Top Harvard lawyers don’t think making and sharing unauthorised digital copies is theft

TorrentFreak has a report about a piece of research – sadly behind a paywall – by Malgorzata Ciesielska and Dariusz Jemielniak, that looks at copyright from an unusual angle. It is based on in-depth interviews with 50 lawyers participating in Harvard’s Master of Laws (LL.M.) programme:

Harvard’s LL.M. students include lawyers working in firms, government officials, law professors, judges, diplomats, human rights activists, doctoral students, business men and women, and others. The diversity of the participants in the LL.M. program contributes significantly to the educational experience of all students at the School.

Clearly a diverse bunch with strong professional and intellectual credentials. That lends their views on making and sharing unauthorised copies of digital materials, and on the future of copyright, of particular interest. From the TorrentFreak post:

Our study reveals that law professionals, with raised professional ethics standards and expectations toward lawabiding behavior, highly above average understanding of law, and higher than average socio-economic status, do not equate digital piracy with physical theft, and are generally very tolerant or even supportive of it.

That key point about the difference between physical theft, which deprives someone of something they own, and digital sharing, which does not, is picked up in another TorrentFreak quotation from the original paper:

There is the shared sense that digital goods differ from physical goods, and that this constitutes a basis for new societal norms to emerge: while they ‘would never do anything illegal elsewhere’ [Interview 36], pirating digital content is treated morally differently and morally acceptable.

That won’t come as a novel idea to readers of this blog. But what is striking here is that the very people who are likely to have a deep appreciation for the law and its logic, are also overwhelmingly of the view that it makes no sense trying to enforce old analogue copyright norms on digital material. Let’s hope they carry that understanding with them as their careers progress, and they gain positions of influence within the legal profession.

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A million-pound musical coda to Ed Sheeran’s recent copyright case victory

Walled Culture has written a couple of times about lawsuits alleging copyright infringement by Ed Sheeran. Most recently, it noted the good news that a UK judge ruled that Sheeran did not copy ideas from from another song in one of his biggest hits. There’s now what might be called a coda to this story, reported here by Billboard:

Ed Sheeran and his songwriting partners have been awarded more than £900,000 ($1.1 million) in legal costs following their victory in a high-profile copyright case over his 2017 global hit “Shape of You.”

The Billboard news item explains the reasoning behind the award, but here I want to concentrate on a couple of other aspects relevant to copyright.

First of all, it is worth noting the extraordinary amount of money that it can take to defend against a claim of copyright infringement in the world of pop music. Sheeran and his partners knew that they would probably have to pay this level of costs had they lost. Fortunately, they won, and it is the other side that must bear that burden. But more generally, that million-pound benchmark is a massive deterrent to defending a claim against infringement. In many, perhaps most cases, artists will settle rather than risk being asked to fork out such huge sums. This means that legal bullying is often an extremely effective strategy against creators, especially those who lack the resources to mount the kind of defence Sheeran was able to afford. Related to the financial cost is the significant expenditure in terms of time:

The case culminated in an 11-day trial in London in March and April that saw Sheeran repeatedly take the stand, where he faced accusations that he was a “magpie” who habitually borrows ideas from other songwriters.

These are 11 days – plus many more needed to prepare for the trial – that Sheeran could have been using to write more songs, or to go on tour. They are effectively lost not just to Sheeran, but to his fans, and to culture.

The costs in terms of money and time spent on legal battles are direct consequences of the copyright industry’s obsession with ownership, and its hatred of any kind of sharing. Another important factor is that corporations want lawsuits alleging copyright infringement to be as expensive as possible, to make it easier to bully creators into signing one-sided deals with deep-pocketed companies in order to benefit from the latter’s “protection” in such cases. I seem to recall there’s another line of business that seeks to persuade people to accept “protection” in return for some hefty financial compensation.

Featured image by The Zillah Castle and Ronald Castle Collection of Musical Instruments, (34), collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum, 1998.60.27.

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Amazon’s doubly amazing achievement in becoming the backbone of Hollywood

Back in March, Walled Culture reported on Amazon’s acquisition of MGM, and how it was a logical move for the company given that it is seeking to establish itself as one of the main video streaming companies, alongside Netflix and Disney. But in the background, Amazon has achieved something even more remarkable, first noted in an article last year on The American Prospect site. It centres around Amazon’s cloud computing services, AWS, which had sales of $54 billion in 2021:

AWS is the back-end provider for Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Paramount+, Peacock, HBO Max, Discovery+, and of course, Amazon Prime. As of February of this year, that list includes the top six streaming services in the U.S. by subscribers; Discovery+, which is not on that list, is merging with HBO Max, and Paramount+ didn’t launch until March. Just from those top six, 558.8 million U.S. subscribers rely on AWS to get their streaming video. (Yes, this is more people than live in the United States; that’s because, as you doubtless know, many people subscribe to more than one streaming service.)

Studios keep their films in the cloud, and they use AWS to distribute them for theatrical releases. AWS also provides studios with analytics, security and other services. Moreover, according to The American Prospect article, about 1,600 television channels worldwide rely on AWS, including the FOX, ViacomCBS, and Discovery families of networks. As a result:

If you are watching a filmed piece of entertainment on any screen – at a theater, at home or on your phone through a digital direct-to-customer stream, on a television network, or on a streaming service, the odds are extremely likely that you’re making use of AWS. It has become the backbone of Hollywood.

Amazon also competes directly with Hollywood. It has its own studio in the shape of MGM, and has its own streaming service, Amazon Prime Video. In 2021, over 175 million Prime members had streamed TV shows and films. As Emily West put it in her book, “Buy Now: How Amazon Branded Convenience and Normalized Monopoly“, Amazon has been so successful in creating digital services that dominate their respective sectors, that monopoly has become the norm for the company.

This is doubly astonishing. First, because Amazon has managed to achieve its position in the world of video and film so quickly, and secondly, because very few people have noticed that it has.

Featured image by Piotr Siedlecki.

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If they could, publishers would abolish libraries; here’s what they are doing instead

It is often said that if public libraries did not exist, modern publishers would never allow them to be set up, on the grounds that “clearly” every book loaned out was a sale lost. Fortunately, at the time that public libraries were created in various countries, publishers took a more enlightened view. Unfortunately, today’s publishers have realised that the transition from hard copy books to ebooks is an opportunity to try again, as Kyle K. Courtney, Copyright Advisor at Harvard Library, explains in an opinion piece for The Hill:

Publishers’ efforts are steadily eroding the free access to books through libraries that so many people rely on. As Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, which advocates for more open and equitable education and research, observed last year, “You still need a card to get access to books, but it’s no longer a library card. It’s increasingly a credit card.”

Alongside making it hard or impossible for libraries to own ebooks, or imposing onerous licensing conditions, there’s an attack on controlled digital lending. A site of the same name defines this as ‘the digital equivalent of traditional library lending. A library can digitize a book it owns and lend out a secured digital version to one user at a time, in place of the physical item.’ Having failed to prevent traditional libraries being established, publishers are now trying to use the fallacious old “lost sale” argument to shut down elibraries. Courtney writes:

Alleging “piracy” and suppression of their book sales, America’s biggest book publishers have sued the Internet Archive for its use of controlled digital lending. (Arguments for the case begin this summer.) Ostensibly, the publishers are asking the court to force the Internet Archive to shutter its digital lending and to destroy its entire collection of 1.4 million digital books. But it’s clear they’re also using this case as a battering ram against controlled digital lending in order to generate more licensing of their e-books.

Trying to force the Internet Archive to destroy 1.4 million digital books is the 21st century equivalent of burning down the Library of Alexandria. This demand reveals rather clearly whose side publishers are on – and it’s not the side of libraries, the public, or culture and knowledge itself.

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What exactly is plagiarism? And does it really matter anyway?

There’s a fascinating article by Rebecca Jennings on Vox which explores the vexed question of plagiarism. Its starting point is a post on TikTok, entitled “How to EASILY Produce Video Ideas for TikTok.” It gives the following advice:

Find somebody else’s TikTok that inspires you and then literally copy it. You don’t need to copy it completely, but you can get pretty close.

If it’s not “literally” copying it, then it’s more a matter of following a trend than plagiarism, which involves taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. Following a trend is universal, not just online, but in the analogue world too, for example in business. As soon as a new product or new category comes along that is highly successful, other companies pile in with their own variants, which may be quite close to the original. If they offer something more than the original – extra features, a new twist – they might even be more successful. However unfair that might seem to the person or company that came up with the idea in the first place, it’s really only survival of the fittest, where fit means popular.

More interesting than the TikTok advice is the example of Brendan I. Koerner, contributing editor at Wired and author of several books, also mentioned in the Vox article. It concerns a long and interesting story he wrote for The Atlantic last year. Jennings explains:

Someone published a podcast based exclusively on a story [Brendan I. Koerner]’d spent nine years reporting for The Atlantic, with zero credit or acknowledgment of the source material. “Situations like this have become all too common amid the podcast boom,” he wrote in a now-viral Twitter thread last month.

I’ve not listened to the podcast (life is too short), so I can’t comment on what exactly “based exclusively on” means in this context. If it means taking the information of Koerner’s article and repackaging it, well, you can’t copyright facts. Multiple verbatim extracts is a more complex situation, and might require a court case to decide whether under current copyright law it’s allowed.

I think there are more interesting questions here than what exactly is plagiarism, which arises from copyright’s obsessions with ownership. Things like: did Koerner get paid a fair price by The Atlantic for all his work? If he did, then the issue of re-use matters less. It’s true that others may be freeriding off his work, but in doing so, it’s unlikely they will improve on his original article. In a way, those pale imitations serve to validate the superior original.

If Koerner wasn’t paid a fair price, for whatever reason, that’s more of an issue. In general, journalists aren’t paid enough for the work they do (although, as a journalist, I may be biased). The key question is then: how can journalists – and indeed all artists – earn more from their work? The current structures based around copyright really don’t work well, as previous posts on Walled Culture have explored. One alternative is the “true fans” model, whereby the people who have enjoyed your past work become patrons who sponsor future work, because they want more of it.

For someone like Koerner, with a proven track record of good writing, and presumably many thousands of fans, this might be an option. It would certainly help to boost his circle of supporters if everyone that draws on his work gives attribution. That’s something that most people are willing to add, as his Twitter thread indicates, because it’s clearly the right thing to do. Better acknowledgement by those who use his work would always be welcome.

On the issue of drawing support from fans, it’s interesting to note that the Vox article mentioned at the start of this post has the following banner at the top of the page:

Financial support from our readers helps keep our unique explanatory journalism free. Make a gift today in support of our work.

This is becoming an increasingly popular approach. For what it’s worth, I now support a number of titles and individual journalists in precisely this way, because I enjoy their work and wish to see it flourish. The more other people do the same, the less the issue of plagiarism will matter. Once creators are earning a fair wage through wider financial support, they won’t need to worry about “losing” revenue to those who free ride on their work, and can simply view it as free marketing instead, at least if it includes proper attribution to the original. The main thing is that their fans will understand and value the difference between the original and lower quality derivatives.

Feature image by Cyberguru.

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How “merit-based monetisation” works for game streaming, where copyright fails

An interesting development in the digital world has been the continuing rise of gaming as a hugely popular activity, and a hugely profitable industry. Flowing from that rise and popularity, there is yet another fascinating aspect: streaming games for entertainment. The best-known example of this phenomenon is Twitch, now owned by Amazon.

A new paper by Amy Thomas, entitled “Can you play? An analysis of video game user-generated content policies” presents one of the first in-depth analyses of the copyright aspects of this new entertainment category, and its very particular user-generated content (UGC). As she points out, copyright has trouble dealing with game streaming. Copyright applies to many aspects – the underlying software, the images, the sounds, the scripts – and yet the game streamer is not infringing on these in any meaningful way, but building on them in a playful and creative sense that is beneficial for the game studio. Game streamers – especially the best ones – act as skilled and unpaid marketers that show off all the best elements of a game, often leading spectators to try it out themselves, if they have not already done so. Thomas writes:

With the slow pace of policy change and judicial interpretation by courts, it seems unlikely that the legal treatment of game UGC in copyright doctrine will change any time soon. Without intervention, this leaves UGC creators in an uneasy state of tolerated infringement, with an omnipresent threat of enforcement measures.

In the face of this doctrinal gordian knot, the video games industry has responded with an alternative mechanism of regulating user creativity: contract. Now, game companies routinely consider the user who approaches a game, not as a passive consumer, but as an active creator who is interested in what rights are licensed to them to interactively create with a game.

The contract is established with the End User Licence Agreement (EULA) that players must accept. Thomas looks at the EULAs of 30 games in order to understand how game companies are moving beyond the strict and unhelpful prohibitions of copyright to find ways to work with game streamers for mutual benefit.

She explores eight aspects of game streaming that are regulated through the EULA: videos, monetisation, screenshots and game photography, soundtracks, fan works, merchandise, modding, and commercial use. One of the most striking results is that a surprisingly high number of game companies allow the monetisation of their game content (7 without condition, 12 with). However, monetisation has its limits, in the following way:

UGC policies mainly permit passive ad revenue, money gained from partnership programmes with online platforms, and fan donations. Paywalls in any form (e.g., Patreon), whilst strictly constituting ‘monetisation’, are almost universally prohibited amongst those rightsholders who attach conditions to the monetisation permission (with the exception of Mojang who allow for a 24-hour embargo of paywalled content). As such, it may be more accurate to define monetisation as a user’s entitlement to derive passive income from their UGC, but not the active solicitation of money from other users at the point of access. In this sense, monetisation of UGC is not transactional, but rather merit-based; other users may reward the creator of UGC with their time, subscription, or donation, but cannot be actively charged to access the content.

“Merit-based monetisation” is a great way to describe patronage of the kind that true fans can provide. As previous posts on this blog have suggested, it represents one of the best alternatives to a copyright system that isn’t working for the digital world. The new research about game streaming from Thomas confirms both of those aspects.

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Enjoy digital ownership and public libraries while you can: they may disappear soon…

Michael E. Karpeles, Program Lead on OpenLibrary.org at the Internet Archive, spotted an interesting blog post by Michael Kozlowski, the editor-in-chief of Good e-Reader. It concerns Amazon and its audiobook division, Audible:

Amazon owned Audible ceased selling individual audiobooks through their Android app from Google Play a couple of weeks ago. This will prevent anyone from buying audio titles individually. However, Audible still sells subscriptions through the app (…)

Karpeles points out that this is yet another straw in the wind indicating that the ownership of digital goods is being replaced with a rental model. He wrote a post last year exploring the broader implications, using Netflix as an example:

What content landlords like Netflix are trying to do now is eliminate our “purchase” option entirely. Without it, renting become the only option and they are thus free to arbitrarily hike up rental fees , which we have to pay over and over again without us getting any of these aforementioned rights and freedoms. It’s a classic example of getting less for more.

He goes on to underline four extremely serious consequences of this shift. One is the end of “forever access”. If the company adopting the rental model goes out of business, customers lose access to everything they were paying for. With the ownership of goods, even if the supplier goes bankrupt, you still have the product they sold to you.

Secondly, the rental model effectively means the end of the public domain for material offered in that way. In theory, books, music, films and the rest that are under copyright should enter the public domain after a certain time – typically around a century after they first appeared. But when these digital goods are offered using the rental model, they usually come wrapped up in digital locks – digital rights management (DRM) – to prevent people exiting from the rental model by making a personal copy. That means that even if the company offering the digital goods is still around when the copyright expires, this content will remain locked-away even when it enters the public domain because it is illegal under copyright laws like the US DMCA and EU Information Society Directive to circumvent those locks.

Thirdly, Karpeles notes, the rental model means the end of personal digital freedom in this sphere. Since you access everything through the service provider, the latter knows what you are doing with the rented material and when. How much it chooses to spy on you will depend on the company, but you probably won’t know unless you live somewhere like the EU where you can make a request to the company for the personal data that it holds about you.

Finally, and perhaps least obviously, it means the end of the library model that has served us so well for hundreds of years. Increasingly, libraries are unable to buy copies of ebooks outright, but must rent them. This means that they must follow the strict licensing conditions imposed by publishers on how those ebooks are lent out by the library. For example, some publishers license ebooks for a set period of time – typically a year or two – with no guarantee that renewal will be possible at the end of that time. Others have adopted a metered approach that counts how many times an ebook is lent out, and blocks access after a preset number. Karpeles writes:

Looking to the future, as more books become only available for lease as eBooks, I see no clear option which allows libraries to sustainably serve their important roles as reliable, long-term public access repositories of cultural heritage and human knowledge. It used to be the case that a library would purchase a book once and it would serve the public for decades. Instead, now at the end of each year, a library’s eBooks simply vanish unless libraries are able to find enough quarters to re-feed the meter.

The option to own new digital goods or to access the digital holdings of public libraries may not be available much longer – enjoy them while you can.

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For all the wrong reasons, two great copyright taboos have been broken

The Authors Alliance blog has an interesting post about Disney’s relationship with the duration of copyright in the US. This manifested itself most famously with the US Copyright Term Extension Act, passed in 1998. As the New York Times explained in 2002:

The 1998 extension was a result of intense lobbying by a group of powerful corporate copyright holders, most visibly Disney, which faced the imminent expiration of copyrights on depictions of its most famous cartoon characters. Mickey Mouse, first copyrighted in 1928, would have been the first to go under the old law, which gave a 75-year copyright to works created for hire and owned by corporations. That became 95 years under the new law, both prospectively and for existing works; material created by individuals, previously protected for the life of the artist or author, plus 50 years, also received 20 more years.

Copyright was extended, not because creators needed any additional incentive, but because corporate assets like Mickey Mouse would have entered the public domain. That’s exactly as they should have done under the bargain that copyright supposedly offers to the public: in return for time-limited government protection of a creative work, the work becomes freely available for all to use in any way after that period. The 1998 US Copyright Term Extension Act reneged on that deal by extending copyright and stealing from the public domain.

The Authors Alliance blog post notes that Disney is in the news again because of copyright-related matters. It concerns a Bill from the US Senator for Missouri, Josh Hawley. The aims of his “Copyright Clause Restoration Act of 2022” are:

to strip woke corporations like Disney of special copyright protections. Senator Hawley’s bill would limit new copyright protections to 56 years and make the change retroactive for massive corporations like Disney that have been granted unnecessarily long copyright monopolies.

Under Congress’s current sweetheart deal, companies like Disney have been granted certain copyright protections for up to 120 years – well beyond the original maximum of 28 years. Senator Hawley’s bill would crack down on copyright monopolies to ensure they only last long enough to encourage innovation.

As the tell-tale reference to “woke corporations” indicates, this is not a serious bill about reforming copyright, but about punishing certain companies that Hawley dislikes, thus earning him plaudits in Republican circles.

Hawley may have written his bill for all the wrong reasons, but the move is nonetheless significant, because it breaks two great copyright taboos. First, that copyright term must only ever be increased; and secondly, that such a term reduction would be retrospective, affecting existing works, not just future ones. As the Authors Alliance blog post concludes:

While the bill is unlikely to pass, having been criticized by some as inaccurate and potentially unconstitutional, its introduction is itself notable, and has the potential to bring attention to the need for carefully considering the limits of copyright protection.

Here’s hoping.

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Concordance: how Discord has become the latest hot platform for creators to engage with true fans

Walled Culture has just written about the new Scriber platform, which is designed to make it easier for artists to keep their fans close and happy. But the increasing desire to engage with people who love what an artist is doing, and not just drop products on them from on high, is leading many creators to find new ways of doing that. An in-depth article on Pitchfork reveals that Discord, a chat platform originally developed for the gaming community, is enjoying a huge surge in popularity for precisely this purpose:

In the streaming era, merch sales, Bandcamp buys, and Patreon subscriptions from a handful of devoted listeners are often more valuable than thousands of plays from casual ones. Discord puts those devotees in reach. (The platform is currently testing a Premium Memberships feature to let creators officially gate part of their server through a subscription wall, which a company spokesperson says is “one of our most requested features.”)

Devoted listeners – aka true fans – are fast emerging as key to the success of creators. In fact, as the Pitchfork article rightly observes, nowadays such devotees are perhaps more important than the traditional publicity provided by industry intermediaries in terms of getting the message out:

Acts of love go hand in hand with free labor – music fans have long made zines and fan art, but in recent years, they’ve also outpaced official industry marketing and publicity tools. Artist-specific “update accounts” on Twitter act like amateur news organizations, with a rotation of volunteer superfans working 24/7 to share information about an artist. (“In most cases, they do a better job of promoting than those on the inside,” a social media manager at RCA told Billboard.)

As well as validating the true fans idea, the massive uptake of Discord by artists who want to interact with their supporters on a continuing basis is significant because it shows that this urge to connect can lead to existing platforms being re-purposed to allow that to happen. True fans are not only re-configuring the creative industries, but the online world too.

Featured image by AstroBalrog.

How can you save a dying language when copyright lets somebody own its key learning materials?

One of deep-seated problems with copyright is that its supporters believe everything created should be “owned” by someone and protected from being “stolen” by others. Walled Culture has already written about how that’s a bad fit for writing music, and the NBC News site has a fascinating story about how the same issue is plaguing a very different world – that of indigenous languages (pointed out by D. J. Mary on Twitter). It concerns the Lakota language, one of many native American languages that are at risk of extinction because so few people speak them fluently. In recent years, there have been increasing efforts to create language resources from the surviving speakers, to prevent the language and its culture being lost, and to produce learning materials. The long and interesting article discusses the details of the dispute between the Lakota Language Consortium and some Lakota language speakers, like Ray Taken Alive:

The Lakota Language Consortium had promised to preserve the tribe’s native language and had spent years gathering recordings of elders, including Taken Alive’s grandmother, to create a new, standardized Lakota dictionary and textbooks.

But when Taken Alive, 35, asked for copies, he was shocked to learn that the consortium, run by a white man, had copyrighted the language materials, which were based on generations of Lakota tradition. The traditional knowledge gathered from the tribe was now being sold back to it in the form of textbooks.

The story touches on many important issues concerning cultural appropriation. But one of the key problems is that materials recorded and written down from native speakers are automatically covered by copyright, and that means people can argue over who owns them.

A common trait of Native American cultures is to hold things like land, resources and knowledge communally. That runs into conflict with U.S. copyright laws, which allow companies and nonprofit organizations to commoditize their work product — including pieces of a shared language.

That’s an issue not just for the Lakota tribe, but many others, both in the North America and further afield. It’s ironic that laudable endeavours to preserve culture and heritage for humanity can end up in these kind of legal squabbles over ownership – all thanks to copyright.

Featured image by Daderot.

UK copyright madness is back: ten years in prison for downloading and sharing a single song

One of the problems with the copyright industry lobbying for new laws is that governments often have no problem with passing them, no matter how one-sided and disproportionate their features may be. That’s despite other voices warning of the negative consequences that will flow from doing so. It seems that subservience to the copyright industry’s demands has become so habitual for most governments that there is no real thought given to what might go wrong once the new laws are in operation.

Another issue is that often those problems with new laws don’t manifest themselves immediately, and sometimes not even for years. By then, the politicians who passed the legislation have probably taken up their cosy jobs in industry, while those currently in power feel no real interest in what was done before their time. Even the people who fought against the laws have probably moved on to more recent, and more pressing problems. As a result, really bad copyright legislation can lie dormant for years, and then suddenly present itself in all its awfulness. A good example of this problem is the UK Digital Economy Act, passed back in 2017, and now largely forgotten:

It included an amendment to the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act that raised the maximum sentence for online infringement to 10 years in prison, with a basic threshold of simply exposing a copyright owner “to a risk of loss“.

This meant that anyone downloading and sharing a single song or a single movie using BitTorrent became criminals in the eyes of the law.

Unfortunately, as the TorrentFreak post quoted above explains in detail, it seems that the fears expressed by digital rights organisations about how this would play into the hands of copyright bullies are about to be realised.

It is extremely unlikely that anyone would ever be sent to prison for 10 years for downloading and sharing a single song – although in the crazy world of copyright, you never know. But the mere possibility this could happen in the UK is likely to terrify anyone who receives a letter out of the blue accusing them of downloading material without permission, and suggesting that the alternative to paying a cash settlement is imprisonment.

Moreover, given the severity of the sentence available under the Digital Economy Act, even speculative and fraudulent demands stand a chance of working with people who are unlikely to be sure about what is legal online. Which means the UK’s shoddy law making in the past is going to lead to a spate of law breaking in the future in the form of financial shakedowns – another demonstration of copyright’s malign and corrosive influence.

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The true fans idea is not just about wishy-washy, feel-good charity: it’s a business too

Walled Culture has written several times about the “true fans” idea as an alternative approach to the traditional remuneration models employed by the copyright industry players, such as publishers, recording companies and film studios. It’s a simple approach: get the people who really love an artist’s work to support it directly, and in advance, rather than indirectly through buying things after they’ve been created. If that sounds rather soft and utopian, it’s not: it can also be run as a business, as this story on Axios makes clear:

The Jonas Brothers are helping to launch a new subscription media company called Scriber that allows celebrities to charge their biggest fans for exclusive content via text messages.

Why it matters: The goal is to bring the subscription economy to Hollywood without using Big Tech platforms as intermediaries.

According to the article, the Jonas Brothers have 50 million Instagram followers in total, so if 1% of them were willing to pay the $4.99 monthly subscription fee, that would generate in the region of $30 million a year, less payment processing fees, which will be relatively small. Even if only 0.1% are keen, that’s still $3 million per year. According to Axios, users of the new service will receive “exclusive material — like behind-the-scenes videos, exclusive merchandise and early access to tickets — via text message links pointing to content that’s pre-loaded for extra fast browser viewing.”

What’s most interesting about the move is not any of the above details, which are specific to well-known names like the Jonas Brothers, but the fact that Scriber is designed as a general platform that can be used by any artist:

Scriber will charge all celebrity creators $1 per month for every subscriber that uses the service. Because Scriber works with celebrities on the back end of the deal, most users will not realize Scriber is powering their transactions.

It’s a great example of how the true fans model not only benefits artists and their followers, but can also be the basis of a new kind of intermediary. But it is one that takes only a relatively small cut of the money, unlike the current system sustained by copyright whereby most money ends up in the pockets of the corporates, not the creators. Expect to see many more experiments like Scriber.

Feature image by Jean Le Tavernier.

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Interview | Catherine Stihler: Creative Commons, the EU Copyright Directive, and Civil Society’s Role

Catherine Stihler OBE was appointed CEO of Creative Commons, in August 2020, a non-profit organisation that helps overcome legal obstacles to advance better sharing of knowledge and creativity to address the world’s pressing challenges. She has been an international champion for openness as a legislator and practitioner for over 20 years. She was a member of the European Parliament for Scotland representing the Labour Party. At the European Parliament, she became one of Scotland’s longest-serving and most respected legislators. Prior to joining Creative Commons, she served as the CEO of the Open Knowledge Foundation. Catherine reflects on this trajectory that led her to Creative Commons and the lessons learned from the EU Copyright Directive adoption. She talks about the growing importance of Creative Commons licences and the importance of various ongoing legislative developments (e.g. AI, disinformation). She highlights the value of Creative Commons for creativity and knowledge sharing. Finally, throughout the episode she emphasises the need for the community, from libraries to civil society organisations, that are seeking a progressive copyright reform to unite and stand together in order to ensure their voice is heard by policymakers.

Do you prefer watching our passionate interviewees talking about the 21st-century walls blocking access to culture? Then check out the vlog below.

Video highlights with timestamps:

00:00 Intro

01:46 The road to joining Creative Commons

09:54 Lessons learned from the EU Copyright Directive adoption

16:26 The growing importance of Creative Commons licences

22:14 Ongoing legislative developments and their importance

27:51 The value of Creative Commons for creativity and knowledge sharing

34:45 Hitting the ‘Wall’

38:47 Final thoughts

Good news: Taiwan creates a new fair use of copyright material; bad news: it’s tiny

Too often we assume that copyright is something that only concerns Western nations like the US and EU. But it’s important to remember that copyright has been exported all around the world. Moreover, when Western nations make copyright worse, they then try to convince other countries to adopt the same bad ideas, for example through the terms of trade deals. But occasionally, nations outside the copyright mainstream manage to make some moves in the opposite direction, adding benefits for ordinary people rather than for the copyright industry. For example, in Taiwan there’s a welcome change to the law in this area, reported here by Focus Taiwan:

A bill to amend the Copyright Act to enable the fair use of copyright-protected work by schoolteachers as teaching materials in their virtual courses without prior permission was passed by the Legislature Friday.

The amendment will exempt schoolteachers from obtaining prior permission to display, use, or transmit copyrighted texts and other materials “within a reasonable scope” and “where necessary for the purpose of teaching in schools” in their remote classes.

This is just an update to the existing law, expanding fair use of copyrighted materials from face-to-face teaching to classes taught online. It’s hardly a massive liberalisation. The same is true of another amendment to the Taiwanese Copyright Act that was passed to enable the National Central Library (NCL) to create digital editions of the physical books that it holds. However, the Ministry of Economic Affairs noted:

the NCL would be forbidden from digitizing books already released by publishers with digital versions and that the NCL’s digital collections would only be accessible through computers at the national library.

In other words, as usual, publishers’ profits are put before the public’s right to access knowledge in the modern format of ebooks, never mind on their own devices. Sadly, this unfair and almost unquestioned bias towards Big Content is something that seems to be universal in the copyright world, whether in the West or elsewhere.

Featured image by Heeheemalu.

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Creators everywhere are struggling, copyright is failing them: time to find something better

The Guardian has an interesting feature looking at how Australian artists from working-class backgrounds face greater obstacles to succeeding than those from other social classes do. It contains some useful statistics about how much creators in that country earn:

In 2017, in the last major study done on the issue, the Australia Council found that artists made on average of $18,800 a year from their creative work. For writers it’s a lot lower, with nearly 50% earning less than $2,000 a year according to a survey run by the Australian Society of Authors in 2020.

The survey referred to there also found that “53.6% of full-time writers indicated they earn on average less than $15,000 per year from their creative practice, with 23.2% of them earning on average between $0 and $1,999 per year.” Those figures are given in Australian dollars, which is currently worth around 70 US cents, so they are even worse than they seem at first sight.

The situation is just as bad in the US. In 2018 the US Authors Guild conducted a survey of US authors that revealed a median author income of $6,080, down from $8,000 in 2014, $10,500 in 2009 and $12,850 in 2007. Earnings from book income alone fell even more, declining 21% to $3,100 in 2017 from $3,900 in 2013 and just over 50% from 2009’s median book earnings of $6,250. As a result, authors were finding ways to supplement their writing income, for example speaking engagements, book reviewing or teaching. Respondents who identified themselves as full-time book authors still only earned a median income of $20,300, even including these other sources of income – a figure that is well below the US federal poverty line for a family of three or more.

Authors aren’t alone in barely making ends meet: musicians are in dire straits too. In 2021, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the UK Parliament published its second report on the Economics of Music Streaming. As with the world of publishing, companies in the music industry are flourishing, while musicians struggle to earn a decent living. The committee found what it called an ‘oligopsony in asset acquisition’:

An oligopsony occurs when a market is dominated by a small number of large buyers. This theoretically concentrates demand (and therefore market power) in the hands of the buyers, which can effectively keep prices down at the expense of the sellers. When applied to the music industry, this means that the terms under which the major music groups in particular acquire the rights to music favour the majors at the expense of the creators. As has been discussed [elsewhere in the report], the major music groups are disproportionately benefitting from music streaming relative to creators. This has resulted in record high levels of income and profit growth and historic levels of profitability for the major labels whilst performers’ incomes average less than the median wage.

The are plenty of other studies backing up the central point that the vast majority of creators are struggling in every region of the world, and in every medium. One of the perennial justifications for copyright is that artists need it to earn a decent living. Since most of them are unable to do that, despite copyright’s supposed help, surely it is time to find a different approach that works better for them?

Featured image by Lilla Frerichs.

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Slow down, Japan: are “fast movies” a substitute for the real thing, or just good marketing?

There’s an interesting post on the TorrentFreak blog about “fast movies“:

These heavily edited copies of mainstream movies aim to summarize key plot lines via voice-over narration in about 10 minutes. While no replacement for the real thing, these edits accumulated millions of views and incurred the wrath of rightsholders, leading to the arrest of three people in Japan.

As that rightly points out, fast movies are not a substitute for watching the entire film. An earlier report on the same Web site indicates that the Japanese film industry disagrees:

the losses cited by rightsholders are huge – 95 billion yen (US$ 856.7m) in the past 12 months alone, roughly $10 per ‘fast movie’ view when working in the 80 million views cited by CODA [a Japanese anti-piracy organisation].

This seems to be the classic “lost sales” fallacy – that every unauthorised copy of a work represents a $10 sale that didn’t happen. That’s unrealistic: many people browse movie clips online out of curiosity, and never had any intention of paying to watch the entire film. As the US District Judge James P. Jones wrote in a criminal copyright case in 2008, reported by Ars Technica:

Those who download movies and music for free would not necessarily purchase those movies and music at the full purchase price. [A]lthough it is true that someone who copies a digital version of a sound recording has little incentive to purchase the recording through legitimate means, it does not necessarily follow that the downloader would have made a legitimate purchase if the recording had not been available for free.

There’s another important angle, missing even from the judge’s wise words. The “lost sales” view completely overlooks the “gained sales” that also result from people discovering new titles in these ways. They may use the latter as a taster, and then go on to make a purchase that they had not originally been planning. That seems likely to happen in the case of the “fast movies”, since they are not only much shorter than the original, they typically have only a voice-over instead of the full audio track.

For a film that is worth watching, the “fast movie” versions act as excellent marketing material. Rather than suing the people who make these kind of trailers, maybe the Japanese film industry should support them.

Featured image by Nottedeluce.

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