Copyright by the book - a step-by-step guide to killing the economy

Milena Popova explains what happens when you play by the copyright rules

Image: Writers Block. By Jonno Witts @Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0 licence]

I recently gave a talk on the economics of copyright, and why content is a public good. I'm not big on seven-level nested bullet points but I did want some visual aids for my audience so I set out to create a slide deck. Let me be perfectly, crystal clear here: I'm talking about a one-hour talk on a topic that I was intimately familiar with, not writing new material from scratch; I'm talking about 16 slides, 13 of which had any actual content. This should not have taken more than two hours. 12 working hours later...

The reason I took nearly an hour for every slide was that - since I was talking about copyright - I thought I should at least try and do this by the book. That meant that every image I used had to fulfil one of three conditions:

- I had to own the copyright;

- the image had to be either in the public domain or licensed under an appropriate Creative Commons license;

- or I had to get permission from the rights holder.

 

Additionally, every image had to be properly credited.

So what effect did "copyright by the book" have on my output and productivity? I've already stated the obvious: the whole exercise took about six times as long as it had any right to. Finding appropriate images to support what I was saying was suddenly not a simple matter of a Google search - I had to restricte my sources to those I could be certain would meet the above criteria. Flickr's CC search functionality helped, and so did the Creative Commons website's search; the Wikimedia Commons was an invaluable resource. But even with those, just appropriately crediting the 16 or so images took hours.

Next were the images I had to get permission for. I cheated slightly here, in that I only approached people I was reasonably certain would grant permission in the first place, and whom I could approach easily (generally through the magic of Twitter). Even with that slight workaround it wasn't until the day of the talk that I had confirmed permission for all images, so I had to line up back-ups or risk not having an image or using one I didn't have the rights to. A final cheat was used when I declared a screen capture from an anti-piracy video to be under the "fair dealing exception for criticism/review purposes" as I was criticising the video in question.

Perhaps the most unpleasant impact of doing copyright by the book was that I felt restricted in what I could and couldn't say or display. When referring to popular television shows, for instance, I couldn't use an image from the show and had to find a workaround. This, of course, had an impact on the quality of my work, so that I found myself faced with a choice between breaking the law or not producing the best possible work I could.

Personally, I was mildly inconvenienced by my "copyright by the book" adventures. There are, however, wider implications here. Go into any office in the UK, sit in any meeting, go to any industry conference, and you will find hundreds of thousands of media files (images, music, videos) used without permission. They're the soundtrack to your motivational video, the image you use to illustrate a point in a presentation, or the Dilbert cartoon you email to your team on a Friday afternoon. They are the things that make death by PowerPoint slightly less... well, deadly. And yet, did you know that to license a single Dilbert strip for a one-time use in a presentation (and that means no sneakily making the slides available to your colleagues afterwards!), you'd have to fork out US$85 at a minimum? That includes a t $10 "handling charge" by Universal Unlick Reprints and  discounts the fact that navigating Scott Adams' licensing system will take you a good half hour. If you don't believe me that this sort of thing happens in every single office, you only need to browse BoingBoing to find that even copyright trolls use unlicensed content for fun and profit.

If tomorrow we all turned up for work and suddenly started doing copyright by the book, the economy would grind to a halt. The output of pretty much anyone with a desk job would be halved, the rest of their time spent trying to work out who owned the copyright on something they wanted to use, trying to license content or trying to work out what they should use instead.

The Intellectual Property Office is currently running a consultation on the changes to UK copyright law proposed in the Hargreaves Review. If you believe that the current copyright system is neither effective nor sustainable, you should think about responding. If you need a starting point, Glyn Moody's responses will do as a good a job as any.

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Comments (6)

  1. Dina:
    Jan 19, 2012 at 04:51 PM

    Getting an image from Google search may seem like an easy solution. But how about the author(copyright holder) of that image?
    Let's say YOU post a picture of YOUR cute/cheeky/funny baby daughter on YOUR blog (to share with your friends and family). I search Google for "cute cheeky funny baby pictures" and find YOUR baby's picture. I use it for lets say... 'Baby Vampires' Photoshop contest, so turn YOUR baby girl into a scary bloody vampire using Photoshop. Suddenly YOUR baby daughter's scary bloody face appears all over the Internet (Google search) without your knowlegde or permission.
    And what if someone decides to use that image "to illustrate a point" in their Powerpoint presentation?
    (I DO take part in Photoshop contests, we DO have all sorts of contests, and I AM happy that we need permission of copyright owners to use their images, and that we are no longer allowed to use pictures found on Google search).

    "Copyright by the book" may seem like a waste of time to you, but please try to look at this from a different perspective.
    I am an artist, and I decide what I allow to use under CC license, what is for 'display only'. And I support other artists as well.

  2. David Flett:
    Jan 21, 2012 at 06:45 PM

    Almost every objection I read about Digital Rights or indeed the recent US bill that has been attacked so publicly is about "freedom" In the past two days I have read over 600 comments against the recent US bill with not one single solution offered to protect copyright holders from over 50 billion downloads of illegal material. The majority of comments were mainly concerned with their individual rights and against the profit of the music and film industries. I work in the retail sector of the entertainment trade and have seen our business decimated over the last 5 years. A decade ago our only concern was with a few thousand dodgy DVD's and Cd's at market stalls, pubs and car boot sales. But now we live in an entirely different world where the internet has brought about billions of illegal downloads. As broadband becomes faster the issue will continue to grow at an alarming rate. Various polls have been carried out regarding downloading and the not surprising outcome was that 76% of those polled saw no harm in downloading. What about those people who have lost their jobs because of illegal downloading? There is never anything written or any sympathy given to those people. With regard to the above article and the images and content concerned. No where is the cost of producing these images mentioned but surprise surprise the cost of using them is. The article mentions that offices and public places use content. Offices and indeed retail space can show or play content but is licensed depending on usage and the square-footage of the property. Images can also be used from a variety of sources such as stock photo or in our case film studios. These are licensed but usually depending on their use a very minimal rate.

    The point you raise regarding the use of a TV show makes no reference to how much it cost to produce this show in the first place. Individuals and very small companies spend a great deal of time creating images, should they not be afforded some form of compensation or even protection against misuse of an image. Or is your argument similar to those who believe that music and DVD's are too expensive. even though in real terms music and film are at least 500% cheaper than when I purchased my first LP. Cd's Chart cd's are generally available from as little as £7 Dvd's from £9 and within weeks you will be able to purchase them from as little as £3. Films are generally available to rent for as little as £3 or even found cheaper on subscription platforms. Music can legally be downloaded or accessed through official sites such as Last FM, or Spotify. My plea to everyone who raises objections to the various legislation that are being drafted, is to put forward a workable and fair solution that provides a balance of peoples rights whilst at the same time protects against the billions of illegal downloads. If however legislation takes another decade to pass then we will live in a new world of hand held camera movie and buskers on the streets making a pittance for the music they provide.

  3. Jim Killock:
    Jan 22, 2012 at 08:00 PM

    Phew!

    Needless to say ORG does indeed ensure we have the rights to everything we use. And it does take time. When you are a publisher, or a designer, and copyright licensing is integral your business, it makes some sense to do this, as you'll be passing the license costs on to the end purchaser. But for many other people, it must seem like unpleasant bureaucracy.

    I say this because the type of casual copyright infringement you talk of adds a small value to the user, but not enough that they would choose to pay for the images rather than not use them at all. In nearly every case like this, the copyright owner would not choose to prosecute. At worst, they are likely to ask you to delete the content if they find you using it.

    The argument runs that, as copyright is a private right, owners will not choose to prosecute for negligible value infringements. This means copyright prosecutions are kept to a minimum and casual, unimportant infringements are ignored. This is an important part of the way copyright functions. In the Internet era, this tends to be ignored, and all infringement is lumped together into something that represents an existential crisis. We see this in some of the comments answering your post.

    In short, while it may be helpful to educate people about copyright, and reduce casual infringement by PowerPoint users (a thoroughly piratical class of corporate citizen) we should be clear that it's going to happen and we probably need to be careful to separate our approach to this from, say, commercial copying of DVDs, or non-commercial file sharing. Each need a different approach, and there is a tendency from some to see all as the same problem.

  4. Gringo:
    Jan 29, 2012 at 12:16 AM

    Response to David Flett

    "Almost every objection I read about Digital Rights or indeed the recent US bill that has been attacked so publicly is about "freedom" In the past two days I have read over 600 comments against the recent US bill with not one single solution offered to protect copyright holders from over 50 billion downloads of illegal material. The majority of comments were mainly concerned with their individual rights and against the profit of the music and film industries."

    Why do you suppose rights holders fail to gain sympathy from the general public? I suggest that is because they were never consulted when copyright laws were made. Instead, every time a new law is made, it is in response to demands from powerful lobbies. When have you ever seen a grass roots demand for stronger copyrights? Never! Yet who is granting these monopolies? The people, in theory, but in reality, politicians corrupted by donations from the copyright lobbies. The people watch this happening over and over again, feeling helpless while watching their culture sold to the highest bidder. They are not organized, have no lobbyists working for them, nor money to buy the politicians with.

    "I work in the retail sector of the entertainment trade and have seen our business decimated over the last 5 years. What about those people who have lost their jobs because of illegal downloading? There is never anything written or any sympathy given to those people."

    Times change. How many industry have been born, matured, and died in the past hundred years, leaving those unable to adapt as casualties in their wake? How many blacksmiths became unemployed since we quit using horses for our principal means of transportation? Did these blacksmiths try to have cars banned in order to preserve their profession? I feel your pain, but many of us face obsolescence in our jobs. However, very few of us have government granted rights to perpetuate our jobs. Why is that?

    "Now we live in an entirely different world where the internet has brought about billions of illegal downloads. As broadband becomes faster the issue will continue to grow at an alarming rate. Various polls have been carried out regarding downloading and the not surprising outcome was that 76% of those polled saw no harm in downloading."

    How did performing artists make money in the days before we had technology? Besides patrons, they did public performances in enclosed spaces where people had to pay to see and hear the performance. It was only by being able to put opaque walls around the performance that anybody could make any money performing. I'll give you a little thought experiment. Try to imagine a parallel universe, where the only construction material was transparent to light and sound. How successful would restricting a performance to a determined space be in that case? Try to imagine a parallel universe, where we got the internet before recording and film making technologies developed. How successful would the concept of selling recordings of films or music be in that case? Now these are fanciful ideas, but I would suggest that in either case, nobody would even dream they could try to make a living by restricting who could view their performance. If someone suggested mandating opaque construction materials or controlling the internet such that one could prevent copies from propagating on it you would think he was nuts.

    The point is, the world has suddenly - in a very brief span of time - magically changed. We now have the Internet and the technology to make copies of a performance in an instant and send it off to share with friends, or even just random other human beings. The world has changed, and you can't put the genie back into the bottle. Get over it.

    "With regard to the above article and the images and content concerned, nowhere is the cost of producing these images mentioned. The point you raise regarding the use of a TV show makes no reference to how much it cost to produce this show in the first place. Individuals and very small companies spend a great deal of time creating images, should they not be afforded some form of compensation or even protection against misuse of an image."

    Works get produced at sometimes incredibly high cost, with the expectation there will be a profitable market for those works. For example, a block buster film could cost half a billion dollars to produce. You are wondering who is going to make these investments if we don't have strong, enforceable copyright laws? Well, maybe that will come to an end. Just maybe, it was all a false economy that came from government granted monopoly. Gee - what will we ever do without block buster films? Maybe invent other forms of entertainment, like we have been doing for millions of years?

    "My plea to everyone who raises objections to the various legislation that are being drafted, is to put forward a workable and fair solution that provides a balance of peoples rights whilst at the same time protects against the billions of illegal downloads."

    And my plea is that the politicians directly consult the people about whether they want copyright laws, and if so, what kind, and to what extent. A novel thought, isn't it? Maybe people will decide that copyright has gone too far, is unworkable in this modern age, and they are prepared to suffer the consequence.

  5. Pete Austin:
    Jan 29, 2012 at 02:52 PM

    @Diana, You are confusing rights over the baby, with rights over the photograph. Current copyright law means that the photographer has all the rights over baby pictures and the parent has none. How is it fair that I can take a picture of your baby, do all the things that you object to and more, and you as a parent can't stop me. But if you photoshop my picture, to make your child look cuter, I can sue.

  6. Pete Pompies:
    Feb 06, 2012 at 01:30 PM

    @David,
    I work in the retail sector of the entertainment trade and have seen our business decimated over the last 5 years.

    I suspect that your loss of business has to do with the general decline in the worldwide economy. Let's face it, charging $25 for that single view Hollywood junk you're selling isn't going to cut it at a time when people have no jobs and banks are taking their houses. I say this as someone with over a thousand legitimate DVDs, CDs and Blurays - 98% being non Hollywood products.
    While I do have some sympathy I also have to wonder why other people should be protecting your business. Adapt your business model. Piracy is free publicity and advertising. The worldwide anime/manga craze is a perfect example of that. Prior to anime piracy, no-one outside of Japan knew of this industry. Now anime shows are licensed by foreign companies with Japanese rights holders having to do nothing to promote their content to foreign companies. Meanwhile sites like Crunchyroll allow for a flat fee of $6, unlimited access to a 200 series archive of works, some released simultaneously with their Japanese premieres and even in full 1080p quality. Sites such as those are legitimate and they're stealing YOUR customers and therefore STEALING your money. Japanese licensors are making further money from pirates who purchase legitimate merchandise such as numerous figures, pillows, books, coffee mugs etc. all purchased by customers who were never advertised to. The gaming site GOG sells legitimate DRM-free games for a fraction of their brick and mortar store price. Another example is iTunes which sells songs for $1. Why buy a $19 CD for one good song when you can pay $1 and burn it to a CD legally? Sadly iTunes is not available internationally and people in poorer countries have to either pirate or work with CDs which are either not available or which cost a much larger fraction of their income. Maybe Hollywood could reduce costs of making movies (it is possible) and license their shows directly - no need for local distributors and sell in bulk for cheap to customers. But sadly the industry is backward. The industry still pushes differential licensing schemes in different regions and different times as well as region locks on DVD/Bluray players in an attempt to stop people purchasing legitimate other region DVD/Bluray products. The industry's been privileged however. They can afford to not innovate because they can rely on lobbyist money to protect their business model. It's pretty sad and not all of us can be so lucky as to have government protection when our own business models fail.

    In short, adapt your business model. Maybe instead of only selling DVDs, sell merchandise too. Many pirates love their shows and one can't pirate those, right?

This thread has been closed from taking new comments.

By Milena Popova on Jan 19, 2012

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