Sunday, May 13, 2012

A few things a few people should know about copyright Pt1.

I like 38Degrees most of the time. They campaign on issues that I agree on. I know one of the people there slightly, and I know that they take on some of the criticisms I've made about the democratic problems around petitions and write-in campaigns. I also think that there are some issues where the Westminster Village needs to be jogged out if it's own obsessions - especially on important issues that slip below the radar at election time.

I also like the way they're diversifying into other constructive forms of crowd-sourcing.

But where I worry most is the way that campaigns can be built up because they have a superficial appeal to a particular activist demographic. On complex questions this can be the case. 38 Degrees and AVAZZ have both made their presence felt on issues around copyright. There is a general, slightly muddy contention that the open internet is always a good thing and that the benefits of letting it rip in all ways outweigh any benefits related to curbing the way it's used. So, no porn-blocking, no piracy-enforcement, and so on.

It's not an argument I've ever seen made much beyond being an idealised contention, though for the most part, I'm in complete agreement with this view (except where it comes to the 'piracy enforcement' which I'll come to in a sec). It's a fashionable view. And, if you hold it, I suspect you may be receptive to claims that support it.

Here's 38 Degrees from a couple of years ago:
The Digital Economy Bill .... gives the government the ability to disconnect millions. Schools, libraries and businesses could see their connection cut if their pupils, readers of customers infringe any copyright. But one group likes it, the music industry. 

This resulted in a significant write-in campaign. There are a number of things wrong with their position (do read the whole thing):

a) Millions? Schools, libraries and businesses?
Er.... only after a range of warning letters. In France, the Hadopi Bill (generally seen as being a good deal more draconian) has reduced piracy significantly without resulting in any civil liberties fiascos it's opponents suggested would happen. The amount of disconnections are expected to be negligible.

This is a massive over-egging of the civil liberties argument to the degree to which the only rational conclusion about the people who make these claims must be this: That no measures that curb illegal copying of copyrighted material are acceptable.

b) "But one group likes it, the music industry."
We'll, yes, they do. I suppose they could have added Disney/Time Warner/Universal from the film industry as well. But this isn't just the big music industry. It's also smaller labels. And its not just the industry. Actually, the most active part of the 'industry' that is supportive of steps to curb illegal copying is the Musicians Union. And then there are independent TV production companies. They hate it as well - and they see their ability to fundraise for new productions being seriously hit by falling DVD sales.

Then there's Equity, the actors union and BECTU (who - declaring an interest, I work for part-time - I blog here on my own time though). And PACT, the independent producer trade body. Not just Hollywood.

Because only one part of the opposition to legislation like this has the lobbying muscle to make itself heard doesn't make it the only part of the opposition, yet these voices get no name-checks.

And here's AVAAZ:
"The oppressively strict regulations could mean people everywhere are punished for simple acts such as sharing a newspaper article or uploading a video of a party where copyrighted music is played. Sold as a trade agreement to protect copyrights."

There is other stuff in there about pharma and patents, areas on which I have little knowledge, but seeing as it sits below such an outrageously over-stated and simplistic case as the one about copying, if it is a good case, it's tainted by association with a bad one.

The claims about censorship (as I've argued at perhaps too much length in the comments here) are nonsense. My real problem with this is that, undisclosed in these circles, is the huge global battle upon which so much hangs. And - more to the point - politicians are now openly speaking about how these campaigns shift them away from decisions they would have otherwise made.

Google stands to benefit hugely - and we're talking about eye-watering numbers here - from the weakness of artists in enforcing their rights.

They have a huge interest in not dealing with piracy. By 'dealing with' I don't just mean 'stopping' but also 'not facilitating an alternative'. The continuing presence of rogue sites that they could easily block damages the capacity others have to create a legitimate market. Delay in enforcing the Digital Economy Act, for example, is the perfect outcome for them.

Google are a monopoly here. As we've seen, they're as close to governments now as Murdoch ever was. When you have a monopoly position, your responsibilities go way beyond some dumb compliance with regulations. (I'm awake to the irony of me posting this on a Google-owned bit of software, btw).

Google are looking down the barrel of a fantastic opportunity here: They could end up as the world's default collecting society - collecting a fraction of the amount that national or regional players would (from Google!) for monetising unlicenced content. Creators will only have a monopoly to turn to.

When you oppose copyright enforcement without coming up with an alternative, then you essentially favour the alternative that inertia promotes. When Johnny Rotten said 'Never Trust a Hippy' he was talking about Richard Branson's Virgin Records after they'd just made the leap from EMI and A&M.

Say what you like about those businesses, they paid something from the profits they made out of musicians' rights. More than Google ever will, I suspect.

I hope no-one gets involved in the next write-in campaign without addressing these questions first.

I've got a few more of these to come as well - stay posted. In particular, it's worth focussing on the degree to which the industry that carries and 'adds value' to content has mushroomed without much benefit to the people who actually make the content.


adrian said...


I have some sympathy with your viewpoint, and saw Labour MEPs subjected to abuse from fanatics over this issue when I worked in the European Parliament. However, I think patents on maths (software) a much bigger threat than copyright protection and one that Europe has only avoided so far as a result of these sorts of campaigns.
What I do not accept, though, is the abuse of copyright that results in EULAs that say things like "you can only use this piece of software you have bought on the machine specified" - err, no, I've bought it and I'll use it where I like, thank you very much.
And then there is the outrageous decision to steal things from the Commons by retrospectively extending copyright protection.
The fact that copyright protection legislation either does nothing about these abuses or in fact makes them worse is a good reason to be suspicious of them.
Works performed in public are, or should be, a priori, in the public domain. Copyright protection should exist to encourage such public performances but NOT to guarantee anyone an unearned income from something they did a very long time ago.

Paulie said...

Ah - really? What kind of abuse did you witness? I'd be interested in that in particular because it's a real problem on this issue.

On EULA's, I *think* I agree with you, in fact, I think I agree with a fair bit of that, though I really need to think a bit more about 'copyright term' - your question about extending copyright.

I think you're saying that I could go to the theatre, film a play and then sell it - have I got you right there? If so, I'm not sure I'd agree on that one.

adrian said...

No, I'm not saying that. I am saying that copyright protection is a legal privilege - a gift from society to the authors for a particular reason ie to encourage more work. Nobody, though, does not write a book or a play because in 35, 40 or 50 years it would enter the public domain. Yet we now protect performances for 70 years and literature etc for 70 years after the death of the originator. That's ridiculous.