17 April, 2003: Swimming uphill

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This week's futile letter of protest:

Anne Campbell MP,
House of Commons,

Dear Anne,

Thank you for your letter of 9th April 2003 concerning the remarks of Dr. Kim Howells, MP, on copyright infringement. We are apparently in agreement that copyright law should be upheld, though it is clear that my views on the evolution of intellectual property law differ markedly from those of the Government.

I am very glad to hear that Dr. Howells's claim about the equivalence of theft and copyright infringement was not a statement of government policy. However, you will no doubt appreciate how such an utterance by a member of the government might be misinterpreted by the public. Lending Ministerial authority to a false statement such as his is unhelpful at best.

As you will be aware, there is a wide-ranging debate about the future of copyright law in this and other Western countries. Many campaigners, including myself, look at the essentially undemocratic procedure by which new intellectual property law is being framed, and feel that the historical rights and present interests of the public are not being given sufficient weight in the deliberations of policy makers.

The misuse of the term `theft' in describing copyright infringement is one which is eerily familiar from the public statements of special-interest bodies such as the British Phonographic Industry. Few in everyday life would describe copyright infringement in this way. It is a turn of phrase which is designed to be emotive and to mislead, and one which identifies the speaker very strongly with one section in the present debate.

What assurance have we, as concerned members of the public, that the Government will address these issues in a balanced fashion when statements by Ministers parrot so closely the language of one side?

It is this which leads me to suggest that Dr. Howells ought to retract and apologise for his untrue statement, and instead invite participation in the wider debate by all interested parties, not only content brokers such as record companies.

Yours sincerely,

(signed) Chris Lightfoot.

Probably I was wise not to say,

I was heartened by your statement that the Government, like me, expects that copyright law should be upheld. Can you confirm that this policy will be extended even to the preparation of Intelligence reports by the Prime Minister's office?

It's not really obvious that there's any point in writing these letters, and doubtless my correspondence is already filed under N for `nutter' down at Anne's office. But I'm not the sort of person to run away from an, uh, discussion, and -- however facetious the original letter was -- there is a valid point here about the use of language in the copyright debate.

`Theft' is an example which particularly annoys me, but there are other examples on both sides. The use of the term `sharing' to mean `copying' is the obvious counterpart, and it's similarly unhelpful: to use the same word to describe the sharing of Free software and the theft of commercial music or film makes it easy to twist its meaning: (note that this was written by a judge, but this shouldn't worry you, because it's old news)

... he was a leader in the ``open source'' movement, the purpose of which was to make as much material as possible available over the Internet.

(I particularly admire the use of the past tense here.)

Piracy has been co-opted twice: first, more then two centuries ago, the word was turned from referring to vicious and violent robbery on the high seas to refer to commercial infringement of copyright; and now, by the Recording Industry Ass. of America and friends, to mean private copying. And so on.


And now, the obligatory bit where I whinge about my week

(Taken from an email, so, this one will already be familiar to most of the readers of my ``'blog'' who actually know me....) Tuesday:

My morning has been totally bollocks so far. I woke up this morning just about recovered from my hangover / food poisoning / whatever, and decided to collect my bike from the station where it had been left since Sunday for complicated reasons. Since I've now mentioned (a) a bicycle and (b) Cambridge station, you can probably guess what's coming next, but in any case I'll allude briefly to the ghastliness that is travelling anywhere on Stagecoach Cambus.

Every time I do this I ask myself the question, `how is it possible to produce a bus service which is actually slower than walking?' In any case, I'm ill, man, so I didn't want to walk the the station. So I'm not in too great a mood by the time I finally get there.

And, when I do get there, I discover that most of my bicycle is still there. In hindsight this is probably something about which I should be cheerful, but obviously I wasn't too pleased about it at the time. Anyway, I go over to `Station Bikes' to get a new front wheel -- I wonder how much revenue these guys derive (indirectly) from petty crime? -- and establish that it'll take half an hour to fit a new wheel. So I buy a newspaper and a coffee and sit down, trying to radiate ``bring that cigarette one step closer and you'll regret it'' vibes to people waiting in the taxi rank queue.

When I get back to the repair place I observe (a) that they've fixed my bike, and (b) that the attendant is sitting on the step frantically pressing buttons on his mobile 'phone. I assume initially that he's writing a text message, but it becomes increasingly clear that he's actually playing Worm or Tetris or some fucking thing, and doesn't seem to intend to stop and allow me to pay up and go away. Somehow I find this really quite exquisitely rude -- which perhaps means that my sense of etiquette is obsolete -- but, in keeping with Stay Calm April, I say nothing. Eventually I have to go in, find Bicycle Repair Man and drag him away from his profitable employment actually fixing a bike.

Of course, no part of this -- with, perhaps, the exception of being a Victim of Crime, which in fact irritated me the least -- ought to have bothered me too much, but nevertheless it did. At least it was a bit cheaper than the last time I bought a new wheel.

(Actually `Stay Calm April' is a new invention which I am, uh, announcing here for the first time. The nice thing about inventing it now is that I only have to keep it up for two weeks. Win for player, I'd say.)

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.