Copyright in the Knowledge Economy

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There's an interesting consultation document on the role of copyright in the knowledge economy, put out by the European Commission:

The purpose of the Green Paper is to foster a debate on how knowledge for research, science and education can best be disseminated in the online environment. The Green Paper aims to set out a number of issues connected with the role of copyright in the "knowledge economy" and intends to launch a consultation on these issues.

Unfortunately, the whole thing is framed in terms of twiddling with existing copyright law through complicated and extremely limited exceptions. In my submission, printed below, I decided to raise some of the bigger issues that need to be considered, and to urge a more thorough-going reform of copyright to reflect the digital age in which we live. It won't do any good, of course, but you've got to start somewhere: you might want to join in....

My name is Glyn Moody, and I have been writing for national newspapers and specialist titles about computer technology for 25 years, the Internet for 14 years, and open source software for 13 years. I welcome the opportunity to comment on the Green Paper on Copyright in the Knowledge Economy. At a time when the Internet is changing radically the way business, education and society function, it is vitally important for the legal framework controlling the knowledge economy, which is increasingly disseminated across it, to reflect that fact.

To provide some context, it is worth recalling that the first “modern” copyright law is generally regarded as the UK's Statute of Anne, enacted in 1709. Most copyright since then has drawn, at least in part, on the basic ideas expressed there. In other words, today's copyright is around 300 years old; little wonder, then, if it is in need of updating.

Although traditional copyright has been adapted over the years to encompass new technologies such as sound recordings and films, we are currently going through a technological transition that is fundamentally from all those that have gone before. Where sound recordings and film are essentially analogue (physical) objects – wax cylinders or vinyl LPs for early sound recordings, celluloid strips for films – just like books, today's content is fast becoming an immaterial, *digital* artefact.

This is not a change of degree, but of kind. The most dramatic manifestation of that can be seen in the marginal cost of production: the cost of making a digital copy is small, and becoming smaller all the time as technology advances, even for large digital objects like films. Potentially, then, we can contemplate universal access to most if not all digital knowledge, for effectively zero cost. Again, this is a radical departure from the past, where the physical nature of knowledge – books, recordings etc. - and its costs necessarily imposed limits on how widely it could be distributed.

Today, then, the question is not: “How much can we afford to spend on making knowledge widely available?”, but: “How much should we limit the free, universal access to all digital knowledge because of historical constraints like copyright?”

As always, then, copyright must be seen as a balance, between the needs of the right-holders to receive a reward for their work, and the rights of the public to gain access to knowledge for the benefit of themselves, and therefore society. But that balance is determined by what is possible, technically, as much as by what has been possible, legally, in the past.