Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Surprise! UK's Intellectual Property Office Reports On The Value Of The Public Domain

The UK's Intellectual Property Office has published a report on the value of the public domain which was produced by researchers led by the RCUK Centre for Copyright & New Business Models (CREATe), the University of Glasgow, Bournemouth University, the Intellectual Property Office, and UK creative businesses.


The overall purpose of the project was 1) to map the size of the public domain and frequency of its use; 2) analyse the role of public domain works in value creation for UK businesses; 3) assist creators and entrepreneurs to identify business models that benefit from the public domain. In addition to these outputs, the intellectual contribution of this project was to arrive at a sufficiently precise definition of the public domain that would permit measurement of its value, and secondly, to critically appraise theories of creativity and innovation that explain how value might be generated from non-exclusive use of ideas and works available to all.

That the UK's Intellectual Property Office would take a stance that in any way favours the public domain is a big shift from their usual maximalist position. What shouldn't surprise anyone is the number of entities using public domain materials — getting licences for items under copyright, particularly orphan (unclaimed) works, is problematic at best, prohibitively expensive at worst. It's easier to use works that aren't locked down till 2039. It's also much cheaper. Wikipedia apparently saves up to £138 million a year on its English language pages alone. Meanwhile, copyright protectionism may be hurting some authors born after 1880 by making it hard to get pictures of them to use on their pages; the study shows that pages with images on get up to 19% more visitors.

The report is very thorough, exploring the commercial and community uses of public domain materials and explaining the pros and cons of using copyrighted materials in a fractured global licencing regime where there's always a risk of falling foul of overseas copyright restrictions. The most encouraging part is at the end, where they make three key recommendations:

  1. Assist communities in valorising UK cultural heritage
  2. As far as possible, clarify legal status of public domain
  3. Improve access to information

The continuing development of new business models that add value to materials drawn from the public domain is essential to increasing its importance to both the private and commercial sectors. It seems likely that growing recognition of the role the public domain plays in the economy is the key to promoting the reform of the copyright regime we so desperately need.

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