The process for how copyright laws will be enforced in the UK is perhaps becoming clearer as the government publishes what may become the code for how broadband providers administer the new rules.
The outline code is not meant to be the final word on the matter, but is simply meant as a primer for a code that the Government hopes the industry will arrive to on its own. If no industry consensus is arrived at, then the onus will fall onto Ofcom to create a code that providers must adhere to. An underlying theme to the copyright issue is the hope that the new rules will lead to new methods of accessing digital content, such as music download services, though to date these have tended to amount to a little more than online equivalents of the record subscription clubs operating in the 1980s.
A new three-letter acronym is set to enter the UK language; a Copyright Infringement Report (CIR) is a report sent by a copyright holder (or another body authorised by them), to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) detailing the alleged infringement of copyright, along with supporting evidence. The outline code does not define an exact format for these reports, although we expect that an electronic standard will be agreed to allow for efficient processing.
A major criticism of the actions previously taken by a small number of solicitors in support for copyright holders has been the accuracy of the information, and the code is suggesting that as a minimum, the methods of detection should be open to independent/Ofcom scrutiny and additionally a copy of the copyrighted material (or significant part) is to be retained. At present, it is only planned that reports cover the uploading of copyrighted content; i.e. those people who are making available for others copies of material without the copyright holders' permission. An earlier document published in December 2009 entitled 'Online Infringement Of Copyright: The Details' outlines some of technical reasons why uploading is the main target.
Interestingly, it has been suggested that an ISP can reject a CIR as being non-compliant in respect of the code. There will also be a time limit on how long an ISP has to action a CIR following a report by a copyright holder, although at present there are no indications of what would constitute a reasonable period, leaving it up to the industry to agree a suitable timetable.
The report raises a caveat in relation to pre-pay mobile data users (phone or dongle) where the provider has no contact details for the user, but makes no suggestions as to how this might be tackled. This may mean that some pre-pay users, as well as customers of the smallest service providers and community broadband projects are overlooked, provided the infringements are minimal.
In essence, what we have at this time is something of a catch-22 situation, the aim of the legislation is to reduce the amount of copyright infringement, but there has been no definitive independent research into how much of a problem this is.
A distinct danger is that those who have made copyright infringement a hobby or business will simply act to cover their tracks, perhaps by something as simple as encrypting all their traffic through a distributed network. We have to remember that most of the public may not understand that by using a peer-to-peer (p2p) client, they are also making content available to others, and we may well find the music and film industries spending as much money protecting its copyright as they claim to have lost. The music-buying public is very unpredictable, and one record label making a mistake or being over zealous over an artist's material, risks a backlash amongst those who actually buy their content.
TalkTalk, one broadband provider who has been very vocal on the issue of copyright infringement, has warned that broadband prices may rise by £15 to £20 a year to cover the cost of policing copyright even if the music and film industries are paying their part of the costs. They also point out that those who buy music and films legally will end up paying for this too as a result of higher content prices.
At the end of the day infringing copyright is wrong, but conversely there is a distinct need to define what is and is not fair use of material.