Monday, 6 August 2012

A law to stop poor people benefiting from good design

My attention has been drawn by a letter in The Times to clause 56 (formerly clause 55) of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.  This clause has the effect of "extending copyright protection for mass-produced artistic works to life of the creator plus 70 years" from the current term of 25 years.

The bill recently completed its committee stage, with only perfunctory discussion of the merits of this extension of Intellectual Property rights - the clause was supported by the Opposition.  It continues to disappoint me that left-wing parties fail to see that extensions to Intellectual Property laws act against the aims of Left Economics - they put all the emphasis on encouraging production of intellectual property, and none on its efficient use, which, for non-rivalrous goods, is achieved when everyone is free to enjoy it.

The clause enjoys the support of the Design Council, and Terence Conran in particular:
By protecting new designs more generously, we are encouraging more investment of time and talent in British design. That will lead to more manufacturing in Britain, and that in turn will lead to more jobs – which we desperately need right now. Properly protected design can help make the UK a profitable workshop again.
Well, it's true that extended IP rights ought to make designs somewhat more valuable.  But it's questionable whether that would increase employment of designers, since the ability to make large profits for a century or so on old designs would seem to reduce the incentive to create new ones.  Either way, it's unclear why there should be any effect on where manufacturing takes place, except perhaps that when IP rights allow high retail margins, manufacturing costs become less important.

On the other hand, bloggers are unimpressed: Francis Davy questions the government's description of the legal effect of the clause, and techdirt doubts that it will achieve its economic aims.

For me the most interesting discussion is in an obscure impact assessment by the government's Intellectual Property Office (the Commons Committee showed no sign of having read it).  It gives a list of manufacturers of classic design furniture "all based outside the UK" who are campaigning for the law to be changed, and notes "the extensive use of the internet importers of the UK as a staging post for EU wide sales" because UK law gives less protection than in most of the EU.  I suppose that this trade is of some economic benefit to the UK.  (The impact assessment says that the clause will "update and clarify UK legislation in line with EU law", but as the letter in The Times points out, the UK is under no obligation to harmonize its laws in this respect.)

The impact assessment finds that furniture is likely to be the product most affected by the change, and surveys prices for various classic furniture designs: typically the replica price is about 15% of the price from the original producer.  It concludes that buyers of the replicas would be highly unlikely to switch to buying the much more expensive authorized product if the replica were made unavailable; they would buy less attractive substitutes instead.  So the original producers are greatly overestimating the benefits to them of the clause.

Surprisingly enough, there's even a mention for Paul Heald's recent talk as discussed on techdirt, and in particular his data suggesting that copyright extension on books has had the effect of making them unavailable: perhaps there would be a similar effect with furniture designs.

The impact assessment goes on to speculate about some possible benefits of the clause, but one gets the impression that its author is unenthusiastic.  For my part, I cannot believe that it's in the public interest that one should have to pay thousands rather than hundreds of pounds for this chair.

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