A thought experiment about copyright in a digital age

I value Henry Porter’s column on privacy and digital rights in The Observer of a Sunday. But today, in an abstruse windmilling piece about copyright he really lost me with his baseless conservatism. A little further below is a thought experiment on escaping restrictions on copying what is freely reproducible, while attending to the need artists have of an income.

Information is pretty cheap these days, there’s talk of ‘information glut’ and ‘information overload’. Professional journalists no longer have a monopoly on researching and breaking news of social value. Whaddaya know – there is a lot of talent and wit out there after all. I value the penetration and reach of citizen journalism, and I value the rigour and ethics of professional journalism. The onus is on the professionals to find new models of income generation – to distinguish themselves from people like me. And if they can’t, we take a lesson from that. But I think they will be able to.

Henry Porter harks back to an age of elite-producers – I don’t. The vision lies in the way we interact with the glut of information – emails, blog posts, web pages, media bits. This is Google’s enterprise. When Henry Porter refers to Google as:

“a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time”

this is the most breathtakingly unjustifiable diminishment I’ve come across in ages.

We owe to Google a number of revolutionary interfaces and algorithms, some gorgeous visualisations and some sweet office products. Google Earth and its mash-ups. Google Maps, including Street View (which helped me plan a new route to Paddington and execute it seamlessly and in a hurry; which helps people look for new homes). My integrated, overlapping, selectively-shared calendars. Threaded email. All new, all ground-breaking, all so, so helpful.

Google is better at helping us to interact with and share data in creative ways than any other single software company I can think of (and it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong – the thrust of Henry Porter’s argument – which failed to acknowledge the creativity of Google’s coders – was content-authors v. “parasites” in general). Google is not a parasite any more than a baker is a parasite for profiting out of the reworking of wheat. Google is an enterprise. I know ‘entrepreneur’ is a dirty word for some people – for me they are simply designers. They rework materials in ways which bring them to more consumers than before..

Google will attempt to capture our data and profile us in order to improve its core business, which is advertising. The corollary of this profiling is potentially very dangerous (Henry Porter is a stalwart in highlighting this). The price we pay for the pervasiveness of Google is that we need to watch it closely and to criticise it minutely. We can do this. Or we have to opt out. We can opt out. Or we have to cooperate globally to develop new anti-monopoly models for the Web.

But what really got me thinking was his comments on copyright, which nudged my existing views into radicalism.

“Google presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.

It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe.”

So, taking down your video from its own equates to treading on your windpipe? Come on. I mean, come on. And if it weren’t Google that owned YouTube? If YouTube were commons – free and open? Would Billy Bragg let his video be shown for free?

No he would not. Because Billy Bragg wants to earn from royalties (God knows what Henry Porter wants).

And this is when I set myself off on a thought experiment. I haven’t read widely on this subject at all, so maybe it is superficial, stale, or just plain senseless. But until somebody enlightens me, think on the following scenario.

Imagine you wrote a novel. It would be a digital file. If you and I were friends, you might give me the text – perhaps by email – and I would rework it for my e-reader. Digital files can be kept and given away at the same time – giving it would cost you nothing. And yet going by the old publication model, you’d expect to lock down your file with copyright and sell it as a hard-copy book and – with digital rights management (DRM) to prevent copying – an e-book. Seventy years after your death, your text would pass into the public domain.

But imagine if we drew a line under this old way of doing things and designed a new model – this time beginning from the premise that it is unethical to attempt to prevent the reproduction of what can be freely reproduced. There would be no more royalties and bookshops would be decimated or more.

Imagine we also accepted the necessity of giving the artists we love an income which enables them to practice their art.

What would we do?

I’d be inclined to reconceive the idea of revenue as an idea of income. So the product of the labour – here, the book – is free, but the artist requires an income. How would we raise an income? Currently, artists – let’s say ‘authors’ here – struggle unsupported to produce their first pieces of work, and it is only if those pieces gain critical recognition that an advance or grant is forthcoming. Many authors find it hard to attract funding and don’t make it to the shelves, let alone to the high-traffic parts of websites or bookshops where the promoted works are.

Another way might be for you to publish your work – on Scribd or on Lulu – for free. Perhaps in installments. We would preserve the ‘attribution’ aspect of copyright which gives credit for a work. Maybe we would also impose some law restricting derivative works – this is important but I don’t want to go into it now.

And when you have readers, and maybe even a few reviews under your belt, and you are keen to begin your next work, you get an account on a site which is a cross between Just Giving and Pledgebank, but more formalised. This site is designed to allow you to collect donations from people who want you to write another book. You make it clear that you can only embark on your next work if a given amount of money has been donated – if this amount is not achieved by a certain time then everybody else gets their money back if they say they want it back. You set the terms of a contract, or you just collect the donations. Just as you would with a publisher, you produce a treatment for the book which piques the interest of your prospective funders. You tell people how much you needed to be able to write the book (say £35k – or some amount which factors in your tax, your pension contributions, your savings pot, your roof repairs, and so on – you are as transparent as you want to be, or feel you can get away with). You perhaps explain that if 100 people donated, each would need to give an average of £350, or if 1000 people donated, £35, or if 10,000 people, then £3.50.

You are funded by myriad tenners and fivers from the people who want to be your readers, rather than a single advance from a publisher who wants to profit from distributing your work according to derelict distribution models.

Or maybe you don’t want to be a small-business person. Maybe you need an editor. This is where publishers come in – only perhaps now we call them ‘producers’ rather than ‘publishers’. Or perhaps ‘publisher’ is still appropriate. Maybe the publisher organises the pledges, and your target collection amount includes the fee of the editor and the fundraiser, typesetter, illustrator, etc. The cost of producing the book goes up but if the reputation of your team is good – if you are loved and your work is breathlessly anticipated – people would pay your advance. Think Joseph Stiglitz, J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin. Or if a publisher was like a record label (i.e. a trusted brand) then maybe the publisher could collect on its own behalf, and work according to the established model.

Except once the book was written, it would be free. You (or your publisher) would be collecting for your next book. Maybe you never stopped collecting. You’d also have revenue from readings, appearances and the other things authors earn from which can’t be reproduced in a click. Security of income would be no less than the current model – perhaps it would be greater, since the author would control the terms.

And what this means is that (because this goes for sound copyright to, or anything that can be effortlessly reproduced) Billy Bragg, Bono and Cliff could stop trying to lock down their stuff. And Henry Porter could stop calling Google a parasite and concentrate on protecting our data.

This is a sketchy post, but it’s bedtime so I’m going to publish it anyway. I’m particularly hoping that Sarah will read this and – as a writer – let me know what she thinks.

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3 thoughts on “A thought experiment about copyright in a digital age

  1. This is really interesting stuff. At the moment, I think that platform-specific downloads are the most likely route for monetising copy: paying for a Kindle copy of a newspaper makes sense as a purchasable product in a way that paying to look at it on a computer doesn’t. I’d like to see some journals experiment with a moving wall of paid content too. I think a website a while ago tried the fan-generated advance for bands and I don’t think it was super-successful, so I’m not sure how much potential there is in that idea, but I do love the idea that readers could become self-organised cooperatives of patrons.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    Recently read (thanks to Bob From Brockley) a nice Harvard discussion piece on the future of paper called (pdf) Hamlet’s Blackberry. It took a broad definition of paper and harked forward to the rollable / foldable tabloid-sized sheets of e-paper – these can’t happen too soon as far as I’m concerned. As somebody with the concentration / working memory space of, well, a frequent and longstanding Web user, I like it all laid out in front of me, not chunked on a little screen. I need to cross reference rapidly and precisely. That’s how I want to read my newspaper, rather than on a Kindle.

    (Plus I really resent the way that Kindle is locked into Amazon though. I principally use my iRex iLiad to read (well, consume – it’s often that transient) PDFs of research papers. I’d have to hack Kindle to do that so although the Kindle interface is a million times better I’m not budging on this.)

    On fan-generated revenue, I think Radiohead got stung by asking punters to name their price without giving an indication of how much they needed to get by. So many downloaders paid only what they guessed the artist got from the sale, but ignored the production team. But I think there are other ways of coming at this – more transparent ways. The Beta Band split because they didn’t have enough money to continue. Liz Phair became boring because of this. I thought at the time “Why didn’t you say something? Why did you let things come to this?”

    Oh well, if you need me to join a cooperative of your patrons, I will – you write great!

  3. Pingback: Newspapers wonder: why aren’t we more like the beloved and successful recording industry? « Paperhouse

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