Third worst?

Apparently, UK copyright law is the “third worst” in the world, from the point of view of consumers. A gleeful press release from an organisation called Consumer Focus highlights this, based on some rather subjective research and assumptions, and in particular points to the fact that some kinds of format shifting and backing up are technically illegal.

What they don’t mention is the actual consequences for consumers. I am not aware of a slew of lawsuits against people copying their CDs to their iPods, for example. Nor do they mention the benefits to consumers of a strong creative sector, or the costs of piracy.

Consumer Focus is a state funded body in the UK. It’s role is as “statutory consumer champion” and its aim is “persuading businesses… to put consumers at the heart of what they do“. (As a consumer, and in fact as a businessman, this is the first I had heard of them. Perhaps that’s why they’re being abolished).

What I don’t quite understand is how this sort of thing fits with their remit. Surely for businesses to put consumers at the heart of what they do they need to actually be in business, and have something to sell to consumers. Generally speaking the best outcomes for consumers are driven by well functioning markets rather than legislation.

Sometimes, and this is a sign that the market is working well, things happen on their own without any law demanding it. Many DVDs now come with a digital copy to download onto a portable device. For free! Apps bought from the iTunes store can be installed on all your devices not just one. No extra cost! There’s a reason for this and it is because businesses generally, as a matter of good business sense rather than legal obligation, put consumers at their heart.

If this isn’t happening as much as Consumer Focus would like – although it’s an increasing trend for businesses to choose this sort of approach because it’s good for business – it doesn’t necessarily make sense to either blame the law or look to it for a solution.

There are lots of “consumer unfriendly” things that are allowed by law, if you believe that consumer unfriendliness is defined as being anything which stops consumers doing whatever they want. It’s perfectly legal, for example, to charge a lot of money for something rather than a small amount. Rolex can, legally, sell watches for thousands of pounds while Casio, equally legally, can sell them for about a tenner. I’d quite like to be able to buy a Rolex for ten pounds but I can’t. How unfriendly!

It’s also perfectly legal to not sell something at all, and instead rent it to people who turn up in person to experience it. And it’s also legal, in the field of creativity, simply not to create something at all in the first place, to keep it inside your head and deny anyone else the pleasure or enlightenment they might otherwise get from it.

In fact copyright law itself, which is essentially a law which bans doing something (copying), could be argued using the same logic that Consumer Focus applies, to be inherently consumer unfriendly because it makes it illegal to do things which “most people consider to be harmless”.

I wasn’t previously aware that the test for good law was whether or not most people consider something to be harmless. Surely the test of good law is whether or not it produces generally positive outcomes, and incentives, for society as a whole rather than whether a self-selecting group of “most people” consider it to be harmless.

The reason the things that Consumer Focus complains about  do or don’t happen is mostly to do with the incentives the law creates (or fails to) rather than legal obligations or exceptions. On the whole, businesses which are wilfully unfriendly to their customers aren’t very good businesses. Writing a law forcing creators or anyone else to do something which they perceive to be harmful to them is a risky business if at the same time you destroy incentives or create unintended consequences.

Perhaps Consumer Focus should have a look at James Gannon’s article (previously linked) before they put out another press release containing the words “Nobody supports large scale copying but …”

And in the meantime they should consider that the “third worst” copyright regime in the world supports more than 2m jobs, 182,000 businesses, £17bn of exports and about 8% of the economy, in the UK alone. Despite the challenges of the internet. This results in enormous, inestimable diversity and choice for UK consumers alongside the huge economic benefits. Who exactly would benefit from further damaging that?

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