Wednesday, 24 October 2012

IPR reform: Five Talking Points For Debates

Intellectual property rights law needs to be reformed as a matter of urgency. I got into a disagreement with someone I'm friendly with on Google Plus over copyright because he earns money from the CDs he sells to driving schools. We had a bit of back-and-forth, then he asked me for some talking points for a hangout he intends to hold about intellectual property rights.

Here they are:

  1. Its ever-increasing overreach is stifling innovation

  2. Technological improvements mean that per-copy sales are no longer a viable revenue stream

  3.  "Educating" the public isn't changing their attitudes

  4. Our civil and digital rights are being subordinated to maintain outdated business models

  5. Creative people are often cheated of their earnings by collection agencies and publishers

1. Its ever-increasing overreach is stifling innovation

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) trolling is a growth industry in which lawyers and their agents track down alleged violators and threaten to take them to court unless they settle. It's cheaper to settle. Eolas is a case in point. Does Intellectual Ventures ring a bell? The idea is to write the patents, etc. so broadly that anyone could violate them whether they realise they are doing so or not. The risk of being hauled into court to defend a ridiculous lawsuit is so high that it's easier to tweak your existing products or pay a heavy price for trying out a new idea. Microsoft, Apple, and Oracle have a history of doing this. It's costing over $20 billion a year.

The main problem is that the ideas are being given more importance than the product and consumers are sufering for lack of choice. Because of this, outsourcing is enabled because foreign factories are making the products, then importing them. This can fail when factories decide not to renew the licence and manufacture anyway. Still, it's shifting the value from the product to the brand, and that only benefits the brand owner.

2. Technological improvements mean that per-copy sales are no longer a viable revenue stream

DRM can be overcome if you know how to do it. Copying has never been easier; we can 3D print now, something that used to be the province of science fiction. There are as many ways of copying items as there are to create them so why are creators relying on copyright? Let's be honest here, copyright has always been the realm of the publisher. Exclusive rights to publish are the basis on which it is built.

So why does a creator want to make money from publishing when he or she is not a publisher? Stop thinking like that and employ other means of making money from your work. Subscription fees, patronage or sponsorship, and crowdfunding are available. I've got a PayPal button on my blog that appears in the sidebar and at the bottom of every post in case someone wants to demonstrate their appreciation of my work. Sometimes they do. The point is, there are ways to earn from your creative efforts that don't involve demanding copyright fees and exclusive distribution. Sharing can be leveraged; DMCA can be used to divert the ad revenue from people sharing your work online to your own bank account. Therefore, you're earning from other people sharing.

3. "Educating" the public isn't changing their attitudes

The more the copyright lobbyists work to get their "respect others' intellectual property rights" message across, the harder it falls on its pudgy little bum. IPR overreach has made it difficult to talk about or share images, words, or clips without permission and the public are having none of it.

Sharing is a cultural phenomenon and when content such as stories, films, or music is created it's culture to be broadcast and shared. To claim ownership of the EXPERIENCE of popular films and songs is to limit the experience. People don't like being limited, and while it's only right to be asked for payment for the artists, forcing people to pay per experience, which is where we're headed, is going to make "piracy" worse. The idea of having exclusive distribution rights doesn't work in internet culture. Trying to explain that you're owed a living for the work you've put in will only get you so far. What you need to do is provide a service people want at a price they are willing to pay, and make it easy for them to both access your work and pay you for it. Make it difficult to do either and you end up playing whack-a-mole trying to track down and punish infringers.

4. Our civil and digital rights are being subordinated to maintain outdated business models

DMCA enforcement groups are hiring themselves out to assorted content providers in order to track down and punish copyright violations. Armovore is a case in point. The reason I'm bringing this up is not to bash an inept enforcement firm but to highlight the point that unauthorised sharing is such a big problem for publishing and production companies that they're actually spending more money trying to control it than they stand to gain from working with instead of against their customers. They have a clever plan for this: they convince our governments to legislate in their favour and use our law enforcement agencies to come after us.

The trouble with going after people for sharing is that there's so much of it going around you end up using scripts to track down the item in question. Armovore used keywords and pulled down posts from Techdirt and TorrentFreak. It's not the first time this has happened. DMCA is being abused left, right, and centre not by alleged pirates but by content companies trying to pull each others' work down. NASA had its Mars Rover film that it owned pulled down over copyright. So basically even if we do produce original work it can and does get pulled by bots and we're declared the bad guys. I haven't even started on the penalties for link-sharing yet. I kid you not, the act of linking is seen by some people not as advertising but as infringement and they come after us demanding payment. It's not on.

5. Creative people are often cheated of their earnings by collection agencies and publishers

Our favourite pop stars get most of their income from performing at concerts and selling merchandise, not from the record companies. The collections agencies that chase down the income (often in ridiculous ways) have a vested interest in denying the existence of alternative business models because that's how they make a living: taking a cut of the money they get from outlets such as radio and television.

Eminem, Kenny Rogers, and the Allman Brothers are among the biggest artists who have been screwed out of royalties by their record companies. Who makes the biggest fuss about copyright? The record companies. Artists make most of their money from performances and merchandise sales. If the record companies are suffering I'd like to know why Viacom's CEO made out like a bandit in November last year.


If we're going to sort out the piracy problem we need to start by promoting alternative business models or we're not going to get anywhere. Most people are too entrenched in the pay-per-copy business model to consider acknowledging that others exist, forget trying them out to find out what works for them. I honestly believe that if I can persuade enough people to try new ways of earning from their creativity, we'll be able to effect the change we need.

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