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MPs wrestle slippery bureaucrats in intellectual property Jell-O

'Evidence base weak' for IP, says UK's IP top cop

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Reforming the IPO: 'There is no right way of doing this'

If you were building a new IPO, asked Foster, is there anything you do that isn't appropriate and any functions you'd like to take on?

Alty started another mazy dribble that showed off his technical skills, mentioning things like "build up capability in individual areas", "there is no right way of doing this", "I've worked in one role", "I've worked in a different role", and so on, running the ball over the line by the corner flag.

MPs questioned whether the IPO's current home at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is the right one - the office used to be in the Ministry of Fun. Where should it be, Whittingdale asked, while wondering that the IPO's current home may "rather skew you to look for policies that pursue innovation perhaps by diluting rights ownership?"

"The creative industries are also about innovation… there's no magic answer," said Alty.

On the subject of appointing an IP czar, the IPO didn't like the suggestion of creating a secretary of state for the digital economy.

"I don't think you could have a minister responsible for all those things," said Alty as Quilty nodded vigorously. "You could say having two ministers is better than one."

"[The Department of Culture, Media and Sport] is there to support the creative industries, they have that voice, so do we," added Quilty.

How closely was Google involved in the process, wondered Wishart.

"I don't know any more than you do. I've met lots of stakeholders and I don't think one has an undue influence," Alty replied. Quilty chipped in: copyright policy was all about fairness, and he strived to position it as a wise and dispassionate bystander.

"In the copyright area, you're often talking about a cake which has to be divided up between people," said Quilty. "And the questions are just how big is the cake, who gets the biggest slice of it: do creators get a bigger slice, do consumers get a bigger slice?"

For a "copyright and IP enforcement director" that's a fairly hug-a-hoodie-grade idea.

Dodgy dossiers

Finally MPs touched on the empirical evidence for copyright reform and the positive effects it will have on the UK economy and finances - specifically, figures and numbers published in the Hargreaves Review that were backed by the IPO in its subsequent consultation. To put it charitably, much of this evidence turned out to be bizarre and implausible. Whittingdale's view was that Prof Ian Hargreaves had made "sweeping assumptions - and you [the IPO] didn't cast a critical eye over them".

"Hargreaves was signalling a sense of direction and there's much more detailed work to do," said Alty, distancing himself a bit further from them. Foster was more specific: the evidence lacked "authenticity and validity" to support Hargreaves' eyebrow-raising ideas, such as a digital marketplace that would be worth £2.2bn to the UK economy every year.

Alty said "there was a balancing act to be struck and we were not going to do the Hargreaves Review again. One of the things we've built up is our economic capability to do that sort of analysis". Maybe Hargreaves was in a hurry, suggested Alty: "He did his job in six months and most reviews take longer."

Hang on, asked Jim Dowd MP, the Gowers Review into intellectual property had only just been completed. (It was actually finished in 2006.) All the evidence was still sitting there, wasn't it?

"Well that's helpful too, then," said Alty. "There's an implicit assumption that somehow we nobbled Hargreaves to do the report."

"Perhaps if you'd seen the disparity between Hargreaves' evidence and his conclusion," replied Foster, "then you might have pointed it out. That's all."

Why did you allow such nonsensical assumptions to just sit there, wondered Wishart.

"The truth is the evidence base for copyright is not that great," replied Alty.

"These [figures] were delivered as if they were coming down from the mountain," one of the panel said. "Nobody believes these economic assessments. Hargreaves said 0.5pc of GDP benefit would result - do you still believe that? They're just so ridiculous, so nonsensical do you worry about being foolish?"

Alty remained unapologetic: "To get a debate going was a reasonable way of going about it. Of course you can argue about numbers. We're breaking new ground."

"It does start a debate," echoed Quilty. "That's how academic debate goes on." The MPs were massively unimpressed.

"People aren't interested in 'a debate' - but the outcomes," replied Dowd, sharply. "What some people believe at the moment is that the government, through its various agencies, has a view of intellectual property in terms of value to consumers which in the short-term may look very attractive, but in the long-term, may undermine the whole principle of creative industries that produce products of benefit to consumers, and others."

Alty said EU law forbids any copyright exceptions from damaging commercial interests - just in time for the final whistle to mark the end of the group's time slot.

The IPO officials had held their line as doggedly as the MPs had questioned them. The pair insisted that the IPO must balance consumers' interests with copyright holders; that any unpopular proposals weren't really theirs and must have come from the independent review; and that they were starting a great big debate on copyright.

What they hadn't done is show any indication that IP is important to the UK, rather than something unpleasant you step in, let alone how it's important.

(The UK isn't the only country to find anti-copyright activism embedded in its civil service, creating policy for ministers - but that's for another day.)

The minister responsible for the officials, Baroness Wilcox, has yet to agree to appear. In an earlier appearance before Parliament in November, Quilty and Alty did most of the talking for her. Further snubbing the cross-party MPs would leave the impression that the bureaucrats were really in charge ... ®

Still not had enough IP policy at Westminster? See our coverage of the enquiry's evidence session one and two, the IPO's November appearance in Parliament, and the special Commons debate on the IPO's conduct from February.

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