This case is interesting from a public relations perspective in respect of the role of the action group the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), which is a trade body representing the “major British and American studios, television, satellite distribution, media and production companies, industry associations and societies”. This representation involves working:
closely across the UK with Police services, Trading Standards, HM Revenue & Customs, Serious and Organised Crime Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions. FACT has a close association with other enforcement bodies such as the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA)
FACT also has an important role in ensuring that the government and public understand the threat to the UK’s film and television industry and to the community at large from the growing threat of DVD and online piracy.
The director general of FACT is Kieron Sharp, who has “a strong background in law enforcement”, rising to the rank of Detective Chief Superintendent with thirty years police service.
Looking at the facts about FACT, the body does not seem to simply represent its members in the usual sense of undertaking communications and campaigning activities. It actively pursues those it feels are impacting the interests of its members. This includes establishing, in partnership with the Metropolitan Police, a dedicated film piracy unit, and employing a team of field investigators and forensic experts.
I am not condoning the theft of copyright material (although in this case, the issue is more about providing links to material infringing copyright – which arguably Google and YouTube also do – and seems unlikely to be judged as a civil or criminal offence under English law).
What I feel increasingly uncomfortable about is the way that industries establish “trade bodies” to aggressively target those they believe are infringing copyright.
The Newspaper Licensing Agency is another such body. Established by the UK national newspapers, it “authorises paper and digital copying of press cuttings on behalf of national, regional and international newspapers” – and over “over 150,000 businesses and organisations ranging from large government organisations, plcs, and limited companies to partnerships and public relations agencies” pay a licence to the NLA – amounting to many thousands of pounds a year in some cases.
Of course, a large percentage of the £18m each year distributed by the NLA to national and regional newspapers in respect of copyright works comes from the public purse as government and other organisations are required to pay to monitor media coverage relating to key public issues.
The argument of the NLA is that organisations that copy and distribute press cuttings are breaching the newspapers’ copyright. Ironically, much of the content of said newspapers originates from the public relations practitioners who then have to pay to prove to their bosses that their actions have generated media coverage. They may be our words, but when reproduced verbatim by journalists, the publication owns the copyright.
The NLA claims it “exists to simplify the otherwise difficult and complex problem of the exchange of copyright fees and licences between the publishers (national and regional press) and organisations that wish to copy (photocopy, fax, email) articles from newspapers.” However, any PR practitioner who has been confronted by representatives of the NLA will report a very bruising encounter, with threats of prosecution and presumed guilt. It is assumed that all organisations copy press cuttings – and obtaining a licence is an admission of prior illegal copying and so back-fines are charged.
The launch of the NLA eClips electronic database of press cuttings has brought even tighter monitoring and control over access to digital clippings in partnership with press cuttings agencies. This service is not simply about managing copyright, but is financially profitable and seen to “provide a platform for innovation and growth in the next few years.” Good news in the face of declining income from selling actual newspapers.
There is considerable debate regarding the future of copyright, especially in the context of the Internet, but what is clear is that copyright is currently an economic benefit that some industries are establishing aggressive trade bodies to protect and not simply with words.