HC Deb 24 July 1984 vol 64 cc851-2 5.23 pm
Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Copyright Act 1956 so as to provide new penalties for offences relating to infringing copies of computer programmes; to provide for the issue and execution of search warrants in relation to such offences; and to confirm that copyright subsists in computer programmes. My Bill seeks to curb the serious and growing problem of theft by electronic copying of computer software. The objects of the Bill are, first, to make it clear for the avoidance of doubt that computer programmes in written or in electronically recorded form are covered by the Copyright Act 1956; and, secondly, to give stronger protection by means of the criminal law to the creators and manufacturers of software, who are suffering serious losses from what they describe as software theft.

The description "software theft" is all too accurate. I have watched while a small floppy disk containing the sort of business software that is used to make a microcomputer operate as a word processor, and which retails at nearly £300, is copied on a simple twin disc drive microcomputer in not longer than 10 seconds. There is nothing sophisticated about such theft. The video pirates who used to make pirated copies of video tapes and films, and whose activities are now being substantially curbed by the Copyright (Amendment) Act 1983, are now turning their attention to the piracy of software.

The object of the Bill is to make such piracy a criminal offence, in the same way was was done for pirated video tapes by the 1983 Act. The Bill will provide for unlimited fines and for up to two years' imprisonment for the making for sale, importing or distributing for commercial gain of articles which are known to infringe copyright. There will be lesser penalties for the selling, possessing, or exhibiting of such material. The Bill will also provide the police with powers to search for and to seize infringing material. I should make it clear that the Bill's criminal provisions will not apply to infringing copying for non-commercial purposes. As hon. Members with teenage children will know, there is a substantial problem with widespread home copying of games and other programmes. We are not after the schoolboy, but we are after the commercial pirates.

The seriousness of the problem should not be underestimated, and those who work in the industry who are keenly interested in the Bill will be extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Information Technology, who is here to listen to the debate. Several leading software houses in the United Kingdom, including IBM, have joined the federation against software theft. They estimate that software theft causes annual losses of many tens of millions of pounds; indeed, some estimates exceed hundreds of millions of pounds.

In addition to the example that I have already given of the all-too-easy reproduction of valuable business software using standard equipment, there are many other examples. Computer games are a growing industry. Those tapes are being pirated on a major scale, just as video tapes used to be pirated. Visitors to the Blackbushe Sunday market will find at least half a dozen stalls selling pirated games tapes, including pirated computer software. At least one operator has his own factory with sophisticated duplicating equipment and a substantial distribution network. Furthermore, those who deal in hardware are all too often ready to yield to the temptation of throwing in pirated copies of valuable business software to the purchasers of their equipment. Those activities damage software houses, large and small. They also injure the consumer, polluting a highly competitive market, and robbing the innovator of a legitimate return on his risk and investment.

Some people argue that a more widespread reform of the Copyright Act is needed, and such a reform may be in distant prospect. The immediate problem is to deal, not with the sophisticated plagiarist, but with the straight thief who, using widely available equipment, can produce with the greatest of ease perfect and immediate replicas of expensive and easily marketable software, which the reputable houses have often spent a small fortune to produce.

A Bill has been drafted to meet those immediate needs. Of course, it cannot become law this Session, but I hope that it will either stimulate a sympathetic Government to legislate in the coming Session, or that they will support a private Member's Bill following the autumn ballot. My proposals have wide support on both sides of the House, and I seek leave to introduce the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Nicholas Lyell, Mr. Nicholas Baker, Mr. Nigel Forman, Mr. Bryan Gould, Mr. David Madel, Mr. Patrick Nicholls, and Mr. Richard Shepherd.