Debating the Future of Copyright

Posted by Judith Fathallah

Phillip Pullman, Head of the Author’s Society, and Creative Commons Exec Cathy Casserly debated the future of copyright this week, and are clearly talking at cross-purposes.

Pullman has some pertinent points regarding the false valorization of Google as champion of the people, whereas Google’s practices have thus far been dubious. Notably, its mass scanning of hard copy books for the stated purposes of data mining and search facilitation attracted a lawsuit from the Author’s Guild, whose attorney describes the practice as a baldly commercial venture to ‘gain a competitive advantage over other search engines and to generate even greater advertising revenues.’

Meanwhile, as Prof. Aaron Schwabach has discussed, Google’s subsidiary YouTube has used automated takedown processes heavy-handedly and perhaps against amateur, individual UGC creators, as with the Hitler rants meme from Downfall. (Hitler wasn’t too happy about that).

Unfortunately, Pullman undermines his own points with some frankly false assertions. Opening with ‘copyright law is simple’ may have a nice polemic ring, but immediately loses him the sympathies of a legal audience. Copyright law is vastly complex, more a bundle of sticks in the contemporary legal metaphor than a plot of land. Nor is it static, locked away unchangingly in a vault away from society, technology and economics, but like all law a flexible and contested mish-mash of privileges and duties. “If I write a book,” is Pullman’s explanation, “the right to make money from it belongs to me”, but the reality is rather that if he writes a book, copyright law grants him a limited monopoly of distribution over the text and certain derivatives, minus the vast grey area of fair dealing/fair uses, which if he intends to make money from he will attempt to sign over to a publishing corporation subject to the negotiated amendments of their editors and lawyers. That said, what Pullman actually objects to is outright piracy (the unauthorized wholesale copying and distribution of a work), which is a real and valid concern for authors.

But Casserly’s response isn’t really addressing piracy. Pullman draws a false divide between innocent hardworking authors and sneaky corporate or individual pirates, but Casserly is concerned with co-creation and mutual benefit.

Indeed, there is less of a debate here than a miscommunication, arguments from different conceptions of authorship. With the paradigmatic case of Cory Doctorow, she’s concerned with new – legal – distribution models, the cultivation of UGC and fan bases, and derivative work rights, which, with the genie out of the technological bottle, are almost certainly where authors and IP holders need to focus their future attentions.

Judith Fathallah is a PhD Student at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.