Debate Over Copyright in the Digital Age Continues

Here's a Solution: Simpler System That Protects Artists, Gives Consumers Easier Access to Content

By Published on .

Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro
I was utterly unprepared for the reactions to my previous post here, "Is copyright the buggy whip of the digital age?" where I shared my thoughts from the CCC (Copyright Clearance Center) conference called "The Collision of Ideas 2010." The conference was created to explore the state of copyright laws in the ez-copy'n paste digital world. In my post, I concluded that while copyright used to work reasonably well for most people, it seems to fail a lot when it comes to the internet.

There was lots of reaction to my post (both on and off this forum). They were split among technologists who understood my point to the artists themselves who felt I had betrayed them. I sensed many would have liked to tar and feather me. But the sheer depth and breadth of the reaction inspired me to dig deeper. I was secretly hoping to find the silver bullet answer that could magically protect artistic rights while simultaneously allowing content the freedom to flow so that it could potentially improve the lives of billions of people worldwide. Sounds noble I know and I knew full well my low chances for success. But I persevered if for no other reason than to continue the dialogue so that perhaps someone else might find the answer.

The obvious place to start was to educate myself better given my obvious lack of depth here. I reviewed the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and I read about the very new, very controversial UK Digital Economy Bill, which introduces extensive online copyright infringement regulations and puts new obligations on content service providers to police against copyright infringement and piracy. Then, with all this newfangled legal jargon dancing in my head, I arranged to talk to a variety of artists and business people who are living this day in and day. It seemed though that the more I learned, the more surprised I became. And as every surprise revealed itself, the answer of how to make copyright work better became clearer.

Surprise No. 1: Copyright does work remarkably well for a certain caliber artist
Since it was the artists themselves who felt most injured by my article, I wanted to start there. It made sense to me to talk with photographers who were at the top of their game because I figured their stuff would get ripped off more than anyone. I was fortunate to be able to talk with Indrani, of Markus Klinko and Indrani, whose work is so iconic that they even have a Bravo reality show called "Double Exposure" coming out in June. If anyone was going to have a lot to lose by the failure of copyright, I thought, it would be these guys.

A Beyonce album cover photographed by Markus Klinko and Indrani.
A Beyonce album cover photographed by Markus Klinko and Indrani. Credit: Sony/Markus Klinko and Indrani
"Not at all," Indrani quickly corrected me. "We work so hard to create images that are recognizable and define our clients, that while they are eager for maximum authorized exposure, they also work tirelessly to prevent unauthorized usage. This protects their image and our work as well. As a result, we rarely have problems with unlawful use of our work." That was just the start of the surprises she had in store for me. Indrani and other artists at the top of their game, like David Hoffman, noted filmmaker and video documentarian, seemed far more concerned with getting their art out there. Indrani spoke most passionately when she discussed why she loves the digital revolution. "Now I can get our work out there much faster to a much broader audience than ever before. " She clearly understands that the value of their work is based on their ability to draw high quality and quantity audiences. More than that, the goal for these artists is to create art that is so unique where copyright almost becomes irrelevant. This concept, that art can become so unique that can help "protect itself," was another "a-ha" moment.

Surprise No. 2: By releasing control of content so it can flow freely, artists' rights will be better protected
Philosophers often judge the moral character of a civilization by analyzing how they treated their most vulnerable members. Perhaps in the digital age, this means that we will be judged by how we disperse knowledge to the planet's most information-poor members. This is the primary principle that drives Jim Griffin of OneHouse and who is senior adviser to Warner Music.

Jim (and I admit author's bias on this point) believes that as in the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt, knowledge should be dispersed to anyone willing to learn. Yet, he also recognizes the equally important need to compensate artists for their work. So how does he reconcile these seeming mutually exclusive goals?

This was yet another surprise when he said; "The content-owner industry is one generation behind the content-consuming generation. If one thinks of content as a product then it runs the risk of becoming a commodity that is hard to protect no matter how good or bad copyright laws are. Rather, engineer content to be delivered and experienced within a service model."

As he explained this insight with me, we shared successful examples of "content as a service" such as content subscriptions with multiplatform access points or offer new ways for an audience to have high-quality interactions with content creators. And perhaps the best example of this concept comes from independent music artists who create interesting digital service interactions, which often include free distribution of their content. By loosening control, these artists have actually spawned a new industry.

Surprise No. 3: There are good copyright legal models out there and some are 150 years old!
Again, Jim Griffin from OneHouse ever so patiently explained the historic perspective of copyright. "In fact," he said, "the way our current copyright law works now is a blip in time." He explained that as early as the 1850s, authors recognized the need to be compensated for their work and they joined together in a collective to receive royalty payments. The model of shared risk/shared reward protected all of them from the public readings that threatened all book sales. They understood there's strength in collective copyright protection that is far more effective than artists can achieve protecting themselves one at a time.

This was another "a-ha" moment for me. It made so much sense that the answer lies in a simpler system where people can be protected collectively and consumers can access content simpler. This worked 150 years ago and it also works today such as in the education segment where content is well organized for reuse and SoundExchange which allows webcasters to pay one fee to access content.

So did I discover the silver bullet?
OK, maybe not a single bullet -- but a composite bullet that marries the idea that content can "protect itself" if it identifiable enough with the tried and true concept of an actuarial monetization model where "controlled release" may yield better protection for artists. I concede the devil is in the details, but the end result is clear -- a cogent copyright system that applies simplicity with reality so that the industry can stimulate the creation of things. This is a copyright system in its most noble state -- an enabler and a shield. That's something we can all believe in.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, 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.
Most Popular
In this article: