My latest Guardian column, "Lib Dems get a chance to vote on copyright reform," discusses the new Liberal Democrat IT white paper that's being presented at the party conference this weekend, where members will get the chance to vote in favor of repealing some of the worst sections of the Digital Economy Act, dealing with web-censorship and disconnection over copyright claims. The paper is very good, but somewhere between the final draft prepared by the committee and the paper the membership will vote on this weekend, someone inserted a clause saying that downloading is "a form of theft" and goes on to say that "there is no reason why digital offenders should not be prosecuted under the criminal law in the same way as those who steal tangible goods." I've spent the past few days trying to track down who put this language in, and everyone both denies it and says they don't support it — which raises the question, what's it doing there at all?
This is pretty outre stuff. Every developed nation's legal system treats thefts of tangible goods as absolutely distinct from copyright violation. Applying criminal sanctions for copyright infringement would be unprecedented in the industrialised world.
Don Foster, the Lib Dem MP with the DCMS brief, apparently lobbied to have "a statement making clear that copyright infringement is as serious as theft" included in the document, though his staff disavows any involvement in the phrasing and says: "For Don, non-commercial copyright infringement has only ever been a civil issue." Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP who was also involved in the drafting, says, "there is no intention to change the current system in this regard".