Walls and words – the importance of language

YouTube put up a paywall. But they’re not calling it that. In various headlines culled from various search engines, YouTube Red is called “a subscription service”, an “ad-free music and video plan” and so on. Not a paywall.

I used to think about paid services (and how to make them pay) when I worked in newspapers. One thing I relentlessly hated was the word “paywall”. It was so negative and pejorative, a word which almost demanded to be used apologetically or disparagingly.

Despite this it was and is used even by the wordsmiths in the newspaper industry – and more or less universally – as a piece of jargon describing the desire to charge customers for creative products.

But not by YouTube, or those reporting their new business. Perhaps that’s a semantic issue – you can still get YouTube without paying if you’re willing to put up with ads – but it’s a telling reminder of how important language, sometimes almost subliminally, is to peoples perceptions.

It is even more telling when people talk about copyright.

Think about copyright. It’s a right which is automatically granted to everyone whenever they create something. The right confers on them a freedom to decide what happens to their work, which they can use however they want – to spread their work freely around, or to keep it private, or to use their work to form collaborations with others; and to agree to do whatever they want on whatever terms they want.

To out it another way, copyright is a freedom, granted to all creators. But that’s not how it’s talked about, even in the law. UK law talks about “the acts restricted by copyright”. Its written in terms of what you can’t do, not what you can.

That might be a legal necessity, but it sets the tone for a lot of the debate about copyright. Because copyright is a restricting thing, it must be a negative thing. It stops people doing things, so the things it stops must be some sort of loss. It restricts and so somehow must be blocking someone else’s freedom.

This isn’t just annoying, it’s dangerous, because it has set the tone for debate. You can tell where the idea that copyright is just lent by society to creators (“for a limited time” as the US Constitution puts it – more negative language) comes from.

Copyright advocates are always fighting back against this presumption of negativity, always defending against these attacks rather than being able to talk of the huge and diverse cultural and economic benefits which copyright unlocks and the huge potential to do even more. But even they, in defending copyright, find themselves using the same negative language which feeds the negative attitudes they rail against. Copyright protects, it prevents, it is enforced.

We don’t talk about “till walls” in shops. We don’t talk about human rights in terms of the freedom they deny to one person in order to grant a more important freedom to someone else. And YouTube doesn’t talk about “paywalls” when they decide that their users might like to pay for a product made out of creative content.

So anyone who recognises the great, positive impact of copyright and its potential to deliver the real value of the internet in the coming third era of its evolution, should learn the lesson of positive language.

Talk about freedom, talk about reward, talk about copyright being for everyone, every creator, every person.

Talk about what copyright enables, not what it restricts.

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