The Underlying Assumptions of the Digital Economy Bill

April 7th 2010 was the date on which the Digital Economy Bill (now Act) was crow-barred through the Houses of Parliament. Aside from the obvious unfairness of the Act’s methodology (see here), the underlying principles of intellectual property which it seeks to defend require careful revaluation in themselves.

To begin with, it is based on the notion of authorship. This idea was extensively critiqued by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in the 20th century. For Barthes, the figure of the author closed down the possibilities of a text. By killing the author and birthing the reader, limitless interpretations of a given text are possible. Foucault meanwhile saw the author as a potential figure for blame if a text is offensive, controversial, dangerous. The author can be punished for the text he/she created. Both are united in their view that authorship acts as a form of control, though one saw this as artistic control, the other social. (Ironically, it is not the nominal authors of a creative work that are likely to benefit from the Digital Economy Act; rather, it is the owners.)

The second key tenet of intellectual property is just that, property. Marxist philosophers have argued that, like authorship, property is a bourgeois tool for control and consolidation of power. But even if the classical liberal property theory of Locke et al is right, and property is in fact an inalienable right in man, intellectual property operates in a very different sphere to material goods. Mattin quotes George Bernard Shaw on the topic: if you and I have an apple and we exchange apples, you would only have one apple, but if you and I have an idea and we exchange them, we will each have two ideas. There is no scarcity in an idea, and this is what makes its ownership so difficult to police.

These and other underlying assumptions of intellectual property ought to have been considered before such ill thought-out legislation was passed.

Related articles:
Teaching and Learning Guide for: Authors, Intentions and Literary Meaning
By Sherri Irvin, University of Oklahoma
(Philosophy Compass 2008, December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

Locke on Language
By Walter Ott , Virginia Tech
(Vol. 3, January 2008)
Philosophy Compass

3 thoughts on “The Underlying Assumptions of the Digital Economy Bill”

  1. And will this blogger elaborate on the opinion that this Bill is “ill-thought out”? Or is it self-evident? Either way, I’d like to hear your view.

  2. This is a long reply so apologies.
    I think I have several problems with the bill.

    1. The bill was rushed through Parliament in the “washing up” stage before the general election. It wasn’t properly debated, and was passed through the Commons due to a pact between Labour and the Conservatives.

    2. This is largely what led to the obvious problems, such as those discussed by Richard Seymour in one of the links I put up. For example:

    It is the owner of an internet connection that is punished, not necessarily the person illegally downloading, which can be both unfair and, as this article shows, often inaccurate;

    The bill is extremely ambiguous – one might be punished for merely visiting sites e.g. mediafire, rapidshare, that are used to post copyrighted material even if one doesn’t download any;

    3. It is a massive violation of freedom. In my opinion an internet connection is a basic right. To try to force ISPs to cut people off isn’t the action that would be taken by a democratic government. There must be other ways to control illegal downloading.

    4. I think the notion of “intellectual property” on which the bill rests must at least be reconsidered. Intellectual property obviously takes as its guide material property, with some modifications. The big difference though is that there’s no scarcity with intellectual property. When you download music, you don’t deprive the owner of the music – you simply make a copy. There’s a big economic debate to be had here, but I really don’t have the expertise to go into it.

    As to why the bill had to be rushed through I have my opinions, but I’ll keep them to myself for the time being.

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