Sunday, 2 February 2014

Copyright is ... what? Answers required by Europe.

Copyright is definitely a difficult subject. It's part of a range of intellectual properties and protects your creativity in art, literature, music, photography and such like. It started with literature and music and added new technological things like photographs, sound recordings and movies over time. Other kinds of intellectual properties include designs (for physical objects such as a chair), patents (for processes such as making a new and novel kind of chair), trade marks (such as the chair on the chair-maker's logo) and good will (such as their reputation for making the best chairs). We have just over three hundred years of copyright law trying to keep pace with technological change.

In what seems an attempt to hasten the pace of change the European Commission asked back at the start of December for answers to questions on copyright for Europe with an original deadline of February 5th which was later extended to March 5th. The Europa web page is here. The thought that the Commission want to re-open a broad debate on the European copyright directive is somewhat disconcerting to many; mainly because the directive itself is relatively recent (2001) and took five years to pull together. However, in the intervening thirteen years we've seen an explosion of consumer re-purposing and combining of audiovisual stuff (known as remixing) and widespread web publishing of text, images and even video by consumers.

The key point about intellectual property is that legally (in English law) it is seen as property and the rights holder - who could be the creator or could be someone delegated by the creator - has the right to control how their creative work is used. Now, while no-one would or could take my car and blend it with a cement mixer to produce a new art form without destroying the original, they could do that with some of my photographs. Should this be possible without my permission? That Victorian pastime of cutting out images you liked and pasting them into a scrapbook is strictly illegal if you do it on a computer, and becomes especially contentious if you then publish the result. See ... not simple.

Into the fray launch two web sites, both from 'Copyright is Broken' pressure groups. Fix Copyright! and Copywrongs.eu. This side of the copyright debate suggests that intellectual property law needs to be knocked down and rebuilt from scratch. This is to better balance the rights of creators and consumers (or, as Fix Copyright put it: "public interest in access to knowledge, culture and education".) You note your scope of interest and the sites lead you to the appropriate parts of the 80 question document from the Commission and offer help for your answers. The hints don't show a significant bias one way or the other and will genuinely help you navigate a convoluted form. That said, you are asked about problems you have had rather than positive experiences, which would tend to steer you away from reporting 'no problem' and lead to generally negative responses. The EU form itself has 'no' and 'no opinion' as alternative answers but it too seems biased towards bad experiences.

So, if you want to use either of these web sites to produce a response, please think as broadly as you can about the issues. Or, even better, use the EU form itself. There is now a further month to do so.

As far as I know, organisations representing creators such as writers, musicians and photographers and those representing the conventional public-facing side of copyright such as record companies and book publishers, have not produced any guides to dealing with this form, even though there is general concern about the risks to the creative industries if 'tried and tested' mechanisms for copyright law are shaken about.

Intellectual property law should strike a balance between the rights of the creator and the consumer (noting that consumers and creators can be the same person), but should that always be a strictly equal balance? Should there not be a bias towards the creator because it is the creator who initiates the whole process and everything else derives from that?

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