Saturday 29 January 2011

The Hargreaves Review – perhaps we don’t have to make heavy weather of this

Last year David Cameron initiated a review of the UK’s IP law – to come up with proposals for how it can further promote entrepreneurialism, economic growth and social and commercial innovation. The review subsequently issued a call for evidence (deadline 4 March). This sets out specific questions but welcomes contributions beyond their scope. Some of the questions are about copyright and some about enforcement.

Given that economic data about copyright is extremely limited, this seems like a good idea in theory, but very ambitious in practice. Won’t it be difficult to conjure up new significant, reliable and balanced economic data in this timeframe?

Perhaps I can help? I wondered. I checked the bottom drawer of my desk. No unpublished economic studies languishing there… How about my own experience? Could that count as a case study?

During the Nineties and the Noughties I spent about fifteen years working in book publishing in editorial and legal capacities. I attended hundreds of editorial meetings and reviewed thousands of book proposals. Some of our authors were certainly groundbreaking economic successes – Nick Hornby and Terry Pratchett spring to mind.

Did copyright law support the publishing business? That’s easy – yes, without it there would be no publishing business. Did copyright law ever get in the way? That’s easy too – no. I never once heard anyone say they couldn’t publish a book because of copyright law (libel law, that’s another story). Is it different in the US? No. Has digitization made a difference? No.

There – that wasn’t so difficult. Next question?


Charles Oppenheim said...

My experience - I worked in the scholarly publishing industry for 12
years - is not the same of Hugo's. Copyright law DID get in the way
many times; the requirement that authors had to confirm they had
permissions for reproducing small quotes from other publications and
my publishers would not publish their works unless they provided
evidence of such permission and/or of insurance cover if they did not,
meant some authors were unable to proceed with what would have been
excellent works. I guess the situation is very different between
fiction and non-fiction.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Charles. If we get a few more comments, we might even end up with something like evidence...

Actually Gollancz published both fiction and non-fiction - though aimed at a mainstream market rather than academic. I notice that 4 of the 6 experts on the review panel are academics - could that skew their perspective? They might need to think about that.

Doug said...

My experience in open source software is that copyright can be problematic. When well-managed it is a beneficial concept, but in practice can lead to some issues.

A good example from the non-software world is Wikipedia. The license on Wikipedia is here, and it's a complete train crash:

It was initially started with contributors keeping copyright to their contributions, but licensing their contributions under the GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License).

This License was also used by the Debian project for a lot of it's material.

After some time it transpired that there were some nasty problems with GFDL. In particular it allowed invariant sections, which were very problematic to manage in practice.

It would have been great for Wikipedia to relicense all their material - but they can't, because they do not hold the copyright. Going back to original authors to get relicensing permission is logistically impossible, so basically Wikipedia is stuck until the material enters the public domain - which at the current rate of creep of copyright is likely to never happen.

Most open source projects of any scale now request a copyright assignment contract from all contributors now, to avoid this problem: but then have to set up complex legal frameworks to promote shared aims to reassure contributors that their work isn't going to be used in a way in which they do not approve.

In some ways these examples show how well copyright works: copyright is arguably defending the rights of the creators of this work very effectively. In practice however updating copyright law to recognise collaborative "libre" efforts explicitly would provide a great aid to these sorts of works.

In the open source world everyone is an absolute stickler for obeying the rights of creators, since it is basically the currency for all of us. Take a look at the debian-legal mailing list if you want to see some truly tortuous copyright debate.

Out in the world of commerce though, there is a lot less attention paid to such things. Open source software is routinely copied in ways that are prohibited by license and there is very little anyone can do about it. Copyright laws rarely provide much redress or punishment in cases where the work was never produced for sale.

This is another case where the law could be beefed up - instead of loss of earnings there should be some other system for redress in cases where no earnings were intended, but the rights of the creator still require defence.

Finally the continual creep of copyright terms, to defend corporations such as Disney who would otherwise lose the ability to collect rents on things such as Mickey Mouse, is clearly wrong. An adjustment of copyright terms to correctly reflect the cost and benefit of monopolies to society as a whole is long overdue, with a governing principle of some sort embodied in law as a way of determining the length of terms, rather than leaving it as an arbitrary time limit.