Analysis A British copyright swap-shop may turn out to be one of the coalition government's unexpected success stories.
The notion of an industry-funded and industry-led "Digital Copyright Exchange", now called a "Copyright Hub", was recommended by Prof Ian Hargreaves in Number 10's "Google Review" of intellectual property, and is examined in the second part of a feasibility study published today.
Richard Hooper, the former information-biz exec and Ofcom bigwig who conducted the feasibility study, calls it "a short final report bearing good news". He make several recommendations.
Hooper urges that copyright industries work much harder to make metadata - the information about who owns what, and how it can be used - much more easily accessible. He chivvies the royalty collection societies to make licensing even simpler. He points out that industries such as music and publishing are still in the digital stone age when it comes to having clear rights identification on digital objects. And he also rebukes the BBC: the corporation's tech wonks are keener on writing "middleware" specs than incorporating established standards.
"The BBC should be part of this investigation and should not seek to ‘go it alone’. The key word here is interoperability," writes Hooper.
"Where an established international standard exists and where the BBC is creating and distributing content of a type to which that standard applies then we would strongly encourage the Corporation to incorporate established standards within their URIs wherever appropriate."
This matters - a lot. Because the BBC is a de facto standard setter, and delivers content across so many markets and different kinds of media, then if the BBC gets something right, others will follow.
Hooper also addresses orphan works from a practical, reality-based perspective - something apparently beyond his masters at the Business Department. Getty Images' PicScout recognition technology impressed Hooper, who urges the industry to build the registry function an image IDing solution needs. He doesn't dismiss the idea that an image exchange is one area public money could be usefully spent.
"Get on with it" is his message to the photo industries.
But what use is making so many people work towards immaculate metadata when large corporate interests can systematically strip it from the copyright material they use?
Here, Hooper doesn't flinch:
Recognising that the stripping of metadata on a commercial scale can already constitute a criminal offence as well as a civil infringement, we call on all organisations that regularly use and resize pictures, such as broadcasters and newspapers, to agree a voluntary code of practice in which they publicly commit to: (1) end the practice of stripping metadata from images and (2) refuse to use images for which there is no metadata attached.
Again, Hooper singles out one of the worst offenders, the BBC, which begs for photographs from the public then systematically removes any identifying marks - creating orphan works on an industrial scale.
We strongly urge the BBC, itself a major licensor and licensee of images, to work with the images industry to undertake the necessary tests so that within the next 12 months it is able to demonstrate and apply this approach to all images that it publishes on the web from that point forwards. This approach may facilitate more efficient licensing. We understand that it will be an immense task to apply this approach to the BBC’s extensive archive so the Corporation will need to consider how best and when to introduce the URI approach to images within the archive.
Hooper seems to have sidestepped two potential pitfalls.
How to kill a hub
One is recommend the design of overarching 'database of everything', which would have created jobs for committees of middle-managers for many years and probably ended in the familiar IT disaster. Instead, the hub Hooper envisages will really be a few smaller hubs. He notes that the job of getting databases to interoperate is important - but this is a job the Linked Content Coalition is working on, anyway.
Another potential pitfall lay in wait: ignoring established international metadata standards work, and going it alone. Although the UK is a leader in creative industries, it doesn't really have the clout to do that.
Instead, Hooper is motivating the bickering factions of the many disparate copyright industries to get their act together, with some success. What's left unresolved is who's going to continue to monitor progress - which matters, see below - and how much if any public money is needed to seed various projects?
Hooper's approach to copyright has essentially been a practical and very British one: copyright is an economic incentive, we have a market problem - so what can we do to fix it?
Let's do what we can to stimulate markets, he argues, through the co-operation of interested businesses and users. Copyright exchanges should help enormously to create those markets.
But it won't be plain sailing - because the policy approach adopted by UK policy makers is an ideological and rather abstract one, and one that's diametrically opposed to Hooper's pragmatism.
In this ideological worldview, copyright is a regulation which must be removed, and markets must be destroyed, giving bureaucrats the opportunity to manage, regulate and oversee the New World. Whatever merits there are to this approach, it doesn't have much in the way of economics going for it, for when you remove an incentive to do something, less of the 'something' gets done. That means it's very detrimental to overseas investment in creative sectors, something Prime Minister Cameron said he wants to see more of. Currently, however, it's the ideological "free" view that is driving UK creative industry policy, as we can see in the Business Reform bill - a very hasty attempt to rush in legislation before the success of the new hubs can be seen.
Hooper makes the anti-copyright zealots behind the UK's approach not just redundant, but makes them look quite silly too. What happens next is going to be fairly crucial. If the venture falls back into the ideological freebie hothouse of the Intellectual Property Office, we expect the IPO bureaucrats to do everything they can to kill the Hub, or stall it, so nothing ever happens.
All for the Greater Good, of course. ®