OnCopyright 2012: Prospering in the Creative Economy

“Advancing the Creative Economy” was the theme of the Copyright Clearance Center’s OnCopyright 2012 conference on March 30, and an important first order of business seemed to be defining what, exactly, a creative economy is. For many, it became a matter of semantics: “piracy” and “stealing” vs. “infringement,” “individual” vs. “commercial,” “intellectual property” vs. “creative greater good,” and “copyright” vs. “licensing.” The philosophical implications of these words clearly depended on what roles panelists played in the creative economy, as did the preference as to whether copyright ambiguities be better defined, or remain vague and fungible.

The idea of “Remixing” was a big part in  discussions, with many panelists conceding that nothing is wholly original anymore. Instead, several spoke to the power of making work available for the greater good, particularly for educational purposes like the National Gallery in Washington, DC’s tax-funded online photo gallery of public domain work, which can be downloaded freely. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s video presentation, “Everything is a Remix, Part 4,” pointed out that the problem with copyright laws is that nobody wants to enforce them until their own work is being infringed upon. As Eve Sinaiko, Director of Publications at the Jewish Museum in New York City, articulated, “The presumption is that everything is a product that can be monetized” and even the most open-minded creators can find themselves being wooed by opportunistic litigation.

Indeed, there did seem to be a discrepancy between the original creators and the large-scale copyright holders, and while individual artists seemed more open to the possibility of remixing and finding alternatives to legal recourse (which can take 1-5 years to resolve), those who deal with copyright on artists’ behalves called for better enforcement and more clearly-defined terms. Author and journalist Robert Levine explained that the importance of copyright is to “adjudicate the lines… where self-interests meet” and to help determine a compromise between one’s “right to remix” and an author’s “right not to be remixed.” The problem with current copyright law is that it lasts too long, covers too much stuff, and is not enforced.

For Robert Levine and singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, the idea of infringement isn’t necessarily a worry. Through a study by The Future of Music Coalition, McKeown discovered that only 20% of her income comes from copyright and that even that is a high because she owns all her masters and her music. Levine admitted that “[he doesn’t] need copyright for 70 years after [his] death. But [he] would like a couple months where [his book is] not pirated.”

However, infringement is a rampant concern for many larger copyright holders. The top 5 rogue websites get about 41 billion page views/year (and this is excluding the now shut-down Megavideo, which would have raised the number significantly). For Hachette, taking infringement into its own hands has been effective. Maja Thomas, SVP, Hachette Digital, explained that there were over 900,000 infringements on their 10 best-selling books, but that 95% were taken down after Hachette sent out notices. This approach is labor-intensive, though. “DRM is a speed bump,” Thomas explained, demonstrating that tech-savvy pirates can easily distribute ebooks if they want to, though she also admitted that in her music industry experience, dropping DRM made the business more robust.

In the law panel, everyone could agree that a book rights registry is essential and that legislation would be necessary for helping empower the government to shut down foreign rogue sites (though many agreed that SOPA and PIPA were not necessarily the bills to do it). For Tom Rubin, Chief Counsel for Intellectual Property Strategy at Microsoft, the registry is essential in a cloud-computing world, as it would provide better frictionless licensing or, as he called it, “copyright at the speed of light.” Michele Woods, Associate Register for Policy and International Affairs at the US Copyright Office, also mentioned that more copyright formalities might help building registries, as it would encourage artists to take proper measures to document their work so that it does not become orphaned. Everyone also lamented the difficulty of establishing cross-border licenses, citing that a big reason the Google Books settlement did not go through was that international publishers were having problems with the terms of agreement and access to the collective.

Even with the call for more organization and stricter terms, there was still support to leave some aspects of copyright law on the looser side. When an audience member suggested the idea of having bright lines to restrict possible misinterpretation of copyright terms, Eve Sinaiko immediately pointed out that they have not been proven to prevent piracy and the stealing of content. In fact, Carol Mandel, Dean of the Division of Libraries at NYU, cheered the vagueness of Fair Use, as it allows the space for possible new uses of material when legislation can’t keep up. Michele Woods echoed this sentiment when talking about limiting the penalties of using orphaned works without cleared rights, so long as due diligence is performed to find possible rights-owners. By allowing these aspects of copyright to be open to interpretation, artists can feel more comfortable taking risks and incorporating others’ ideas without fear of legal repercussions.

While the digital revolution is creating opportunities to advance the creative economy like never before, it is important that some kind of friction be created, even if just artificially, as Maja Thomas pointed out. As it stands, the Wild West is far from being civilized, and it won’t be, according to author and producer Steven Rosenbaum, until a set of behaviors is agreed upon.

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  1. […] book, The Creative Economy (Penguin, 2007), Howkins, who recently gave the opening keynote at OnCopyright 2012, discusses the dynamics and shifts in the creative economy over the past decades and the effects […]

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