UK Search Code Of Practice: A Welcome First Step But Not ‘Mission Accomplished’

Awards season is a time of celebration in the film industry; the Baftas and the Oscars are providing a fantastic showcase of the very best that big screen can deliver to audiences all over the world.

This moment when we celebrate the creativity that inspires and entertains us is also right to announce an important step forward in our efforts to tackle online copyright infringement, which remains a significant threat to the health of the sector and consumers who want to enjoy the wide range of content available today.

Search engines play a key role in directing internet users to copyright-infringing content that damages the legitimate creative economy and poses risks to consumers by spreading malware and viruses.

The scale of the problem is clear. La La Land, I Daniel Blake, Jackie, Fantastic Beasts, Hacksaw Ridge – whether produced by a major studio or independently, it makes no difference – if you can search for it, you can find a pirate copy.

Research has shown that 74% of consumers used a standard search engine as either a discovery or navigational tool in their initial viewing sessions on domains with infringing content.

To help address this problem, a new initiative has been agreed in the UK between representatives of rights holders and major search engines aimed at reducing the availability of infringing content accessed through online search.

Following a Government-chaired series of roundtables, a new voluntary code of practice will see collaboration between the parties to stop links to infringing content featuring prominently in search results returned to consumers in the UK.

Of course, there is no single answer that will solve piracy overnight and this initiative is no different. But it is an encouraging first step in an area where, previously, the lack of progress stood in stark contrast with the collaborative and constructive initiatives rights holders have undertaken with stakeholders elsewhere.

For example, the creative industry is working with Internet Service Providers on the Get it Right education campaign and with advertisers and payment processors to cut off revenue to pirate sites. Action on search will run in parallel with, and be complementary to these other initiatives.

So what does this code deliver? Primarily, it commits all the parties to work together to ensure links to infringing content do not appear high up in search rankings – so-called de-ranking – with a deadline of 1st June 2017 to deliver measurable results. If this deadline is not met, the Intellectual Property Office will prepare a report for Secretary of State recommending further measures as required.

Importantly, the code provides for ongoing technical consultation, collaboration and detailed information sharing between all the parties to refine the process continually and, where needed, adopt new practices.

There are areas the code does not address. For example, removing pirate sites from search listings altogether – so called de-indexing – even for those sites that are already subject to court orders requiring ISPs to block access to them, is not a component. It will also be important to keep the metrics for measuring the impact of this code under careful review as we continue to explore the right mix of tools and policies to meaningfully reduce piracy and access to illegal content via search.

Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction. The UK Government’s involvement has been vital in securing this agreement and we thank them for driving it forward. If it is to succeed, this code will need to be backed up by a lot of hard work from all parties.

Getting this right is important. If we do, it has the potential to help safeguard creators’ rights online and boost the creative economy, while also helping consumers to find safe sites and legitimate content, of the award-winning and every other kind.