I went to one of the Birmingham Book Festival events earlier this week, and saw the British playwright, David Edgar, talk about How Plays Work. At one point Edgar talks about the particular problems that romantic comedy presents in the construction of a drama, basically because everyone knows how it’s going to end (unless it’s Jane Austen’s Emma, he said) so you’ve got to draw in quite sophisticated devices to keep the audience interested. So when he was writing his book, How plays work, he really wanted to quote a few passages from Nora Ephron, screenwriter of Sleepless in Seattle et al, but has found, over the years, that it’s almost impossible to obtain permission for quoting passages from film screenplays, because of the over-protectiveness of the entertainment industry towards its own intellectual property (last clause is my words rather than Edgar’s). Just to make sure that I’ve driven this point home, he was prevented from reproducing a few lines in the pursuit of scholarly endeavour together with a full acknowledgement, rather than photocopying an entire script.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who attended Internet Librarian International on Thursday that all of this sprung readily to mind when listening to Cory Doctorow’s opening keynote speech. Doctorow drew a picture of a group of elite broadcasters deciding what we’ll look at and delivering a glossy production to entertain us all. This wouldn’t be a problem, he said (although I find that debatable), except that those people have the ear of lawmakers, and are intent on using that to preserve their privileges.
It’s interesting to have a Canadian point out that in the UK here is no right to parody – and that use of copyright material to parody can constitute copyright infringement or even libel. I had no idea that this was the case, and can only think that the British sense of humour, surely one of the best reasons to live in the UK, is some sort of miracle. Doctorow used this to demonstrate that every country has its own information regulations and legislation. However, international treaties have begun to harmonise right-holder rights. These agreements effectively set a minimum floor for right-holder privilege, but unfortunately no ceiling, and Doctorow argues that this means that public rights vary from one country to another.
Doctorow then turned his attention to Google Books Search, focusing on the contentious issue of whether making copies for the purposes of indexing is unlawful. If enacted, every search engine will be breaking the law, and this would effectively break the web. Copying is just about as difficult today as it’s ever going to be, as a combination of capacious hardware and usable networks means that copying (which was technically a lot more difficult at the time when copyright laws were originally formulated) is going to get easier and easier.
He outlined a number of scenarios to illustrate our dependence on the web. The idea of trying to do my job without the internet certainly chimed with me. I’d struggle without RSS and Delicious, let alone Google. If we’re not careful, then, all these activities will find themselves regulated under copyright legislation, because almost every online activity involves copying in some way.
In the UK, the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, authored, unusually, by an economist rather than representative from the entertainment or publishing industry, pointed out that copyright doesn’t actually deliver much in terms of economic value. Copyright protection won’t encourage dead artists to produce more work anytime soon.
Doctorow argued that information is a means to an end – it’s about helping people to do interesting things with information, rather than making information an endlessly tradable commodity per se. And with the dramatically lower costs of coordination brought about by the network, it is actually information technology that is the engine, so cutting off the use of IT will be far more economically damaging than cutting off the privileges of the entertainments industry.
He also drew our attention to ACTA – the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement, currently being hammered out in secret. Four key elements of ACTA are:
- The three-strike rule. This has just been passed in France, and is under consideration in the UK. It means that anyone who is accused (as opposed to convicted, which apparently is too expensive to implement!) three times of copyright infringement, then your ISP will cut off your access to the internet. All the benefits of the internet become subject to the capriciousness of the entertainment and publishing industries, Doctorow argued.
- Criminal sanctions for non-commercial infringements so your children are liable to gaol time if caught trading files
- Proposals to wire tap the whole of the internet to detect copyright infringement
- Searching at borders of hard drives including archiving of private information.
To say the least this is heavy-handed, removing any vestiges of a right to privacy or to a fair trial, and there’s no reason to believe that this will stop infringers who use sophisticated mechanisms to avoid detection. American NGOs have apparently requested details of the treaty, under the Freedom of Information act, but the Obama administration has refused, saying it’s a matter of national security.
Depressing stuff. But like many people, I was heartened by developments in the UK this week, when pressure in the blogosphere and on Twitter effectively broke a super-injunction served on the Guardian preventing any reporting about a Parliamentary question concerning the actions of oil traders, Trafigura. Society gets the freedom(s) it deserves, and there is more scope for disruption than we often realise.