Copyright Hub Goes Public: Where's the Public Domain?

Readers with good memories may remember numerous posts here in the wake of the Hargreaves report on copyright in the digital age, which was called "Digital Opportunity". That report contained many worthwhile ideas, which I discussed in previous columns. But one interesting proposal that I rather skated over was to set up what the report called a Digital Copyright Exchange.

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Readers with good memories may remember numerous posts here in the wake of the Hargreaves report on copyright in the digital age, which was called "Digital Opportunity" (.pdf). That report contained many worthwhile ideas, which I discussed in previous columns. But one interesting proposal that I rather skated over was to set up what the report called a Digital Copyright Exchange:

The aim is to establish a network of interoperable databases to provide a common platform for licensing transactions. By developing an open, standardised approach to data it will be possible to:

attach copyright conditions and rights information directly to digital content in a uniform machine readable fashion (so called meta data);

license across delivery technologies, to facilitate open competition between services based on different technologies;

adapt to emerging technologies;

meet the specific needs of different sectors while remaining governed by common standards and principles;

bring in licensing for other rights, such as design right

It's taken rather longer than the Hargreaves report hoped, but the Digital Copyright Exchange, now dubbed the "Copyright Hub", finally exists. Here's how it describes itself in its "manifesto":

The Copyright Hub aims to make the licensing of content easier. We want to increase the relevance of copyright to everyone who creates and everyone who makes use of content. Copyright says that creators own their work and can decide what happens to it. It says that you need permission to use someone else’s work. The Copyright Hub helps make both things work the way the internet works.

It turns out that the Copyright Hub has one particular feature that I was unaware of until I started researching this column:

The Copyright Hub is outward-looking across national boundaries, industry-led, voluntary, opt-in, non-exclusive, pro-competitive. The Copyright Hub technology will be open sourced and available to all. It is independent of any ideology about how it should be used, whether for commercial, educational, non-commercial or other goals. The Copyright Hub builds on the foundations laid by the Linked Content Coalition and uses existing data standards, identifiers and communication protocols - with no wish to reinvent them. The Copyright Hub aims to encourage wide adoption of its approach by building small scale pilots and offering technology and help to those wishing to implement them. The Copyright Hub does not seek to participate in transactions which it helps facilitate. The Copyright Hub aims to make its work capable of “universal implementation” which means keeping financial and governance barriers to an absolute minimum.

It's certainly hugely welcome that the technology behind the Hub will be open sourced. Unfortunately, that's about the most open part of the new site: the rest of it is all about asking "permission", a word that figures frequently throughout the site. Of course, given that this is a copyright hub, and that it has been funded by the creative industries, that's perhaps understandable. But it is also rather retrogressive - unlike the open-sourcing of the code - and unbalanced.

One of the most important shifts in the creative world in recent years has been to open licensing, encouraging a *permissionless* approach to building on the work of others, which of course is what has taken place for most of human history. Indeed, the Copyright Hub tends to treat copyright as if it were the eternal background of creativity, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. For most of human history (and prehistory), nothing like copyright existed or was felt necessary. Copyright is not natural, but a modern aberration when viewed in the larger historical context.

This skewed view of the world makes itself felt throughout the site. For example, in the Discover section, where we "find out all about copyright", there is not a single mention of the fact that copyright is temporary, or that the ultimate state of creativity is as part of the great commons known as the public domain. Indeed, I couldn't find any reference to the public domain anywhere in my quick look through most of the Web pages.

If we dig a little deeper, we find no reference to either the the public domain or limitations and exceptions in the "introduction to copyright", and just the following sentence about related areas in the Licencing and rights page:

Creative Commons licence - This is often granted when the creator does not wish to charge for the use of his/her material but usually has strict limitations.

CC licences are not about money, they about granting additional freedoms to other people, culminating in the CC0 licence, which places a work in the public domain, with exactly *zero* limitations on how it can be used. So this framing of CC licences is very misleading, and would hardly lead a reader coming across the idea for the first time to guess that nearly a billion works now use Creative Commons licences.

We only hear about exceptions to copyright on the page about "What the law says", where they are cast as exceptions to copyright infringement, as if infringement is the inevitable state of things. In fact, the public domain should be taken as the baseline state, which makes copyright infringements the exception.

Of course, it is still early days for the Copyright Hub, and it will doubtless be possible to fine-tune its content. To that end, I strongly recommend that Creative Commons be asked to provide information about its licences, and that these should be flagged up on the site much more visibly. Equally, I would urge organisations working to update this country's sclerotic copyright laws to visit the site and make constructive comments.

The Copyright Hub is certainly an interesting approach, and the people behind it deserve credit for trying to come up with a practical tool - open-sourced, too - to help people navigate the complex realm of copyright. But it is important to get it right, and that, in its turn, means providing the correct historical and conceptual framework: one that recognises the public domain as the foundation for all creativity.

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