Why doesn’t Lord Mandelson want toner seized from library photocopiers?

There are two major problems with Lord Mandelson’s desire to crack down on illegal file-sharing by using an awful lot of stick and no carrot.

First, it means he’s come up with proposals that avoid the boring old-fashioned stuff like innocent until proven guilty and no punishment without a fair process.

Second, though, it also takes an extremely old-fashioned and rigid attitude. It’s one of saying “stop the world, then throw it into reverse as that’s the only thing we can do”. The reality is that one of the most effective – and tried and tested – ways of tackling illegal file-sharing is to make legal file-sharing easier and more widely available.

The book and journal publishing industry faced a similar challenge in the past as photocopiers spread. Photocopiers were increasingly used to make illegal copies of publications – with all the usual arguments that flow from that. But rather than demanding that the state sent round photocopier inspectors to unplug photocopiers that might have been used for an illegal copy, the industry ended up with a much more sensible and durable solution: sell bulk licenses for the right to use a photocopier to reproduce copyrighted material. Of course, not everyone follows the license as they should, but the licenses produce a significant income from the large and ready market of people (and, in this case, in particularly libraries) who want to be legal and will be legal – if you make it practical to be so.

In the case of the music industry, we’ve seen similar block licensing for other mediums. It’s how radio stations can practically broadcast large numbers of different songs. Having to individually negotiate the rights to each song would be impractical. The result? More playing of songs, more direct money for the music industry – and more indirect revenues too as each playing of a song acts as a free advertisement.

However, in the online world, such bulk licenses are still rare with the music industry dragging its feet in many negotiation sessions. Peter Mandelson, judging by what he’s proposed in the Digital Economy Bill, is happy with this hostility to bulk licensing.

But for constitency, perhaps he should not also add in proposals to demand a three strikes and your toner is impounded policy on photocopying…

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