There’s life in the old dog yet (Part 1)

Contrary to popular belief, the internet is reaffirming the importance of copyright even as it reshapes the music, film and publishing industries

Vinton Cerf recently described the internet he helped to create as “a giant copying machine”. But many internet content businesses, like newspapers, music services, or online video services, are based on limiting copying to try to fund the costs of content.

Thanks to this apparent conflict, there is a wide-spread view that copyright is the problem, and the internet is the solution. This is too simplistic. True, the internet threatens businesses that unduly restrict distribution of their content. But the core copyright concepts (author control of ideas, and attribution) are proving just as important in the internet age.

Part 1 of this article explains what copyright is, and how the internet is changing things. Part 2 looks at efforts to stop copyright infringement.

Part 1

What is copyright?

Copyright means that the creator of an artistic work has the exclusive right to prevent copying of their work by others. In New Zealand, thanks to the Copyright Act 1994, (summary here) it applies automatically when someone creates an original work, and it lasts for at least 50 years. Amongst other things, copyright applies to books and the printed word, including software code, and “communication works” like sound recordings and video. The exclusive rights of copyright holders are subject to some limitations for “fair dealing”, including for news reporting, research, criticism, private study, or archiving.

What is copyright for?

The purpose of copyright is to “promote creation of and access to artistic, literary, musical, dramatic and other creative productions”.

Originally copyright was conceived as a way to control printing of the “wrong” sort of books. The Stationers’ Company stitched up a deal with the UK government whereby it was given the exclusive right to print books in order to enable governmental control over that dangerous new invention, the printing press. This idea evolved over time into the first copyright statue – the Statute of Anne from 1710 – “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors”.

Economically copyright lets people put effort into content creation and distribution safe in knowledge that recognition and any proceeds from their efforts will flow to them, and not to someone else. This in turn safeguards the necessary investments in generating creative content.

For example, NPR estimates that it costs just over a million US dollars for Rihanna to make a hit song. The bulk of the costs are actually the costs of marketing and distribution, not of creation itself. It is telling people about this new addition to the world’s rich musical tapestry, generating demand and getting it out to the world that costs a lot of money.

The sad reality is, despite her evident musical talent, at least some of Rihanna’s million dollar songs won’t make a million dollars in revenue. Those who front the money for these types of efforts are faced with the difficulties of generating enough money to justify investment in marketing and distributing all the works that do not generate sufficient returns. Similar nervousness attends those who fund films or television series that cost a bomb, when facing a world in which their work can be distributed practically for free as soon as it is made available. In the Internet age, their need to control access to content is both more essential and harder than ever before.

Are you for real

Computers have made everyone a potential artist, and the internet means that every potential artist can in theory reach a huge audience. People create and freely distribute all sorts of content, e.g., music, video, software, poetry and distribute it every day. There are 150 million new words every day at, a popular blogging platform. The key difficulty for most authors of digital content is getting anyone to notice their work, not preventing people from ripping it off.

There are plenty of internet-based business models. Two recently in the news are Spotify, a streaming music service, or Quickflix, an online video streaming service.

The problem with these models is basically that they do not make enough money. Free distribution does not mean that content is free to make. Consider newspapers. Circulation for many papers has fallen sharply, along with print advertising revenues. Online advertising is growing quickly, but does not make up the gap. So a world where newspapers are funded only by online advertising will either have a lot less expensive content, or a lot fewer newspapers.

Whether the position of artists is better in this new world is also a matter of debate (positive view – negative view). Artists get much greater potential distribution, but also face much greater competition. There is only one Radiohead, who famously let their customers choose how much they wished to pay for their album In Rainbows, but tonnes of other bands who let you listen to their music for free but still do not have Radiohead’s commercial success (you might like, for example, Flip Grater).

As Vikram Kumar of Internet NZ points out in his excellent post, most views still go to a tiny proportion of online content, and marketing money and effort still makes the difference between what is popular and not popular.

As yet the new media model has not stretched to funding a blockbuster film – starting from $200m. The most successful recent project you can support through Kickstarter, a crowd-sourcing website for funding art projects, is American musician Amanda Palmer’s new album. She has raised almost $1.2m in what are effectively pre-sales available to fund her efforts, not to record the album, but to market it. Nearly 25k people have contributed something, 22k of those less than $50, but 34 people have pitched in $5k – for that they get an organised party at their house at which Ms Palmer will entertain.

Note that Ms Palmer is not letting anyone have her music for free (although you get a digital download of the album for only $1). Nor is she letting other people pretend that they wrote her music. She still relies fundamentally on copyright. What she is doing is using crowd-sourced funding rather than a record company, while still allowing copying under conditions she controls. This is less about copyright and copying than it is about experimenting with a different business model for music.

Alternatives to all rights reserved

Speaking of alternative business models, there is the extraordinary example of Free and Open Source Software, FOSS (interesting history) – a large industry of software developers who let you freely use the code they write, alter it, and even sell the result if you can (the “Free” refers to the freedom to copy and re-use, not to the price of the software or installation, support or customisation services that firms provide).

FOSS is remarkably successful. It now powers the vast majority of all websites and webservers, most existing cloud providers and cloud services including those provided by, for example, Google, or Facebook, and most of the world’s supercomputers (click on the “By Os” button). The Android smartphone platform is built on FOSS. So is the software in many special-purpose electronic devices, e.g., flat screen TVs, internet routers, wireless networking devices, or web cams.

FOSS developers do not abandon copyright. In fact it is through copyright that they enforce the licensing conditions of their software, which are intended to promote sharing and protect users’ freedom. Their copyright terms typically define not what rights you have as an author, but instead what freedoms users of your work must continue to enjoy.

Another option for artists, more common outside of software, the six Creative Commons’ licences embody different levels of copyright permission from which authors can choose. All the licences require identification of the original author of a work, but they also allow others to modify, or even sell derivatives of the copyrighted work under conditions. And they enable an author to require users of a work to apply the same conditions to any derivative works.

In sum, the internet is radically changing the content industry. It has brought a huge range of free content to the world, and new freedoms for artists. But the evidence to date suggests that any effective business model still rests on fundamental copyright concepts of attribution, intellectual property, and choices by creators as to whether and how they want to make their work available.

Link to Part 2 of this post


One thought on “There’s life in the old dog yet (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: There’s life in the old dog yet (Part 2) | whereishayden

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