UK IPO Publishes Digital Copyright Hub Report

Last month, the UK Intellectual Property Office published a report called Copyright Works: streamlining copyright licensing for the digital age.  This is the second report in Richard Hooper CBE and Dr. Ros Lynch’s engagement with the UK IPO.  Hooper’s background includes positions at the top of the UK’s media and telecommunications industries; Lynch is a senior civil servant in the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The second Hooper Report follows on the heels of several important developments in the UK regarding copyright in the digital age, most recently including the Digital Economy Act and the Hargreaves Review.  Having found (in the first Hooper Report) that the legal content marketplace is being held back by several obstacles, such as licensing difficulties, lack of standards, and deficiencies in both content and metadata, the second Hooper Report makes recommendations on how to solve the problems.

Unfortunately the recommendations in the second Hooper Report don’t go far enough.  Hooper and Lynch did a lot of research, talked to lots of people, and synthesized lots of information.  Most of their input appears to have come from established industry sources, including the major licensing entities in the UK, such as PRS and PPL (UK analogs to ASCAP and RIAA in the US); major media companies; trade associations; and standards initiatives engendered by the EU Digital Agenda such as the Global Repertoire Database (GRD) and Linked Content Coalition (LCC). They also researched important initiatives outside of the UK, such as the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service in the US.

Whereas the first Hooper Report established that major problems exist, this new report is best appreciated as a summary of the various initiatives being planned to solve pieces of them — such as the GRD and LCC.  Hooper and Lynch offer cogent explanations of problems to be solved: difficulty of licensing content into legitimate services, lack of complete and consistent information about content and rights, lack of standards for rights information and communication among relevant entities, resistance of collective licensing schemes to new business models, and the relative lack of content available for legal use through various channels.

The authors appear to understand that the various efforts being proposed are not going to solve all the problems by themselves.  On the other hand, they also understand problems of “not invented here,” and they take the pragmatic view that the best way forward is to work with existing standards and integrate them together rather than try to come up with some kind of overall solution that may not be practicable.

So far, so good; but that’s essentially where it all stops.  After explaining the problems and summarizing existing initiatives, the report tantalizingly lays out a vision for a Copyright Hub that will bring everything together.  It recommends government seed funding as a way of both kick-starting the Copyright Hub and ensuring that people work together to build it.

Unfortunately, the vision for the Copyright Hub turns out to be an inch deep.  It also lacks explanations of how, or if, all these initiatives — ranging from PRS and PPL’s efforts to offer “one-stop” music licenses all the way up through the technically sophisticated GRD — could fit together or even how they map to the elements in the proposed Copyright Hub.  The LCC project is looking at technical aspects of the integration issue, but it is conceived as an enabler of standards, not as a marketplace solution.  It’s possible that such a solution is envisioned as a next step in the process. But the report betrays evidence of a lack of technical understanding that would have benefited both the analysis and the envisioning of solutions.

For example: The report has a section on digital images, which discusses the problem that many images are stripped of their rights metadata as part of normal publishing processes.  It discusses the possibility of using Internet-standard Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) to identify images and the work that entities such as Getty Images and the PLUS coalition are doing to create image registries and automate rights licensing.  But when put in this context, the solution to the metadata stripping problem is obvious: watermarking, the standard way of ensuring that data travels with content.  The problem can be solved with a standard watermarking scheme whose payload includes a serial identifier that can be used to reference a URI in a registry.  This is what the RIAA proposed for music in the U.S. in 2009, albeit to precious little fanfare; but Hooper and his people didn’t see it.  (They use the word “embed” without appearing to understand its meaning.)  There are other examples like this.

The report mentions “long tail” licensing — not as in long tail content, but as in long tail uses of content rights.  The work that needs to be done should, the report rightly says, address the large and growing number of low-value licensing transactions rather than, say, Universal Music Group licensing to Spotify or Deezer (the kind of deal that will always get done the old-fashioned way).  Unfortunately, the authors don’t seem to have talked to many people who try to get such licensing.  They should, for example, have sought out startup companies that have to navigate the impenetrable maze of direct licensing deals with rights holders,  face the rigidity of collecting societies that won’t accommodate their innovative business models, and make separate deals in 27 member states to get a pan-European service launched.

Overall, the second Hooper Report reads like a particularly well-informed version of the typical industry response to a government body’s investigation into industry practices: look at all the steps we’re already taking to solve this problem; leave us alone.

As a result, the new Hooper Report is a solid foundation on which to build solutions, but it doesn’t provide enough forward direction.  It’s all very well to talk about respecting the growing body of valuable work that different organizations are doing to solve online content licensing problems, avoiding “not invented here,” promoting open standards, and so on.  But the work that must be done will necessarily include tasks that are tedious and contentious, aspects that the Hooper Report glosses over.

Metadata schemes will have to be rationalized against one another; gaps and incompatibilities will have to be identified and eliminated.  Rights holders whose metadata is incomplete or poor quality will have to be identified and given sufficient incentive to improve.  Well-intentioned standards initiatives with overlapping or conflicting goals will have to change.  Digital holdouts will have to be convinced to participate.  And the many organizations with vested interests in maintaining the status quo will have to be called out as part of the problem rather than the solution.  This may be ugly work, but it will have to get done.

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