The Hargreaves review looks like it’s about to de-cloak. As the umpteenth review of copyright recently, and having been conducted at breakneck speed, the signs are that the outcome is better than we might have hoped. (I had a word or two to say about this review before).
Zone of common sense
For one thing, the idea of introducing US-style “fair use” into UK law seems to have gone away. On the one hand this isn’t surprising, because the idea doesn’t stand up to an iota of scrutiny, not least because the claim that it somehow helps nascent digital businesses with a mythical “zone of oxygen” is completely wrong headed. On the other hand, since David Cameron specifically mentioned this as a desirable outcome when he announced the review, it must be a bit awkward for Hargreaves to reject it.
Thankfully it looks like he has, and is distracting us by coming up with a few better ideas instead.
The one which seems to be attracting the most attention is the idea of a copyright hub, or rights registry, through which copyright can be licenced.
This is a great idea and one which for me is one of the foundation stones of the future for copyright. In order to licence something the first thing you need to know is who to go to for the licence and a rights registry will enable that.
But the devil is in the detail, and this needs to be done well to work well. There are plenty who would love to see it get bogged down in an administrative political swamp, and when governments try to do things themselves, it can turn a bit messy.
What I have been reading so far sounds a bit like a call for a single, monolithic, registry, and statutory registration hasn’t been a requirement since the advent of Berne Convention. I hope that’s not what emerges, because along with monolithic solutions always come politics, cost and inefficiency.
Learn from what already works
I am hoping that what we end up with is a distributed rights registry, with minimal central infrastructure and lots of people competing to provide services to the market. Obviously there needs to be an authoritative registry at some place in the system, but it should be as lightweight as possible, simply signposting the way to whoever can actually deal with the content in question rather than getting involved in the transaction itself.
In some ways (although by no means all) there are some lessons to be learned from the Domain Name System here. Name servers provide the actual information about a domain, all the central registry does it say which name server is responsible for a particular domain.
KISSS – Keep It Seeming Simple, Stupid!
Name servers in turn are more complex signposts – sending email to one server, web traffic to another and so on. And those servers can be anywhere, and can do anything. A simple signposting system facilitates, rather than interferes with, the behaviour of the actual domains. All the user does is click on a link and within a second or so they connect with one of multiple millions of possible servers on the internet. The complexity is hidden but the system is flexible.
I think we need something like this for content. Better security and a less dysfunctional central governance than the domain name system has would be good, but the distributed and competitive nature of the actual market it facilitates are essential.
A solution for the whole internet
Actually, I think they’re inevitable too. The UK can’t set up a single, central function for the whole world. Whatever happens it will need to interact with other similar systems elsewhere. Ideally they will be built on a single set of protocols which will be open and non-proprietary.
Hopefully the next step will be for the UK government to sponsor the creation of the infrastructure and protocols needed, without trying to own or control them other than doing whatever needs to be done to protect the authority and trust in that central “root” database. That way they can move the whole internet forward as well as putting the UK in pole position to show the way to a new phase of growth and creativity.