Monday, October 30, 2006

Intellectual Property: Beyond Queen Anne

The UK's Institute for Public Policy Research has issued a report calling for the government to rethink its approach to intellectual property rights.

The UK press's angle on the report has stuck to the quick headline of why Queen Anne made it technically illegal to copy music on to a computer from your own CDs. The authors (William Davies and Kay Withers) do indeed argue that legislation hasn't kept pace with technology, but the full text is a meditation on the philosophy of intellectual property, an analysis of what intellectual property can do for the UK economy, and how works being in the public domain can actually add economic value, all with a minimum of acronym soup. In short, they want to argue that:

'the legitimate role for IP is to protect content sufficiently so that it can be commercialised over the medium term, but not to protect it so much that it can't be enjoyed by the public in the short term, or preserved for future generations in the long term.'

Davies and Withers do a valuable job of balancing the economic and cultural benefits of IP, and end up opting for a Danish-style model similar to the Open Access movement in academic publishing, while as far as economics are concerned: 'wherever content is made more searchable and accessible, it must also be made more purchasable'.

A key influence is Chris Anderson's idea of the 'long tail', which argues that digital distribution makes it profitable to sell a multitude of obscure items to a few consumers each. Early this month Universal released 250,000 previously unavailable tracks from its (western) European back catalogue for digital download only, putting the long tail approach into action. (It's good news for Noir Desir and Chris de Burgh.)

Separately, the UK Open Rights Group is throwing copyright term extensions into the debate - and a Treasury report on intellectual property is due before the end of the year. What's made copyright the temporary issue of the week? According to Boing Boing, it's because, with a 50-year UK copyright term on musical recordings, anything recorded in 1956 loses copyright protecton in a couple of months' time - freeing up the beginnings of rock and roll, and heralding more and more of a record-industry headache year on year.

Looking further afield, the Convergence Culture Consortium blog kept us updated last week with the news that Japanese broadcasters and music publishers have had over 25,000 items of media removed from YouTube. Clips from the Comedy Central station, including The Daily Show, have reportedly already been removed from YouTube for copyright violation, and the US majors have been pawing the ground at the site for some time, but the Japanese connection brings to mind the knock-on effect that YouTube's shiny new corporate focus will have on its possibly quite unexpected function as a channel for communication among diasporas.

(Or even between diasporas: the comments on one clip of the Bulgarian chalga singer Kamelia's Cheluvai me included one from an ex-Yugoslav of some description informing them that Mile Kitić's Ċ ampanjac had got there first.)

Somebody with a faster internet connection than the Gazette probably ought to be starting a proper virtual ethnography on what Eric has started to call JuTube before its ex-Yugoslav TV clips (including material which has been even less available than the Universal back catalogue) start going the way of the Japanese content.

That's if anyone can agree on who owns the rights and ought to be making the complaints...

UPDATE:: Henry Jenkins of MIT on the YouTube buyout, participatory culture, and (buzzword bingo) Web 2.0.

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