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China strikes blow for property rights, British move to collectivism

Let a hundred flowers bloom, and give them away

Comment The afternoon M'Lords will debate a bill in Parliament which seeks to weaken your rights over the stuff you create. Buried in the Business and Enterprise Reform Bill, which is being debated today, are measures to "collectivise" intellectual property via extended collective licensing - all in the name of reforming 'orphan works' copyright law. Since the measure will sweep millions of foreign works into the scheme, overseas artists are rather angry.

But wait. Have a look at what's happening in China.

In a little-noticed report, the People's Online Daily newspaper reports that China is strengthening its orphan works legislation. Rather than taking power away from the individual, it's giving it back to the individual. This is remarkable, considering the 63-year history of collectivism in the People's Republic.

A new draft of China's copyright law strengthens the rights of artists and writers who write anonymously - in other words, artists who create orphan works. "Many users have been avoiding payment by using works that are written anonymously or in pen name. The new draft will effectively end this practice," reports the paper.

When passed, China's new copyright law will make it illegal to profit commercially from an orphan work: from using someone else's stuff. The UK's law is designed to allow this kind of commercial exploitation. Even the EU's draft orphan works law stops short of this: there's no commercial use permitted.

So China is strengthening its IP laws, while the UK weakens its own. Why would this be?

Well, as the saying goes: "It's the economy, stupid." Wealthy Western elites have adopted some esoteric concerns in recent years. Apocalyptic environmentalism is one example, and the desire to see a digital realm free of property rights or permissions is another. These are conversations taking place among small groups, and are Utopian in nature. They ignore empirical evidence and the precedent of what works, for normative approaches:

"Imagine a world that... ran on windmills, or with no digital possessions?"

Meanwhile, China has focused relentlessly on economic growth and prosperity. IP is fundamental to economic growth, China realises: you need to have incentives to encourage it, and once it has been created, you need to be able to protect it. The protection creates investment, and more is created.

The change has also been accelerated by China's own indigenous investment in innovation. If you're a country which is a net importer of intellectual property - you're using other people's stuff - then weak IP may suit you. Your own inventors and creators are stuffed, of course, but there may be a net GDP benefit. If you export IP and have industries that depend on IP, the opposite is true. The UK is a strong net exporter, and now China is increasingly inventing its own stuff, too, rather than merely copying it. Hence the change.

Any bets on who will win? ®

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