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Newsletter Section 5

From the Net

The copyright times they are a-changin'

(David Hewson)

Copyright is a queer thing. Last week, Bob Dylan - or at least his publisher - finally got back to me with a price for quoting five words of his in a forthcoming book.

The cost, excluding North America, is a cool £200. The quote, by the way, is “money doesn't talk, it swears” and it seems even more apposite to me now than it did when I first asked for permission to recycle it.

Dylan has the right to charge what he likes for his work. What grates is the ineluctable fact that his copyright is ripped off daily by a much bigger audience than I will ever manage with a mere novel. Hunt around the Internet and you will find lots of sites that carry complete, unauthorised lyric sheets for almost every rock star.

The Net does not so much break copyright law as behave as if the entire notion of intellectual property is some kind of anachronistic hangover from the Middle Ages.

In the new digital anarchy, copyright disappears the moment content can be reproduced in electronic format, copied and dispatched over the Net. Your work ceases to be private property and becomes part of the worldwide digital library, ready to be down loaded by anyone who knows how to use a Web search engine.

Contrary to what many people believe, it is still a breach of copyright law. If you want to understand what copyright means on the Net you can find an admirable summary at www.clari.net/brad/copymyths.html . This blows a hole in many current myths.

It is no longer the case in most countries, for example, that material needs to carry a copyright notice in order to have any legal protection.

The second thing is that the law is largely irrelevant. The reason nobody has tried to take on the Net for these blatant rip-offs is that it is rather like trying to down a mosquito with a rifle. The nuisance may be real and, in some cases, downright injurious. But how do you attack something as ephemeral as the Net? Who do you sue?

There are those who think the answer lies in technology. In the next couple of years we can all expect to be pressed to adopt the idea of “digital watermarking”. This will imprint an electronic signature on every piece of copyright information. Each time you print the item, or send it around an internal network, the signature will report back to a digital copyright agency, which sends you a bill.

The chances of this catching on are, of course, nil. To succeed, the world at large has to start caring enough about the illicit use of copyright material to buy the signature-reading printers and network protocols that make it work. In reality, anything carrying copyright that can be digitised will be digitised and, at some point, uploaded to the Net for general


Today that means short paper items that can be retyped - like music lyrics - and longer articles that already come in digitised form, such as newspaper stories carried by Web services. Tomorrow, when the bandwidth of the Net grows, you can expect to see entire pirated videos, and there will be little the studios can do to stop them.

These are issues that go beyond the simple remuneration of writers and artists.

By disregarding intellectual property, the Net puts in jeopardy the very notion of authorship itself.

When everything appears to be free and available everywhere, its value becomes nothing, and the quality of its source impossible to judge. Already anyone can post “news” that is underpinned by none of the editorial or legal requirements we take for granted in the output of commercial organisations.

After fake information, you can expect fake novels, fake art and, eventually, fake movies too. Forget about real beer and real food - we need a campaign for real content. And implicit in that has to be the notion that we pay for what we consume.

Reproduced from Innovation, p.10 The Sunday Times, 21 April 1996.

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