Friday, 6 July 2012

Proposed UK Copyright reforms draft paper out (1)

Thanks to @copyrightgirl I have been reading the snappily titled "GOVERNMENT POLICY STATEMENT: Consultation on Modernising Copyright". The press release has been titled "Modernising copyright to help strengthen contribution to growth" but I can't help but feel if that was their genuine intent then they have, if not failed, then at least fallen a long way short of a stunning success.

Skipping straight past some questionable statements in the exec summary (which does at least try and bring a measure of balance to the debate) we'll look at the separate chunks in this document.

The consultation covers three areas: Orphan Works, Extended Collective Licensing and Codes of Conduct for Collecting Societies. Having read through this a couple of times I'll address each section in turn. Corrections and criticisms are more than welcome in the comments.

Orphan Works:
For those unfamiliar with the terminology, these are works where the copyright owner is not known or cannot be located. This issue with orphan works is that these works are effectively locked up and no-one can make use of them. Remembering that the purpose of copyright is to promote culture and knowledge it makes sense to try and open up this considerably bank of material for wider use.
So far so good.
Basically the governments proposal is that orphan works can be licensed if a "diligent search" has unearthed no owners and been confirmed by an independent authorising body. At the moment the definition of diligent and the nature of the authorising body have not yet been revealed, so we'll skip over that.
The issue I foresee is around this paragraph: "This permission should come at an appropriate price – a market rate, to the extent that one can be established". The problem here is that the current major rights holders do not have a good record of setting reasonable market rates for licenses. There is a litter of failed innovative start-ups that have tried to engage the major rights-holders to license content but they've been squashed by completely unreasonable and, more importantly, unrealistic license demands.
Looking at two of the four key principles (i'm ignoring the others because I don't see a problem with them) there appears to be a bit of confusion as to what is being attempted here:
"• Minimising market distortion between orphan and non-orphan works, by ensuring the owners of rights in
orphan works are treated as similarly as possible to comparable ‘non-orphan’ rights holders.
• Maximising the benefits to economic growth of the scheme."
The problem here is that the second of these is most easily achieved by dumping the first. The way that these works can provide most economic benefit is by saying that all orphan works are public domain. That way they can be copied, deconstructed, built up, remixed, re-developed and generally transformed into any thing that provides value to a potential customer. Trying to minimise the distortion pretty much ignores the whole purpose of copyright - the growth of culture.
I fully understand the principle that they are trying to preserve the rights of someone who might subsequently claim ownership, but this is further undermined by another section of the proposal:
"Works of unknown copyright status, such as where the work is over 70 years old and the date of death
of the author is unknown, will be within scope of the scheme."
This is just nuts. Copyright is there to inspire creation of new content. If the work is over 70 years old how much new content is the original creator likely to make? The only beneficiary to this part of the scheme is where the rights are owned by a corporation. If the work is over 70 years old and is orphan then it should just revert directly to the public domain.*
They do make some concession with "• To reduce anomalously long copyright for certain unpublished, pseudonymous and anonymous very old works, with the consequence that a number of these works will cease to be in copyright rather than being orphan works." but then provide no detail of which works might fall into this category or what might constitute "very old".

Right, this is turning into a long blog so I'm going to cover the other parts in subsequent posts, once again, if i've misunderstood (or just missed) anything, please correct me in the comments.

* ignoring, of course, the sheer ridiculousness of the life +  70 year copyright rule.

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