By , November 11, 2010.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Copyright Principles Project, an independent initiative that presented twenty-five recommendations for reforming copyright law for the digital age. One of the reasons I felt it was worth mentioning was because, unlike many other reform efforts, the Copyright Principles Project included participants from a wide variety of perspectives: academics, content industry representatives, and private practitioners.

One of the contributers to the Project was Jeremy Williams, Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Warner Bros. Entertainment. This past April, Williams joined Pamela Samuelson — the Project’s coordinator — and several other Project contributors for a two-day conference marking the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first modern copyright law. Hosted by the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, the Copyright @ 300 symposium used the anniversary as an opportunity to look back at “the law’s influence on the history and evolution of the Anglo-American copyright tradition” and look forward to copyright law’s challenges in the future.

Williams spoke to attendees at a seminar titled “Looking Forward: What Challenges Does Copyright Face in the Twenty-First Century.” The Berkeley Center has audio from the event available online. I recommend giving it a listen; Williams talks about the importance of copyright attitudes for the future and touches on a number of themes I’ve discussed here from a perspective that is seldom seen in online discussions and academic literature.

Copyright attitudes

Williams joshingly introduces himself as a “defender of those poor, down-trodden Fortune 500 companies.” The health of copyright in the future, he states, depends entirely on the attitudes of “Digital Natives.” It will not be long before the generation that never knew a world where everything is connected will be “lawmakers, norm-makers, and consumers.” Williams goes on to ask, “How do we promote respect for good copyright attitudes” when millions are simultaneously authors, distributors, and infringers.

This past Monday, I pointed out a recent paper that sheds some light on what these “Digital Natives” currently know and think about copyright law. Williams’s talk reflects a recognition of what the authors of that paper have found to be true. With those current attitudes in mind, he lays out what he considers should be the two main goals of copyright policy as it looks ahead:

  1. Empower individuals as creators. Policymakers and stakeholders should try to steer clear of talk about the “wrongness” of noncommercial copying. Extending this goal to small producers, content creators should strive to make licensing of their content for creative uses cheap and easy, and give wide berth for fair use.
  2. Move enforcement away from individuals and toward digital intermediaries.

Creative vs. Consumptive Uses

Next, Williams discussed the importance of distinguishing between creative and consumptive uses, a distinction I have previously made on this site. I wrote that the distinction is important to make because you’re dealing with an entirely different set of questions when you talk about fair use, remixes, and mashups then when you talk about filesharing. As it turns out, this is exactly the approach that Williams suggests is important for the future of copyright.

He says that promoting healthy copyright discussion requires a different approach for both types of uses: increased tolerance toward creative uses and increased focus on widespread, uncompensated dissemination of consumptive uses and the harm they cause.

From his own experience at Warner Bros., Williams identifies the primary creative uses that major creative companies deal with most often: fan uses and, as he puts it, ad hoc uses, like mash-ups. He suggests that companies like his should tolerate and support noncommercial uses — even tolerate some commercial uses. This is the approach he has taken, giving the okay to fan sites even when they use incidental advertising to support the site but drawing the line at fan merchandising. For third-party user-generated content sites like YouTube, he advocates “smart” technological filters that can identify uses of copyrighted works but allow creative uses like mash-ups.

Most importantly, Williams reiterates that these kinds of discussions should not revolve around copyright law. Rather, the focus should be on fostering mutually respectful behavior between creators and users.

Individual vs. Industrial Responsibility

The rest of Williams’s talk seemed to continue a meta-theme of drawing distinctions to further the health of copyright in the future. The next distinction he discussed was between individual responsibility for upholding copyright protection and “industrial” responsibility.

Basically, Williams says we should move away from placing responsibility on individuals as much as possible. People should be able to enjoy copyrighted works without thinking about copyright law.

The digital intermediaries — user-generated content and social networking sites — should instead be induced to help reduce the harm of widespread, uncompensated dissemination of copyrighted works, and copyright owners should be allowed to share in the value their works provide to these sites. Interestingly, Williams believes we should reduce the present focus on secondary liability doctrines. These doctrines suffer two disadvantages: because they require a showing of direct infringement, there is still a focus on individual behavior, and the factors involved in determining secondary liability — knowledge, inducement, etc. — are difficult to apply, leading to an uncertain and muddy legal landscape.

Williams’s recommendation? “Be direct about it.” Those who can protect copyright, should protect it. Those who can are likely to be the previously-mentioned social networking and user-generated content sites. Williams thinks the best way to implement this is through voluntary agreements and reasonable technological measures, with the law operating in the background as a way of inducing these sites to help solve problems in ways that are not commercially harmful to them.

Protest vs. Obliviousness

While you can find those people who embrace piracy as a “cause”, who believe they are making a “statement” or protesting against somebody or something when they share files without permission, the majority of people, especially digital natives, download simply because they can. Williams relates a conversation he had with his daughter. He asked her what her friends “think” when they choose to download music off p2p or torrent sites; she answered, “they don’t think.”

Unauthorized files are simply “there,” and unless you know otherwise, it is not unreasonable for someone to assume that if you find something online, you can download it. The future of copyright depends on addressing this obliviousness and helping the next generation understand the value copyright gives to creators.

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

Williams wraps up his remarks by pointing out the one distinction that shouldn’t be made. Both sides in the copyright debates need to move past an “us vs. them” mentality, a “good guy-bad guy” way of thinking. Copyright is good for society and culture. Most people recognize the value of creativity and of artists. The emphasis should move away from the rules of copyright — ie, the notion that copyright exists solely to punish infringers — and toward the role of copyright.

1 Comment

  1. Requiring “Copyright is good for society and culture” to be the premise held by all participants in the debate is as much a folly as the Titanic’s captain prohibiting any dissent concerning buoyancy or stability, that an unwavering belief in the ship’s continued viability is a prerequisite for those debating the best arrangement of deckchairs.

    Such focus may be true within a tight sphere of existence (however doomed), but emphasising the need to remain blind to the unthinkable is more likely a clue and subconscious recognition that some are thinking it.

    That copyright is the problem, that copyright is NOT good for society and culture, is a conclusion that will continue to be reached despite the admonitions of those captains faithful to the long tradition of their privileged industry.

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