The Sad Intellectual Monopolist's Viewpoint


If you want to see how misguided the British publishing industry's attitudes are to copyright and its users, you could do worse than read what the outgoing president of the Publishers Association has to say on the subject:

Ian Hudson, out-going president of the Publishers Association, has urged the government to stop wasting publisher resources on reviews of copyright law driven by "misguided academics" and "over-ambitious public institutions". ... he said the government should stop trying to weaken copyright law, and instead protect its creative businesses.

The charge of “weakening” copyright law is rather rich. When modern copyright was first introduced three hundred years ago, its term was just 14 years, renewable up to 28 years. Since then, the term has been extended again and again and again, until now it stands at the lifetime of the author plus 70 years thereafter. So any attempt to reduce the term of copyright is about introducing some balance to the equation – something manifestly lacking in the constant racking up of the term. “Weakening” copyright law would only apply if we were contemplating reducing the term to less than 28 years.

Hudson repeats this incorrect characterisation of the situation, and then adds insult to injury:

”Please refrain from tying up our resources in responding to further attempts to water down copyright at the behest of misguided academics, over-ambitious public institutions and populist consumer groups.”

Got that list of wrong-doers? Academics who dare to point out the imbalance in today's copyright system are “misguided”; since I'm not quite sure who the “public institutions” might be, I can't comment on whether they are “over-ambitious”, but I do know that the “populist consumer groups” basically means organisations like the Open Rights Group that dare to stand up for *our* rights – something that Hudson seems to regards as outrageous.

And this goes to the heart of the problem with the publishing industry's old guard. They don't understand that copyright is meant to encourage creativity from artists for the benefit of them and their public. In the past, publishers have played a role as medium conveying the creation to the audience; today, they are no longer necessary (although that doesn't mean they can't still thrive provided they understand how the Internet has changed many aspects of their business.)

The paramount considerations for copyright are that artists be encouraged to create, and that the audience can access that work: that is the basis of the monopoly that artists are granted in return for making their creations available. The key point is that the rise of digital technologies means that the audience can now become artists in their own right by building on the works of others, just as all creators have done and continue to do down the centuries. But now, it's much easier.

Today's copyright is no longer fit for the purpose, since it places huge obstacles in the way of that re-creation by the artists formerly known as the audience. Laws that may have been appropriate for analogue times when book production was an expensive process are simply inappropriate when distribution costs are essentially zero. All they do is block the flow of materials that other artists could use as the basis of creation, which reduces, in turn, the creative offerings available to the public (and artists). Thus today's copyright is actually an impediment to exactly those things copyright was intended to promote.

As it happens, the definitive exploration of this new copyright landscape, in which the audience becomes an active participant in the re-creation of cultural goods, Larry Lessig's “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy” has just been released under the CC Attribution Non-commercial licence, and can be downloaded as a PDF file here. It's an excellent introduction to the “remix” culture I have been describing, where creations feed into the creativity of others, producing yet more material that artists can build upon, enriching everyone along the way. Except, of course, when the lawyers get involved, and start invoking copyright laws that grew out of 18th century needs, and which have evolved according to a weird logic of their own that is now completely inappropriate.

Hudson is obviously aware of traditional publishing's weak claim to legitimacy in the digital age. Rather desperately, he says:

“We need to make it clear to the government that we are facilitating access. Publishers don't lock up content, we make it available."

But obviously nothing could be further from the truth. Copyright, as presently constituted, is *precisely* about locking up content in inert packages, and forbidding others to do anything with it except gaze respectfully on the containers. The Publishers Association seems to believe that making content “available” means printing it on dead trees; as Lessig describes in his fine book, content – creation – is actually something hugely richer and more alive than that sadly limited intellectual monopolist's viewpoint.

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