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<nettime> copyright dungeons and grey zones
Felix Stalder on Tue, 15 Apr 2008 22:38:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> copyright dungeons and grey zones

Copyright dungeons and grey zones

I recently spent two days in Amsterdam at the "Economies of the
Commons" conference put together by Eric Kluitenberg and others
(including myself in a minor editorial role) at DeBalie [1]. The aim
of the conference was to look at long-term strategies to produce and
maintain cultural resources in and for the commons. The presentations
and discussions were all taped and are made accessible online. I
recommend to check it out, it was a good conference, though I'm
probably biased.

What struck me the most was that one could clearly distinguish two
camps, even though everyone agreed that making things available under
the least strictive terms possible is a good idea.

On the one side were those who work within the conventional           
constraints of copyright (i.e. authors/rights holders control their   
works). This group was, by and large, made up of representatives of   
large European audio-visual archives and of various multi-national EU 
funded projects. They sit on very large holdings (100'000s of hours   
of material) and command massive budget (100s of million euros) to    
digitize and make them available to the public. Taken together, these 
projects appear to reach the scale of, say, the Google books project. 

The other group was comprised of projects working outside these
constraints, either because they work with public domain material
(Prelinger archive), ignore copyright altogether (ubu.com, 'steal this
film, II'), or work with open source models using copyright to protect
user access rather than author control (blender.org).

For the first group, the main problem is that as public institutions
they perceive themselves as having to adhere to the most restrictive
definitions of what is legal. Working under governments that are
all professing the protection of copyrights to be essential to the
European 'knowledge economy', they seem to have fully internalized
that mission. So now, they are faced with mission impossible: making
material widely available AND satisfy each and every rights-holder

So, a good deal of each of their presentations was devoted to what
they could not do and how digitizing the material does not make it
more accessible. In the case of the Swedish archive, you still need to
come to their building in downtown Stockholm to watch the tapes (ups,
these are files now). Before making the material available online,
they need to get permission, which is close to impossible, either
because it's hard to track down so many rights holders (and heirs of
rights holders), or, in case of commercial producers, they do not see
any value in free public access and so refuse to grant permission.

The most poignant moment came when Edwin van Huis (Netherlands
Institute for Sound and Vision) recounted a discussion with a
broadcaster about whether the institute could put online some TV
segment that was already on Youtube. The answer was: No! When he asked
the broadcaster how he felt about his content being on Youtube the
answer was: 'You can't do anything against Google'. Thus, as Paul
Keller remarked, there is a perverse situation that the official
repositories of culture are going to be stuck with stuff that either
they cannot make accessible, or nobody cares about. All the rest will
be better accessible via Youtube or piratebay.

In short, it became abundantly clear that, no matter how much money
you have, the attempt to solve all the legal issues first and only
then start to release the material is doomed to failure. Digitization
plus strict adherence to the law will not create digital archives but
copyright dungeons.

Most of the successful, innovative projects, it turns out, are
operating in zones of varying degrees of grey. In the American
example, Youtube, the grey zone is protected by corporate might
(Google). In the European example, piratebay, the grey zone is
sustained by mass civil disobedience.

I suspect that the grey zones will not stay grey for ever. Sooner
or later, the basic framework in which they will operate be will
be defined. Google will have settled all the law suits against
Youtube and p2p providers will becomes mainstream (keep an eye
on mininova....). However, it seems equally save to predict that
the new framework will look considerably different from what it
is now, reshaped by the sheer force social reality. But by then,
the official cultural repositories will have wasted a huge amount
of money by building systems of restriction and a generation of
culturally-interested citizens will have learned to look elsewhere to
find the material they care about.

This is already the case. As many nettimers know, ubu.com is, by
far, the best archive on the audio-visual heritage of the Western
avant-garde art, far better than, say, what the Moma or any other
major institution offers. And this on a operating budget, as Kenneth
Goldsmith explained, of $50/month. Ubuweb runs on volunteer work and
its own growing reputation. This is already the de-facto official
archive of the avant-garde and receiving material from foundations.
The point is not that you can do everything for free, but getting rid
of the crippling overhead of copyright creates tremendous freedom and
energies to create resources that people actually like and use.

[1] http://www.ecommons.eu

--- http://felix.openflows.com ----------------------------- out now:
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

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