SCMP Saturday, November 3, 2001

Rights and wrongs

The Government's consultation document on the law criminalising various kinds of copyright violations will hopefully help bring an element of common sense into the debate on how far Hong Kong should go in protecting intellectual property.
Some of the measures the Government introduced earlier this year to prevent copyright piracy were widely seen as draconian. They were suspended pending wider consultation.
The measures that raised the greatest opposition were the proposed criminal penalties for unauthorised copying of newspaper articles, television news programmes and Internet web pages. People rightly felt that this was going too far, since it would turn fairly normal activities into criminal acts.
On the other hand, there was fairly widespread public acceptance of the provisions in the law that criminalised the use of pirated software for business purposes.
How far should we go in protecting intellectual property rights? These rights, of which copyright is one form, are intended to encourage technical innovation by allowing those who produce new products to commercially exploit them. This is done by enacting laws preventing others from copying the inventions or innovations.
However, protection that is too watertight can stifle innovation because inventions are largely created through tinkering with existing products. Harsh intellectual property regimes can prevent this. Laws that prevent the free flow of information can also hinder a society.
So where should the balance lie between protecting intellectual property rights and protecting the free flow of information?
In the case of the existing legislation, the provisions to criminalise the copying of computer software, and of movies and music for commercial use are justified. Copying such material and then selling it on, or using it for other commercial purposes is nothing short of theft.
But the provisions to criminalise acts that infringe copyright but do not give the end user any commercial value are a different matter.
Photocopying a newspaper article and faxing it to someone else involves dissemination of information. It should not be regarded as a criminal act.