How technology can solve the copyright wars

September 15, 2015

By Copyright Hub CEO, Dominic Young

Dominic Young

A million years ago I was a lowly worm at the biggest national newspaper in London. My job was to sell content from the newspapers to clients around the world.

Typically, someone would phone up, having seen, say, a photo in the paper, and ask if they could buy it to use in, say, a newspaper in another country.

You would be forgiven for thinking that would be a pretty straightforward thing to deal with. The reality, at the time, was considerably more complex and chaotic.

So before I could answer the guy wanting to use a photo, I had to find out whose photo it was.

What deal had been made with them? Did the photo belong to us? If a deal hadn’t been done or wasn’t clear, I might phone up the contributor – if I could find their phone number – and do one myself so that I could sell the picture in question.

Doing all this for a photo that was published the day before was tricky and time consuming. Doing it for a photo from weeks, months or decades previously was trickier still. Luckily, the deals we were doing were usually worth a fair bit of money and so it was worth it despite that.

So I built up my syndication business and started spending more of my time trying to sort out the chaos a little bit, standardise things, improve systems and metadata and other things to make the process more efficient and scalable. Or to put it another way, I tried to sort out the mechanisms of copyright as it works in newspapers.

So…fast forward a million years and I am CEO at The Copyright Hub in the UK. We still have a copyright law which says that rights-owners can decide what happens to their work. We still have people coming across content in one place and wanting to use it somewhere else.

But we also have orders-of-magnitude more complexity because we have orders-of-magnitude more content available online, orders-of magnitude more users wanting to do things with it and orders-of magnitude smaller values attached to much of what they want to do.

Except, of course, it’s even more difficult than that, because if you find a picture or article or piece of music on, say, a search engine, even the job of working out who to call about it is considerably harder than finding the phone number for The Sun’s syndication department buried somewhere in the small print at the back of the paper.

So, despite their best intentions, even starting the conversation defeats most people. Which has led to the current conundrum.

Copyright, some say, is not fit for purpose for the digital age, so the law should be changed to relax it, broaden exceptions, make space for innovators to innovate without the inconvenience of pesky outdated laws standing in their way.

Copyright, others say, is just fine, the only problem is that the law doesn’t sufficiently punish people who ignore it and so it should be tightened up to protect creators and creative industries.

Copyright, say I, is a fundamentally sound and well proven principle, but the way it works in practice hasn’t evolved very well to match the way in which the internet works – and that is the challenge and priority for the Copyright Hub.

We’re about making licensing content simpler. Making the basic mechanisms work the way the internet works, low cost and hugely scalable, open to innovation and clever new thinking – but always staying true to the idea that creators should be able to decide what happens to their work.

Making licensing simpler isn’t about being simplistic. It’s about hiding complexity – something the internet, when it works well, is brilliant at.

It’s easy now to find content and other work you want to copy, the complexity is in finding who owns it and securing permission or a licence.

We, and our partners, including Australia’s Copyright Agency, have built and are now testing technology that uniquely tags content so when someone comes across a piece of content they want to copy, they can click on it and find the person – or more likely machine – which can give them permission to use it – sometimes for a small fee.

And the process will be fully automated, so that the huge volume of low-value licences can be dealt with at a cost which makes it worthwhile.

The issue is universal. It’s just as relevant to you or I uploading funny things to Facebook as to huge media conglomerates. It’s also just as relevant to someone who wants nothing more than acknowledgement in return for their permission as someone who wants money.

Our solution is one which can be adopted by everyone, everywhere. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be worth doing, because it would only ever solve a small part of the problem.

That means that it’s easy for people to share content but also do the right thing and reward content creators – whoever they may be and whatever reward, financial or non-financial they might be seeking – when they copy their work.

That’s copyright done right.

Blog by Dominic Young, Chief Executive of the Copyright Hub.