Lets play a word game

Consider this quote from The Guardian:

A cross-party committee of MPs and peers has urged the government to consider introducing legislation that would force Google to censor its search results to block material that a court has found to be in breach of someone’s *********.

Or these ones, from the parliamentary committee itself:

Where an individual has obtained a clear court order that certain material infringes their ********* and so should not be published we do not find it acceptable that he or she should have to return to court repeatedly in order to remove the same material from internet searches.


Google acknowledged that it was possible to develop the technology proactively to monitor websites for such material in order that the material does not appear in the results of searches. We find their objections in principle to developing such technology totally unconvincing. Google and other search engines should take steps to ensure that their websites are not used as vehicles to breach the law and should actively develop and use such technology. We recommend that if legislation is necessary to require them to do so it should be introduced.

not to mention

Whilst damages for breaches of ********* are never as good as preventing the breach in the first place, the maximum level of damages that has been awarded is too low to act as a real deterrent. We recommend that the courts should have the power to award exemplary damages in ********* cases, if necessary by giving the courts that power through legislation. In deciding whether to award exemplary damages the courts should take into account the financial situation of the media organisation concerned.

How about this one from Tim Berners-Lee

It’s mine – you can’t have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I’m getting in return.

What do you think they’re all talking about? What word have I asterisked-out?

If you’re guessing “copyright” you are, sadly, wrong. However it fits, doesn’t it?

They are, as you probably guessed, talking about “privacy” or personal data in one form or another.

The reason they can so easily substitute for each other is because they’re so similar. Copyright, like “privacy” or personal data belongs to someone. They choose how much of it to put in public and on what terms. They choose how it can be exploited by others and they have the right to prevent it. They are both protected by laws which are intended to protect the personal, commercial and moral rights of the owners.

Yet despite the obvious parallels between copyright and “privacy” they seem to often be regarded in almost opposite ways. While preserving the sanctity of “privacy” (whatever that actually means) is uncontroversial – even the normally shrill Cory Doctorow says “I like the idea of strong privacy legislation” – the idea that copyright should apply to the internet in anything other than the most rudimentary fashion creates a huge and impassioned outcry.

Perhaps this is to do with the fact the copyright is so often associated with big companies, who are easily and casually reviled – sometimes just for their big-ness. Anti-copyright activists often take aim at Disney or Newscorp and accuse them of trying to prop up an outdated and unfair media monopoly.

It’s harder to be so absolutist at the other end of the scale. Everything I have ever written, every photograph I have ever taken is covered by copyright. The same applies to you. It could also be my living. But protecting it online is virtually impossible. Anyone who has tried to get a picture or video removed from websites, sometimes many websites, knows the impossibility of the task. Getting compensation is a virtual impossibility. The idea that someone might ask before using my stuff is almost comically naive. Getting paid by even a tiny minority just a fantasy.

So where do my privacy rights (good) end and my copyrights (bad) begin? Is it when I publish something? Is it when I try to make money from it? Is it when I do a deal with a media company to use my work? Is it when I get successful enough that I collaborate with other creators, work together to be more successful and become, as if by magic, a company rather than just a person (media companies, after all, are just ways that creative people organise themselves to create more success).

For me, what is good for one is good for the other. Copyright is personal, just as much as it is corporate, and it’s the engine of so much economic and cultural good. The polarised attitudes highlight how dishonest and unsophisticated the debate has become.

Copyright is property. Someone created it, invested time, intelligence, creativity and probably money in it. It belongs to that person, and they have the right to choose whether or not to share it.

If they do, it’s a good thing: it advances our culture and our knowledge, it inspires others to create more things, it moves us forward as well as entertaining and delighting people. We should want to encourage more things to be created and shared and copyright does this.

Those who create and share should be able to expect a reward just as those who seek to protect their privacy expect to be able to prevent it being invaded.

Copyright needs to be better protected, and that means having practical means to do so as well as the laws to base them on.


14 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. M,

    “Is it when I publish something?”

    Yup. The etymology of the word “publish” kind of gives it away.

  2. M,

    No, but privacy rights only apply to private, unpublished material.

    • when is something published? If I put it on my facebook stream is it “published” or “private”? What if it is only shown to friends? Does it change if it’s also friends-of-friends? How about if it’s on a restricted access forum?

      • M,

        My personal opinion is once you share something with another human being, you can no longer truly expect privacy.

        Privacy rights protect you from organizations who want to actively monitor your private dealings. It’s not protection against your private dealings ever making it to the public. That would be impossible.

        We can not do anything once that information becomes public somehow. That should be somewhat intuitive: that which as been seen can not be unseen.

      • Well that might be true (although lawyers, doctors and priests might disagree, and most people who have ever confided in a friend might be hopeful that you’re wrong), but if you extrapolate that view to say that as soon as something is public copyright becomes functionally useless then you’re really arguing against the idea of copyright, aren’t you?

    • M,

      Sure. Who said I support copyright? Copyright has been permanently crippled by the information age. I say put copyright out of it’s misery and come up with a better system for compensating creative development that isn’t built on the idea of artificial scarcity.

    • M,

      Pretty much. I would argue that the complexity of copyright economics on the Internet exceeds enforcing copyright on performance rights, which was the original justification for copyright collectives. So yes, a collecting society for filesharing would make a whole lot of sense.

      • Complexity is not usually a challenge which defeats the internet. Actually the opportunity exists to simplify things and in my view collective licensing is usually a poor compromise when all else fails, and a truly terrible way of licensing primary rights. Also, people should still be able to have some control over how and on what basis their content is used, otherwise you’re just setting up a sort of compensation scheme rather than a marketplace. And – trust me on this – there’s nothing simple about distributing revenues from collective schemes.

    • M,

      I don’t think there is a way to enforce copyright on the Internet that will be acceptable to most people. You have things like SOPA/PIPA which for all intents and purposes are fairly tame as far as copyright enforcement goes, and they were incredibly unpopular. Yet even if SOPA/PIPA passed from my own understanding of how the Internet works, it would have done little to curb piracy. The only way to do it to really be draconian, like enforce prior restraint on the whole Internet. That simply can’t work.

      It’s not a matter of if a copyright collective is good or not, it’s the only model that can possibly work.

  3. M,

    I wrote a detailed response to your blog post here.

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