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10 March 2009

Criminalising Copyright Theft (Westminster Hall Debate)

“In the cinema, you dream with your eyes open.” Those words were spoken by Bernardo Bertolucci at the Edinburgh international film festival some years ago, and for me they sum up why we are having this debate. The film industry in the UK is important for a wide variety of reasons. It is important culturally, creatively, economically, technically and for many other reasons. At one end of the spectrum, going to the cinema is an enjoyable night out; at the other end this is a vital multi-million pound industry.

In Parliament it is our duty to ensure that we react quickly to changes in technology and in the criminal world to ensure that this important industry receives the protection and support that it deserves from its law-makers. We must ensure that, when required, we introduce the legislative changes needed to tackle copyright theft in all its forms. Today we are considering the impact of copyright theft on the film industry, but it is worth mentioning that it spreads into many walks of life in a wide variety of industries, from pharmaceuticals, where fake products can be a matter of life and death, to fake components for cars, which can have the same disastrous result.

In the creative industries, while we see those at the top of the trade on the red carpets and on television, there are many others who struggle to get by. They, too, should have their original work protected by law, so that they can be paid for what they have created; otherwise they will have no financial incentive to carry on.

In recent weeks and months we have seen the banking industry go into meltdown. Whatever the reasons, the results for many have been dramatic, with job losses and much more. My constituency has the global headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland and many employees from all the major banks. RBS has announced 2,300 job losses in the UK, with the chief executive confirming that in the longer term the number might be as high as 20,000. Although manufacturing industry has declined dramatically in this country since the war and other jobs have gone abroad, one shining light in the UK economy is the creative industries, and within that group the UK film industry plays a major part.

If anyone doubts the range of jobs involved, they have only to stay behind and look at the credits at the end of any film to see the endless list of creative and technical jobs and expertise that have gone into the production. Britain is recognised worldwide as the home of some of the best talent in the world today. The recent British Academy of Film and Television Arts and Oscar awards testify to that. I am thinking of “Slumdog Millionaire”, “The Duchess”, “Man on Wire”, Kate Winslet’s best actress performance and much more.

My own first visits to the cinema were for Saturday afternoon matinées in the Astoria cinema in the suburbs of Edinburgh, which sadly is now long gone. I have supported the Edinburgh international film festival for more years than I can remember. I would like to put it on the record that that is the longest continually running film festival in the world. I was introduced to the industry at college and then gained practical experience on documentaries, television work and much more.

It is estimated that the UK’s creative industries generate 2 million jobs, many of which are directly and indirectly involved in the film industry. Each year, the British audio-visual industry loses about £0.5 billion through copyright theft and the wider economy loses more than £1 billion. I congratulate the Minister on the fact that the Government have made some positive moves to tackle the problem. I shall refrain from listing those in my speech, as I have no doubt that he will do that when he replies to the debate.

The scale of the problem is clear. I was given a briefing paper by NBC Universal, which pointed out the magnitude of the problem. It said that the cost of piracy was an estimated £500 million. It also says that

“for every one legitimately downloaded film”

from the internet,

“600 are downloaded from illegal sites.”

It continues:

“A Europe Economics in December 2008 estimated that 800,000 jobs in the creative industries are at risk as a result of...file-sharing.”

The briefing went on to detail the role of internet service providers. I have no time to go into that today, but I will say to the Minister that although he has taken action and the Government are considering the matter, it is still a worrying issue for many in the industry.

People can be prosecuted under the Fraud Act 2006, but that provision is simply not doing the job. I am not aware of any examples—perhaps the Minister is—of people who have been found guilty of camcording in a cinema. I was given one example in which an individual had been caught with a camcorder on a bracket on a seat in a cinema. He had gone into the cinema with four individuals, who were to his left and right and back and front so that what was being done would not be spotted. At his home there was video-editing equipment. However, the Crown Prosecution Service did not take the matter further because it reckoned that there was not enough evidence to prosecute. I would say, in my non-legal terms, that he was caught bang to rights and should have been prosecuted; the full weight of the law should have come down on him. We need today legislation whereby taking a camcorder into a cinema to record a film is a criminal offence. That would make it much simpler for the police and the authorities to prosecute.

Trying to take the matter forward through the Fraud Act involves proving that people will go on to produce fake DVDs and commit a fraud. The whole system is too complicated. As I said, to my knowledge no prosecutions have yet been brought to court, even when people have been caught redhanded. Can the Minister confirm that the Government not only are aware of the problem, but are willing to take the action required to ensure that enforcement measures are in place and that resources are allocated to tackle the problem?

A report produced by Oxford Economics to be launched later today, entitled “Economic impact of legislative reform to reduce audio-visual piracy”, goes into the issue in much greater depth. The Minister will be at the launch this afternoon at the stock exchange. I wish him well at the launch and I hope that he will make statements that help to convince the film industry that he and the Government are moving in the right direction.

One of the basic steps that I would like to be taken in the near future would be the introduction of legislation to make camcording in cinemas illegal. I argue that anyone who takes a camcorder into the cinema is not about to make a family film or something for their enjoyment at home. They are there for one purpose, which is to record the movie to produce a fake DVD or for some other dubious purpose. That was not a problem many years ago, when any reasonably high-quality camera was much more bulky than cameras are today, but now that high-quality digital cameras can be easily concealed, it has become a real issue. At present, camcording in cinemas is not a criminal offence, but it is the source of 90 per cent. of first-release fake DVDs seized and illicit film files on the internet.

It is amazing how quickly fake films can find their way on to the streets, with popular films now available within 48 hours after being premiered and sometimes even more quickly. People should be in no doubt that if they are offered a DVD of a film that has just been released into the cinema, it is a fake. Current films such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and last year’s “Mamma Mia!” are all too easily available. Films are particularly vulnerable when they are premiered in the UK. We in the UK are now the No. 1 source of illegal recordings of films in Europe. Sad to say, we have overtaken Russia. That is one title that we should try to lose as quickly as possible.

There is no reason to take a camcorder into a cinema. Those who do have made their intentions clear and should expect the full force of the law to come down on them. They should also expect the immediate loss of their equipment, which should be retained as evidence in any prosecution. I ask the Minister to give some indication today of whether he will join me and others calling for the change that I have described. He will not be on his own. He will know that when “Respect for Film” was launched as a pilot project in 2007 by the then Minister responsible for the creative industries, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the steering group included the Federation Against Copyright Theft, the British Video Association, the Motion Picture Association, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Walt Disney Studios, Warner Brothers and many more. There is no doubt that the major players in the industry are on board. Will the Government deliver what they need to deliver?

Camcording in cinemas is illegal in a number of other European countries, including France, Italy and Spain. I would be delighted to offer my support today and that of my hon. Friends if the Minister decided to make progress on this issue. I also plan to table an early-day motion today if he needs to be convinced that hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that what I have set out would be a change for the better.

Reducing copyright theft is about not only protecting those who are creative and those in the film industry, but protecting the public from inferior-quality goods, preventing people from being ripped off and reducing the money that goes into organised crime. Of course, many who buy illegally reproduced goods know exactly what they are buying. In that respect, I was surprised to find that 25 per cent. of the British population were involved in some form of unauthorised activity in 2007—from buying knock-off DVDS to illegally downloading music. However, many people who buy an illegal product think that they are buying the real thing, although what they get is a poor-quality film, with terrible sound, part of the screen missing and sometimes even the silhouette of someone who is heading off to the loo walking across the picture. That is not only a poor product, but it prevents people from experiencing the excellent, high-quality original products on the market. The prices of such products will always be higher, but people get what they pay for.

I mentioned money going into organised crime, importing drugs and worse. The exact sums involved are difficult to confirm, and the Minister may have more accurate figures than I do, but income generated from criminal activities is often used to fund other criminal acts. While some might feel that it is relatively harmless to purchase a dodgy DVD for the children, the money could end up funding the importation of drugs that end up on our streets and available to those same children. Late last night, I watched a programme on the state of the television industry, and copyright theft was mentioned. Even the makers of “Teletubbies” announced that 300,000 fake DVDs of the programme had been produced and sold. Those might seem like fairly harmless, family-friendly products, albeit that they are not of the best quality, but the money from selling them can go into the pockets of criminals who use it for much more serious and harmful crimes.

Education is also at heart of the fight against copyright theft, and I congratulate all those who have pushed for a wider awareness of the issue among the general public. That includes Members of this place, many of whom have raised such issues the past. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who is present, has a long-standing record of supporting the British film industry, and I congratulate him on that. In addition, few people will not have seen adverts by FACT in their local cinemas, and I also congratulate it on its tireless work on the issue.

However, much more needs to be done. Today, time has allowed me to cover only some of the key issues. One issue that I have not been able to spend much time on is the advance of technology and the role of internet service providers, which will clearly increase in importance as we move towards a digital age. Illegal peer-to-peer file sharing is expected to increase by 80 per cent. in the next two to three years. For the next generation, which will have instant access to broadband, such activities will become a daily event. Another problem, as I mentioned, is that many people who are stealing copyright material have no idea that they are doing so and do not really think about it. None the less, their actions have a major impact on the industry, jobs and creative talent in the UK.

I hope that the Minister will take this debate as it was meant—as part of a positive attempt to raise an important issue. I accept that the Government have made moves in the right direction, but more still needs to be done to ensure that copyright theft in the UK is reduced and that the British film industry continues to go from strength to strength.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.