Copyright reform is not a joke


Yesterday was a good day for mischief-makers, for it saw an amendment in the law to permit the use of copyrighted material 'for the purposes of parody, caricature or pastiche' without having to first seek permission from the rights holder.

Indeed as if to celebrate, the infamous Cassetteboy released a (NSFW!) glorious mash-up as a homage to our dear PM in the form of Cameron's Conference Rap.

Given so much of the great British humour, it's bizarre to think that permissionless piss-taking has up to now been verboten. Tools like parody and caricature are part of our cultural heritage, used to make important political statements and hold the powerful to account just as much as they are employed for light relief. Nevertheless sketchwriters for the BBC and student drama societies alike have had think carefully about their work or else risk court action, whilst takedown and infringement notices litter the remix, remake channels of YouTube.

This exemption allows copyright law to better reflect people's actual habits and cultural opinions. It also lends intellectual property regimes a greater overall legitimacy, which could prove valuable when encouraging behavioural changes and in tackling issues like piracy.

It will enhance our cultural commons, thanks to the new (and newly-legitimized) avenues of expression and unleashed creativity. Lifting the restriction on social and commercial innovation will also yield economic benefits, with the government's Hargreaves Review suggesting that it could boost the economy by between £130-650m per annum.

Works will still be subject to the 'fair dealing' criteria, which only allows for a limited amount amount of a copyrighted material to be used. No doubt this will prove problematic at times- for example, do Downfall parodies involve only a limited amount of the original film? Copyright holders will still also be able to legally challenge a work for infringement, then requiring the artist to prove in court that their work is in fact actually side-splittingly hilarious or a devastating work of satire.

Depressingly, as insignificant as the exemption seems, it is one of the very few pieces of sensible copyright policy to emerge in recent years (and it still took the ORG 9 years of campaigning to achieve it). Modern copyright law is beyond a parody. It is overlong, over-broad, a drain on resources and a chill on innovation. It is no longer a vehicle to foster creativity, but a monster caused by rent-seeking and lobbying by vested interests. And the excessive, damaging ideas - from extending copyright further, to imposing harsher criminal sanctions on infringers and threatening search engines with anti-piracy legislation - continue.

There are a number ways in which we could radically reform copyright law whilst maintaining the commercial incentives to create (many of which are for another blog!)  However, given the number of international agreements on intellectual property the UK is signed up to, the gradual expansion of 'fair dealing' exceptions (say, to cover all non-commercial uses of copyrighted work) could be the most politically viable way of reducing the deadweight loss caused by current copyright laws.

Even this seems like a long-shot though, particularly given how long it has taken to get such a reasonable exemption applied. Copyright laws might be a farce, but they certainly aren't very funny.