Aug 012010

L to R: Cory Doctorow, Jeff Lynn, Obhi Chatterjee and John Buckman - Photo: James Firth

It’s been an intriguing week. First, I spent last Saturday at #ORGCon, where I had been invited to talk about our film Shyama in the opening panel discussion chaired by writer Cory Doctorow entitled ‘Thriving in the real digital economy’. Then on Monday evening, as I was still digesting what I had heard at #ORGCon, I noticed our friends Brian Newman and Sheri Candler tweeting enthusiastically about Gerd Leonhard‘s talk The future of film and cinema.

400 people converged on London for #ORGCon. What had brought them together was the astonishingly unimpressive Parliamentary debates about the internet disconnection and website blocking provisions of the UK’s Digital Economy Act, which had left them deeply anxious about the digital rights of UK citizens, businesses and creators.

Professor James Boyle - Photo: James Firth

Professor James Boyle‘s speech at #ORGCon about The incredible shrinking public domain: A paradox was fascinating, amusing and disturbing. On one side, he noted that we now take for granted that, thanks to the internet, we have immediate or at least quick access to the answer to any question which might occur to us. This was unimaginable just 18 years ago.

On the other side, he pointed out that none of us would have free and legal access to share or build upon the cultural works created by our contemporaries during our lifetimes unless the creator of the work made a conscious choice (eg, Creative Commons licensing or donating the work to the public domain) to allow us to do so. This was not the case with previous generations, where music, books and other works passed much more quickly and easily to the public domain.

So the paradox he drew our attention to is that, although we now have the technological means to disseminate knowledge more easily than ever before, the default setting of the law is that we would need to wait for longer than ever before to do so, unless we obtain permission from the holder of the rights to any work to do so. Today’s ‘permissions-based culture’, he said, has led to a risk-adverse approach to clearing incidental music and other copyrighted works in films, limiting legitimate ‘fair use’. This is examined in the comic-strip book Bound by law? by Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins.

For example, the Newport state of mind music video parody of this Jay-Z/Alicia Keys music video has now been seen by over 2 million people in 12 days. Its director, MJ Delaney, ‘thought it would be fun to make it‘ but apparently hoped Jay-Z and Alicia Keys would get to see the video ‘as long as their publishing people don’t force us to take it offline‘.

Later in the day, Jennifer Jenkins provided  a potted history of copyright, noting that jazz music might not have emerged legally if today’s copyright terms of 50-70 years after the death of the creator had applied at the time – until 1978, the copyright term was 28 years after the creation of a cultural work. Someone in the audience from the UK Pirate Party summarised her presentation by suggesting it meant that, up to the 10th Century, musicians just needed to play; up to the 19th Century, they also needed to be literate; in the 20th Century, they also needed to be a computer expert; and in the 21st Century they also need to be a legal expert.

Gerd Leonhard: the future of film and cinema

Watching Gerd Leonhard’s excellent 66-minute talk on The future of film and cinema suggested to me that much of the agonised discussion I’d heard at #ORGCon is probably a by-product of the attitude of businesses which thrived on being the ‘gatekeepers’ in the pre-internet era. The latter use emotive terms like ‘piracy’ and ‘freetards’ to persuade politicians to legislate to protect them (and supposedly creators) from the unruly masses who would otherwise allegedly kill off creativity by demanding that everything is available free on the internet. The problem is that the sort of protection they want would require the sort of dystopian future which George Orwell had warned of in his book 1984 and would probably kill off people’s interest in using the internet in the process. Recent research suggests that this would stifle creativity.

According to Wikipedia, following the sacking of Rome in 455 by an East Germanic tribe known as the Vandals, the term ‘vandalism’ was coined during the French Revolution to refer to “senseless destruction, particularly in the defacing of artworks that were completed with great effort”. Meanwhile, according to Wikipedia, “The Internet has no centralized governance in either technological implementation or policies for access and usage; each constituent network sets its own standards.” So perhaps some might regard those who are lobbying governments to control people’s access and usage of the internet as ‘vandals’, especially given their approach to mashups and remixes – artworks that were often completed with great effort (based on existing works … just like jazz).

In a community apparently threatened by pirates and vandals, what is a politician supposed to do? Presumably, find a balanced way to satisfy everyone, because otherwise the community as a whole suffers, particularly creators, creativity and innovation.

In his latest book, Friction is Fiction: the future of media, content and business, Gerd Leonhard includes an August 2009 quote from the Financial Times by Labour MP Tom Watson, who was recently named ‘Internet hero of the year‘ by UK Internet Service Providers: “Challenged by the revolutionary distribution mechanism that is the Internet, big publishers with their expensive marketing and PR operations and big physical distribution networks are seeing their power and profits diminish. Faced with the choice of accepting this and innovating, or attempting, King Canute-style, to stay the tide of change, they’re choosing the latter option, and  looking to Parliament for help with some legislative sandbags.”

As I mentioned to Professor Boyle towards the end of the day at #ORGCon, I was surprised that no-one had mentioned the Adelphi Charter on Creativity, Innovation and Intellectual Property, of which he and Cory Doctorow were among the co-authors. Although it was only reflected in the abandoned Gower’s report, it would seem to be an eminently suitable way for bewildered politicians all over the world to navigate between the claims and counter-claims of pirates and vandals to the ultimate benefit of both creators and society.

Thanks to Bridget FoxJulian Huppert MP and others, the UK Lib Dems’ Freedom, creativity and the internet emergency motion, which is in line with the Adelphi Charter, now guides the minority partner in the UK coalition government. As he explained at #ORGCon, Julian is now vice-chair of the all-party Parliamentary group on the digital economy chaired by Eric Joyce MP.

One can only guess what Rabindranath Tagore might have made of the internet but perhaps this poem gives us a clue, also bearing in mind that Shyama is a subtly artistic critique of repressive regimes:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali (1910)

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