Not long after midnight on 18th January 2012, I changed my avatar on Twitter to the above image for 24 hours. It was to show some support for websites, most notably Wikipedia, having a blackout in protest of SOPA and PIPA bills in the United States.
Why should I, as a United Kingdom citizen and resident, worry about proposed legislation on another continent? Copyright legislation affects all of us in the world, especially in this digital age when it would be easy to breach another country’s copyright laws inadvertently.
This blackout happened shortly after a young British man, Richard O’Dwyer, was in the news for losing his appeal against extradition to the United States to face prosecution for having allegedly infringed US copyright law through posting links to pirated material on his website. I do not know the details of the case but I was rather disturbed to hear that US legislation could regard mere hyperlinks on a website as breaking copyright law. If this is so, surely millions of people could be technically in breach of US law? And what of the social media websites and apps that enable the sharing of links?
I did not entirely agree with what I heard and read was Wikipedia’s approach to the SOPA and PIPA protest, but I do have some sympathy with it. I was interested to read the challenge by Nick Poole (@NickPoole1) of Wikipedia’s neutrality, written about by American Lori Phillips (@HstryQT) in her post ‘Wikipedia: The Neutrality Paradox.’ I thought that he made some thought-provoking points, not least:
Lest we forget, the first introduction to the ‘GLAM’ sector in the UK was a wanton and illegal act of theft against the National Portrait Gallery.
I have quite a few doubts about the Wikipedia approach to what it does, and wonder if the implications for other organisations is really considered thoroughly. I remain very cautious about re-using images I find on Wikimedia. I would agree, at least to some extent, with those who argue that putting images on there attracts more people than putting them just on a provincial museum’s own website. I also note, however, that a museum or archive can attract interest through publishing images under their own name on a Flickr account.
I am on both sides of the copyright debate as someone who has had some responsibilities for looking after visual culture collections belonging to public institutions and also being a creator. People do sometimes use things that I have created without permission and apparently without acknowledgment. Although I am usually very generous in letting people use photographs if they ask, when they do not and on a bad day, it sometimes feels like they are taking advantage at a time I am really struggling to find any suitable work.
Looking at the question of copyright and other intellectual property legislation, I have become increasingly concerned that it is not protecting the majority of individuals creating the things and ideas. I wonder more and more if it is simply creating more and more (highly-paid) work for intellectual property lawyers. The legislation is highly complex. I have had to spend so much time reading about UK and EU intellectual property legislation during the past decade, mainly to try to ensure that the publicly-funded projects on which I have worked are unlikely to be sued for breaching any of the relevant laws. I am very weary of trying to deal with such issues, and I doubt that I am the only cultural professional who feels like that.
The current copyright legislation seems to me to be strangling creativity and sharing of culture in an unprecedented way, at a time in human culture when there is the potential for greatest sharing (and, I hope, in a rainbow-tie-dyed hippyishly idealistic way, the potential for mutual understanding and world peace). The lifetime of copyright now extends for approximately two lifetimes in many countries. This is leading to the danger of many creative products being lost as they go out of fashion and people are reluctant to try reviving interest in them when they are still under copyright.
A couple of months ago, I had a look to see how much it would cost for performance rights so I could do a simple recording (ie, probably done on my iPod Touch) of my singing an old song for putting on one of my websites as an audio or video file. I never did it because I found it difficult to find the information and gave up on the idea. Why cannot technology be used to make it really easy for us to purchase licences, pay fees, rather than concentrating so much on the creativity-suppressing task of stopping people from using things without licences?
It is time to reconsider changing the entire framework of intellectual property legislation. It is not working for most. We need to look at the issue from a very different angle. Why cannot the technology be used to help us to give money to the appropriate people when we use things that they have created? Surely if the human race can contemplate sending people to Mars, we can work out how to encourage and support the creativity that enables us to explore the universe? We need a fairer system. We need to share culture, inspire each other.
On Friday 20th January, 1 day after I wrote this post, 2 days after Wikipedia and other websites had a 1-day blackout to protest against the SOFA and PIPA bills, Congress decided to shelve them and to rethink the legislation.
‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ [SOPA], Wikipedia.
‘Protect IP Act’ [PIPA – Protect Intellectual Property Act], Wikipedia.
In pictures: SOPA and PIPA protests see the web go dark, News, Technology, BBC, 18th January 2012.
”Piracy’ student Richard O’Dwyer loses extradition case,’ BBC News, 13th January 2012.
Lori Phillips, ‘Wikipedia: The Neutrality Paradox,’Museums and Motherhood.