Category Copyright Hub

The European Commission’s manifesto for The Copyright Hub

As you may know, I stepped down from The Copyright Hub earlier this year, two-and-a-half years into my planned one year tenure.

The Hub is a fantastic, exhilarating, project which stands to create massive and positive change for creators. That is why it has attracted the wide-ranging support from an enormously diverse group of people, organisations, countries and businesses which you’ll see on the website. Among many other positive traits, The Copyright Hub is notable for being so far-sighted in anticipating the future needs of the internet when it comes to copyright.

I was reminded of this earlier this week, when I was taking part in a panel discussion about the new copyright package being proposed by the European Commission. It reads, in part, as if they wrote the Hub’s new manifesto.

I have rather neglected to pay proper attention EU happenings lately, because my head is down and I am totally focussed on a rather wonderful and exciting new business I’m helping to start.

But when I looked up yesterday and paid attention to the briefing which preceded our panel session, I was struck by how the proposals – particularly those on the new Publishers Right – could have been written with The Copyright Hub in mind.

The nub of it is that more people, in future, will unambiguously need permission before they use other peoples’ work. Put the debate about the principle of this to one side for a moment and what’s left is a practical problem. How to identify who permission is needed from. How to obtain it in an efficient way.

The Copyright Hub was conceived in anticipation of these needs. It connects content to its rightsholder, and automates the process of seeking and granting permission to use it.

Taken together with the recent CJEU ruling in GS Mediawhich creates new obligations on services which link to infringing material to check copyright, and the need for the Hub’s services has never been greater.

Many of the concerns and objections I heard voiced at the session yesterday were practical.

“How will sites know if content is infringing?”

“How can permission be obtained in practice?”

These are questions The Copyright Hub was conceived up to answer – and when the answer becomes a matter of a simple, background, technical process it will usher a new era of capability and value creation for the internet.

The wording of the proposed legislation is also an improvement on the past. It avoids locking the law to the current state of technology – a sin committed by the safe harbour provisions of the E-commerce Directive. That directive addressed an issue which, at the time, was impossible to imagine being solved technologically. As the technology improved, developing from impossible to tricky to trivial, the law stood still and created a gigantic legal loophole through which businesses worth billions of dollars were driven and built, at the expense of rights owners.

The proposed new law doesn’t seem to make that mistake. It uses words like “proportionate”, “reasonable” and “adequate” – all terms whose interpretation will change as technology improves.

So it sets a challenge which I hope supporters of projects like The Copyright Hub and the Linked Content Coalition will take up with relish. How quickly can they deliver the open technology needed to make what is tricky today – identifying, verifying and agreeing rights automatically – trivial tomorrow?

Doing that the right way is hard. The Copyright Hub has not taken the easy route and has determinedly pursued an open approach to delivering its technology and governance. This is, of course, the right thing to do but technology doesn’t build itself and finding the resources needed, when there will be no direct commercial return to the Hub, is no small challenge.

The progress the Hub has made despite this has been encouraging, if slower on the technical front than I (and I think others) were hoping. The demand for the Hub has been consistently high, not just in the UK. The new legislative proposals will only increase it.

To be better able to meet that demand, the Hub needs more resources to build and manage technology for itself and its stakeholders. Few projects are lucky enough to start with an unpaid, publicly funded partner to help, as the Hub was with Digital Catapult, but such support can never last forever.

If anyone has any doubt about the rationale or opportunity of the Hub, a quick glance at the Commission’s proposed new copyright reforms should lay it to rest.

The Commission is saying that a more permissioned internet is coming. Those who have had a free-ride are going to have their freedoms curtailed a little bit, will need to ask first. Since the seeking and giving of permission has been the foundation of the whole creative economy, the importance of this is profound.

It will lead to value creation and opportunities that extend well beyond the creative sector. But that growth will be, in part, limited by the state of the art of technology for identifying rights and negotiating permission. A manual, unreliable, untrustworthy process won’t be “reasonable”, “proportionate” or “adequate”.

So the impact that these changes can deliver in practice are in the hands of the creative sector and projects like The Copyright Hub and the Linked Content Coalition which they have sponsored with such foresight.

I thought when I started working on the Hub that the long haul towards an improving legislative environment online was going to be an awful lot longer. I imagined that we would have to build, implement and prove the technology in advance of being able to attract the attention of the law makers.

Despite some people thinking I was a wild optimist, it seems I was not not nearly optimistic enough. The most frustrating moments working on The Copyright Hub came when dealing with people who just couldn’t understand why it mattered or would help, who didn’t believe the status quo would ever change.

Now is a moment to for all of them to share my renewed, buoyant optimism that the status quo isn’t “locked in”. Legislative, as well as technological, change is not just possible but imminent – no doubt influenced by the great strides already taken by the Hub and other projects.

It would be an awful shame if the technology, having had such a great head-start, was overtaken by the legislation. Or the UK by other countries.

So… chequebooks out, everybody! If you care about the future health of the creative sector, the Hub is a huge asset. It needs your money and your work to implement its vision. This opportunity is bigger and sooner than we could ever have hoped.

Support The Copyright Hub! Its time is now…

Blocking the blockers is a waste of a good crisis

Back when my day job involved worrying about such things, I didn’t much like the online advertising market. As a publisher, it’s quite hard to love.

Advertising works for publishers when they can charge a premium price for their ads, establish and defend a meaningful market share, turn a larger audience into higher yields and more revenue. None of these things are easy, or even possible, for most publishers in the online advertising market.

That’s why huge sites with massive audiences (by publishing standards anyway) are unable to be profitable, and it’s why cutting costs is better than investing in product.

Enter the ad-blocker

Recently, ad blocking has entered the mainstream thanks to players like Apple and Three, and everyone is up in arms. The publishing industry is crying foul, demanding that something be done, predicting dire consequences if they are cut off from their income source.

Now I’m not defending or celebrating ad-blocking. Some of it does indeed, as John Whittingdale said, seem like a protection racket.

But from the point of view of a publisher shouldn’t it be more a call-to-action than a call-to-whinge?

The truth is that the advertising income stream has never been enough to sustain them, and the situation has got worse not better over time. Ad blocking potentially accelerates but doesn’t fundamentally change the ultimate consequence of this.

So now, surely, is the time to start to focus industry thinking not on how to preserve the starvation regimen offered by online advertising, but how move past it? To tap into the much richer, much bigger, much fairer and more sustainable opportunities offered by the content itself rather than the annoying, uncontrollable and, as more and more users now know, block-able ads around the edges of it.

Can’t pay, won’t pay

Ah, I can hear the chorus of groans already.

“Consumers won’t pay” it rumbles.

“You can’t compete with free, subscriptions don’t work, paywalls go against the grain of the internet, micro-payments are impossible”.

It’s as if people actually take comfort from defeatist aphorisms, as an alternative to actually trying to change anything. It certainly makes life easier: if everybody expects the worst then it’s hard to disappoint them.

But it’s nonsense, and it’s feeble, and it leaves one the cultural and creative industries, together many times bigger than the advertising market, marooned by their own despair.

Perhaps one of the reasons people won’t pay, is because they can’t pay.

I don’t mean they can’t afford it. I mean there’s no simple way of handing over money. They literally can’t pay. That’s at least partly why they won’t.

Obviously, even if they could, they would have to want to – the challenge would be to make products good enough and to price them right.

That’s a creative challenge: know your user, make something that strongly appeals to them, charge a price they’re willing to pay without much thought. The same challenge which defines, effectively, the whole of the creative sector whether making films, music, books, newspapers, photography, games or anything else.

Can every page pay?

OK stop for a moment before you start groaning. Think about it. Don’t get defeated by the frustration of the years of trying to make micro-payments and subscriptions work. Look past that.

Imagine a world where every time your creative product or its content gets consumed you benefit. On terms which you have set. Imagine if every page could pay. What would it do to products, to revenues, to relationships with users?

When I ask content producers this question, most of them get quite excited. They see a world in which their focus becomes clearer. Pleasing their readers, viewers, listeners and players rather than the robots which deliver people to ad-serving systems. More consumption. More revenue. More investment in product leading to more popularity. What management consultants call a virtuous circle.

“Be popular” is the goal. The more popular, the more successful. Every page pays, predictably. Investing in creativity and creative products becomes rational again, innovating to better serve your audience becomes a key imperative, beating your competition drives the urgent need to keep evolving.

But what about the masters in the middle?

Of course there are lots of intermediaries on the internet, sitting in various places in between the content owners and the users. Search engines, ISPs, ad networks, mobile companies, aggregators, countless others.

Very often they’re the gatekeepers as well. To get to users you have to go through them, and on the way through they limit the rewards you can hope for.

But they’re also the people who can provide an answer to the payment conundrum. They are retailers. Many of them are already collecting money from your users for various things.

Just as newspaper publishers never tried to collect 25p individually from every person buying their papers, but instead got newsagents to do it in return for a share of the money, the solution to the payment problem might lie in getting other people to do it for you. As long as what’s good for them is also good for you, and vice versa, there are lots of reasons to work together.

Aligning incentives

The key, as the creative sector has known for centuries, is to have control over the terms under which you offer your work. The law has given creators this control ever since the advent of copyright.

Making this possible requires some new technical plumbing, to allow copyright to work as efficiently as advertising and websites themselves.

After that it’s down to the innovators, the creative companies and anyone who doesn’t want to rely on a failing ad-driven business model, to come up with a much more rapid evolution and new ways to please consumers and share rewards.

Since what we’re talking about her is supplementing ad revenues, not replacing them this doesn’t need to involve huge controversy. For the creative industries to win, the ad industry doesn’t have to lose (they’re doing that on their own anyway). New opportunity is something everyone can move towards

Never waste a good crisis

What’s needed is a spark to trigger all this movement. I think ad-blocking might be it. Something to move away from, a failing model for ad-based revenues. Projects like The Copyright Hub and the Linked Content Coalition are creating the basis for building a new value layer for the internet. This will lead to the emergence of new players who will make it easier for everyone to find new sources of revenue from users and others.

Who will these new players be?

Watch this space.



Tis but a flesh wound

Much has been written in the last week or two about the death of newspapers. The announcement that the Independent will cease its print edition has prompted this hand-wringing and outpouring. The Independent’s hobbyist owner, Evgeny Lebedev, has offered up his own wisdom about the situation. In an interview with the Guardian he claims his rivals are “in denial” about print.

“I genuinely believe that the future is digital and that the industry is in denial…” he says, positioning himself as the pioneering leader of an otherwise moribund pack.

I chuckled when I read this, in the patronising way only a long-in-the-tooth, seen-it-all-before old dinosaur can. Evgeny is not to be ignored, and he has done some interesting and innovative things, but he could easily be accused of a certain amount of denial himself.

While print might be a rapidly declining market in both circulation and advertising terms, it remains the case that for certain newspapers print is still profitable.

Not, I agree, for everyone, and if you were the proprietor of a newspaper selling around 50,000 copies a day in a national newspaper market which manages to sell nearly 7m copies daily, carrying on would have started to seem irrational quite some time ago. Being in last place, with under 1%, isn’t exactly a glorious place to be in any market. In a declining market, less so. In a declining market with high overheads and reducing yields, less still.

So fine, Evgeny, shut down your print titles. Can’t imagine why you didn’t do it years ago (unless, of course, the reason why a mysteriously wealthy Russian former spy buys a failing British newspaper isn’t just because he’s interested in the bottom line).

But Evgeny’s digital dream is almost comical. For the Independent to have a future, digital or otherwise, it has to have an income. Ideally, unless it plans to rely on charity, it should have more income than expenditure. Which as countless newspapers have found, is a bit of a challenge in the digital domain.

It’s not like the Independent is the first to try this, but the precedents are not good. Going “digital only” is a usually prelude to going bust or carrying on in name only, trying to attract enough traffic to bring in a dribble of cash. That’s because “digital only” tends to mean, other than in niche areas, ad-funded.

Unfortunately ad-funded means a rather unreliable revenue stream, since increased traffic only converts a fraction of the increase into meaningful ad revenue. It also means a rather uncertain future because the online ad marketplace is one largely out of the control of any site which is seeking ad revenues. If you’re running to stand still, you’re doing rather well.

So success as an online newspaper is elusive. As so many have shown, it’s relatively easy to drive audiences to numbers which dwarf print circulations. What’s much harder is to convert those audiences into profitable or even meaningful revenue streams. So the usual approach is to try to cut costs, to acquire audience for the minimum possible investment, or keep spending and produce a fantastic product sustained by the hope that popularity will eventually deliver meaningful revenues. Just ask the Guardian and the Daily Mail how well that works out in practice.

Which means Evgeny’s high-minded promises to retain the services of high priced journalists and foreign bureaux are unlikely to survive the brutal reality of the digital only world for long. If he really believes that this transition, and the promised re-investment of freed-up capital, will lead to growth then he’s either talking about growing something other than profit, or he’s a fantasist.

The truth is that until the internet grows up enough to deliver meaningful, reliable revenue from online audiences, this sort of transition will continue to end in failure. Giving up print is simply giving up. For the Independent, which has struggled to commercially viable for much of its existence, it might be finally succumbing to the inevitable

It’s a very sad day because for all its failure the Independent has been a great newspaper, editorially proud and brave and with lots to admire. At least that’s what plenty of people I respect say. Personally I never read it much. Which I think probably explains the problem – I wasn’t alone.

Not enough people wanted to read the Independent. That’s why it failed. When the digital life support machine is finally turned off it will be the end of a painfully prolonged death. If Evgeny wants to invest in anything, in the meantime, he should try to make it something which might actually change the online marketplace into one where it’s possible for newspapers and other content businesses to thrive. That’s what I have been working on.

But that requires a strategic vision which extends beyond just brave and unrealistic rhetoric.

Farewell, the Independent. You were great. Rest in peace whenever you are finally allowed to.

A new world

As you may have seen elsewhere, I am going to be the new CEO of the Copyright Hub. While this was absolutely not what I had planned for myself, it’s too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

I have been of the view for years that the problem with copyright is not the law, but the way in which it is implemented in the digital era. While the problems have been obvious (it’s too hard to get things done, fundamentally), I have strongly believed that the solution is not to change the law. It has been frustrating that we have not made more progress towards changing the mechanisms of copyright to work better in an internet world.

My view on this has translated into action in a number of things, big and small. I have been involved with.

The ACAP project, which started from the simple observation that complaining about the way search engines crawled content wasn’t very constructive but helping them along by developing a means for their crawlers to talk to content web servers was, is a project aimed at making practical solutions to otherwise difficult problems.

The NLA e-clips project, as well, has been a great and enduring success based on the idea that if the (in this case newspaper) industry invests in creating great technology and services in response to changing needs, good things can happen. They did, and they continue to do so.

And the Copyright Hub is the most ambitious that I have been involved with yet. Recognising that the mechanisms of copyright need to radically change in an era when everyone is a creator and user, and that these mechanisms aren’t going to invent themselves, we are setting out to make good, practical, things happen.

Ultimately copyright needs to work in the interests of end users and creators (who increasingly overlap) if it is to work at all. The Copyright Hub sets out to improve the way it works to this end. It has huge support from right across the creative industries in the UK and beyond. I have a clear view of what I want it to do (and – just as important – what I want it NOT to do). If you want to know more about either, ask me… or just wait and I’ll tell you anyway.

In terms of this blog, which is rather randomly updated anyway, I’m going to keep randomly updating it with thoughts and ideas.

It’s probably necessary to point out that it is, and always has been, a personal blog expressing personal views and venting my frustrations, often on matters way outside the remit of the Copyright Hub. My views are not necessarily those of the Hub.

We’re going to try to make a really positive difference for everyone in the creative industries. Wish me luck!

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