Access to knowledge: copyright reform

Copyright is a right over forms of knowledge. It is justified, potentially, by helping to create new forms of culture and promoting access to them, as authors benefit from revenues flowing from their ownership of copyrights.

In practice, copyright can distorted to produce cartel-like markets and to restrict benefits from flowing to authors and society. Rights holder lobbyists press for ever-greater and inappropriate controls over technology and social practices, as nearly every form of digital speech can potentially involve copyright infringement.

ORG works to remove the abuses and modernise copyright so it fits better with the digital age. We work to promote the public interest in copyright, so that free speech and innovation are promoted. For the last year, we have had a full time campaigner dedicated to these issues.

The Digital Economy Act

We ran our biggest campaign to date this year, to fight the Digital Economy Bill, which has unleashed the possibility of users being disconnected from the Internet for minor copyright infringements, and for websites to be blocked if they are found to contain “substantial” copyright infringement.

We did not stop the Bill. We have to be honest with ourselves about this: we did not, in a straight fight with the copyright industries, stop these measures from being passed. On the other hand, we did not waste our time, or entirely lose the war. None of the measures are yet active, and all of them face challenge by BT and TalkTalk in a Judicial Review.

The Act established a two stage policy for “online copyright infringement”. In ‘stage one’, Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, mandates a warning system. Copyright owners’ agents collect and supply IP addresses to ISPs, who send letters to the accused customers at set intervals. After a certain threshold, likely to be set at three letters (each representing a single infringement notice), rights holders can request users’ personal details via a court order. Legal proceedings would then take place. This private collection of data and matching represents a significant breach of online privacy, as highlighted by the EU Data Supervisor and Article 29 Working Group. Taking people to court, however, at least keeps any infringement claims within an accountable process.

Under the extremely controversial ‘stage two’ process, court action is replaced by a court order sanctioning automated interference with Internet accounts. There is an appeals process, but this only examines whether users protected their Internet account from abuse, not whether they were engaged in actual copyright infringement. Stage two would be activated by the Secretary of State and is thus highly political and open to campaigning and lobbying by both sides.

The grassroots campaign

Between 30-70,000 UK citizens took part in the campaign. By the time the Bill passed and the election was held:

·       35,000 people had signed a Number 10 petition started by TalkTalk and promoted by ORG

·       25,000 people joined ORG’s “Against the DEBill” Facebook group

·       20,000 had sent emails via 38 Degrees

·       15,000 had used ORG’s email tools introduced in April.

·       2,000 donated £20,000 towards adverts in national papers

·       350 had joined ORG as a paying supporter

Hundreds or perhaps thousands of people watched the Commons debates live on television, and commented via twitter using the #DEBill hashtag. The anger that the passage of the Bill then created a spate of hacktivism. Around a dozen sites and tools explaining which MPs voted for and against, and which did not attend[i].

The emails sent by ORG supporters to MPs received were key to demonstrating discontent and building a group of opposed MPs, who are still committed to acting against the Act.

Our revelation of the BPI’s “cut and paste” replacement of the Clause 17 web blocking legislation;[ii] or leaks to Advisory Council member Cory Doctorow of BPI braggadocio,[iii] helped create a strong campaign narrative around the unprecedented levels of corporate lobbying that was taking place.

ORG ran MP training events in Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield and London. We ran further training events at ORGCon in July. Feedback was positive in that attendees felt able to enter a sustained dialogue – both face to face and via letters or emails - with their MPs and convince them to in turn become involved. We now have a template course for improving supporter engagement with the legislative process.

The year’s work has again demonstrated the need to shift the debate. While it has shifted in our favour during the passage of the DEA in part from our work, there is a constant need to challenge vested interests and demonstrate real harm from the current drift of copyright policy.

The wider movement: politicians, artists and businesses

New politicians, including Julian Huppert MP and Eric Joyce MP, have been drawn into the cause. They have set up a specific All Parliamentary Group to look at the DEA.[iv] ORG has built links with grassroots artists opposing the current copyright settlement. Digital businesses have felt they need a voice in the debate. ORG has encouraged new groups to form and works closely with all of these to make sure they are able to participate fully and effectively.

We also work closely with Tom Watson MP, who is both on our Advisory Council and a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.


ORG ran campaign work in support of the anti-ACTA campaign. A mass emailing campaign helped bring their Written Declaration to the attention of UK MEPs. We also directly lobbied UK MEPs in Brussels.

ACTA - thanks to global opposition – has been watered down. Its impact on legislation will be limited in the short term. Three strikes will not be rolled out in every ACTA signatory nation.  What it does do is give rights holders space to lobby for new laws, and can be used as another break on reform of copyright, as new international agreements have to be renegotiated. As an agreement offering a higher level of protections, ACTA is highly likely to be used as a means to push developing nations into inappropriate levels of copyright enforcement, through trade agreements that push these nations into signing ACTA. Perhaps worst, a new institution governing ACTA could provide yet another forum for rights holder lobbyists to push for the changes they want, in their own narrow interests.

Net neutrality

Also related to our copyright work was our work on net neutrality in the UK and EU, which has increased in intensity as the UK enacts EU legislation permitting ISPs to put in place any kind of ‘traffic management’ they wish.

We produced a detailed consultation response earlier this year, and are now working with other organisations to highlight the problems before they emerge.

BBC DRM on HD broadcasts

We also worked on control of devices by copyright and DRM licensing. Outrageously the BBC have gained permission to encrypt part of their HD broadcasting, controlling the electronic programme guide and subtitling. Thus Ofcom have handed control over the vast majority of television devices and recorders in the UK to an off-shore consortium. ORG helped delay this, but did not succeed in stopping this. The result is that independent developers, especially open source developers, are unfairly cut out of the market. Devices for the mass HD market in the UK will have to be UK-specific to comply with the licensing conditions to decrypt the EPG. This will force prices up. Anyone with a disability will be unable to modify their equipment or use specialised software.

We may have succeeded if we had challenged Ofcom through a Judicial Review of their decision, which was in our opinion technically faulty. We therefore will be investigating what means we could use to use legal challenges in the future.

User rights

Work on user rights is becoming a major priority with the recent announcement of a review of UK Intellectual Property legislation. Copyright still lacks many key user rights, including the right to parody works and to format shift.

Orphan works

ORG contributed to the EU’s work last year on orphan works, and also wrote a consultation response for EDRI on Europeana.[v] We were the only EU public interest body at the EU’s “Google books” hearing.

The UK and EU are looking at an ‘orphan works’ exception, which are likely to be limited to academic works. This would fall far short of what is needed.

[iii] Cory Doctorow published tan email from Richard Mollett of the BPI outlining his views of the DE Bill debate