy and author of what immediately became known simply as the “Hargreaves Report”.

“I guess it was partly because it’s a big, noisy issue. And the report seemed to strike a note.”

It’s been an interesting journey for the former Financial Times journalist, who moved into academia around 2000 but also has had stints doing communications for former Labour MP and foreign secretary David Milliband, and corporate communications for the former British Airport Authority (BAA). He gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, too.

Cardiff created the title of chair of the digital economy for him, “even though I was not an economist nor a technologist”.

“It’s a bit like saying you’re the “global corespondent”. It’s hard to rule out anything from the digital economy, but there are a set of concerns that arose and questions of how to get the best out of it.

“It suits the kind of person who likes that kind of intellectual stretch and uncertainty. You, by definition, cannot be on top of it.”

How did he end up chairing what became a much discussed government study on copyright?

“I was walking the dog one day when the phone rang and on the other end was a minister asking if I would like to lead a review of IP (intellectual property).”

Economic consequences
As he points out later in a well-attended talk at law firm A&L Goodbody (the Irish Government is planning copyright reform as well, which no doubt has intensified interest in the topic), this would be the fourth such report in six years – “which is a lot of reviewing and not very much action”.

What appealed to him were the terms of reference this time around, which emphasised a focus on IP’s role in innovation and growth, “economic consequences” that interested him very much.

He says critics have sometimes called the report “The Google Report” because of its recommendations, but he shrugs that off. “I definitely didn’t start with any prejudice at all.”

Copyright and IP, he says, weren’t issues he knew much about and certainly not enough to be on one side or another in the often divisive international copyright debate.

He was given six months to produce the report – a deadline he stuck to – and began his research by reading previous reports.

One had 57 recommendations, which he thought could make it too easy for the government to pick and choose what to support. So he opted for boiling his own down to 10 recommendations, broad enough to make it unlikely they’d be totally dropped, but with some room for interpretation.

“Those kind of tactics, I thought about quite early,” he says.

He didn’t want the report to be read and shelved. “When you do hard work, you want it to lead to something, to move things along.”

He talked to and met as many people as possible. He also travelled to the US to do research, because the report’s terms of reference specifically mentioned the US copyright concept of “fair use”, which allows limited use of copyright material without the need to obtain permission from the copyright holder.

Workable alternatives
Ultimately, he rejected a UK move towards fair use, because he felt there were workable alternatives that were more politically achievable.

“My overarching goal, which I defined in my own mind halfway through the process, was that there was no way this review is going to think every wise thought. But in the UK, copyright is stuck. It’s going in the wrong direction, towards longer duration, etcetera.

“So I think my goal became, could I move the dial forward a few notches.”

He is adamant the copyright status quo must change.

“We have to find a whole lot better way of selling rights-based stuff”, such as films and music.

He uses as an example, posting a wedding video on to YouTube with some copyrighted music, which is illegal. With some exasperation, he says, “It seems to me that smart content businesses would have found a way of serving that market and getting a coin in the till. I think I still don’t understand why content owners have been so unenterprising in that domain.”

Of his final report, he notes, “I hope what I was able to contribute was a fair-minded view of some highly controversial issues; not just legal, but technical and economic.”

And in retrospect, how does he review his report two years on? “I’m pretty happy with it. The night it went to print, I woke up and thought, what are the chances of this being brought in – maybe 20-25 per cent.” But the report began to gather steam.

“By a week in, I was thinking, maybe it’s not a 20 per cent shot, but a 40 per cent shot.”

First, the report, published in May 2011, was picked up internationally and widely discussed.

In autumn, three ministers issued a signed statement saying they agreed with the processes recommended in the report.

By late 2011, the legislative process to update Britain’s copyright laws began. The copyright legislation has been fitted into what Hargreaves describes as a “barnacle encrusted” bill dealing with a range of matters, which now also contains a copyright section.

But other recommendations that could be done outside of legislative change have also moved forward.

Copyright exceptions
In late 2012, the British government issued its list of copyright exceptions – cases identified by the EU, and open to adoption by member states, where material can be considered outside of copyright restrictions.

Hargreaves had noted the UK had not yet opted for bringing in any of these restrictions.

However, the full list wasn’t pushed through and Hargreaves notes, “In some cases it pursues the least ambitious form” of exception.

He has the sense that British legislators were increasingly aware of issues like copyright in the digital sphere.

“I had the feeling that that a generation shift had happened in the last election. If members themselves weren’t born digital, then they were at least parents of the born digital.”

More recently, he’s produced a report for NESTA (the UK National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) called A Manifesto for the Creative Economy, which looks at broader challenges facing the creative content industries.

“It remains very interesting why the driving entrepreneurialism (for the content industries) at the strategic level has been the internet platforms.”

He thinks that early on, the UK failed to understand the digital shift that was happening, even though it was the era of Cool Brittania, with a young prime minister in office.

Yet Tony Blair commissioned a report on the creative industries in 1998 that didn’t even mention the internet, he says, Instead, the British content creation industries – the second largest in the world, contributing 10 per cent of the value of the UK economy – tried to fend off the internet rather than find new ways to utilise it commercially.

“It was the classic argument that a successful industry makes, just at the point that it’s going to start not being successful,” he muses.

“I just don’t think you can afford to ignore these changes.”