Protecting copyright - New rules for a new media model

Tuesday’s announcement by Taoiseach Enda Kenny that a referendum will be held on the EU’s fiscal compact had hardly concluded before suggestions were made that we should use the threat of a “no” vote to secure credit write-offs or, at the very least, reduced terms for some of the vast debt foisted on Ireland.

It was a natural reaction, one that might be endorsed by great swathes of people sick of the burden of trying to honour obscene bank debts. That these debts seem so utterly unavoidable, so immutable, that they take primacy over the hardship their resolution means for hundreds of thousands of people in this country and millions more right across Europe, underlines the privileges and protection afforded to property.

This privilege is primarily focussed on capital in the form of finance, land or some of the other physically tangible assets we use to define wealth. As yet this shield has not been successfully applied to one of the modern world’s greatest drivers and innovations — privately created and funded data published online.

Despite the fact that this is the most liberating and empowering change in centuries in how information is delivered, our laws have not kept pace with the myriad ways it can be shared, received, redirected, repackaged, hijacked or simply stolen.

A review of our copyright laws by a committee under the chairmanship of Trinity Law School’s Dr Eoin O’Dell, will set the agenda for what has been described as the most significant reconsideration of Irish copyright law ever. It is the first review since the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000, and reflects a similar review just completed in Britain — the Hargreaves Review on Intellectual Property.

This is a hugely significant issue if the idea that democracies support transparency is to remain as strong as it needs to be. It is true too for businesses that invest heavily — about €1m a month in the case of the Irish Examiner owners Thomas Crosbie Holdings — in the generation of information.

The debate has been, unfortunately, characterised as a battle between media dreadnoughts and citizen journalists but to imagine it so is inaccurate. That view neither serves traditional or newer, online media well. Unless our laws reflect our old principles on protecting private property in a new reality, neither model will have the considerable financial independence needed to serve its purpose or readership. The objective should not be about controlling access or provision but it should be about how the data creators can have confidence that their efforts, imagination and investments might be rewarded or at least protected from piracy.

At the moment, data generated through private investment is treated as if it is commonage and reused by parasitic organisations without any consequences. You do not need to be Warren Buffet to realise that this is unsustainable. Unless anyone who generates valuable, credible, saleable information can be confident that its commercial integrity will be protected, then the credibility we can still have in most media organisations will go the way of the wax tablet.

How we, and our parliaments, deal with this issue will to a large degree set the parameters of our understanding of the world we live in. Getting it right for all concerned is as important as rebuilding our economy.

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