End copyright because ‘law for the rich keeps creators poor’, says author Glyn Moody
Glyn Moody, one of the most knowledgeable technology commentators of the digital age, has authored a new book, Walled Culture, in which he argues that archaic copyright laws are “throttling” the potential of the internet and enabling fake news to become the dominant form of content for online audiences. ‘’
Subtitled How Big Content Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Keep Creators Poor, the book traces the history of copyright from 300 years ago and shows how the transfer of copyright from the analogue to the digital era has caused huge problems – problems it is in danger of succumbing to.
These problems affect markets including art (as in paintings or drawings), books, music, photography, science journals, fashion – you name it.
Glyn, who studied mathematics at Trinity College, suggests the choice humanity faces is binary.
“Society can either continue to suffer the negative consequences of present and future punitive laws, designed solely to preserve an ancient intellectual monopoly that profits a few,” he writes, “or it can choose to maximise the potential of the digital sphere for the general benefit of mankind. Copyright or the internet – choose one.”
Glyn’s optimal model is fashion, where ideas are not subject to copyright but the industry is valued at $3trillion annually – it seems copyright is not needed for creativity to flourish there. Copyright, the author suggests, only benefits large corporations because it is only large corporations that have the legal and financial clout to pursue copyright offenders. No copyright, no offenders.
“Abolishing copyright would remove what is essentially a parasitic element from the system,” he writes. And maybe there is a case to be made that Spotify is parasitic, but the idea of entirely ditching copyright does slightly raise the question of how creatives – musicians, authors, artists, filmmakers etc – would get paid: Glyn’s in-print suggestion that “voluntary patronage” could provide a living wage for creatives is not entirely convincing.
The additional suggestion that creatives would be happy to make their work available copyright-free because they work with “an eye to securing a place in the artistic pantheon” is frankly unhelpful.
I asked Glyn about his thesis and what it might mean for workers such as photographers or even journalists.
Mike: Congratulations, Walled Culture is very impressive and certainly got me thinking. I wonder though about the absolutism you bring to bear on the binary ‘either copyright or internet’ choice especially given that it is clear that the field is tilted towards large corporations in a way which leaves smaller tech organisations vulnerable. We’ve all seen how data can be mishandled by large corporations and the social and economic wreckage they can leave in their wake. Surely there has to be some sort of copyright applicable for online content? For instance, as an example in the print sector, the law on copyright for photographs is a mess. The result is that while large organisations such as PA or Getty have the clout to impose their photographic credit, others – maybe freelancers or small studios and agencies – are floundering.
Glyn: Yes, there is a problem with absolutism, but it is copyright absolutism. Copyright is based on the idea that a copy of material requires permission from the holder of the copyright. People assume that this only applies to commercial copies, but the copyright industry has never accepted that: it demands the right to control every copy, for whatever purpose.
The field is indeed tilted towards large corporations – by copyright. By demanding that academics assign copyright to them, academic publishers have built an industry with profit margins of 30-40 per cent, where the authors of the papers aren’t even allowed to share their own papers without asking permission. Basically, copyright skews the system in favour of large and rich companies because copyright is so expensive to litigate. It’s become a law for the rich, where the poor always lose.
This applies to the world of photography. Deep pocketed companies can use legal threats to enforce their copyright. But deep-pocketed evil companies can also use copyright to steal the work of others. If they falsely claim the work of freelances or small organisations, the latter cannot afford to take them to court, where big companies can pay clever lawyers to drag out proceedings with the risk that the rightful copyright owners may have to pay costs running to hundreds of thousands of pounds. It is copyright that makes that kind of bullying possible.
One of the problems with copyright is that it is obsessed with the past – there’s a kind of sunk cost fallacy involved. Creators worry about people sharing their work without paying, when they could be concentrating on using their past work to obtain funding for future work. That can be done through the ‘true fans’ approach – the idea that the people who love your work most will be willing to support you generously to produce more of it. The rise of crowdfunding has made this idea mainstream: according to one research report, crowdfunding was valued at $17bn in 2021. By 2028, the global crowdfunding market is projected to grow to $43bn.
The real challenge is locating the people who love your work and will pay you in advance. Sharing your past work is one way to do that, since it increases the pool of people who are potentially true fans. Past work generates future commissions. Claiming copyright doesn’t help here, as we see today. Establishing original authorship does, and the internet makes that easy to do too – for example by uploading time-stamped copies of material to free online stores such as the Internet Archive.
Mike: What about journalism? The funding model has been decimated in the last 20 years. Facebook and Google continue to present themselves as a platform, not a publisher. They take advantage of tax regulations to avoid paying tax in jurisdictions all over the world. Surely your mechanism for a copyright-free world would accelerate the process of pricing out the traditional, fact-checked, journalistic model?
Glyn: There are many problems with the current system. Data is gathered by Google and Facebook thanks to cookies and tracking pixels found on practically every website. The entire approach is based on unremitting surveillance and the abuse of personal data. Studies show that it doesn’t even work very well, but Google and Facebook have used their market dominance to make it the only offering.
Replacing it with the alternative approach of contextual advertising – where people are shown an ad for cars if they visit an article about cars, rather the micro-targeted approach based on the huge databases of personal information internet giants hold about us all – would solve most of the problems with the abuse of power we see today.
Another problem with the Google-Facebook duopoly is that they take a huge cut of the advertising revenue of sites, including those of newspapers. That, in its turn, has put pressure on editorial budgets and salaries. Forcing Google and Facebook to pass on more of the advertising revenue – or, better still, cutting them out entirely by moving to contextual advertising – would help.
The ‘true fans’ model can be applied here too. The idea, once more, is that people who recognise good journalism and its importance will be willing to support it directly. The Guardian is already doing this. In December 2020 it announced that it had 900,000 digital subscribers and supporters. Since all of The Guardian’s output is available free online, this means nearly a million people are ‘true fans’ of its work who are willing to pay anyway.
Finally, it’s worth noting that copyright makes the fake news problem worse, and getting rid of copyright would help the fight back against it. The problem is that newspaper publishers want to enforce copyright so strictly that even short snippets from stories – including headlines – would require their permission, and payment, before they could be quoted on other sites. In the EU, this has become law under Article 15 of the EU Copyright Directive. In the US, there is a move to bring in something similar, for example through the proposed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.
Typically, it is the newspapers with the best journalism that are trying to enforce this ‘snippet tax’ for their publications. This means there is a new barrier to spreading good reporting. Fake news sites, by contrast, have no interest in trying to stop people sharing their fabrications.
The result of more stringent copyright is that less of the truth is shared online, while lies flourish. Without copyright, everyone could choose to quote and share the best news sources, not just those that are free.
Walled Culture: How Big Content Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Keep Creators Poor by Glyn Moody is published by BTF Press, £6.99.