COPYRIGHT, campaigner and novelist Maureen Duffy told the London Freelance Branch meeting at the House of Commons on 12 May, "is not a laugh a minute." And the story she had to tell was not funny. The UK government is proposing finally to make "private copying" legal, which would be fine, since EU law demands that authors, including illustrators, be fairly compensated for the effects. But the government says the fair amount is... Zero.
THE PROPOSAL, Maureen explained, is to allow consumers to copy a work - article, photo or song - from an edition that they own, from a CD onto an iPod, or a digital photo onto a computer. It's proposed this should be allowed for personal use only - no making copies for families or friends, no filesharing and no sale of the original after the copy's made. Will people really observe - or even notice - this restriction?
David Drew MP listens to Maureen Duffy
Some publishers' preferred "solution" is to apply "technical protection measures" to prevent copying. But "as we know well, any competent 12-year-old could probably override such restrictions in a matter of seconds." Others want to use "digital rights management" - in the sense of attaching information to works, rather than restricting their use. They are developing a system called ACAP which would, they believe, allow them to identify works and copies anywhere in the world.
Maureen sees "a ray of hope - only a small one" in the consultation document referring to the possibility of raising additional revenue to compensate authors in the sale price.
"This sounds to me," Maureen said, "like a continental-style levy on copying equipment - but if we call it that, hands will be thrown up in horror." Since the days of Thatcher levies have been declared unBritish.
Maureen sees problems with trying to track - and distribute payment for - every copy, in the sheer volume of data. iCopyright and other firms are offering to do it - for a 20 to 30 per cent cut of any fees. Maureen supports distribution of payments through collecting societies, on the basis of surveys rather than accounting for every penny.
Cash from iPods backed
Research by the writers' collecting society ALCS shows that the public believes the fairest way to compensate creators is by levies on the equipment.
What to do? "We must insist to government and to our masters the entrepreneurs," Maureen said, "that the practical solution is to use some form of collective licensing and leave it to industry and the collecting societies to work out how to get the money from Currys to you."
We must also resist any buyouts of our digital rights. Increasingly publishers of all sorts will try to acquire digital rights as a bundle. "If we agree without contracts listing the specifics of what is being covered, then we will end up with five per cent of some notional or made-up figure. At best."
Maureen reported that "there are discussions about top-slicing advertising money from internet service providers and services like Google" that make their money by exploiting our content. They would compensate creators for the quotes and thumbnail pictures they use to sell their ads, through payments via the collecting societies.
The scene in Committee Room 8 at the House of Commons
"We must encourage the government," Maureen declared, "to take on the ISPs and force them to negotiate - and if they will not, to legislate to make sure we have a share of that revenue."
"We cannot allow the position of freelance creator to be further threatened by technology as well as by global conglomerates that are not interested in our culture, or even in any country, but only their shareholders," Maureen concluded.
David Drew, our host and a member of the all-party NUJ group of MPs, said that in his view "there has to be legislation, because what is happening is not acceptable to you and things can only get worse."
But: "Then we get into the treacle.... Any lack of clarity is an excuse for the government to kick the issue into the long grass." The NUJ needs to be clear about what it wants: "You need to simplify it for the likes of me and for the Minister."
To acclaim, Dave Rotchelle in the chair proposed a motion of thanks to Maureen Duffy for her 30 years' sterling work in the service of authors' rights.