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'Ello, 'ello, 'ello…

Coincidentally timed to coincide with Microsoft’s much heralded move to tax the lucky users of its software with its new annual subscription services (Upgrade Advantage and Software Assurance) on an ongoing basis, comes the news that Her Majesty’s Constabulary can now smash down your front door and feel your collar on suspicion that you might be in possession of a dodgy MP3 you “borrowed” from the internet. Do I exaggerate? Let’s see…

The innocuously named “Copyright, etc. and Trade Marks (Offences and Enforcement) Bill” is possibly one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation ever to have passed through parliamnent, but precious few people seem to have noticed what it actually implies.  Without widening the scope of the original Act, this Bill does some pretty draconian stuff with interpretation and penalties: it increases the maximum penalties for copyright offences from two years to 10 years (by way of comparisons, a recent rape case in Scotland where the victim committed suicide resulted in a 4 year custodial sentence). This nasty bit of legislation also brings a smile to the grizzled features of Rupert Murdoch, with the news that that this penalty will also apply to the production of unauthorised digital TV decoders.

A key provision is that search warrants can now be obtained for all copyright offences, including possession and sale of infringing items, and the rules on seizure and forfeit will be tightened. (Let’s recall that the HM Customs & Excise were recently castigated by the Law Lords for their aggressive and over-zealous treatment of travellers from the continent who came back laden with more booze and ciggies than the C&E deemed necessary -  “in their judgement”. At the whim of C&E, many a vehicle has been impounded and either flogged off or crushed – although it seems that the tax payers may soon be required to undo their zealousness, and compensate many of the victims.

I am not seeking to condone software piracy and IPR theft, I just want to see this issue put into perspective, because I do not trust our various enforcement agencies to interpret bad law any way other than “badly”.  And I trust MPs to understand and legislate on technology as much as I trust Jade Goody to win “Brain of Britain”. And so should you, when you remember that these are the same people for whom Broadband Britain was going to be the best place on the planet for e-business back in 1999.

This piece of work is a dream ticket for Microsoft specifically, and the US in general, since the US pursuit of IPR is notoriously the most determined on the planet. After all, their entertainment industry makes $billions from goods that sell on >95% gross margins in the shape of DVDs that are simply 2 hour commercials for merchandise, music CDs produced to support the habits of the drug addicts that churn them out, and software that barely works.  Meantime, developing countries struggle to sell the West the crucial commodities like bananas and cocoa crops, farmed by low wage labour, and where the price has barely risen in 5 years, and where the vast majority of margin on the sale to the consumer occurs on the shelves of your local Tesco or Asda.

The only positive spin I can think of is that perhaps this is actually the best possible news for the Linux and free software brigades which represent the ultimate in the struggle against these forces of oppression and evil – especially now that the software and music industry lobbyists seems to have had their evil way with our witless legislators yet again.

Let’s hope that equal effort will now be brought to bear on the cartels and price fixing monopolies that exist all over the area of these “copyright” goods. How else other than by a complete absence of serious competitive pressure can any business regularly sell products at 95% gross margin?  Or a law that says if software crashes your PC and trashes your data, then you can claim damages..? The same law might as well regulate the maximum speed at which pigs might fly.

Strangely, businesses that struggle along with less cash to spend on lobbying don’t have the lobbying attractiveness of those that do, so in the meantime, expect Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch to continue to pull the levers at Westminster.

It’s all about the very dubious but increasingly popular section of the law that basically defies the “reasonable citizen” to object to increasing impositions of the nanny state that must somehow good for us all. So then, what have you got to hide..?

When you hear the sound of the front door splinter as Customs and Excise blast in to examine your collection of CDRs and the contents of your PC cache because the records that your ISP is now obliged to maintain show that you logged onto one of the Napster-alikes, are you going to be quite certain there are no MP3s that shouldn’t really be there? Can you produce the licence for that copy of Windows 2000 on the PC you bought from the manager’s bargain bin? No?  You had better keep the name of a good lawyer handy.

OK, so I might be exaggerating just a bit. But this country has a disturbing habit of producing legislation like this while the rest of the world simply laughs at our touching naivety, whilst happily exporting the peaked caps (with the false Gucci labels) and those computerised ticket-issuing machines, running on a bootleg copy of Windows CE, to our zealous enforcement agencies.

Read all about at…

And can I see the license for that copy of Acrobat you are using, please..?