If you ask big companies' advice on economic policy, don't forget about consumers and competitors.
If you want to make an industrial strategy, you need to listen to industry. But there’s a fine line between listening to industry and giving in to special interests. It’s a line the IPPR seem to have crossed in their latest report.
Yesterday the IPPR launched a report called “March of the Modern Makers: An industrial strategy for the creative industries”, by Will Straw and Nigel Warner. It’s a sober and careful piece of work, and with several sensible recommendations*. But 27 pages in there’s a downright weird section on copyright reform.
Now, if you follow the creative industries you’ll know that there’s an ongoing debate about what should be done about intellectual property. People who own intellectual property, like copyrights or patents, want their rights over it to be maintained or strengthened. Others think that IP rights are too strong, and that people should have the right to listen to tracks from a CD they’ve bought on an iPod, for example, or make parodies of other people’s music. In 2010, Ian Hargreaves, a journalist, wrote a government review of intellectual property law. He argued it needed reform – giving copyright owners less power and consumers more. (Hargreaves was a Nesta Associate in 2012, although his work here was on a different subject.)
The report is very clear what it thinks about this. It trashes Ian Hargreaves’s analysis, arguing that the benefits of copyright reform are much lower than his review claimed. And it calls for “disruptive changes to copyright law” (i.e., Hargreaves’s recommendations) to be “reined in” (p 49). So ripping a CD to an MP3 should stay a criminal act, and parody remains a risky business. It’s also makes life harder for tech startups who work with copyright-holders.
Now here’s the funny part. If you look at the introduction to the IPPR’s report, you find this: “Thanks to the BPI, NBCUniversal, Premier League, Viacom and Sky for their kind sponsorship of this project and guidance throughout.” It’ll come as no surprise to learn that these organisations have a lot to gain from stopping copyright reform. Indeed, several of them have lobbied publicly or privately against change. It’s easy to imagine what their “guidance” to the IPPR would have been on this issue.
This might seem like a small thing. After all, reasonable people can disagree on the merits of IP reform. But if you’re trying to make an industrial strategy, it’s a very big deal.
If you bring together big companies to advise the government on economic policy, you need to make sure they’re not calling the shots at the expense of consumers and competitors. The IPPR’s decision to take money from rights-holders for a report that recommends against change to copyright law is exactly how not to do it.
EDIT: Since I posted this, I thought it's worth providing some clarification. I'm confident that IPPR's analysis and conclusions are independent of its funders. And I do not question IPPR's integrity: on the contrary, I admire the rigour and honesty of their work. While there is a lively debate about copyright policy and reasonable people can disagree with their conclusions, IPPR's position is supported by the Select Committee and the Government has revised down its own estimates of any economic benefit that might come from new copyright exceptions.
* Making it easier for creative businesses to get funded, scrapping the divide between policy for the tech sector and for the creative industries, making government procurement work better for small creative businesses – all of these are good ideas (and ones that we've called for in the past).