Guest post: Digital transformations in ownership and intellectual property

I was very flattered to be invited by Prof David Gauntlett and Dr Paul Dwyer of the University of Westminster to come and talk at one of their Digital Transformations symposia on the 20th of April, at the British Library. I was there to talk about The Space – a new digital arts service for connected TVs, web and mobile platforms – with Susannah Simons from the BBC. Robert Waddilove from Across the Pond, Google’s in-house marketing agency, also spoke about some of the campaigns and ‘virals’ he had worked on with them, and gave us some great insights into how they work and what makes them spread.

After the presentations and a Q and A session, the audience and speakers broke out into groups to discuss other questions. The group I was in looked at the question of whether, ‘in a digital era, notions of ownership should be set aside.’ We had a really interesting discussion, with a wide range of opinions represented, from a staunch defence of existing copyright arrangements and their role in providing creative people with a reliable income, to a very different view – that these arrangements are no longer up to the job and are in urgent need of reform.

We discussed the ways in which copyright and IP legislation is currently being enforced and policed, the difficulties for some academics, researchers and writers in clearing permissions to reproduce images and text, institutions’ attempts to change their policies on licensing of material, piracy, and everything in between.

What was quite interesting, to me, was that nobody really agreed with the premise of the question. Everyone thought, more or less, that authors should retain some form of ownership of their work, the right to be identified as author, for instance, and the right to grant permission to copy it. The discussion was really about the legal extent of these concepts of ownership, and the efficacy of the mechanisms for enforcing them.

There was a general view that these mechanisms are increasingly unfit for purpose. We talked about the case of the Norwich boy who hacked into the club’s website CMS and posted photos of their new kit on his blog before they had been officially unveiled. After club officials noticed he had reproduced the images without their permission and before the embargo expired, they called the police, who visited the boy’s house.

This is obviously a very extreme instance of a heavy-handed response to a case of copyright infringement, but it is by no means the only one. And as we have seen with rights-holders in the music industry suing individual file-sharers, or lobbying to have their internet connections cut off, it’s perhaps an apt symbol of a wider problem. Of course, rights-holders are simply using the tools available to them to prevent what they see as theft plain and simple. But these methods are at best ineffectual, at worst counter-productive and morally questionable.

We talked about the chilling effect of high fees for reproducing images in academic works, and the similar problem of permissions fees for poetry or text. Many in the group were of the view that rights-holders would actually benefit from operating a more efficient permissions policy and that it was uneconomical for them to pursue online infringement of these rules.

To take poetry as an example, poems appear in full, unauthorised, on thousands of blogs and other websites. No publisher could ever track down and take action against the copyright infringer in the majority of cases, and even if they could, the cost and time it took would soon outweigh the slim additional income they might receive from the permissions fees they recouped. In any case, there might be a beneficial relationship between having these poems so widely available online and sales of the poet’s books. Paulo Coelho, for one, is an author who firmly believes that when his work is reproduced on blogs and other websites, it helps his sales.

So, there was generally a feeling that although authors ought to retain some ownership, there ought to be a greater recognition of the problems the Web creates for existing rights regimes and licensing arrangements, and that this ought to be reflected in more suitable, and subtle, legislation and mechanisms of enforcement. These should include the ability to discriminate better between different types of uses, and users, of intellectual property, so that rights holders wouldn’t need to charge an academic researcher the same as a media company, and a simplification of the process for requesting permissions. Convention and incentive need to replace legislation and enforcement. But in order for that to happen there must be simpler ways of licensing or clearing IP.

Fortunately, many of these ideas seem to chime with the recommendations of the Hargreaves report, and increasingly the attitudes of various rights-holders who are seeking to make it easier for their material to be copied and re-used. It seems that there is a broad movement towards greater consensus about the need for some changes to make the reproduction and transmission of intellectual property easier and simpler. Nobody wants to set aside ownership completely. We just want to make sharing better and simpler.

This post was originally published on Charles Beckett’s blog, How To Think About the Future. Photo by Flickr user AstronomyBlog. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

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