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
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.
UGC can spread illegal or harmful content
Restrictive IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) practice can hinder creative engagement
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.