Thursday, May 1, 2008

OnCopyright 2008: The Future of Copyright is Here

The first OnCopyright event from Copyright Clearance Center held in New York this week was a forum established to probe the value copyright in an era of electronic distribution and how to profit from it. Panels ranged from technology, legal and publishing issues across the board. You'll find below links to our events blog here as I complete entries and below that a summary analysis posted after the conference.
In sum it was an excellent event with really meaty panels, which, though a bit rambling at times, managed to delve deep into very important topics relating to copyright and intellectual property law. At the end of the day I had a chance to speak with Suzanne Vega for a few minutes to ask her about how her cooperation with remixers helped her to extend her brand. She said that it was very helpful, a point that did not come out in the panel and a point that it at the core of what copyright law seems to be missing in general: copyright is not building brand value for original works creators as effectively as it used to.

Ultimately it's not the distribution of copies that's at issue as much as the fact that we have a copyright system that still focuses on the right to distribution of a copy as the primary key for determining when and how the value of content is realized. With essentially free distribution to and from billions of points worldwide this concept no longer scales well as a relatively simple tool to manage content commerce given the traditional method for establishing licensing through contracts negotiated through legal departments.

This problem was underscored in a conversation at the conference with SLA CEO Janice LaChance. Janice defended her panel from the Buying and Selling eContent conference in which prominent corporate librarians bemoaned publishers doing little to address many key issues regarding their business models, especially how they related to copyright. Put simply, the publishing industry has enormous vested interests in managing copyright through traditional legal and business channels, preferring the intricacies of case-by-case dealmaking to the risk of distributing content to the wrong people under the wrong terms.

This emphasis on legal departments as key elements of publishers' fundamental revenue models and opportunistic lawsuits that argue for copyright enforcement on increasingly arbitrary grounds has created an utterly balkanized landscape of kludgey deals and half-considered rulings in dozens of courts that in essence has dismantled much of the value of the once common and simple concept of copyright.

In the meantime the online economy has prospered, not by corrupting copyright but by creating value out of content in legitimate derivative works and in new sources of original authorship which in sum dwarfs the output of traditional publishing outlets. Services such as those from the conference's sponsor Copyright Clearance Center are facilitating the ability of people to apply copyright effectively online in a far more automated fashion for specific items of content. Providing value in context is the true value of publishing, a concept that is conflicting more and more with the mass manufacturing model that drives the production of much of today's copyrighted content. Much of the value of online content for a given audience where infinite supply reigns is fleeting, highly contextual and oriented more towards executing business deals or building relationships.

The fundamental concept of copyright - that creating a temporary monopoly for a publisher based on the premise that control of distribution will sustain publishers - is becoming far more limited in its effectiveness to deliver value. The question is not whether someone should have a right to license their content for use under copyright but rather how they should license it. This is why I have suggested for several years that publishers focus on the concept of context rights rather than copyright. In other words, once content has been distributed, it finds its value most easily. The fleeting moments and contexts in which it becomes valuable are difficult to predict in advance in an online environment and the relationships that will result in those moments harder yet to predict.

What the copyright industry needs to adapt to is a different view of what technology will help rights holders to make the most of content that benefits most from unfettered distribution. I believe that this will lead towards is a new style of licensing that is more fully automated and which uses a variety of predefined models to compensate content creators for their works. The rewards may be smaller overall in many instances in terms of money exchanged, but offering more exploitable brand value over time as people discover not only the value of a particular work but the value of a relationship with the creator of the work.

I applaud Copyright Clearance Center loudly for the courage that they exhibited in assembing this event. It brought together many important players with very intelligent thoughts about copyright and the challenges that it faces. An institution such as CCC needs to embrace the future of licensing content boldly at this juncture to ensure both its own future and the future of compensation mechanisms that can encourage and reward the creation of value through publishing.
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