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IP review urges government to take action

18 May 2011

Current intellectual property law is stifling the economy but only serious government intervention can fix it, an inquiry has found.

Professor Ian Hargreaves’s report on IP reform, published today, has confirmed predictions that an American-style ‘fair use’ policy, which the likes of YouTube tout as a lifeline, would be illegal in Europe. The report has instead proposed ten steps to a liberated IP system, including a unified European approach.

“The copyright regime cannot be considered fit for the digital age when millions of citizens are in daily breach of copyright, simply for shifting a piece of music or video from one device to another,” the report states.

It adds that although importing the US ‘fair use’ defence wholesale is not feasible, a similar system could be achieved through negotiation with the EU. The ten recommendations include introducing the world’s first Digital Rights Exchange as well as a unified European patent system.

The report has received a lukewarm reception from the legal profession, rendered sceptical of significant change in an area so impenetrable that it has its own adjective, ‘thicket’, to describe the problem.

“The people who face the most challenges from the report are the government, as Hargreaves repeatedly makes the point that the changes he advocates have to be brought about through serious governmental effort and application,” said Mark Owen, head of intellectual property at Harbottle & Lewis. “This may not be what the government was after and much of this work will be costly.”

But business secretary Vince Cable, present at the report’s official release, has indicated the government will embrace what is the fifth IP report in six years.

Hargreaves, Cardiff University’s professor of Digital Economy, was set the task by the prime minister last autumn, who was explicitly hunting for a shot in the arm for the UK economy.

The report states: “Could it be that laws designed more than three centuries ago with the express purpose of creating economic incentives for innovation by protecting creators’ rights are today obstructing innovation and growth? The short answer is: yes.”

But while the findings may mirror the government’s hopes, some have warned reforms may still not emerge.

Simon Mounteney, partner at Marks & Clerk, describes it as a “Herculean” task, adding: “The aims of the review are laudable and it rightly identifies some of the pressing problems with our current IP regime. However, the implementation of many of its proposed solutions may prove extremely challenging.”

Britain’s dependency on international treaties also means reform will only be achieved at a European or international level, Mounteney added. It is a doubt shared by Hargreaves, whose report states: “We urge government to ensure that in future, policy on IP issues is constructed on the basis of evidence, rather than weight of lobbying and to ensure that the institutions upon which we depend to deliver intellectual property policy have clear mandates and adaptive capability.

“Without that, the pile of IP reviews on the government’s doorstep – four in the last six years – will continue to accumulate.”

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