In contrast to Gordon Brown’s dull and worthy holiday working as a volunteer on community projects in his constituency, there is something rather refreshing about Lord Mandelson’s taste for extravagant vacations on Corfu in the company of wealthy moguls. Moreover, his holidays are a godsend for deskbound journalists in London struggling for a good political story in the otherwise dead month of August. Three weeks ago the business secretary enjoyed a dinner with David Geffen, a wealthy Hollywood producer who along with others in the industry has campaigned against internet piracy. Upon his return to London, Lord Mandelson effected an about-turn on the government’s policy towards internet piracy. Former Digital Britain minister Lord Carter previously ruled out the prospect of blocking internet access to internet users who illegally download films and music. Now, however, Lord Mandelson wants to do just this.
Without trying to second-guess what was said between courses of seafood on Corfu, the change in policy does appear to fit a pattern which was common in the early years of New Labour, where a seemingly clear policy would suddenly be changed to suit wealthy businessman known to be friendly to the Labour party: not least when Formula 1 was granted a reprieve from the ban on tobacco advertising following a £1 million donation to the party from Bernie Ecclestone.
Yet in spite of the undesirability of policy being influenced, or being seen to be influenced, by cosy relationships between ministers and wealthy businessmen, the government has finally arrived at a more sensible policy. Teenagers downloading pirated recordings of their favourite songs and films in their bedrooms may not consider themselves to be criminals, and may try to defend themselves on the dodgy legal basis that ‘everyone is doing it’. Nevertheless, intellectual and artistic property rights are every bit as important as the rights of ownership to physical property. It is no less wrong to steal a film recording than it is to steal a teenager’s laptop. Without enforceable artistic property rights, there is no incentive to produce. If internet pirates succeed in making all film and music free it will make it cheaper for all of us to enjoy the back catalogues, but in future we will be left with a dearth of quality new material — just heaps of bumbling amateur videos and bedroom recordings of youths strumming guitars.
That said, wouldn’t it be nice if the stars of stage and screen, so vociferous when defending their own intellectual property, would acknowledge that other industries have theirs too? The irony about the campaign against internet piracy is that many actors and pop stars have campaigned for pharmaceutical companies to be denied the right to protect their patents on Aids drugs. Bono, Bob Geldof and Annie Lennox, among others, have all attacked what they regard as a greedy industry for being slow to release cheaper, generic versions of Aids drugs on to developing world markets. Many celebrities from the arts world have joined the bandwagon.
The campaign for generic Aids drugs misses a point: that medicines are fantastically expensive to produce, putting even the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster in the shade. Much as the world needs Aids drugs, if pharmaceutical companies are then forbidden from enforcing patents, they will be unable to make a return. If investors do not receive a return they will not invest, and there will be no new Aids drugs, generic or not.
The creative industries are not renowned for reasoned interventions on political issues, but this is one matter on which celebrities might just be able to make a connection. Without the right to defend intellectual property, we will end up stifling any creations of value.