The end of the beginning

We've come a long way on libel and copyright reform, but there's still a little way to go yet

Image: By opensourceway @Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0 licence]

The coming months could see significant boosts to freedom of expression in the UK. Last night, the Libel Reform Campaign launched its report on alternatives to libel litigation at an event filled with hope that the Defamation Bill will form part of the Queen's speech in May. A day or two earlier, Consumer Focus hosted an event at the House of Commons to discuss responses to the consultation on copyright following the Hargreaves Review, which are due March 21. Dare we hope that a year or two from now the twin chilling towers of libel law and copyright might be a little shorter?

It's actually a good sign, said the former judge Sir Stephen Sedley last night, that the draft defamation bill doesn't contain everything reform campaigners want: all bills change considerably in the process of Parliamentary scrutiny and passage. There are some other favorable signs: the defamation bill is not locked to any particular party. Instead, there's something of a consensus that libel law needs to be reformed for the 21st century - after all, the multiple publication rule that causes Internet users so much trouble was created by the 1849 court case Duke of Bunswick v Harmer, in which the Duke of Brunswick managed to get the 17-year limit overridden on the basis that his manservant, sent from Paris to London, was able to buy copies of the magazine he believed had defamed him. These new purchases, he argued successfully, constituted a new publication of the libel. Well, you know the Internet: nothing ever really completely dies, and so that law, applied today, means liability in perpetuity. Ain't new technology grand?

The same is, of course, true in spades of copyright law, even though it's been updated much more recently; the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act only dates to 1988 (and was then a revision of laws as recent as 1956). At the Consumer Focus event, Saskia Walzel argued that it's appropriate to expect to reform copyright law every ten to 15 years, but that the law should be based on principles, not technologies. The clauses that allow consumers to record TV programs on video recorders, for example, did not have to be updated for PVRs.

The two have something else in common: both are being brought into disrepute by the Internet because both were formulated in a time when publishers were relatively few in number and relatively powerful and needed to be kept in check. Libel law was intended to curb their power to damage the reputations of individuals with little ability to fight back. Copyright law kept them from stealing artists' and creators' work - and each other's.

Sedley's comment last night about libel reform could, with a little adaptation, apply equally well to copyright: "The law has to apply to both the wealthy bully and the small individual needing redress from a large media organization." Sedley went on to argue that it is in the procedures that the playing field can be leveled; hence the recommendation for options to speed up dispute resolutions and lower costs.

Of course, publishers are not what they were. Even as recently as 1988 the landscape of rightsholders was much more diverse. Many more independent record labels jostled for market share with somewhat more larger ones; scores of independent book publishers and bookshops were thriving; and photographers, probably the creators being damaged the most in the present situation, still relied for their livelihood on the services of a large ecology of small agencies who understood them and cared about their work. Compare that to now, when cross-media ownership is the order of the day, and we may soon be down to just two giant music companies.

It is for this reason that I have long argued (as Walzel also said on Tuesday) that if you really want to help artists and other creators, they will be better served by improving contract law so they can't be bullied into unfair terms than by tightening and aggressively enforcing copyright law.

Libel law can't be so easily mitigated, but in both cases we can greatly improve matters by allowing exceptions that serve the public interest. In the case of libel law, that means scientific criticism: if someone claims abilities that are contrary to our best understanding of science, critique on that basis should be allowed to proceed. Similarly, there is clearly no economic loss to rightsholders from allowing exceptions for parody, disabled access, and archiving.

It was Lord McNally, the Minister of Justice who called this moment in the work on libel law reform the end of the beginning, reminding those present that now is to use whatever influence campaigners have with Parliamentarians to get through the changes that are needed. He probably wouldn't think of it this way, but his comment reminded me of the 1970s and 1980s tennis champion Chris Evert, who commented that many (lesser) players focused on reaching the finals of tournaments and forgot, once there, that there was a step further to go to win the title.

So enjoy that celebratory drink - and then get back to work!

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

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By Wendy Grossman on Mar 19, 2012

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