Blackouts, copycratism and intellectual property

This seems as good a week as any to address the issue of copyright, what with the Wikipedia et al blackout this week. Perhaps like many non-Americans, the exact details of SOPA and PIPA require a little reaching for, but the premise is that American based websites would be banned from supporting non-US websites which host ‘pirated content’ in the form of funding, advertising, links or other assistance. This could be in the form of forcing search engines such as Google to stop indexing such sites, or to bar requests from clients in the US from resolving the DNS conversions of targeted foreign sites, or shutting down ‘offending’ sites in the US. The bills’ many detractors say that this is too broad a brush, potentially allowing unscrupulous commercial operators to target US websites for their own purposes, and also that such sites could be targeted if they are not knowingly hosting pirated content. Think Facebook having to individually clear each and every picture and every video uploaded to it anywhere in the world, and assuming legal responsibility for its presence there.

This all seems a bit weird. It is as if the UK Parliament decided to revisit the 1865 Locomotives Act, which limited any mechanically-propelled vehicle on the highway to 4mph, and stipulated that an authorized crew member should walk before it holding a red flag. Imagine Parliament reasserting this speed limit for, say, the M6, and stipulating that a bigger flag was needed. The interesting thing about these bills is that they come straight from the ink-in-the blood mentality of zillionaire copycrats (lit. ‘One who rules through the exercise of copyright’) like Rupert Murdoch who, rather predictably, tweeted “Seems blogsphere has succeeded in terrorising many senators and congressmen who previously committed … Politicians all the same”; and the Motion Picture Association of America. There is still, in some quarters, a mauer im kopf which says ‘it is a bad thing to share my data’ which, at least in some ways, transcends potential financial loss. What, in some quarters of the digitisation world at least, we are seeing is smarter ways to regulate *how* information is shared on the internet, and of ensuring attribution where it is.

How do this week’s debates relate to scholarly communication in the digital humanities?  Here, there seems to be an emerging realization that, if we actually give up commercial control of our products, then not only will the sun continue to rise in the east and set in the west, but our profiles, and thus our all-important impact factors, will rise. Witness Bethany Nowviskie’s thoughtful intervention a little less than a year ago, or the recent request from the journal Digital Humanities Quarterly to its authors to allow commercial re-use of material they have contributed, for example, for indexing by proprietary metadata registries and repositories. I said that was just fine. For me, the danger only emerges when one commits ones content to being available only through commercial channels, which DHQ was not proposing.

So, beyond my contributions to DHQ, what lessons might we learn from applying the questions raised by this week’s events in relation to content provided by movie studios, pop stars, commercial publishers, (or indeed the writings of people that other people have actually heard of)? We should recognise that there is a conflict between good old-fashioned capitalist market forces and our – quite understandable – nervousness in Giving Up Control. Our thoughts are valuable, and not just to us. The way out is not to dig our heels in and resist the pressure, rather I feel we should see where it leads us. If Amazon (net worth in 2011 $78.09 billion) can do it for distribution by riding on long-tail marketing, where are the equivalent business models of IP in the digital age, and especially in scholarly communication? We need to look for better ways to identify our intellectual property, while setting it free for others to use.  Combining digital data from a particular resource could lead to increased sales of (full) proprietary versions of that resource, if the content is mounted correctly and the right sort of targeting achieved. Clearly there is no one answer: it seems that there will be (must be) a whole new discipline emerging in how scholarly digital content is/can be reused. We are perhaps seeing early indications of this discipline in namespacing, and the categorisation of ideas in super-refined multi-facetted CC licences, but these will only ever be part of the answer.

But the first stage is to get over the mauer im kopf, and I suggest the first step for that is to allow ourselves to believe that the exploitation of web-mounted content is equivalent to citation, but taken to the logical extreme that technology allows. We have spent years developing systems for managing citation, properly attributing ideas and the authorship of concepts, and avoiding plagiarism: now we base our academic crediting systems on these conventions and terrorise our students with the consequences of deviating from them. We need to do the same for commercial and non-commercial reuse of data, applied across the whole spectrum that the concept of ‘reuse’ implies.

Otherwise, we are simply legislating for men with flags to walk in front of Lamborghinis.

Author: Stuart Dunn

I do various things, but mainly I am Professor of Spatial Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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