HC Deb 26 March 1968 vol 761 cc1165-8

3.38 p.m.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the copyright of the design of certain manufactured articles, and for connected purposes. If Picasso draws a circle, he is instantly protected from unscrupulous persons who seek to cash in on his designs. If a British manufacturer produces a unique toy or brooch, any pirate in the world can reproduce it and undercut him clean out of the export market.

Urging the need for copyright reform is becoming an annual exercise in this House. Speeches are made, questions are asked and despairing manufacturers plead—all at intervals as regular as Christmas. But the Board of Trade, while agreeing with the speeches, helpfully tackling the questions and shedding tears of sympathy with the manufacturers, keeps up a stolid front of non-action. It may be that the Minister, whose happy and optimistic nature endears him to us all, thinks that if he sits tight the wretched business will go away. I am bound to disabuse him, because the problem is getting worse.

Plagiarism of design is on the increase for several reasons. One is that it is helped by vastly speedier international transport. Another is that new techniques, such as the lost-wax process, plating processes of forming moulds, and the three-dimensional pantograph make the copying simpler, cheaper and quicker. Another is that skilled design and skilled model-making, like all skilled work today, has become much more costly. Thus, in industries that depend on a continual flow of fresh designs, the cost of originating those designs has risen sharply, while at the same time it has become easier and quicker to take someone else's design instead.

The need for protection has greatly increased. Time and again toy makers, furniture makers, manufacturing jewellers, and the china trade find that an inferior copy of their original article turns up on the market only a matter of weeks after they have launched it, but they can do nothing about it.

Earlier this month a barrister-at-Law, Mr. A. D. Russell-Clarke, produced a Paper on Design Plagiarism and Copyright Reform, and I should like to quote one sentence from it. He said: I can testify from my own experience that large numbers of designs are constantly copied by being sent abroad by air, particularly to Hong Kong, where they are reproduced, the plagiarised copies being flown back to this country in a remarkably short space of time. The Hong Kong authorities do not, as I understand it, approve of this practice, and would in fact welcome action to stop it.

But the situation calls for something to be done urgently. As Mr. Steier, a constituent of mine who manufactures costume jewellery, puts it: I can no longer afford to pay designers to be honorary model-makers for my competitors. No wonder, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Weatherill) said, when he urged action on this matter last year, the designers are losing heart. As he reminded the House, designs which cost the manufacturer about £16,000 to produce are copied for a mere £500. The situation has worsened since then, because the cost of designing has risen. Not only are orders lost to the copied, and thus cheaper, article, but orders are also lost because the original buyer sees an inferior copy and jumps to the conclusion that the bona fide manufacturer has dropped his quality standards.

Only yesterday a manufacturer contacted me because he had heard that I wished to seek leave to bring in this Bill. He told me that no single measure could help this country's export trade more than action to combat design piracy. I have received the support of the Confederation of British Industry, the British Toy Manufacturers Association Ltd., the British Furniture Manufacturers' Federated Associations, the British National Export Council, and the British Jewellers Association, and the House will recognise what a strong body of support that constitutes. There is all-party support for this measure, and understanding on both sides of the House for its urgency.

There is, perhaps, another reason why something needs to be done to tackle this problem. Understanding and appreciation of good design is, happily, becoming far more widespread, but this desirable trend cannot continue if the present system of copyright is not reformed. Manufacturers will see no point in employing good designers, and, what is more, being constantly undercut by their competitors, they will not be able to afford to employ them.

There are, of course, Acts on the Statute Book to guard copyrights—the Copyright Act of 1956 is one—but the system is so cumbersome and slow in operation that it has proved a useless protection in today's conditions. Indeed, there are laws about patents—the Designs Acts of 1949 to 1961 for instance—but for reasons which there is no time to go into now, but of which the Minister is well aware, these are incapable of remedying the deficiencies of which I have spoken.

Nevertheless, there is a remedy at hand. It is proffered in the Report of the Johnston Departmental Committee on Industrial Designs, which hon. Members will recall came out in 1962. Whether it lies gathering dust under a pile of more recent Departmental Committee Reports in No. 1 Victoria Street I cannot say, but certain it is that no action has been taken to implement it.

We had a clue as to why that was so in the speech of the Minister last year, when, in reply to my hon. Friend, he said: If the 59 recommendations of the Johnston Committee are to be implemented in one piece of legislation, it will be a major Bill…Whether or not such a big Bill could be prepared and introduced in a reasonable period of time is not a matter for me alone…but it would certainly take time…We have, therefore, been looking at the possibility of introducing what might be called an interim Measure. It would be a shorter Measure which, for the time being, would leave the existing and admittedly imperfect legislation as it is, but would add to it a simpler system of copyright protection."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st February, 1967; Vol. 740, c. 469.] We can understand the Minister's point, but what has happened to that half a loaf, because not a slice or a crumb has come this way?

Considering the ethics of the problem and its importance to the export trade, and, indeed, considering the other advantages which such legislation could bring us, such as the ability to sign the Hague Agreement, I submit that the situation calls stridently and urgently for, preferably, the implementation of the Johnston recommendations, but if not, at least a Darling contraction of Johnston.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Knight, Mr. Weatherill, Mr. Humphrey Atkins, Mr. Ensor, Mr. Gurden, and Mr. Eyre.

  1. DESIGN COPYRIGHT. 44 words