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  • Jan 6th, 2012 @ 1:46am

    Re: Re: #38. It's a laudable aim, but...

    Hi Mike,

    I'll try to be succinct, but it's a big argument! The public has every right to expect that their common cultural heritage will be accessible to them. Access to literacy and knowledge (in which I include cultural literacy and the experience of physical heritage) is a birthright, and one to which every citizen in a free state is entitled.

    The digital revolution has happened within a startlingly short space of time, and leaves us with a very specific legacy issue - which is that the primary formats for encoding and transmitting knowledge since the invention of movable type (paper, stone, canvas) has been superseded by an alternate format (bits).

    This gives our generation the responsibility for retro-conversion. We can safely assume that the bulk of material created from here on for the next century will be born-digital (which confers the handy benefit that it is inherently format-shiftable, which paper is not). But for now, culture is physical.

    Funding the conversion of this material is an issue which operates at a scale that is beyond the institutional. It can really only be achieved either by corporations (Google, Microsoft) or Governments, since only institutions at this scale can leverage the upfront capital required to make it work.

    Bringing commercial capital in raises a specific issue - which is the need to turn the cultural artefact into an economic asset (because corporations are designed to generate profit). Some endeavours, however, improve the general lot of mankind, but are not in themselves profit-making (although I would argue that there is a symbiotic relationship between a healthy, educated citizenship and a thriving commercial sector).

    Funding things that are for the public good, but not in themselves profitable, is the domain of public-service. Hence , public-service broadcasters can develop educational or exploratory broadcast content that might not perform in a purely commercial market.

    Analogies to Digitisation abound - look at the way in which Governments have taken old, diverse railway systems and invested huge capital in turning them into modern standard-gauge transit networks. Once every few generations, it becomes necessary to swap out old infrastructure for new - even if the payoff isn't realised until two generations down the line.

    Because, however, most Western Governments are in thrall to the market principle, many contemporary politicians have lost sight of the privilege of long-term vision and investment, and have instead come to believe that the only path to re-election is to play to the crowd (I actually think this is a mis-understandng and that if you ask the majority of the people whether they will accept short-term taxation offset against long-term investment, they would see the value for the sake of their children).

    This intellectual and philosophical position has now come to infect almost every area of public and civic life. Hence nurses must quanitfy health, teachers must quantify curricula and public art must defend itself on the basis of a return on investment (in a charming asdide, a colleague said to me last year 'why are we judging the value of something 6000 years old by how many people came to see it last year?').

    Fussing about Copyright is tilting at entirely the wrong windmill. People adopt propositional attitudes about whether cultural institutions should or shouldn't regard their collections as their property, and seek to monetise them as Intellectual Property. Cultural institutions themselves are hugely conflicted because behaving this way goes fundamentally against their instinct to collect, preserve, interpret and share.

    In legislative terms, and even as a principle, Copyright is one of the more straightforward bits of most legal frameworks. What people are really arguing about is the economic basis of culture as a public good, and they are choosing copyright as the most coherent focus around which to argue. After many years in the business, I know that a license is nothing more or less than a contract - what really matters is the commonality and shared understanding of intent that goes behind the meaning of the contract.

    This is why I take issue with the word 'ought'. The public think culture ought to be free, culture thinks culture ought to be free (the 'protectionist' curator is, I think, a dying breed), most politicians when pressed will say that culture ought to be free. But this generation of politicians is inherently unsuited to the kind of visionary thinking required to make the necessary investment. The public, for their part, are not demanding it (because there isn't a coherent enough 'crisis' to get them off the sofa). The sector, for our part, is spending *far* too much time battling over the endless theological posturing of copyright and has completely failed to articulate a clear and compelling case to Government or the public for why this is urgent.

    So, when you ask which actor I mean, I mean that we are all complicit in this situation. Copyright evangelists and 'open' lobbyists need to stop being so naive about the fundamental realities of running an organisation and learn to work with cultural institutions within a pragmatic framework. Cultural people need to stop playing the Industrialist. Governments need to see past getting re-elected and put money into the long-term welfare of their populations. Technologists need to stop presenting the latest bit-shunting trick as The Answer and learn to facilitate real need.

    Until at least one of these starts to happen, I fear we're all going to be locked into exactly the same ghastly recursive mud-slinging we've been in for the past two decades.