Things to make and do: create a new kind of copyright

There are lots of people out there who would like less copyright, and plenty of people benefiting hugely from the fact that it doesn’t work well online.

There are others out there who wish it would work better and are coming up with ways that can happen (I’m one of them).

And there’s another whole category of people who want copyright, or some kind of right, to extend beyond words and pictures to the subject of those words and pictures. If they, or something they own is written about, or photographed, they want copyright-style control over that.

“Absurd”, chuckle copyright lawyers and well informed legislators. To imagine such a thing is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature and aims of copyright and the law.

“Good idea”, say others rather ominously, having heard a rather selective and seductive pitch.

In a sensible world I would discard such ideas. But in a world where the law has turned copyright on its head, reversed its aims and made monstrous riches for people who steal value while adding none, I have learned never to underestimate the common sense of those whose job it is to legislate.

Asking anyone who has to get re-elected every five years to think about the next ten, or twenty, or hundred is asking a lot. Bad law, after all, is one of the things which keeps politicians in business.

This idea has form…

Of course, while a new law would make life simple, new rights can be created without one. And one sector in particular has been busy doing so for the last ten years or more.

So here’s my guide for fun things to make and do: invent a new kind of copyright in two easy steps.

Before you start:

Imagine you own a football club. You are a powerful and wealthy individual. You are a member of an elite group – a league – of other clubs which are also run by powerful and wealthy individuals. You’re all used to getting your own way, and you are used to being able to squeeze money out of your club’s fans in interesting and innovative new ways.

One of the best ways is “Rights”. Rights have been a goldmine, and they’re the gift that keeps on giving. TV rights are the best example – the right to bring TV cameras into a ground and point them at the action has turned from a great way of attracting attention to your sport to a multi-billion pound (or dollar or euro or yen) business.

The way “Rights” work, if you’re a football club or other sporting body, is this:

Step 1: have a venue

First, your venue. Your stadium is your place, right? People can only come in it if you say they can. And you can set the rules. So you do. People can only come into your ground if they agree to certain rules. And you do, whether you know it or not, when you buy a ticket. Some are obvious: don’t bring your own food and drink. Don’t go on the pitch. Don’t misbehave. Some, less so: don’t take any pictures. Don’t communicate with anyone outside the ground. Don’t tweet. You thought you were buying a ticket, but actually you were signing a contract.

[by the way – an aside – but some don’t have any venue at all but still try the tricks outlined here. City marathons, for example, whose venues are the streets to which the public have unrestricted access, have been known to try to impose restrictions on the media].

Step 2: make some rights

Then, make some “Rights”. You have banned people from doing certain things, which means you can decide if anyone else is allowed to do them. By banning them you have made them into “Rights”. Ta-da! These aren’t legal rights, like copyright, written down and defined in law. They’re custom rights, written down and defined by you. The more you ban people from doing, the more “rights” you can invent and try to sell to someone. TV rights, for (the most obvious) example. But there are many others. You have magicked up a whole new business at the gates of your event, limited only by your imagination in creating and exploiting the rights you now own.

Step 2a: control the media

But there’s a fly in the ointment. There are some people you have been letting in for years, and you still want to, who can do a whole load of things which are otherwise banned. They’re the media. You want them there to publicise your game and promote your sponsors (when people buy sponsorship from football clubs they’re really buying cheap advertising space in newspapers). You can’t lock the media out, but you certainly don’t want them using their words and pictures willy-nilly because that might damage the “Rights” you just created by banning people from doing those things.

The media get on the nerves of your average football club owner. He’s used to being autocratic and having control, and these guys turn up every week and then write and print whatever they want. Worse than that, some of them are in the business of selling their words and pictures to others. They’re making money from your club, you’re expensively making facilities for them and they’re robbing you of the opportunity to sell more “rights” to more people.

You have to try to rein them in.

Paperwork works

There used to be an easy way of doing this which was to treat them like ticketholders. Sneak a contract in the way when they think all they’re doing is turning up to do their jobs.

So it began, a decade ago or more. Photographers and journalists turning up at sports events would be asked to sign a bit of paper before they came in. It used to say anodyne inoffensive things – they confirm their identity, that they have insurance, who they’re working for and so on. All fair enough.

Then the small print started to get longer, and the clubs teamed up to agree on the wording, but nobody really noticed. Who reads the small print, right? As long as they could do their jobs they didn’t care. As long as they could produce their newspapers their editors didn’t care either.

So the small print increased and increased and without anyone realising what was happening the sports had made themselves some “rights”. They had banned the media from doing all sorts of things with their own content, and the media hadn’t even realised they were doing it.

…until someone reads it

And long may it have stayed that way had a few people in the media not started reading the small print and raising objections, partly because the terms started to impinge on what newspapers (and in those days it was mostly newspapers) did every day – in other words because the sport got too greedy.

So was born a whole new battleground between sport and media which results in increasingly frequent and increasingly bitter conflagrations. If you picked up a newspaper, for example, during the first week of the England Football League season this August you might have been surprised to see reports written by reporters in the stands. They had been locked out of the press box. Coverage was dramatically reduced.

Similar things have been seen at various times in coverage of cricket in Australia, the current Rugby World Cup, the Indian Premier League and countless others. In other areas, events organisers have tried to ban critical comments of their event as a condition of entry, tried to force copyright of photographs to be handed over to them, have demanded free use of any material generated at their event.

The thing all these agreements, whether anodyne or outrageous, have in common is that they are trying to extend the concept of intellectual property to events. By creating a made-up contractual right event organisers reserve for themselves some of the things which the law reserves for copyright owners.

It’s not as easy as it once was

In recent years it has become a little more difficult for them. The News Media Coalition* is one organisation which has been set up to help ensure that these agreements are at least subject to some discussion and negotiation and it has been very successful in challenging some of the more egregious examples.

But the overall issue is more insidious than just a few sports bodies and concert promotors trying their luck when dealing with the notoriously tactical and careless media. Some of them actually believe that the concept of intellectual property should be extended to cover events as well as content. That staging an event should give you a legal, not just contractual, right to have control and ownership of the content created which is connected with the event.

Think about that for a second.

Someone who organises an event owns some sort of IP right in the event itself. They have a legal right to some sort of control over “use” of the event. Their control isn’t based on anything fixed and identifiable – like a photograph or an article, but on something abstract and ephemeral – the event itself.

This saves them from all the trouble of imposing contractual restrictions on everybody at the event, and then from tracking down and suing anybody who ignores them. It covers people watching on TV, who see the event without being there in person and therefore without a ticket to print rules on. It saves them from having to negotiate with the troublesome media who constantly interfere with their desire for total control. You can see the appeal.

Freedom of thought?

But it would also extend the idea of IP into scary places. If you can’t write about a concert or a football match, for example, without first getting permission, what happens to criticism? If, when you take a picture or something you may already have handed some ownership of it to someone else, you might find that you owe someone something for just having something you thought was your own property.

If by discussing it with others, expressing opinions about it, recalling it within earshot (or web-page-shot) of others, you are also breaching someone else’s rights then we have extended IP to actual thoughts. Far from the original intention of IP – to encourage the sharing of original thinking by protecting its expression – some would extend the reach of the law right into your mind. Forget freedom of speech, freedom of thinking will under threat.

It’s a mad idea. But it won’t go away. The English Premier League argued recently, not for the first time, that football matches should be given a performance right, of the kind given to performance works such as ballets (the insinuation that football matches are choreographed is slightly amusing). The court said no. But some politicians have heard the headlines, thought little about the implications, and warmed to the idea. That’s not just mad, it’s terrifying.

* disclosure: I was one of the founders of NMC and sat on its board until earlier this year. I have also conducted negotiations with sports bodies on their behalf

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