by Michael Fraser
In 1985 I was a part-time tutor in philosophy at Sydney University when the phone rang. It was a friend saying there’s a consultancy advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald, about copyright. You should apply.
I didn’t know anything about copyright, but I got the job because I was the only applicant who was wearing a tie at the interview. The task of the three week consultancy was to look into the problem of photocopying and to report back with a solution.
Readers were photocopying millions of pages from books and journals without permission or payment, undermining the livelihood of authors and publishers, the very authors and publishers whose works they were copying. Their copying was destroying what they wanted. It was clearly unsustainable and it was not fair! Professional, independent writing and publishing of quality would not be viable.
The Australian Copyright Council, the Australian Society of Authors and the Australian Publishers Association asked me if I would like to put my recommendations into effect and I set up the Copyright Agency Ltd as chief executive and chief bottle washer.
I am proud of my work with my colleagues starting in the 1980s and its reiterations into licensing of digital copying and communications. But what was innovative and pioneering in 1985 is not innovative now. The convergence of fixed and mobile telecommunications and media, networks and services, has transformed our society into an information society with a knowledge economy.
The new generation of network information and communications technology has launched global e-commerce, cloud computing, social media and the so called sharing economy in a borderless market. Google or Alphabet, Facebook and others are transforming our private lives, privacy itself, social relations, how we learn and express ourselves and people’s very idea of themselves.
So online consumers feel entitled to instant access to all content, in any media, anywhere, in any format, for any use and purpose and they now have unlimited information and agency to achieve that access.
Digital service providers such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple together with streaming services, ISPs and content aggregators with their customer-centric service models dominate the supply chain for content and extract the greatest profits from their popular online services.
They set the terms and conditions and prices for your intellectual property or free ride and have swiftly become the wealthiest, most powerful and influential companies in history. They have dominated public debate, communications and media practice and moulded policy and law reform by advocating their interests as though their corporate interests were the public interest.
As a result, consumers generally have come to see copyright as an unjustified monopoly which creates barriers to better access to content online and as an intrusive obstacle to creativity and freedom of expression.
It is essential to continue clear, strong advocacy for copyright. Respect for private property rights is the basis of prosperity in a market economy. In the 20th century, societies which did not respect real property and personal property failed and collapsed morally and materially. In the 21st century, societies which do not respect intellectual property will decline.
In a network communications environment of millions of interactive consumers a practical approach to enforcement requires that online intermediaries such as ISPs and social media come to accept their responsibility to provide a safe, secure and lawful service for their customers. We should advocate for reasonable intermediary responsibility and liability and co-operate with intermediaries to implement it.
So what measures would facilitate continuous improvement in e-commerce business models? The first step is to further develop open interoperable standards. Rights owners across media should co-operate step by step to develop and adopt open, interoperable, multimedia metadata standards for content and rights transactions. They are the tools for building better services for access to multimedia content with rights.
Copyright management organisations likewise should re-engineer to interoperate across multimedia and federate across territories so that consumers and business anywhere can obtain bespoke licences and transact permissions for any category of works, in one seamless process through their local, virtual one stop shop.
A copyright registry with rights management information is an essential resource for a deeper and more efficient market for copyright works. Such a registry would also become an invaluable record of cultural assets, a reference resource and a historical archive.
We must go further than rights registries and rights exchanges. For too long, content has been available to consumers disconnected from its rights information. Rights information has been held and managed separately from the content to which it refers. Rights must no longer be separate from content. We must build a true market for content with rights integrated.
A virtual, distributed registry and exchange should be mirrored across publishers’ proprietary sites. It should action automated transactions or subscriptions to access content and the rights to reuse and repurpose the content, in the one transaction. So consumers should be able to search, discover and access content seamlessly with the rights to repurpose it from authors and publishers’ own proprietary channels as well as authorised third party services.
New media players such as Google are platforms based on technical prowess. They have monetised your works at scale by selling ads against them. But their ability to curate and understand content is not their strength. Amazon likewise, is not interested in books. They sell books to attract clients to other products and services.
Copyright pirates and anti-copyright advocates promote an authoritarian ideology, opposed to the fundamental human right to copyright, the most valuable species of property. They assault our freedom of expression.
Copyright is essential to authors and publishers’ independence. Independent and autonomous authors and publishers who express and publish their own ideas in their own works are indispensable to democratic society.
*This is an edited extract of the Charles Clark memorial lecture delivered at the London Book Fair by Professor Michael Fraser AM. The full lecture can be found here.
Michael Fraser AM is a Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology, Sydney. He was a founder and CEO of the Copyright Agency Limited in Australia for 21 years. He is currently Chairman of the Australian Copyright Council, Chairman of the Stolen Generations Testimonies Foundation and Director of the Dictionary of Sydney Inc.