What is copyright (anyway)?

It might seem like a basic question for a site about copyright, but I’d like to spend a little time talking about what copyright actually is. Not from a technical, legalistic perspective, but more as a way of explaining some of the thinking which informs the vision of the Hub.

Also because a common perspective on copyright is that it’s complex, legalistic and hard to understand. So I have tried to find the simplest, least legalistic, definition I can.

Which is this.  Copyright is a law which says you own the things you create and you get to decide what happens to them.

Of course there are instantly complications which leap in. You own your stuff as long as it’s original and unless you did it for your employer, you can decide what happens to it unless there’s a legal exception, etc etc

But therein lies the beginnings of the small print which ends in two hundred clause contracts and gainful employment for lawyers and printer makers. So for now I’ll ignore it all and focus on the basics.

In my two stage simple definition of copyright, the first part – owning your stuff – is taken care of the by law. You automatically own your creations at the moment they’re created; you don’t have to do anything special for them to belong to you. It’s a zero effort thing, although it’s just as well to be able show that it was you who created them if anyone ever questions it.

The second part is where the problems arise. While the law might give you the right to decide what happens to your work, and in theory people can’t copy it without getting your permission, it doesn’t specify any particular mechanisms to help with this.

In the past, the pre-internet days of yore, these mechanisms were clunky but they worked. A lot of the time when someone wanted permission to use a piece of work, or wanted to sell it, a business was involved somewhere along the line. Phone calls, paperwork, fees measured in tens, hundreds, thousands or more of pounds, dollars, yen and so on. It was, largely, a business-to-business world.

The internet changed all that. Users became re-users, anyone doing anything online was copying other peoples work all the time. The idea of needing permission seemed a bit strange and the reality of getting was – and often still is – clunky, expensive and slow.

It was this reality which informed much of the thinking behind the Copyright Hub. While the law which gives creators control over their work is fundamentally right, and has given us a hugely diverse and successful creative industry, the way in which that control is actually given effect needs updating for the internet age.

Seeking, and getting, permission should be a process which works the way the internet works. Capable of being automated, something which can be handled between one machine and another, requiring human intervention only when necessary and valuable.

We would like to see a world in which the transactional cost of the process of seeking and getting permission – licensing – is zero. In other words, the actual process of is no more expensive than sending an email or accessing a website. The only costs are the ones the humans decide to put there, either in their time or in actual fees or other conditions.

The basic technology to make this possible is what we’re working on, quietly, right now and we’ll post more about it soon. I’ll also write more about automating the licensing process and ways it might help creators, consumers and the internet more broadly.

P.S. The (anyway) in the headline is a obscure and pointless reference to a rather old song. A non-new song. Valuable prize to whoever gets it.


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