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Monday, 3 February 2014

Copyright: too much, too easy -- so don't protect?

Here's a bit of mischief for a Monday evening. Occasional guest blogger Sean Gilday (a trainee patent attorney at Page Hargrave) has been having thoughts about setting copyright free and Merpel thought it might be fun to let Sean's ideas (well, one of them, at any rate) loose on his readership.  This is what he says:

The scientist and polymath Thomas Young is reputed to have been the last person to have read every book published in his lifetime [see Andrew Robinson, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, here].  Whether you believe that is true, or that the so-called ‘intellectual breaching point’ (the point at which the body of human knowledge became so great that it could not be comprehended by any one individual) actually occurred much earlier, it is the case that copyright as a modern concept was introduced at a point where the thought of such an achievement might not stretch one’s credulity quite to breaking point.

Fergus fondly recalls the happy days
when it was the records that got wound
up and not the copyright owners ..
These days, however, the thought is simply risible.  A person’s entire life-span -- let’s say 80 years, or just over 700,000 hours -- may be equivalent to around five day’s worth of footage uploaded to YouTube (assuming 100 hours of video being uploaded per minute). And, while I realise that I’m slightly conflating two different things here (equating footage uploaded to YouTube with the body of human knowledge, the former consisting mainly of funny cat videos [Merpel's Google search for YouTube + funny + cat produced 306 million hits]), the point remains that there is so much ‘content’ being produced at such a rapid rate that it’s impossible to monitor it all.

Many users merely use YouTube and similar sites as video-sharing services.  It would seem reasonable to assume that these users generally aren’t concerned with infringement of copyright in their videos (in a similar way, I’m generally unconcerned with anyone reproducing this blog post) as they’re only using the site recreationally, and they aren’t reliant on money earned from their videos (if indeed they have monetised them at all).  This being the case, is it not time to reverse this central presumption of copyright subsistence?  In the past a copyright work, for example a book, was a sufficient undertaking that it was safe to assume that the creator cared about it.  However, nowadays copyright works are being created with such ease and frequency that that presumption may no longer be true.  Is the thought of the right arising automatically out-of-date and impractical these days?

At the moment we effectively have a system in which everything is forbidden unless it is specified allowable (i.e. the rights have been cleared or licensed).  A better system might be one in which the principle is established that everything is allowed unless it is specifically forbidden (i.e. the copyright has been registered).  The shifting of this burden to the would-be right holder might not be unduly arduous, especially in the internet age. 

The US had a system of copyright registration before signing the Berne Convention, and registration is still required for certain benefits, e.g. to be awarded statutory damages.  The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) is currently in the process of implementing a ‘Copyright Hub’ in response to recommendations from the Hargreaves Review.  However, whereas the review recommended a Digital Copyright Exchange for primarily economic reasons, does the sheer volume of works being created and published on the internet nowadays suggest that it could be prudent to move towards a registration requirement for copyright?
Is Sean right? Has the explosion in volume of copyright-protected work and the ease with which it can be created a reason for de-protecting it unless the contrary is proven, or does the opposite apply, in that in the ever-expanding thicket of works which beset us at every turn in our lives, it is even more important to accord protection in order to inculcate respect for the value of that work?  What do readers think?


DukePPUk said...

Perhaps we should be splitting copyright into unregistered and registered copyrights.

The former being a far more liberal copyright, perhaps focusing on restricting commercial uses, and lasting only a couple of years.

The latter being the full copyright, more along the lines of what we have today - but with registration (so we know what is covered) and perhaps a renewal fee, to help ensure it is limited to those works still commercially viable, while freeing those works which are not.

That way those who wish to get the full set of limits copyright covers can do so, while the rest of us don't find ourselves creating 100+year restrictions simply by writing a comment on a blog post.

Anonymous said...

I think that if you want to change the law a more direct path would benefit everyone than the piece written here.

Andy Spurr said...

Interesting post, and idea by DukePPUk.

On the topic of 'intellectual breaching point', a similar question was posed to xkcd:

It concludes that this point was passed sometime in the 1500's, long before youtube appeared!

SG said...

Excellent first comment by DukePPUk. Of course, we already have a system of "two-speed rights" with the design right, so it's clearly practicable. If you design something it is automatically protected (in the UK) by unregistered design right. But, you can also register that design for additional benefits (it becomes a monopoly right, copying need not be proven, longer duration, etc.). Could this work for copyright too?

Anonymous said...

"The former being a far more liberal copyright"

There's nothing 'liberal' about stealing people's rights. Unless you are the thief. The esteemed Mr Quilty proposed this (via SABEP) a few years ago and the consequences were then explained to him.

"and lasting only a couple of years."

Very generous.

Copyright discussions that take place online were taken over by green ink eccentrics a long time ago. But this blog post one pretty much asked for green ink in industrial quantities!

Anonymous said...

It is only stealing if it is illegal, right? There is nothing natural about IP law that I know.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post by Anonymous at 11:40.

The "answer" (if there is one) comes down to the difference between nihilism and dignity of the human spirit.

Are we by nature lawless, thus setting laws to survive? And in that process, choosing (quite arbitrarily) what those laws are?

Or we by nature gifted with something that somehow is greater than us, thus striving to make our law reflect that higher nature? And in that process, reflecting on the dignity and exaltation just beyond (seemingly always just beyond) our grasps?

I know which set of answers I believe in.

So with this as a backdrop, let us ask ourselves, is it only stealing if it is illegal?

Is it?

One further question, this one for Anonymous at 11:40 personally: What is natural about the human spirit, what does that even mean, this 'human spirit' at all?

Your answer dictates whether you play the schmuck or choose to soar. Either is fine with me.

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