In this post from June of 2014, I argued that the Internet is a reason for the average person to care more about copyright, not less. The premise of that piece was that just because it’s a right most people will never need or care to enforce, that’s not a reason to allow—let alone get fooled into evangelizing—a weakening of those rights for the sake of Internet industry profits. And among the many dubious talking points oft-repeated by the tech sector and its network of faux-progressive organizations, are variations on the theme that copyrights are today exclusively a barrier to the “free flow of information.”
Not only do I find that premise philosophically offensive (akin to saying “civil rights are a barrier to the free flow of bigotry”), but I also think it is remarkably non-innovative, especially coming from the presumptive problem solvers of our future. Rather than take the view that the ideal Internet requires that property interests in data (e.g. a photograph or a musical work) be removed as nuisance barriers, why not seek technological solutions that facilitate easy licensing and other methods of leveraging those property interests, so that more people share in the digital-age bounty other than just the Facebooks and Googles of the world? Crazy, right? Maybe not.
As Andrew Orlowski reports in The Register, The Copyright Hub was unveiled this week in the U.K., and the principle is precisely based on—get this—harnessing the power of data to enable people to easily identify the owner of a work, the terms of the owner’s interest in that work, and to request a license to use that work according to those terms. That might sound a little bit like Creative Commons, except it isn’t at all. Creative Commons functions much more as a PR tool evangelizing the vague ideology of the “sharing economy,” rather than providing any kind of transactional efficiency between the creator of a work and the proposed user of a work. Orlowski writes about the prospect of the Hub …
So what previously took days or weeks to track down and negotiate is handled in the background in fractions of a second, because content has identifiers. By reducing the friction and the cost of licensing to almost zero, lots more licensing should be possible. One can envisage a whole new internet that supports functioning markets growing out of the rancid free-for-all of today’s clickbait-infested swamp.
When big corporations get away with practices like stripping metadata from images or pushing the boundaries of infringing an individual’s right of publicity to the extent that all data, all images, all “content” becomes one big grab-bag of decontextualized—free flowing thought it may be—stuff, this is not only bad for professional creators of works but is ultimately bad for the aspirations we have for the Internet itself. An initiative like The Copyright Hub seems designed to fulfill one goal of the web, which is to connect people, in this case by fostering respectful relationships through content, rather than treating content like wildflowers meant to be picked at will. And in many cases, these transactions will involve no more than the exchange of a simple please and a thank you.
Orlowski reports that the head of The Copyright Hub, Dominic Young, views this initiative as restoring the right of choice to the owner of a work, which is, of course, the backbone of copyright. To quote Young from Orlowski’s article, “Copyright is actually the freedom to decide what happens to your work. Everyone has it. Should people be able to make their own choice about how it’s used? Most people would say ‘Yes’. Should they have a single choice thrust one them? Most people would say ’No’.”
Internet industry practices by the big boys have not only chipped away—if not utterly destroyed—that freedom of choice for rights holders, but they have so successfully planted the idea in a new generation of creators that copyright is a state-imposed, mandatory barrier to freedom, that many contemporary creators have been duped into advocating a weakening of rights that are completely optional in the first place. The hope is that through efficient, technological applications like the Hub, creators who have, to some extent, given up on copyright may find a renewed faith in their ability to connect with users of their works through interactions based on the idea that permission can still be part of our digital future.
For more information about The Copyright Hub visit www.copyrightdoneright.org