Richard Charkin in London: Text and Data Undermining

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

‘The whole creative industry would be undermined,’ writes Richard Charkin, by the copyright exception promoted in the United Kingdom.

On the River Thames, July 9. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Felix Mizioznikov

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

See also:
UK: Publishers Association Opposes Copyright Exception
The Emirates’ Kalimat Foundation To Publish Under Marrakesh Treaty Exception
Copyright: American Publishers File for Summary Judgment Against the Internet Archive
Copyright and Coronavirus: IPA at WIPO’s ‘SCCR’ Sessions

‘A Kingdom Better Described as Disunited’
I take a certain pride in trying to make my monthly pieces a little catchier than the usual stuff found in some book trade organs. I’m getting a little fed up with daily headlines such as “Mantle Swoops for Morton’s Stunning Novel”; “Scholastic Falls for BookTok Star”; “Doubleday Bags Sumptuous Debut Novel”; etc.

It’s thus with some reticence that I bring you this illustration, the header of a British government document referred to in a recent Publishing Perspectives article. That article’s headline—UK: Publishers Association Opposes Copyright Exception—is far from catchy (and isn’t meant to be). In fact, to some Publishing Perspectives readers, a copyright exception might seem a theoretical issue of little significance compared to the daily battle of finding authors and getting people to pay for their writing.

Another point: I’m not a natural political activist and this is not meant to be a political column. I guess I’d describe myself as laissez-faire with political side-taking as a last resort. Perhaps that’s why I’ve spent my 73 years as a happy citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, proud of its non-extremism, its fundamental liberalism, its respect for individuals, the law, truth, the right to express opinion—moderation in all things including resistance to revolutions, bloody or otherwise.

But something is happening in the UK and it’s unpleasant.

‘The Full Impact of Brexit’

In 2016, 52 percent of the UK electorate voted to leave the European Union. I was in Dhaka at a meeting of the Bangladesh Publishers and Booksellers Association in my capacity as the then-president of the International Publishers Association (IPA). Because of the time differences, I was listening to the BBC as the extraordinary result came through in the early hours of a UK morning. I was shocked, surprised, and disappointed, but had to put these feelings aside as I made a presentation on the freedom to publish and the importance of copyright to my generous hosts.

Richard Charkin

Little did I know the full impact that the Brexit referendum would have on my country and on our trade.

There’s nothing new about politicians lying, but the level of deceit in the run-up to the European Union referendum was world-beating. They argued that distancing the country from the EU would enhance our gross domestic product (GDP), our living standards, our importance to the world–while knowing these were hugely unlikely to happen. The motivation for the Brexiteer politicians—in particular, the hopeless Boris Johnson—was personal ambition to lead the country and strut on the world stage.

Since then, the United Kingdom has lost 10 percent of its GDP; it has led most of the world in COVID-19 deaths per 100,000; it has the highest inflation rate of the G8 countries; it has trashed its reputation for keeping its promises internationally; it has alienated Scotland; it has erected a border with Northern Ireland; and the result is a kingdom better described as disunited.

But having gained control of this moderate country, the government proceeded on a campaign to prove that the decision was correct and that anyone querying the wisdom of leaving the EU is either a fool, blind to facts, or unpatriotic.

The BBC, one of the bastions of free speech, has been attacked and muzzled. As the former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis said in her MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival (an abridged edition of which is here in The Guardian), “Things that for many decades were givens—the checks and balances on the executive, the role of the judiciary or the civil service, a media free from interference or vilification—now appear vulnerable.”

“In desperation to find an upside to Brexit, the latest effort is to prove that changing the rules around copyright is easier outside the EU and therefore must, by definition, be a good idea.”Richard Charkin

Johnsonian attempts to shackle free speech are more subtle and nuanced than those of some more totalitarian regimes, but are nonetheless Orwellian in their effects. Self-censorship—and I find myself guilty of this—can be as dangerous as outright suppression.

The “escape” from the EU’s freedom of movement of people laws has allowed the government to stigmatize immigrants. This has resulted in the formalization of racism and the absurdity, for instance, of bribing foreign countries to take in immigrants who have fled to Britain. Not only is this inhumane but it’s also utterly futile as the number of immigrants continues to rise and the number being ejected turns out to be closer to zero than 100.

What has happened to the country which welcomed my grandparents from Eastern Europe and allowed them to rebuild their lives?—the country that built a cultural, scientific, commercial, and educational diverse society of which I’m proud?

In desperation to find an upside to Brexit, the latest effort is to prove that changing the rules around copyright is easier outside the EU and therefore must, by definition, be a good idea.

‘The Whole Creative Industry Would Be Undermined’

The proposal is that they’ll create an exception to copyright to allow big data engineers to scour any amount of intellectual property at will—”text and data mining”—and thus miraculously generate growth for the UK economy through such catch phrases as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and, God help us, computer-generated work.

Sound complicated? It’s not. It’s simply creating an exception to copyright which will benefit nobody except perhaps the politician who will announce it as yet another major British achievement. It would save some money for the pharmaceutical and Big Tech industries, which are largely not British.

“It’s simply creating an exception to copyright which will benefit nobody except perhaps the politician who will announce it as yet another major British achievement.”Richard Charkin

Copyright protection is a generator of growth, not an obstacle. Exceptions to copyright are legitimate only when there’s evidence of market failure, as, for instance, in support of books for the visually handicapped. But there’s no market failure here. Publishers are happily selling their authors’ works for use as described.

The exception, however—to be known henceforth as text and data undermining—would damage not only novelists, scientists, and educators, but would also harm musicians, composers, the press, artists. In fact, the whole creative industry would be undermined.

It’s extraordinary that a country with such a vibrant, talented, and professional media sector should have its own government attempt to cut that sector’s throat. The UK achieved this with Brexit but please let’s not allow it to happen again.

Fortunately, our strong and hugely professional trade associations, including all creative industries and collecting agencies, have created a joint campaign to derail this nonsensical proposal and you can read about it here.

We probably cannot undo all the damage from Brexit, but we can try to mitigate the worst consequences.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Richard Charkin’s views are his own and may not reflect those of Publishing Perspectives or its staff.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s global media partner.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’ In the June 2024 King's Birthday Honors, Charkin was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, OBE, for his "services to publishing and literature."