Licences – the heart of copyright

When reviewing and updating the content of this website I sometimes get frustrated with the preponderance of legalistic language and jargony words which I find myself using. It’s a bad habit which comes from too many years talking in jargon to other people who use it every day and I’m trying to stop doing it.

One of those jargony words is “licence”. To me, when I stop to think, it just seems legalistic and complicated. A licence is a thing with dozens of pages of small print, a “click here to accept” box, screeds of un-read and incomprehensible detail.

So I wanted to talk about licences a bit more, in the copyright context.

Licences and permission

A licence is just a thing which gives permission. Something which says that it is OK to do the thing you want to do with someone else’s work.

It can take the form of 10,000 word gobbledegook, or it can be written on a napkin. It can be agreed in a conversation and sealed with a handshake. It can even be implied. It is nothing more than the act of one person saying to someone else “yes, sure, that’s OK” (and, sometimes, by implication, something else is OK too).

So with that in mind I’d like to say something about the Copyright Hub and the business of licensing, or giving permission (or not), because it’s the bit of jargon which sits right in the middle of what we do.

Licences in practice – getting permission

Here’s how it works if you want to use someone else’s piece of work.

1. Find the thing you want to use – often quite easy

You find the piece of work you want to use. You might find it in Google, or on a picture agency website, or on iTunes or YouTube or your own collection at home or any number of other places. So far so good.

2. Find out who you need to talk to about it – a bit trickier

Now, because copyright law says you have to, you need to find the person who can give you the permission (“licence”) you need, Here it can get tricky. If you found a photo on a picture agency website, you probably just need to click “next”. If you found the same photo in a search engine, or on a website, or you found a piece of music on your own computer, well… good luck. It might be a tough job tracking down the right person.

3. Talk to them – trickier still

But lets say you battle through and manage to find them. The next job is to tell them what you want to do with their work, and ask if it’s OK. Here it can be really tricky, How do you describe your proposed use to them? “I want to post it on YouTube” doesn’t mean much… that could mean 5 views or 5 million. How do they decide whether or not they’re even willing to say yes, let alone work out a price.

If you’re lucky enough to have a budget and expertise, and you’re willing to pay enough to make it worth the other guy’s while even picking up the phone, then all will be well. You’ll pay your money and you’ll get your licence.

If not, well… it probably all starts to sound a bit expensive and time consuming to you and you might well give up. Maybe you’ll even decide to use the stuff you wanted to use anyway, and wait to see if anyone kicks up a fuss.

Kicking up a fuss

Which, sometimes, they do. One of the reasons the Copyright Hub was set up is because of the fuss that people kicked up. The copyright industries complaining that people aren’t paying them enough. The ordinary internet users complaining that everything’s too expensive and not easy enough. The creators complaining that they can’t earn a living. The internet companies complaining that copyright complicates their lives and shoudn’t be their problem because they’re just providing services to users and can’t control what they do with them. The politicians complaining that everyone is constantly screaming at them about copyright and that they can’t work out how to keep everyone happy.

It’s a mess – so change the law?

It’s all a bit of a mess, and easy to see why you might draw the conclusion that copyright is one law that’s past it’s sell-by date and needs to be put out to pasture.

Except… that’s a bit tricky too. Copyright law supports creative industries which generate £71bn a year. Over 5% of the UK economy, A huge employer and a huge cultural contributor too. Hard to say that’s a bad thing, harder still to say it’s worthless.

The UK is one of only three countries in the world which is a net exporter of music (in other words we make more from it abroad than we do at home). We earn more than our fair share of the creative economy worldwide so it’s hard to argue we should turn our back on it. It sounds like a good thing, it feels like a good thing, is IS a good thing.

So. What does this have to do with licences? What does it have to do with this whole pesky, inefficient, cumbersome business of getting and giving permissions?

Well… that whole permission thing underpins it all. Without the law – copyright law – which says that creators own their work and get to decide what happens to it, the whole thing would collapse because it wouldn’t be worth peoples while any more.

You say “yes”, I say “no, he says “yes, IF…”

Because when someone asks you if it’s OK to use you work you have three options. You can say “yes”. You can say “no”. Or you can say “yes, if”.

“Yes, IF” is the thing which translates into 10,000 word contracts, “click here” boxes and a looming sense that the whole thing is a giant pain in the neck.

But it also translates into £71bn. Countless jobs, A huge economic and cultural opportunity and one of the best prospects for growth for the UK.

So the Copyright Hub loves “yes, IF”, but it needs to work better, to cost less than it raises.

“IF” represents the conditions under which permission is given. IF can mean a long negotiation and many hours of lawyers’ time when huge sums of money and risk are involved.

Or “IF” can be a momentary interation between two computers, invisible and completed in the blink of an eye.

So, when it’s just someone who wants to stick something on YouTube, without breachig someone else’s rights, that whole process of setting and agreeing conditions needs to be almost invisible, seamless, simple and should cost nothing in itself (even if a fee is part of the agreed licence).

Then it stops seeming unfair, unreasonable, expensive and pointless. It starts to look reasonable, simple and fair.

Especially when the person saying, and benefiting, from the conditions is you, or me, or any of the other countless everyones who are now creating, uploading and sharing their own creativity (even if some of it is of dubious or – in my case anyway – zero, value).

The Copyright Hub makes it easier

That is what the Copyright Hub concerns itself with. Saying “yes, if” ought to be something which anyone can do, which in itself costs nothing, and which means creators can decide what happens to their work and whether they get paid when someone else likes what they’re doing.

Because that simple ability is what copyright law creates. It leads to extraordinary, and extraordinarily good, things. £71bn being one of them. But only one. Creativity enriches us so much more than that.

And all because of “if”. Thats’s what licences are, and what permission is. Not so complicated after all.


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