The future of copyright

The future of copyright

Traditional copyright is dead, in terminal decline or, at the very least, not fit for purpose in the digital age. That was the message at last week's Focus 2011: The Book Tomorrow—The Future of the Written Word, Unesco's rather expansively titled conference on digital books held in Monza, Italy, where industry leaders, librarians, academics and copyright campaigners gathered to discuss how authors' works should—or should not—be protected as the industry moves forward.

If there was broad agreement that copyright laws need to be adjusted for digital, there was hardly any consensus about how that should happen. There are stark divides on the issue and the extremes of the debate were on show. On one side, there is the group that can loosely be termed the more progressive wing of the intellectual property spectrum—the copyleft movement (see box opposite), that is pushing to open up copyright to enable rights--holders to share work more easily. On the other side are publishers, copyright agencies, and (most) authors—those, in short, who earn their crust from the written word.  

Richard Stallman, an American computer programmer who invented- copyleft in the 1980s, is one of the more provocative voices calling for the liberalisation of copyright. He calls e-books an "attack on the traditional freedom of readers", his central point that with the current e-book system, readers can not acquire books anonymously (as they are able to do with print if they pay cash); or lend, or sell them as they wish. Readers can sometimes not keep e-books they have bought— taking away copies- of 1984 from some of its customers in 2009, for example. All of this is because of outmoded copyright and e-book "digital handcuffs".

Stallman calls for an end of the use of "digital ‘restriction' management" which he believes is a "malicious conspiracy, and any company that uses it should be charged with a felony." He adds: "Copyleft was invented to make freedom in copyright an inalienable right. We must end the war on sharing."

Far less radical, but still broadly in the copyleft camp, is the US-based non-profit Creative Commons (CC), that argues that its type of copyright licences are more compatible with the internet age. Esther Wojcicki, CC's vice-chair who spearheads the group's licences in the education sector, says: "Copyright is not about protecting authors, it protects institutions, corporations and their existing business -models . . . copyright as it is now—death plus 70 years—simply- does not work. It prohibits the widest dissemination of information. Copyright ties up culture, it works against culture."
Unsurprisingly, Stallman's and Wojcicki's views are not widely shared by the broader professional publishing community and many authors who would like to make a living by writing. Yngve Slettholm, executive director of Norwegian copyright management organisation Korpinor, says: "Authors' rights are not the problem, authors' rights are the solution." Anne Bergman-Tahon, the president of the Federation of European Publishers, agrees with Slettholm and says: "While we may need to look at the evolution of copyright, there must be -protection for authors and publishers. Only one in 10 books makes a profit. We must have a viable marketplace."

It seems on the surface that there are two entrenched positions that cannot be bridged. True, there is a philosophical point that may never be resolved. Stallman and the copyleft movement, and to a lesser extent Wojcicki, believe the bottom line is about making information as freely available as possible. For Stallman, this means actually buying e-books rather than buying the licence for them.

For Wojcicki, copyright's most damaging digital restrictions are laid bare in orphan works, in copyright material whose rights-holders cannot be found. She points to US restrictions on orphan works—owing primarily to changes in US copyright law when it signed up to the Berne Convention in 1988—which have curtailed digitalisation projects in university libraries, and even led to universities pulling digital titles that may be orphan works from circulation for fear of lawsuits. The University of California library system recently made 17,000 digital books in-accessible because of rights issues. "Colleges are locking these books away simply out of fear," she says. "This is not author protection, it's 17,000 books being removed from the culture."

Filthy lucre
So publishers, then, are hoary reactionary defenders of the status quo, doing their utmost to deprive the masses of books and information? One could be forgiven for believing so after listening to some of the copyleftists. Yet there seems to be no distinction from the copyright liberalisation camp between academic and educational writing and authors of trade titles whose livelihoods—if they are lucky enough—depend on shifting copies of their books (it is perhaps telling that all at the conference who favour more liberal intellectual copyright laws are not writers but university professors and educators).
There are some trade writers who have licensed themselves through Creative Commons and have given content away who make a decent living. Or rather one, Cory Doctorow, who often gets trotted out to prove how copyleftist authors can make a buck, much like Amanda Hocking does to "prove" that self-publishing works. Despite the success of those two, the vast weight of evidence points that the traditional publisher model, as difficult as that is for writers to thrive in, is the better bet for the working writer.
However, there may be some validity to the argument that copyright is hindering the dissemination of academic knowledge. Robert Darnton, director of the University Library at Harvard, and more of a copy-centrist, says that publishers are guilty of "strategically monopolising and holding up knowledge" by the high price of journals—he points out that Elsevier's "Tetrahedron" costs $19,341 for a year's institutional subscription—forcing libraries to make tough choices about which journals they carry. He, like Wojcicki, also points to anomalies in digitisation projects. "We have had the situation where libraries have given Google out-of-copyright books for digitisation, and then have had to buy back those books once they have been digitised."

For all the debate, there were not many answers at Focus 2011, with copyright disputes set to rage for years. Yet a hopeful note was sounded by Slettholm: "The internet is in its infancy and copyright will change. As we've seen in other new technologies like the photocopier, for example, the technology changes first, the solutions come later."

Intellectual property: a quick glossary

The concept of work being owned by an author is relatively new, with the first copyright law in Britain, England's Statute of Anne, enacted in 1710. The 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works established the modern copyright framework, and is still used as the basis for intellectual property law for most of the world, with 164 of the 192 nation states signed up—the United States, incidentally, was a late signatory, only joining in 1988. However, there are still a number differences in copyright law between nations: a vexing problem in the digital world. Currently in the UK, literary works (most texts including books, song lyrics and computer programs) are retained by the rights-holder 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies. Yet if the author is unknown—another vexing digital era problem—copyright expires 70 years after the work was created, or made available to the public.

Creative Commons
Founded in 2001, this non-profit ­California-based organisation provides six degrees of licences aimed at enabling rights-holders to share material more freely. Simple shorthand for CC licences could be “some rights reserved” rather than traditional copyright's “all rights reserved”. The common denominator is that all CC rights-holders must be attributed when their work is re-used, but various restrictions can be imposed, such as the work not being allowed to be used for commercial purposes or that modifications can only be made with a rights-holder's consent.

Originally created in the 1980s by American computer programmer Richard Stallman for software, copyleft licences allow the free sharing of works and give permission for the works to be modified and distributed—provided that distribution is also for free. Copyleft intellectual property is still protected by copyright; what the copyleft distinction does is not allow anyone who modifies a work to sell it on as proprietary work of their own.