The Rights Stuff: How the IPO is protecting your copyright

Chris Mills, director of copyright at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), discusses 2021’s DCMS committee inquiry into streaming, a consultation on copyright in works made by Artificial Intelligence and the future of music in 2022.

Maya Radcliffe
  • By Maya Radcliffe
  • 5 Jan 2022
  • min read

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is the official UK government body responsible for intellectual property rights. With rapid technological advances making it so much easier to record, share and exploit music, protecting copyright has never been so essential.

Despite streaming services diminishing the piracy we were warned about in ‘90s — ‘You wouldn’t steal a car,’ is embedded in the minds of most millennials — stream-ripping and illegal music downloads are still rife. No longer the preserve of music pirates, music streaming has become mainstream, and is an essential component of the modern music industry. Indeed, in matters related to streaming and copyright, the IPO’s work encompasses a number of functions. 

Having previously worked at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in Parliament and at the Office for Security and Counterterrorism, Chris Mills took up the role of director of copyright and IP enforcement for the IPO in 2021 — a year that saw a Digital, Culture, Music and Sport (DCMS) Committee report calling for a ‘complete reset’ of music streaming.

After a landmark year, we spoke to Chris about the DCMS inquiry into streaming, the future of music in 2022 and the role of copyright in works made by Artificial Intelligence.

Maya Radcliffe: You joined the IPO last year, what are your observations about your new role?  

Chris Mills: One of the main things that’s really struck me is the commitment to rigour in policy making, supported by evidence wherever possible: there’s a deep-seated culture of making informed decisions and recommendations, which helps us avoid unexpected consequences. That’s particularly important when you’re dealing with proposals for government intervention in complex systems like the music industry. Through many of the decisions we make, individuals’ livelihoods and the viability of businesses are potentially on the line, so you need to be clear what you’re trying to achieve, and reasonably sure that the action you take will have the effect you want it to. At a more personal level, I’d say that the IPO’s commitment to being a ‘brilliant place to work’ really does hold true, and I’ve been able to draw on the support of a great team of colleagues throughout my first year.  

'At the IPO we want to be, if you want to put it this way, the ‘honest brokers.’

Can you tell us a bit about the DCMS inquiry into streaming, the recommendations made, what the IPO is doing to address those recommendations? 

The DCMS Select Committee decided to examine the impact of streaming on artists, labels, and the sustainability of the music industry. This was really timely — there has been a growing sense of streaming establishing a new paradigm of music consumption that’s different from radio, different from physical sales, which had helped to move the industry on from the dominance of piracy. At the same time, some have been saying that the spoils are being divided unfairly. We had already begun our Creators’ Earnings research project, which applied an independent academic lens to the industry. The Committee’s inquiry complemented that and examined the issues from other perspectives, too.   

The Committee’s report definitely moved the debate on — we have a considered, cross-party view on the issues and some concrete proposals about what to do to address them: for instance, providing for equitable remuneration (ER) for performers; establishing minimum data standards; improving royalty chain transparency; creating reversion and contract adjustment rights; and asking the Competition and Markets Authority to study the major labels.  

Most industry participants can agree to some of that — the principle of improved data standards is reasonably uncontroversial. But some of the proposals are difficult to model right now — it’s hard to know whether they would have unexpected adverse consequences, like disadvantaging certain types of musician or reducing overall investment in the UK’s music industry. And there are competing proposals like Artist Growth that we need to examine too. We don’t yet have the data to support that sort of modelling, so the government felt it needed some more time to make sure that any intervention it might make would support its aims for the music industry as a whole.  

Clearly, these are hugely important issues for the industry and for government. At the IPO we want to be, if you want to put it this way, the ‘honest brokers.’ So the IPO and DCMS have launched a programme of work to fill in the gaps. We’ve commissioned further academic research on ER, rights reversion and contract adjustment. And we’re convening working groups with industry to gather more data, attempt to model the various proposals, and reach agreement on steps that the industry can take itself to incentivise and reward both creativity and entrepreneurship.  

At some point next year, we should be ready to take our conclusions to ministers and agree next steps, potentially including legislation. But we hope to be able to announce some progress on industry-led measures before then.  

'These are some big and important questions we’re seeking to address, and the answers really could have wide implications.'

The IPO has launched a consultation on copyright in works made by Artificial Intelligence or with the use of AI. What does it cover and why is now the right time to focus on this topic?  

I think my first observation would be that AI is already revolutionising many areas of our lives. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that some technologies that we may recently have thought of as being within the realms of science-fiction are now an everyday reality. Unleashing the power of AI is a top priority in the plan to make Britain the natural home for innovators in this area.  An accessible, balanced, and efficient IP environment of course plays a crucial role. We know AI can be a tool for scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists, enabling new human inventions and creations. But can it invent and create things in ways that make it impossible to identify the human intellectual input in the final invention or work? Some people think so, and some would say it’s happening already.  

We’re asking whether computer-generated works should continue to be protected for 50 years, and if not, how they should be protected — if at all. And we’re asking about whether there need to be any changes to licensing or exceptions for those who want to use copyright material to develop AIs.  

These are some big and important questions we’re seeking to address, and the answers really could have wide implications. If your readers have views on this topic, we’d love to hear them. The Consultation is open now and closes on 7 January.  

What have been the biggest trends in music piracy in 2021 and how does it impact the average creator?   

We keep track of music piracy through a survey which measures the proportion of people who have used an illegal source of music. That actually seems to have dropped in recent years, from 20 percent in 2019 to 18 percent in 2020, and then 15 percent in 2021. As you might expect, more people are using streaming services now rather than downloading music. But the number of tracks downloaded and streamed per person have both increased since last year. That goes for both legal and illegal services.  

It’s really hard to measure the impact on individual creators, unfortunately, as there isn’t a good model for us to judge by. But through our work with the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit, we’re always trying to make it harder to pirate music, so that there’s more revenue for creators.    

'Copyright is there to support creativity, so to keep it relevant we need constant feedback from creators and the people who help them reach their audience.'

What are the key priorities for the IPO in 2022?  

We have a busy and exciting year ahead. Looking particularly at the area of Copyright, we have the work on music streaming to complete, and we’ll be publishing the IPO’s response to the current AI consultation.  

We’ll be launching our new infringement strategy, which sets out how we intend to work against piracy and counterfeiting over the next five years. Our initial focus will be on building up our intelligence picture so we can target our effort against the infringement which causes the greatest harm. We’ll also be developing our partnerships with law enforcement and other parts of government to take a more holistic, joined-up approach to reducing IP infringement.  

More widely, we’ll be pressing further ahead our One IPO Transformation programme, which is modernising and streamlining our rights-granting systems to make them simpler for our customers to use, and we’ll be developing our net zero plan.  

What message do you have for PRS members on the future of music ahead of 2022?  

Music will keep changing, so please keep talking to us — respond to our consultations, and engage through PRS, other representative bodies, or directly, telling us how the system works for you.   

Copyright is there to support creativity, so to keep it relevant we need constant feedback from creators and the people who help them reach their audience. Quite simply, your input and engagement really does matter and will help ensure that UK music can continue to thrive in the age of streaming. 

This feature originally appeared in M Magazine's End of Year Special. Read it in full on Issuu.