RIP: The copyright quango that wanted to terminate your rights

The Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property is to be abolished. The Coalition has decided that dismantling copyright is a task that the Intellectual Property Office is quite capable of performing without assistance, and has folded SABIP’s duties back into the IPO.

SABIP was founded in 2008 in the wake of the Gowers Report, as a quasi think-tank focusing on copyright policy. New technology has allowed many more people to record and distribute material – “everyone’s a creator” – we’re told, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed. From publishers such as News International to giant web data aggregators such as Facebook, the pressure to weaken the individual’s rights remains enormous. All are eager to exploit amateur material, and drive down the cost of professional material.

At once, SABIP began to discuss the removal of copyright as an “automatic” right from creators, something that thanks to international conventions is recognized worldwide. It’s something that benefits individuals and amateurs more than multinationals, and it means that individuals can receive the full protection and moral rights of international copyright law for everything they do – without having to sign-up, click-through or take any action at all.

(For a recent example of commercial land-grabs, see the Daily Mail‘s TwitPic theft.)

SABIP obviously didn’t think so, and proposed to redefine copyright so certain “non-commercial” works were excluded. In its 2008 launch paper, it wrote:

While subject to international variation, the definition of works which attract copyright is very wide and includes much material which is not of commercial value, and arguably may not require copyright protection.

Might there then be advantage in reworking the coverage of copyright to separate the moral rights of creators of all types of material from the economic/commercial rights and to limit the latter only to those outputs that do have an economic value?

SABIP noted several obstacles to this radical redefinition of individual rights. Copyright is automatic by international convention – this would mean the UK ripping up the Berne Convention. Since the UK is one of very few net exporters of “stuff”, this would have had deep repercussions with possibly years of tit-for-tat trade restrictions.

No matter, by this year, the language had morphed again, but this time it duly made its way into Europe as the official position of the UK government. And so earlier this year, the UK proposed to Europe that:

The UK will push at European level for a general non-commercial and pre-commercial use exception to copyright.

And added, for good measure, that it would quite like to outlaw private contracts at will:

The creator contract/bargaining problem may be addressed in the first instance through a working group (perhaps with OFT involvement), looking at acceptable forms of contracting.

When asked what “pre-commercial” meant, civil servants replied that they didn’t know.

Traditionally what decides whether a work is commercial is pretty straightforward – the market. A picture of your toddler eating Alphabet Spaghetti Soup is typically worth nothing – unless somebody decides to stick it on a calendar. The SABIP proposal would have left the photographer with the moral right, but no automatic compensation right. It would also mean – quite strange, this – a bureaucratic apparatus pre-emptively picking what categories of work may benefit from a market, and excluding the rest. You may wonder how this would work – folk music non-commercial, dubstep commercial, perhaps?

SABIP also attempted to make itself busy in other areas outside copyright, gradually turning into a Spartist think-tank. In January for example (minutes), it raised the role of “the regulation of genetic modification (GM) and the appropriation of ‘nature’” and low-carbon technologies. You’ll struggle to find any mention of these in the Gowers Report, and neither has much crossover with copyright.

Photographers welcomed the demise of the quango. Stop43 noted yesterday

“Its reports were vacuous, based on questionable methodology, notably light on meaningful statistics, and in the main simply pleaded for further research to be carried out. A true QUANGO, then, primarily engaged in perpetuating itself and its ‘work’. Stop43 does not mourn its passing.”

Yet pre-commercial use is an IPO-inspired invention, and SABIP merely the ventriloquist’s dummy. The ideas live on.