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Intellectual Property ReBoot

The British Library corrals some bright sparks and lights some fires over copyright protection.

At the Emmy Awards recently in Los Angeles, emcee Conan O’Brien bemoaned (or rather, celebrated, see above) the demise of old media, in particular his erstwhile host, NBC. While media fragmentation has played a significant role in this, many in the industry also complain of piracy. Intellectual Property Rights [IPR] are not sufficient they say. At the end of last month, the British Library published a paper under the Creative Commons license entitled “Driving UK Research. Is copyright a help or hindrance?”, in which 13 scholars, journalists and artists, all intimately familiar with IPR, advocate for a more relaxed approach to incentivising and regulating.

“There is a growing tension between laws designed to protect the intellectual property of writers and performers and their desire to capitalise on their own copyrighted material.”

The above quotation is from author and journalist Richard Donkin, featured in this report. The original purpose of copyright as set out in the United States is to incentivise people and to encourage innovation. Zeitgeist would argue that these original aims have been lost in a orgy of corporate overindulgence. As discussions continue on lengthening Europe’s current 50-year copyright term to equal the 95-year length in the US, one issue that many of those writing have difficulty with is the issues of ‘fair dealing’, more commonly known by it’s US term, ‘fair use’. According to this paper, it currently allows little scope for sampling for educational or critical purposes. As Professor Lionel Bently comments, “the publisher insists that I and my co-author have the consent of the copyright owner. But identifying and locating the copyright owner is not at all straightforward.” It is often very hard to track down the rights to a work as attributed to a particular person – especially if this person is no longer among the living. One of the contributors to this paper argues that people should be actively encouraged to register their copyright, rather than just assuming it as the work is created. This would not only give some authors the option of immediately making their work rights-free, but would also make the identification process that much simpler. The labyrinthine complications are echoed by Dr. Estelle Derclaye, who calls issues of IP law a “daily dilemma to some researchers”, constantly worried that photocopying this extract or inserting a video into a presentation would bring them (or the institution they work for) a step closer to a lawsuit.

‘Fair dealing’ also states that “[t]he copying of an image to make a presentation [on PowerPoint] is an infringement, as there is no statutory exemptions”. This is quite remarkable, and indicative of an anachronistic copyright structure. The notion is also hampered by issues of semantics. Professor Nick Cook writes that there are “specific problems” with ‘fair dealing’, one of which being that they “do not fully cover sound and film”, allowing only small excerpts to be reproduced. There is, however, no clear definition of ‘small’. This is stunningly inadequate. Until matters like this are cleared up, those creating, using and critiquing content will face confusion as to their rights. Cook continues,

“[P]erhaps the greatest problem… is ignorance of the law on the part of researchers (who frequently ask for permission they don’t need), publishers (whose copyright guidelines are often needlessly restrictive, and rights holders (a number of music publishers, for example, claim that fair dealing does not cover printed music – a claim for which there is no legal foundation.”

The danger of this last example of overprotective rights holders is that content does not find its way into the public domain and hence does not become used. Everyone from Picasso to Dizzee Rascal has used previous works to create their own content. Works “that people cannot access create no revenue for anyone”, comments Cook. This is no mere hypothetical abstraction. There are currently many, many films literally rotting away in the basements of various film studios in Los Angeles, waiting for their copyright limits to expire. Inaccessible, and not making any revenue for anyone. Journalist Mike Holderness argues that an alternative revenue stream could be set up to compensate creators of works for making their works available online and to anyone

The irrelevance or mere disdain people have for IP laws today is abundantly clear. Marshall Mateer, Education Consultant for the National Education Network, writes simply, “[t]oday copyright often becomes a barrier standing in the way of what it should be enabling”. Dr Gabriel Egan points out that the effort to get people to stop pirating content purely by enforcing Digital Rights Management software has failed spectacularly (not least because there are always loopholes in software). Taking an educative stance by trying to convince people of piracy’s moral corruptibility rather over-stated the case, and rather too late as well. Egan points out,

“Trailers in cinemas warning that copying a film is theft, akin to purse-snatching, strike most spectators as manifestly untrue. Stealing deprives someone of the use of their property, while copying something only adds to the number of copies in existence. The supposed loss to a rights holder is notional and dependent upon the untestable hypothesis that a consumer prevented from copying something will buy it instead.”

Richard Donkin, perhaps optimistically, writes that “[w]idespread disregard is often a prelude to legal reform”, arguing among other things that the copyright term needs to be shortened to around 20 years. It would be nice to see Mr. Donkin’s dreams come true.

  1. September 2, 2010 at 7:08 pm | #1

    WIPO needs to create better clarification on “fair use” that includes digital media. Shortening the copyright period isn’t the answer–that just eliminates some of the justification for publishing works with softer economic possibilities.

    • davidllewelynjones
      September 2, 2010 at 8:26 pm | #2

      Good point on WIPO. Shortening copyright period necessarily encourages innovation though because it allows earlier access to works for future artists, hence stronger, not softer economic possibilities.

  1. August 19, 2010 at 11:01 am | #1
  2. February 14, 2011 at 8:26 am | #2
  3. August 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm | #3

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