Pan-democrats failing to defend online free speech

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2012, 12:00am


The government has proposed to revise the copyright ordinance by introducing an amendment, which was discussed at the Legislative Council last Friday.

The bill proposes extending the scope of criminal liability for infringement to cover all kinds of electronic transmission. The target is derivative work, such as parodies, that might prejudicially affect the 'incalculable potential business value' of the work of the copyright owner.

Surprisingly, the pan-democrats have given their initial support to the bill, which means it is likely to be passed without much opposition this year.

The news has stirred a fierce reaction among those in the creative industry as well as internet users, who fear that, once the bill is passed, they would be stripped of their freedom to publish and speak online. They are campaigning against the bill and have provocatively dubbed it the 'Article 23' of the internet.

The pan-democrats have failed to provide a good reason for supporting the bill. Their political stance is not only conservative but outdated.

The government's flimsy excuse in rejecting a pan-democrat proposal to grant exemptions for non-commercial derivative work in the bill is that it has no time to conduct any meaningful consultation. But, on the other hand, it agreed with the pan-democrats that people are unlikely to be found guilty under the new law unless it can be proved that the infringement has caused economic loss to the copyright owner.

The government has promised to conduct a consultation on whether to grant exemptions for derivative work in the next legislative year, after the bill has been passed.

Was Ronny Tong Ka-wah of the Civic Party being naive when he said political parodies don't often have any commercial interest or value and, as such, he found the bill acceptable?

Tong is obviously trying to compromise because he knows the bill has already gained substantial support in the Legislative Council. But there should be no compromise when it comes to principles.

Article 23, the proposed national security bill, was a case in point. On that issue, the pan-democrats failed to stand their ground and it was the mass rally on July 1, 2003, that eventually forced the government to withdraw the bill.

Freedom of speech takes priority over all others in a free society. If it infringes other rights such as causing damage to personal reputation, the victim can sue for defamation of character through civil proceedings.

In fact, the existing copyright law provides adequate protection to copyright owners, who can seek reparations through civil action if they believe the unauthorised distribution of derivative work has prejudicially affected them.

By introducing the amendment bill, the government will make such acts of 'copyright infringement' criminal, which is equivalent to swinging a knife above the heads of creative people and the majority of internet users.

Derivative work such as political parodies have been widely recognised as a form of creative art the world over. We don't often question whether they infringe copyright even though they involve commercial interests. In fact, it is extremely difficult to define commercial interest in this regard.

Last year, a Hong Kong design student tweaked the Apple logo and turned it into a poignant tribute to Apple founder Steve Jobs. His design became an instant international sensation. Apple never attempted to seek reparations. It shows that the so-called incalculable potential business value that the bill is trying to protect is only a tool to stifle creative freedom and freedom of expression.

Most importantly, the latest controversy has shown up the pan-democrats for being no different from the pro-establishment camp. How could anyone claim that they would be better qualified to run Hong Kong when they are unwilling to defend creative freedom and freedom of expression?

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.