The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office is following up on its earlier moves against former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray with the threat of an injunction. Alongside the publication of his book, Murder in Samarkand, last week Murray posted a collection of supporting documents on his web site (here); the current FCO action demands the removal of these.
By 4pm today - but as was the case last year when the FCO moved against the book itself, the blogosphere has swung into action. Numerous sites, including Blairwatch and that of Iraq specialist Dahr Jamail, are now hosting the documents, and the friends of Craig Murray are attempting to maintain a list. Ominously from the FCO's point of view, this time around the disputed documents have also been made available via P2P networks and as Bittorrents. This makes it practically impossible for the FCO to stop distribution, even if if it were sufficiently aggressive (and rash) to attempt to suppress all copies within UK jurisdiction.
In threatening Murray with the injunction, the FCO is claiming infringement of copyright rather than an official secrets breach. Its notice of infringement claims that 13 out of the 15 documents, and parts of a 14th, are Crown Copyright on the basis that they were "produced by an officer or servant of the Crown in the course of their duties." It adds, sweetly, "even if a document is released under the Data Protection Act or Freedom of Information Act that does not entitle you to make further reproductions of that document by, for example, putting them on your website or making further copies to be provided to third parties."
Murray's response to this is that the retention of copyright in these cases was intended to protect the Government's revenue interests and, there being no revenue involved in documents freely available on the Web, there is no commercial need to press copyright here. Legally his argument is dubious, to say the least (don't go trying this with my IP, buster...) but morally it has some traction. Newspapers can get documents via the FoIA, and then get busted for breach of copyright if they publish them? A likely story, albeit one with a murky legal basis.
Essentially, as Murray says, copyright is one of the weapons the Government has available for deployment when it wishes to "arbitrarily suppress information for political purposes." Murray meanwhile does not need to mount a serious legal defence if the FCO goes ahead with the injunction application, because he has already made attempts to suppress the documents futile.
Although we might observe that the FCO has learned little since Spycatcher, in its defence we should note that it's between a rock and a hard place here. Murray, after a frustrating period trying to get FCO approval for Murder in Samarkand, has made no bones about his intention to publish, be damned and take the consequences. The FCO therefore has to put up or shut up. And if it shuts up, then it no doubt reasons that every last Government squealer will be able to blurt whatever they want while shouting 'freedom of speech' and 'the public's right to know.' You and we might reckon that'd be an excellent outcome, but you can see why it wouldn't play particularly well with the Government.
So, Spycatcher 2, here we go? If so it's a battle the FCO is likely to win legally, but nevertheless to lose horribly. ®