18 Mar 2018

Digital media pioneer urges radical rethink of copyright

From Mediawatch, 9:08 am on 18 March 2018

Our creaking pre-internet copyright law is up for review, with the rights of digital-age creators and consumers in conflict. Canadian author and online pioneer Cory Doctorow tells Mediawatch propping up old business models would be like rewarding the winners of last year’s lottery all over again. But if we're more free to share online, how will anyone make a living?​

Cory Doctorow, writer

Cory Doctorow, writer Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

When you play some audio from news media website like RNZ's you might only listen to it the once, just as you would listening live to the radio. But you are in fact copying an original work.

If you used a portable digital device, you might have made another copy of it in an online backup somewhere or even in a cloud storage system without even knowing. You could be breaking the law.

The Copyright Act 1994 allows owners of original work to control the copying, publishing and sale of the work. It also gives owners the right to give the right to do all that to someone else. It was written long before online sharing became a thing and even though it has been amended several times it has lagged far behind technology

For example, it wasn’t until long after VHS recorders were in most homes that an exception made it fully legal to record and keep TV shows at home.

When a review of the law was announced last June, the government warned it will "not be able to resolve all issues to everybody's satisfaction."

But what changes might help?

One outfit with lots of skin in the game is Google, which now offers online tools for creating, storing and sharing and original content with hundreds of millions of users all over the world.

It commissioned international consultants Deloitte to take a look at our law and this week it released the  findings at an Internet NZ conference in Wellington.

The current regime’s 'fair dealing' test, says Deloitte, has "failed to keep pace with changing technology".

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Photo: supplied

  • It is permissible to copy music from a CD to your tablet for sound recording - but not to copy a film from a DVD to
  • your tablet
  • It is permissible to back-up a CD to your computer, but not to communicate by storing it privately online or electronically transmit the sound recording so you can listen to it on mobile
  • It is not permissible to copy a funny photo you saw on Twitter and share it on a Facebook page as it is not covered by any exception
  • It is permissible to watch an online video, but not play it in a presentation to your team at work as it is not covered by any exception.
  • Content may be used for news reporting or criticism, but not for parody, satire or purely artistic purposes.

The report says New Zealand should follow the lead of the US, South Korea and Israel and adopt a 'fair use' regime with more flexible exceptions for use of copyright material based on the purpose of people’s use and the nature of work they create from it. But broader exceptions to copyright would be opposed by publishers, movie makers, photo-libraries and the music industry, which all want people to pay for their products and not just share them.

In his keynote speech in Wellington this week, Canadian author, journalist and digital pioneer Cory Doctorow said propping up existing businesses in news, media and entertainment is like trying to reward the winners of last year’s lottery all over again.

“Freezing old business models” will mean “ending up at war” with the forces of innovation and change, he warned.   

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Photo: supplied

But doesn’t that condemn writers like him - and other creators in the internet age - to only ever earning only a pittance from their work?

"When technology comes along it challenges the exceptions to copyright. But you can't afford to wait 20 years to legalise new technologies, not least because they are really important to the entertainment industry," he said

"Without the VCR it would have been in a lot of trouble. The DVD and streaming services that exist today are the legacy of the VCR," he told Mediawatch.

In his 2014 book Information doesn’t want to be free, Cory Doctorow argued for fewer restrictions on intellectual property. Last year, Cory Doctorow put his money where his mouth is by launching a fair trade-style platform for -e-books. 

"The internet only works by making copies. In the past readers could read a book without understanding copyright. Today in theory you are expect to read and solemnly agree to between 10,000 and 30,000 words of extremely dense legal boilerplate. A regime that criminalises broad swathes of the population is just bad policy," he said. 

While it's natural for creators to resent online sharing, Cory Doctorow says the digital media thinker who coined the terms Web 2.0 and Open Source - Tim O'Reilly - got it right when he said: “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.”

"We need a set of industrial rules for the entertainment industry and we should stop pretending that 12 year-olds are going to abide by copyright," he said. 

In his native Canada, a government-ordered report into the problems of the news media - The Shattered Mirror - suggested tightening up copyright law to prevent news created at great expense by one news outlet being lifted or copied by others online. Some countries have pursued so-called "link taxes", imposing a cost on online republication.

Good idea?

"Link taxes have never worked. Charging people to tell other people about your news is not a way to get people interested in your news. There is not a newsroom that would survive creating copyright from snippets or facts,' he said.  

Cory Doctorow visited Wellington as a guest of Writers & Readers at the New Zealand Festival, with the assistance of Internet NZ and the Canada Council.