A raft of new legislation outlined in the Queen's Speech has been predictably derided as being unachievable in the limited parliamentary time available before the election. However, the Government's Digital Economy Bill which was published last week, appears to have a certain amount of cross party support and may therefore make it to the statute book. The Bill proposes significant amendments to copyright law, primarily seeking to address widespread illegal copying and distribution of digital content over the internet.
Illegal file sharing is identified by the content industries (in particular the music industry) as a significant threat to the industry. Most concerning from the industry perspective is the fact that consumers in general appear to accept that illegal copying and sharing of digital content is in some way justifiable. A report in May 2009 from the Strategic Advisory Board on Intellectual Property identified that illegal file sharing was fast becoming ubiquitous and that neither education nor the threat of legal action seems to dissuade consumers from continuing.
The Digital Economy Bill proposes radical and aggressive legislation to address this issue. The Bill will give OFCOM sweeping powers including the ability to suspend or limit individual subscribers internet access. Most worryingly the draft leaves much of the procedural processes to be set by OFCOM in consultation with the Secretary of State. At no point does the draft legislation require any form of a formal court ruling that copyright infringement has in fact taken place.
A further provision (which is unlikely to survive parliamentary scrutiny) would permit the government to amend copyright law, on a case-by-case basis if necessary, if it appears appropriate to do so to prevent or reduce infringement of copyright by means of the internet.
The Digital Economy Bill makes a number of other proposals which will affect large scale "digitisation" projects such as the controversial Google books projects.
Clearly this legislation has been developed in response to substantial pressure from the music industry and other content industries. However, if the proposals survive parliamentary scrutiny in their current form, their implementation may do more harm to the legitimacy of copyright in the public eye than to protect revenue to the UK music and content industries.