Another Problem with Copyright; How to Fix It

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will be well aware of some of the key problems with copyright in the Internet age. For example, the desire to stop people sharing unauthorised digital files online has led to more and more...


Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will be well aware of some of the key problems with copyright in the Internet age. For example, the desire to stop people sharing unauthorised digital files online has led to more and more extreme legislation, culminating in the recent ACTA and TPP. In fact, it is impossible to stop people sharing such files unless you institute total surveillance to check on everything that is uploaded and downloaded. By an interesting coincidence, that is precisely where we are heading thanks to legislation like the Draft Communications Data Bill...

But leaving aside issues concerned with basic human rights like freedom of speech and privacy, there is another quite different problem with copyright. This one is not a product of the digital age, but has always been there, and is to do with how creators are remunerated for their work.

The current model, deriving from the original 1710 Statute of Anne, is that people create and then have a right to control how copies are made – their copy right. Using this government-granted monopoly, they can sell copies of their work either directly or, as is more usual, using a publisher to handle that side of things.

The difficulty is that under this model, creativity comes first, and money comes later, which is potentially a problem, since creators need money to live on while they're creating in order to earn that money to live on. This inherent flaw is one of the reasons that publishers have become so powerful. Through an advance for a future creation, the publisher has the creator in thrall: in order to pay back what is effectively a loan, artists have to do pretty much what publishers tell them.

Although that's an old problem, the Internet does offer a new solution. Because online communications between a creator and his or her public can be direct, it's possible to go to those future purchasers of a work, and to ask for money upfront, before creation begins. This is the Kickstarter model, whereby people pledge to pay money, but usually only if a declared total is reached. Although that model still needs refining, there's no doubt that it can work extremely well.

Of course, there's still a classic chicken-and-egg problem here: artists can only get funded for future creation if they have fans in the first place. The question then becomes: how can an artist acquire fans without the financial resources to spend months or years creating a major work to attract them?

Fortunately, there are already examples of how this problem can be overcome. It's increasingly the case that people who have never created a major work are being funded to do so by people who admire their online activity in different spheres. For example, bloggers may well be encouraged to work on a larger scale by fans of their blog posts. Similar, those with sufficiently large Twitter followings may be able to raise money through Kickstarter-like projects to enable them to take time to write something much longer.

The critical element here is reputation: people who wish to raise money for major projects are using the fact that there are enough people online who admire what they do to fund more of it. That reputation is reflected in part through things like number of visitors to a blog, or the number of followers on Twitter, although these are crude measurements.

Given this central importance of reputation in the online world, it's important to support it where possible, by ensuring that credit is given where it is due. One way to do that would be to make it easier to pass on creations with information about their creators, even when they are released under liberal licences that permit modification. Since the work itself may well change, the obvious way to do this would be through the metadata that accompanies it.

Currently, there is no easy way to embed that kind of metadata, nor to work with it. This makes the creation of tools that allow such metadata to be embedded in files an important task that needs tackling if the online reputational system is to be bolstered.

One reason for doing that is that reputation transcends licensing and even copyright. That is, even with licences that allow complete freedom to change a work, the metadata could be preserved to ensure that the original creator is credited. This approach would also work in the complete absence of copyright. In this case, social norms would also be needed to encourage people to pass on metadata.

In fact, related social norms are already developing: for example, on Twitter, it is considered bad form not to pass on the original source of information, while longer online pieces are expected to carry correspondingly more detailed information about attribution where applicable. This should make it easier to build a more robust reputational system that addresses copyright's big economic problem.

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