Sunday, 22 May 2005

Copyfighters London, 15 May 2005






Last Sunday I went to the Copyfighters Drunken Brunch and Talking Shop, hosted in London by Cory Doctorow of the EFF. I was late arriving plus I couldn't stay after the Speakers' Corner speeches, so I didn't get to chat much to many people (hi to Cory, Freeculture Pedro from Florida, Jim Clements and Neil of Fading Ways Music, future legal eagle of Fading Ways (can't spell your name correctly, sorry so rather than get it wrong I won't try!), Leo, Gavin of FFII and Sarah!).

It was fun, and very interesting. I overheard someone mention that most people there seemed to be lawyers (don't you all run away now!), which is not surprising given the Creative Commons and copyright focus.

Speakers' Corner

The speeches were excellent, kicked off and wrapped up by Cory. I see that some folks have posted pics up on Flickr. There seemed to me to be three broad themes:
  • promoting the use and support of Creative Commons
  • a more radical suggestion that civil disobedience was the best way to engender change, and
  • a warning about the threat to software development and innovation posed by the upcoming EU law on software patents and exhortations to lobby MEPs about it.
Speaker's Corner would not be the same without its hecklers and sure enough one man (I hesitate to say "gentleman") from the crowd duly obliged, although he didn't engage with what was said so much as seize the opportunity to sound off about his own pet peeves ("Everything that's wrong with [insert speaker's theme here] is the fault of them bloody furriners!!". To paraphrase...)

I'm not the public speechifying type so I didn't leap onto the soapbox (or, strictly, if rather less romantically, the folding chair manfully lugged by Cory all the way there and back). But I thought some good points were made.

Creative Commons

Many people will have heard of the Creative Commons. For those who haven't, my take on it (and remember I'm no copyright expert!) is that it's a very good approach to copyright. It's a way (several ways actually) to license out your work, whether it's writing like blogs, or music, or art, which is much more in keeping with the spirit and the realities of the digital age, and more than worthy of support.

You retain your copyright, you dictate how others may use your work, but you can allow them more freedom than is normally the case with traditional "old" media - like free copying/downloading provided e.g. they credit you and it's only for non-commercial use (so that no one can sell it or make money out of it without getting your permission and, if that's a condition of your permission, giving you a cut). You can even let others remix and build on your work (if they credit you etc). It's easy to attach the appropriate CC licence to your work by choosing the type of work (audio etc) and answering a few easy questions. (A comparative overview of the differences between the licences isn't easy to find, for me anyway - it's here.)

For many, this is a great way to go, and I agree. In a way I'm a creative too: I have my blog and (in another incarnation) music and lyrics. I don't want my work to be ripped off or commercially exploited without my benefiting. But I believe the Creative Commons way strikes an excellent, fairer balance, offering creatives a way to grow a fan base through allowing some free private copying/use and sharing, while putting them in a position to have a say in any possible future commercialisation of their work. That's the philosophy of labels like Fading Wave and musicians like Jim, who hope people who download free tracks will want to buy the CD and pay to go to the gigs.

The hope is that more and more people will licence their work using Creative Commons (who provide a set of simple questions you answer to choose the licence that suits you), and more and more people will want to popularise the and support those who make their work freely available in this way. Recently the English version of the CC licence was produced (in April 2005).

I've certainly attached a Creative Commons licence to my own blog and my feed from the start (so people can copy my writing or code or even build on it, but must credit me and mustn't sell it or make money out of it without my permission). And I may well release music under CC too.

Creative Archive

As an aside, also of interest in this vein is that coincidentally - or not - in the same week as the English CC licence was officially released, the "Creative Archive Group" led by the BBC and including Channel 4, also released their own version of a copyright licence, the Creative Archive licence, which some have criticised as being more restrictive than the CC one and may risk confusing the issue, with people not knowing whether to go for a CC licence or Creative Archive one.

The main point of that licence is that the Group intends to release audio and video under it (Ashley Highfield of the BBC has said "The creative archive is an initiative to dig into the archive at the BBC, starting with our factual stuff, natural history etc. We'll see if we can't get some of that locked-up content archived, and provide it on the internet to download. It is predominantly intended as an educational tool, but we'll see how it goes. That's the idea. It's the beginning of a long journey to release the potential of all these locked-up tapes in the archive."). It's great that people will be allowed to download and remix clips from the BBC and Channel 4 etc for free, as well as watch them (all for non-commercial purposes only) - and in popular formats too like Quicktime, Windows Media and MPEG1.

And it looks like the Beeb are going to talk to programme makers about this licence for their future work too: "The BBC and PACT will hold further good faith discussions about the Creative Archive - with a view to agreeing how the Creative Archive could be covered under these Terms of Trade and the standard programme production agreement." (Pact is the UK trade association that represents and promotes the commercial interests of independent feature film, television, animation and interactive media companies.)

But it's disappointing that so far, despite the initial fanfare, very little has in fact been released under this licence - only a handful of old clips by the British Film Institute, which was claimed to be a success with over 3000 downloads. Nothing yet from the BBC itself - not even a promised radio program on losing the past and archiving, ironically! - despite their statement back in March 2004 that "The Creative Archive will give everyone in the UK the freedom to search for and access clips from the BBC's television and radio archives via bbc.co.uk." The way to try and get more stuff (and more interesting stuff) on there is for as many of us as possible to tell the BBC what we want! Sadly for non-Britons the downloads are only available within the UK, although as Kevin Marks points out, the World Service remit might well be used to extend to a worldwide service.

Civil disobedience?

As for the "civil disobedience" point, where one person effectively advocated (it seemed) illegal file sharing/downloading by all, because it will force the pace of change, they can't sue everyone and people have made more money selling their stories than they've had to pay the record companies in court - well that's a tougher one.

In a way I think it's all already been done and the mass movement, the impetus for a sea change, has already been created. It's precisely because of the huge volumes of illegal downloading in the past that the big record companies are now having to adapt and update their own distribution channels, albeit at their own monolithic pace. Witness the now legal *Napster, and of course the rise and rise of the iPod and iTunes.

Maybe continued illegal file sharing would help increase the pressure, I don't know - but given that there are now legal ways, and options like Creative Commons for forward-thinking writers and artists and consumers of art (in its broadest sense), personally I'd rather go down that route.

It will be very interesting to see what the US Supreme Court say in the MGM v Napster case, which is currently before them: they are to decide whether peer to peer file sharing software is illegal even though it has legal uses - in fact that decision will be vital to people's attitudes and actions in times to come.

Software patents in Europe

Finally, it's worth highlighting the software patents law which is going to be considered shortly in Europe (I've tracked down its long name: Directive on the patentability of computer-related inventions). It will extend the reach of EU patent law and allow pure computer software to be patented in Europe (the official EU page on it is here). This was the focus of a couple of the speeches, and to me it's very scary.

The US patents system has become unreal. C'mon, how can they let one company patent (and have a monopoly on, and charge everyone else for the privilege of using) the idea of doubleclicking to do stuff on a mobile device? Using the tab key on your keyboard to move from element to element on a Web form? (Or the idea of allowing people to order things easily online with one click?). Not as bad perhaps as in Australia where a patent lawyer, John Keogh, was able to show how ridiculous the system was by managing to get a patent on the wheel - but it's not far off, and now it seems Europe's going the same way too. Wrong way, chaps and chapesses.

Big rich companies are the ones who will have the resources to go off and patent every idea in sight (especially when patent fees aren't cheap), and then sue everyone who's within even a sniff of using a similar idea. A much better and easier money spinner than actually doing something useful with the idea, perhaps!

But rarely is anything created in isolation. Standing on the shoulders of giants, remember that quote? Most code is built on bits of other code. If in future we can't even stand on the shoulders of ordinary joes, if we're not even allowed to stand on our own legs because someone else has patented legs as theirs first, how are we going to get anywhere? Gavin pointed out something Bill Gates himself said in 1991 (which I've tracked down on the FFII site):
If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. ...

The rest of the quote then encourages small companies to go out and patent their work, at the start. But they can't if even very basic ideas on which most code is built have already been patented by someone else.

It's important for the functioning and progress of society that laws strike the right balance, even seemingly technical laws that the vast majority of people don't know or care much about. But this one isn't innocuous, it could seriously damage software development and creativity (and badly undermine the open source movement), which in turn won't be good for the future of the digital economy and therefore society. Europe will lose out, even more than it already has, to nations which don't have stupid laws.The software patents law doesn't sound like it will be the smartest thing to come out of the EU, even if you count the question on the regulation of garden gnome trade (and yes, that was a real one!).

Gavin suggested lobbying your MEP. Some may say that's ineffectual, but as I said I think legal ways should be the first option, and I am normally pretty cynical but I do believe that lobbying can help, if the right people lobby the right people in the right way. The problem is that the (elected) European Parliament, who seem more in touch with reality than some, are in fact against the proposed law too and want it redone - it's other parts of the EU which inexplicably seem determined to push it through (see e.g. this speech by Commissioner Charlie McCreevy. And Parliament are still trying to change it, see for instance these news items earlier this week from The Register and Monsters and Critics on the Legal Affairs Committee report). So we can only hope lots of people make the point loudly and clearly enough, and that the powers that be listen, take note, and act sensibly.

On the other hand, maybe I've got this all wrong. In fact, why don't they extend the laws to allow patenting of other things too? I have a plan to make the Beatles and everyone else pay me shedloads of money. I'll just patent me the musical scale - major and minor both, naturally. Hands off the pentatonic, it's MINE all mine. And if it's Aeolian or Dorian or any other mode you might want to try instead, don't even think about it. (You can have Tuvan throat singing and circular breathing though. I'm feeling generous).


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1 comment:

TaB said...

Is that their prime directive this bunch? Sounds like you had an alright time anyway, and it seems like a lot was covered. I must say you certainly get into your posts, I wish I could do the same with as much interesting content.

Id like to attend some of them speaking you mentioned since I picked around with (CC) a bit myself. Specifically, before I was told to remove them, my images. And how my images contradict other peoples CC policy, it’s a very bizarre’o fine and skewed line that Improb. i.e. wearing a t-shirt with my co’ logo on it and showing it on a webpage where I have a product for sale, was an issue before they told me I had to dump the lot.

They sent me a policy, which, without a law degree I found difficult to interpret. – I’ll be interested to see what else you dig up on this sort of topic. Ever think about being an investigative journalist? I love your writing style!