AussieCon 4 - Day Three - Copyright in the 21st Century

An interesting set of talks today at AussieCon 4. There were so many more I would have liked to have seen, but packing the huge number of topics into a tight schedule will always result in those sorts of tradeoffs.

First up, a subject dear to my heart, Copyright in the 21st Century. As I took copious notes I've chosen to break today's post up into smaller parts.

Panel was:

Andrew Adams, Professor of information ethics
Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor Books
Cory Doctorow, SF writer and internet activist
Bill Sutton, Independent record company (Bedlam House records)
Ian Nichols, SF Reviewer for a West Australian newspaper, doctorate in areas covering copyright.

The panel started with what everyone thought was the biggest issue surrounding copyright in the 21st century. Maybe surprisingly there was a lot of consensus that the terms used were in fact confusing. Many bemoaned the use of the term Intellectual Property as it tries to conflate a number of concepts that are too different to form a set, and it tends to connote the same idea as "real" property rights, where these don't actually make sense. The example given by Cory was that people often talk about copyrighting a title, as if copyright was an active process, and as if a three word title could in fact attract copyright - neither of which was the case. Andrew went on to suggest that Intellectual Property is a dangerous term as it allowed confusion and over claiming of rights.

The problem as stated by Cory is that Copyright assumes copying is an industrial act, by corporations or people with access to expensive equipment to create the copy. Internet is a system for making copies, which means that if the rules are applied in a blanket form, they would cover all aspects of your life on the internet, including Banking, Civics, Education, and so forth as primarily these involve copying to some degree or another.

Cory also tried to clarify the language used and to make the point that the language matters. You don't copyright anything, copyright attracts to works. Created works in a tangible medium become copyrighted. Trademarks on the other hand are an action you take and provided you pay the trademark fee are perpetual. Patrick picked up on this suggesting publishers tend to confuse things further by talking about having copyrights when what they really mean is licensed rights - a different beast.

The situation becomes more complex as Bill explained as in the music industry copyright inevitably is assigned to the label as all works are considered "work for hire" under copyright law. Andrew gave his own example of difficulties in academic works where to get a paper published the author must assign copyright to the publisher, and then to use that work again must get permission from the author. This is especially silly when it comes to images in works.

Probably the quote of the session was from Cory explaining why he thought that increasing the powers under copyright is a bad idea: "Any weapon you don't know how to use belongs to your attacker". He went on to explain the historical context behind the differences in approach between print and music publishing. Print publishing predates copyright and the author retains copyright but licenses it to the publisher, essentially giving the author the ability to shop around. Recording on the other hand occurred after copyright, and originally needed companies with access to the technology to record, creating natural bottlenecks, hence the makers of the recordings (and not the artist) demanded more rights. That this persists to this day when the technology for recording has become so mainstream is as a result of inertia in the industry and a reluctance on the part of the publishers to accede rights.

Andrew put forward the notion that Copyright should not be between creator and middleman, but should be between the consumer and the creator. In some cases the consumer themselves will be a creator in their own right - for instance most music relies on prior art for inspiration. Middleman should be the least important part in this as they should be the facilitators of the interaction, not the holder of the keys.

Prompted by a question from Bob Silverberg asking how we ensure the rights of the author are looked after, a long discussion on the future of copyright and the artist's role ensued. Much was made of the fact that technology has always been seen as being the bogey man by those with a vested interest in the status quo only to then take up the new technology once they figured out how to make money out of it. The current situation is no different, in that the technology will change the game, and may even change how the artist plays the game, but we are at the start of this, so it is too soon to know what will be the future. This situation was likened to when radio began and those impresarios that put on oratorios wondered how they could do this with the new medium. That was the wrong question, as it turned out.

Ideas of compensation in an easily copyable future were explored including a system similar to the recording industry of compulsory licensing while Andrew suggested a system he called Escrow, but it sounded to me much like the way Community Supported Agriculture works. I.e. the author tells his readership he is going to write a book and pre-sells copies of the book. The readers buy into it on the understanding that if the author fails to write the book, they get their money back, but if the book comes out and is a dud, they have done their money. So a bad author will only get one or maybe two shots at this while a good author could see their potential revenue increasing over time.

Outside of the direct revenue model there was a suggestion that what may happen is what has already happened in the recording industry and that is that the copyable product could in fact be at best of neutral revenue (no return above costs) where what it does is increase the fame and hence pulling power of the artist - and to use that in whatever form makes sense to make revenue. Many recording artists for instance make their money on tours and not on record sales.

It was also pointed out that many fans will download electronic versions but still will buy physical versions of the same thing. This could be enhanced providing collectors editions, premium editions, collected works and the like along side electronic versions.

Patrick summed it up rather well with "It is never going to get harder to copy. This is the reality. What we have to do is learn how to deal with it".

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