UK's Ofcom Recognizes That Copyright Can Be A Threat To User Generated Content

from the hopeful-signs dept

One of the central problems of laws that deal with copyright is that they are essentially products of a time when the distinction between creator and audience was clear-cut. The move to digital and the rise of the Internet has changed all that, allowing hundreds of millions of people to become new kinds of creators. They may not write entire symphonies or paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but what they lack in scale and intensity they make up for in frequency and spontaneity.

Much of what they work with is pre-existing material, which they either modify lightly or offer various kinds of glosses on. However, traditional copyright does not recognise the validity of these kinds of creativity, and therefore regards most of these activities as illegal. This has led to a terrible disjunct between what huge numbers of people do — especially those who grew up digital — and what the law allows.

To its credit, the UK government body Ofcom has recognized that gulf is an important fact that can’t be ignored. As part of its remit to promote “the interests of citizens and consumers” and “opportunities to participate”, it has commissioned and published a major report about this strange new world of user-generated content (UGC). Here’s the summary:

The spread of UGC practice represents a profound shift in the relationship between the media, consumers and technology. The traditional, one-way producer-consumer contract has been complemented with a set of malleable, constantly shifting transactions in which the “end” user is now, potentially, just one node on a production-distribution-consumption cycle. At its best, UGC gives rise to vastly increased social and political participation and more widespread creative practice. But it comes with challenges too: it is profoundly disruptive to content and media incumbents and presents the public with significant dangers in terms of privacy and security.

It rightly points out that UGC has changed dramatically in recent years:

Traditionally, UGC has been a highly engaged activity, with bloggers, musicians, filmmakers, citizen journalists and photographers expending creative effort at levels that might be considered nigh on professional. However, the last five years have seen the rise of a lighter level UGC activity, often termed “social curation” wherein users’ engagement with content is more focussed on commenting, judging or collating than actual creation. Although the activity is light, in aggregate it is a massive phenomenon.

In the light of recent events, the following comment about metadata seems prescient:

As users participate in social curation, and indeed, in any online activity, they leave a highly detailed set of data and metadata footprints. While the creation of this data is not generally intended or conscious — and is only really “content” is the most abstract way — it is invaluable to businesses, media and potentially to civil society. Indeed, the very “free to use” nature of many platforms is down to the ability of the companies offering the platforms and services to create new business models based on data mining. Of course, when it comes to this kind of data, there remain some abiding and deep concerns about privacy and security.

The report’s title is “The Value of User-Generated Content”, and its authors seek to tease apart the different kinds of value it provides:

We break down the value of UGC into three key areas: political/social, economic and cultural (entertainment, the arts etc). Economically, UGC is driving innovation in the tech sector and creating new businesses and business models in areas like aggregation, recommendation and curation, and is, more basically, a driver of consumer take-up . In social terms UGC stimulates political participation and mass debate, as well as creates value in areas such as education, healthcare and hyperlocal media. Culturally, UGC drives creative participation, as well provides cultural incumbents with opportunities in areas such as audience engagement, talent spotting and skills development.

That’s a very positive attitude to UGC that contrasts sharply with traditional copyright companies that see it as purely parasitic. That level of understanding is carried over into the report’s views on the challenges that the world of user-generated content faces, which include:

Security and privacy are potentially compromised by massive online engagement

UGC can spread illegal or harmful content

Restrictive IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) practice can hinder creative engagement

Notice that “IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) practice” is seen as a threat to UGC, rather than the other way around, which is traditionally how things are presented, especially when penalties for infringement are being discussed. That’s hugely encouraging, because it suggests that Ofcom and other UK government departments might start seeing UGC as a huge opportunity for creativity, not a threat to it, as it is so often painted.

All-in-all, then, this 70-page report is a valuable contribution to the debate about the role of copyright in the digital age. Let’s hope the policy makers in the UK and around the world read it, understand it, and act on it.

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Comments on “UK's Ofcom Recognizes That Copyright Can Be A Threat To User Generated Content”

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Anonymous Coward says:

‘the policy makers in the UK’ are already in the midst of being held back because Cameron sees only the ‘we must stop’ whatever, using child porn as the kicker. get him out of the way, along with the legacy industries and it stands a chance. however, what often happens when something like this is seen for what it can do to progress, the legacies jump in, throw a few thousand dollars around and the politicians who haven’t got a clue what’s going on, vote to stop it or keep it out! when 99% of people dont understand the topic they control with a vote, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote!
as far as ‘around the world’ is concerned, this topic is already well up the entertainment industries list of ‘things that have to be stopped’ and i bet the ‘battle plan’ is already produced and waiting for implementation!!

PaulT (profile) says:

“Traditionally, UGC has been a highly engaged activity, with bloggers, musicians, filmmakers, citizen journalists and photographers expending creative effort at levels that might be considered nigh on professional.”

I think I understand what they’re saying, but it seems rather bizarre to class those things as “user generated” rather than simply “amateur” or “non-professional”. The fact that someone chooses to, say, distribute their short fiction via a blog rather than a paperback doesn’t simply make them a “user” of that site.

I welcome the approach but this seems to muddy the waters somewhat if they class the work of a filmmaker depending on how they choose to distribute their work rather than its content, for example. Especially since they acknowledge that the level of work may be on par with a “professional”, it seems rather dangerous to then class them as merely “user generated content” in the same way that a quick meme image or TripAdvisor reviews might be classified.

But, I do agree either way with the idea that any such content is placed in danger by overreaching copyright.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think I understand what they’re saying, but it seems rather bizarre to class those things as “user generated” rather than simply “amateur” or “non-professional”. The fact that someone chooses to, say, distribute their short fiction via a blog rather than a paperback doesn’t simply make them a “user” of that site.

I always thought about it. If the content was kept offline they would be called amateurs or some similar term but yet when the “on the internet” suffix is added they suddenly become users and it’s not an amateurish work of culture/art/whatever. We are back to the fundamental issue with copyright: its backers and the entire framework itself are still living in the offline age despite their feeble efforts of going online. And yet again the innovation that’s keeping them afloat is coming from outside.

Nice comment Paul.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

Re: Re:

UGC is content generated on a site by it’s users. If you are an amature film maker who makes films for a youtube channel then you are both. It’s a fuzzy mess I agree but that’s largely because it is a fuzzy mess. Platform has just become important in a way it wasn’t before it’s an added aspect and in this case the relevant one.

In other words all that UGC is produce by either an amature or even a professional but not all amateurs and professionals producing content are producing it in a UG manner… or something… I might just be talking out my ass at this point.

Androgynous Cowherd says:

Just out of curiosity...

… has anyone ever actually come across some of this maybe-mythical “harmful content” that gets mentioned as boogeyman any time someone supports online freedom of speech?

Is there any known instance of a jpeg, or a story, or a YouTube video crawling out of the screen and strangling someone in his sleep? A home video that acts like the one in “The Ring”? A Langford basilisk fractal that turned someone who looked at it into a zombie? A violent online Flash game that turned a normal, law-abiding, gentle person into a remorseless psychopath?

Anything to which one single death, one single assault, one single theft, or even so much as one lousy scraped knee could be attributed, where the instant the content was viewed or listened to the injury became inevitable, without someone having to choose to act in an antisocial manner first?

What, not even one?


Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Re: Just out of curiosity...

The only thing I could even remotely see getting labeled “harmful content” are the “possibly-seizure-inducing” flashing .gifs that assholes make and then attached them to a harmless looking urls for the innocent netizen to stumble across.

That and perhaps a ten-hour video of the “Lavender Town Theme” posted to Youtube…

Ninja (profile) says:

I’m amused by the complete disconnection between parts of the Government. It’s like Hilary Clinton talking about Human Rights while other parts of the Govt keep Guantanamo operational or the polar opinions from different EU parts regarding copyright (as more high profile examples). This is not exclusive to the UK or the US, it’s generalized. Nearly every Government suffers from this disease.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

From their site:

Ofcom is the communications regulator.

We regulate the TV and radio sectors, fixed line telecoms, mobiles, postal services, plus the airwaves over which wireless devices operate.

We make sure that people in the UK get the best from their communications services and are protected from scams and sharp practices, while ensuring that competition can thrive.

Ofcom operates under the Communications Act 2003. This detailed Act of Parliament spells out exactly what Ofcom should do ? we can do no more or no less than is spelt out in the Act.

The Act says that Ofcom?s general duties should be to further the interests of citizens and of consumers. Meeting these two duties is at the heart of everything we do.

Accountable to Parliament, we are involved in advising and setting some of the more technical aspects of regulation, implementing and enforcing the law.

Ofcom is funded by fees from industry for regulating broadcasting and communications networks, and grant-in-aid from the Government.

What am I missing here? Sure Hilary’s example was of another Govt agency but shouldn’t an outfit spawned of Governmental efforts at least have some impact?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It’s a fundamentally different situation.

Ofcom is set up to be independent and the people working for it take that seriously.

But the government is no more likely to act in accord with their rational analysis than it would accept the view of David Nutt the ex head of their Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs
It is fairly typical in Britain to get a number of really good solid independent advisors into an advisory body and then consistently ignore everything they tell you.

Again, in Britain, the National Statistics office is independent and has its statistics routinely misrepresented by Ministers. They even tell them off publicly for doing so, but the key thing is they have no power, so it makes no difference.

Government will listen to what their own non independent special advisors, lobbyists and opinion polls tell them and with most governments including the current British one ‘belief’ as in what the minister or prime minister believes about a situation will take precedence over any other inputs.
The trouble is that, as what they ‘believe’ isn’t based on rational inputs it can be anything that suits them.

But this story is very much not like one government dept taking one tack and another one having a different view,* although that can and does happen and it can be indicative of a loss of cohesion, which would make it notable, that isn’t always the case.

All governments are effectively coalitions, even single party ones and they on their scale act much like the human brain does with one part making one kind of decision, the other dealing with either different facts or a different perspective on facts and having different aims and altogether far messier and making less sense than we would like to admit.

* Unnecessary waffle after this mark

out_of_the_blue says:

There's still a clear line at putting ENTIRE movies on Megaupload!

And you pirates euphemizing that commercial-scale THEFT as “sharing” is the main problem: you “copyright ZERO-ists” are not going to stop short of destroying the very industries which produce the content you can’t do without. This item (here) is just more attempt at ZERO copyright.

“Much of what they work with is pre-existing material, which they either modify lightly or offer various kinds of glosses on.” – In other words, steal and then trivially change. Copyright doesn’t really apply to even trivial new works, because it’s TRIVIAL. We don’t need to change protections for substantial works merely because the many dolts need to steal before they can “modify lightly” or put a “gloss” on. — And it’s obvious that by forbidding dolts from taking prior products, that they just might produce something new. Strong copyright can produce a useful ferment, then.

Where arrogance meets ignorance to conspire what they’ll do with someone else’s 100 million dollar movie.

cpt kangarooski says:

Re: There's still a clear line at putting ENTIRE movies on Megaupload!

Copyright doesn’t really apply to even trivial new works, because it’s TRIVIAL.

No, the requirements for a work to be copyrightable in the US are:
1) It is one of the types of work to which copyright applies;
2) It is original (meaning the copyrightable portion is not copied from anywhere; this can cover the portions of a derivative work which are not copied);
3) It is fixed in a tangible medium of expression; and
4) It bears a modicum of creativity.

The modicum of creativity requirement is indeed trivial. It’s important, but it is an astonishingly low bar which is really easy to pass over. While it would of course depend on the specific example, it’s reasonable to expect that most “light modifications or glosses” would easily suffice.

And when a derivative work fails to be copyrightable due to a lack of creativity, it isn’t because the work is viewed as trivial; it’s because the work is viewed as uncreative, and thus outside of the constitutional ambit of copyright. And you know, some other countries don’t even care about creativity and will grant copyrights on such works.

arrogance meets ignorance

You have indeed got knowing thyself down pat! I am impressed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: There's still a clear line at putting ENTIRE movies on Megaupload!

So you think that they should have stopped making movies after the first one for each of the basic plot types?

There are between 1 and 7 basic plots, All stories/ Music/ Movies are derivatives of these 7 basic plots.

The only Commercial scale theft was done at the hands of your beloved movie studios with the wholesale bribing of corrupt government officials.

It is why all deals have to be done behind closed doors. They do not want the public to see the wholesale theft of our rights.

ECA (profile) says:


WHY is it that we have to RE-LEARN common sense every 20 years?

Why is it that we have to Learn to THINK/understand every 20 years.

Why is it that Every 20 years(or so) that those responsible, Erase the past, and and to LEARN why those rules/laws/… were MADE in the first place..

why is it that we HIRE people that ACT like they have not read and understood the old rules and laws? and I cant use that excuse on a police stop.

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