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Open Source Gets Political

Government Backs Down on Copyright Changes and Tories Pledge Fairness for Open Source…

As an election looms in the UK, copyright, intellectual property and Open Source, are making an appearance on the political stage, both at home and internationally.

The government has been forced to make a number of significant changes to Lord Mandelson’s much-criticised Digital Economy Bill. In response to a petition, the Prime Minister has dropped Mandelson’s plans for a controversial ‘three strikes’ rule forcing ISPs to permanently disconnect those repeatedly accused of illegal file sharing by copyright holders.

Amongst a long list of grievances with the proposed bill, critics had pointed out the potential human rights implications of cutting-off households, particularly school children, from the Internet, based on the behaviour of one individual using a shared connection. However, in a statement on the Number 10 website, the government did not rule out forcing ISPs to enforce bandwidth restrictions, download limits and temporary account suspensions onto customers accused of breeching copyright.

As part of the changes to the bill, the government also announced that rights holders will be expected to pay 75% of the cost of dealing with Internet pirates, whilst ISPs will only be required to pay 25% of the cost. The entertainment industry had been lobbying for a more even split.

Perhaps more importantly, the government has also been forced to cut the controversial Clause 17 of the bill, which would have given government ministers an almost free reign to amend UK copyright law in the future. “This would have given the Government the power to make widespread changes to crucial intellectual property rights laws without having to go to Parliament,” according to Paul Gershlick, a leading UK copyright and intellectual property expert and partner Matthew Arnold & Baldwin LLP.

Meanwhile, Shaddow Chancellor George Osborne has reiterated previous pledges to “create a level playing field for open source IT in government procurement”. The Tories’ new manifesto also promises to publish more information on all government contracts and tendering opportunities, as well as spending by QUANGOs and Local Government, in a bid to “open up government procurement to more SMEs.”

However, if they ever get into power, the Tories will have to take care not to anger United States Trade Representative (USTR). Andres Guadamuz, a law lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, has highlighted how the Internationl Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) has recommended Indonesia to be placed on the Special 301 Watch List, the US’s trading ‘naughty step’, for encouraging the use of Open Source Software within government.

“I am baffled by the mindset that believes encouraging public institutions to use legitimate and free open source software solutions ‘does not give due consideration to the value to intellectual creations’,” Guadamuz commented in a detailed analysis of the IIPA’s recommendations. “It is nice to know where the IIPA stands: Only commercial intellectual property is worthy of protection, everything else is as bad as piracy.”

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