CCC’s OnCopyright Conference

If you follow @copyrightandtec on Twitter, you may have noticed lots of tweets last Friday, when I attended the Copyright Clearance Center’s OnCopyright conference at Columbia Law School in New York.   (Link to full video here.)

OnCopyright is a true open-ended and open-minded discussion about copyright issues.  Apart from a welcoming speech by CEO Tracey Armstrong and neutral panel moderation by CCC executives, CCC does not insert itself into the event; it just invites speakers from across the copyright spectrum and lets them have at it.  The concept is refreshing and bold.

It’s a terrific show, and this year’s edition served to point out some of the problems with copyright today.  The best part of it was the featured speech by Robert Levine, author of the wonderful book Free Ride.  Levine summed up current problems with copyright neatly when he said, “Right now we have the worst of all worlds: copyright is too long and too broad, but we’re not enforcing it.”

Levine’s speech contained several keen insights and rhetorical zingers. Two of my favorites, paraphrasing: “The MPAA claims that piracy is costing seventy-teen skadillion dollars.  Google claims it is costing $2.56.  (I’m only kidding… about the second one.)”; “Yes, I could do all the things that publishers do by myself, but then I wouldn’t have time to do the writing.  I could also grow my own vegetables.”  But he’s a journalist at heart and thus deals primarily in facts instead of theories or agendas.  And he got himself an excellent factual corroboration of the statement above during the conference.

It came through Erin McKeown, a musician, Future of Music Coalition board member, and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.  She served as a panelist (and performed some of her music).  As an indie musician and Berkman fellow, McKeown reflexively follows the anti-Big-Media, copyright-too-restrictive line of thought. For example, she professed a distaste for the kind of “backroom deals” that led to the aborted SOPA and PIPA legislation.

Yet on the other hand, McKeown told a story of how her music was used in a commercial in eastern Europe; she wanted to be compensated fairly, but a lawyer told her that it would take one to five years (to say nothing of legal fees) to pursue the copyright claim.

As Rob Levine pointed out, whether a publisher or record label is “good” or “evil” is not the point.  Here’s an artist whose work was exploited for commercial purposes with neither permission nor compensation.  She wanted fair compensation, not punitive damages.  And she was told that effectively there’s no way to get it.

In other words, the system is currently set up so that virtually the only way to enforce copyrights is to be able to enlist the services of lawyers over a long period of time and to be able to wait that long period before perhaps seeing any income after legal fees.  (That’s why indie artists like collective licensing: they get something as opposed to nothing, and they get it fairly quickly and with minimal effort.)  At the same time, when I brought up the idea that the copyright legal system’s lack of “bright lines” makes it too inefficient and difficult to enforce in the digital age — my usual lone-voice-in-the-wilderness complaint — I got nothing but pushback, mostly from lawyers, claiming that such “flexibility” is a benefit, not a drawback.

More than one content creator at OnCopyright confessed to having mixed feelings when they found their work on illegal sites: they were angry that their work was being taken without their permission yet happy and flattered that someone was interested enough to do so.  Trouble is, flattery doesn’t put food on the table.

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