CCC’s OnCopyright Conference

The Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) held its second OnCopyright conference last Wednesday in New York.  Although I have had my professional differences with CCC over the years, I must give them a lot of credit for putting on a show that was far more courageous, stimulating, and helpful than it could well have been.  It was a diametric opposite to CISAC’s World Copyright Summit in Washington last June, which was primarily a self-congratulatory cocoon.

OnCopyright was just was its title suggested: a discussion about all facets of copyright, ranging from artists’ attitudes towards it to technology to legal and policy arcana.  And it was an actual discussion: CCC did not overtly advance its own agenda as a collecting society for (mainly) text publishers.  It confined its own staff’s contributions to “housekeeping” and welcoming remarks.

The range of both subject matter and opinions was a wonder to behold.  The final panel consisted of artists who practice various flavors of what is being called remix, mashup, or appropriation art: one panelist was an author whose book consists almost entirely of quotations from other books and who invites readers to physically cut out the pages of citations that his publisher made him include; another was a music video artist whose creations consist of snippets from classic animated movies looped over his own techno-pop instrumentals.  No opinion from on high was offered about whether these works are good or bad, legal or illegal, creative or plagiaristic.  It was a discussion.

The panel on how new technologies affect copyright featured the outspoken Jim Griffin touting, as usual, the merits of blanket licensing (prompting me, from the audience, to offer my similarly usual condemnation of such schemes).  To give you an idea of how radical this panel was,  compared to CCC’s usual market positioning: Griffin was there representing his role with Warner Music Group, and Fred von Lohman, the articulate copyleft firebrand of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was the moderator.

The only panel that disappointed me was the law panel.  All sides of the copyright wars were represented, from Jessica Litman (University of Michigan Law School) on the left to Jeremy Williams (Warner Bros.) on the right.  But the inevitable discussions on Fair Use reinforced both sides’ eagerness to embrace and protect the status quo rather than challenge it, because the ambiguity and imprecision of Fair Use makes it amenable to interpretation to serve each side’s needs.

I brought up the point I made in a recent article here: that the ambiguity and imprecision of Fair Use makes it a deterrent to innovation, because it scares startups (and their investors) away from the entire area.  None of the panelists seemed to care very much about that.  Academics like Litman prefer to deal in principles rather than day-to-day reality, while big-media attorneys like Williams think in terms of the one-off licensing deals done through lawyers rather than the possibilities of automated determinations of appropriate use that could enable new models.  That’s a viewpoint that the panel — like most deliberations on Fair Use — lacked.

The other element that I felt was lacking from OnCopyright was more time for audience interaction after each of the very thoughtful panel discussions.  Many of the attendees had interesting opinions backed by knowledge and experience rather than blind ideology.  CCC could have had even more of a real discussion by opening things up a bit more.  But still, this was a highly worthwhile event, a complement to our own upcoming conference, which will dive deeper into the technologies behind developments in digital content business models.

Incidentally, one of the many topics touched on at OnCopyright was the currently ongoing deliberations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).  See my colleague Bill Jones’s article for more on that.

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