Is Copyright the Buggy Whip of the Digital Age?

Exploring Balance Between People's Desire to Share Content and Creators' Right to Compensation

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Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro

Have copyright laws outlived their usefulness in the digital age?

That was the question I harbored as I joined some of the most prestigious copyright lawyers last week for a conference sponsored by the CCC (Copyright Clearance Center) called "The Collision of Ideas 2010." I fully acknowledge that my understanding of copyright law is basic at best, so I wanted to attend because as a marketer I honestly don't how to apply best practices when it comes to copyright issues in the digital world. How do I know, for instance, that when I contract for a small project via a freelance site they are not giving me copyrighted material? Or, what content can I reuse on a site as reproducible content versus what content is protected? But mostly I was anxious to understand how the copyright system can possibly reconcile people's instinctive desire to share content with digital technology and content creators' right to get fair compensation. I walked in wondering whether copyright laws are the buggy whips of the digital age.

To kick things off, the conference opened with Bill Patry, senior copyright counsel from Google, who gave us some perspective on the subject including an appreciation for the fact that copy machines and audio cassettes first sparked this debate. The digital age just made an existing problem exponentially worse. He then explained with clarity how one potential avenue for relief, the legislative process, is unlikely to do anything for a long time. It seemed that we were on our own and we would have to figure it out ourselves.

Subsequent sessions explored the challenges of creating the balance between content's natural capacity to be shared with content creators' financial rights. While I was challenged to understand all the legal nuances, I understood full well the difficult challenges and I was getting a bit overwhelmed at the impossibility of the situation. I was also becoming more convinced that the current system was not long for the digital world.

Different perspectives
To mix it up, the conference planners did a great job of presenting non-lawyer types, for balance. They included, among others, Kasian Franks, founder of SeeqPod (searchable playable content); David Hoffman, a noted PBS video documentarian; and Jim Griffin, managing director of OneHouse, an entertainment and media delivery company. Each of these presenters shared their perspective of how copyright laws not only constrain creativity but do not really protect artists' interests in many cases either. Mr. Franks, of SeeqPod, poignantly told us how he was personally being sued for copyright infringement. He shared his conviction that alternate business models can be created to generate revenue rather than relying on copyrights alone to compensate content creators.

Mr. Hoffman, the filmmaker, gave a presentation where he confided how challenging current copyright laws are for artists. As an example, he gave us detailed insights into the challenges he had creating his critically acclaimed Sputnik documentary. He explained that half his budget was spent on copyright fees alone. Most unfairly, he had to pay exorbitant copyright fees to a network for old news footage they did not even have but which David himself had spent time to ferret out. David openly concluded that, "it was better to open the floodgates" and let anyone use his content than constrain its distribution. When asked how he would make money, he said very practically, "I'll find other ways to make money," which he does by using YouTube to promote his videos.

Innovation is key
Then in another panel session, Mr. Griffin, the founder of OneHouse, whose company is developing a new model of music and entertainment delivery, probably made the most impassioned argument that content must flow freely (double entendre intended) given its capacity to improve the human condition. He likened the current copyright model to an "old vine we cling to," unsuited for today's digital world. His solution is to pay content creators based on an "actuarial" model where groups can share revenue collectively.

What was most inspiring is that these people were openly saying what I was thinking -- the current system is ill-suited to the current realities. The answer lies in innovating new ways to compensate content creators such as new compensation structures or new engagement methods that can be monetized. In their personal experiences and outlooks, these content producers effectively laid down the gauntlet to the legal industry -- innovate or we may all die.

Maybe that's why Jim Griffin used this quote as a rallying call: "Copyright law ... is not an engine of free expression, but a yoke of innovation." Maybe that's why the conference is themed: "The Collision of Ideas."

Judy Shapiro is senior VP at Paltalk and has held senior marketing positions at Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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