1709 Blog: for all the copyright community

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Big Online Rip-Off: can authors and copyright owners fight back?

The latest issue of the UK's Authors' Licensing and Copyright Society's ALCS News carries a lively pulls-no-punches piece, "The Big Online Rip-Off", by writer and publishing analyst Danuta Kean. In this article Danuta examines the current state of play in the currently one-sided battle between authors and online pirates, offering some practical tips as to how authors can "stage the fight back". Explaining the nature and scale of the adversary, she writes:
"Contrary to popular belief, illegal filesharing sites are not shoestring operations run by penniless kids. They require vast servers to host stolen content. They also require huge bandwidth to handle the illegal downloads. Even start-ups – let’s call them small town dealers – need computer equipment, software and broadband services that cost considerable amounts of money. To pay for their operations, traffickers use two revenue models: paid-for premium subscriptions that enable faster downloading; and display advertising – often supplied through Google Ads – which appears as content downloads.

The revenue raised is eye-watering. When the executives behind file-sharing site Megaupload were indicted for copyright violations, racketeering and money-laundering, the indictment left many authors (average income £7,000 and falling) slack-jawed at the money involved. The FBI accused the seven executives, including CEO Kim Dotcom (yes, seriously, that is his name) of amassing $175m since the site launched in 2005. In 2010 Dotcom took home $42m; another executive earned $9m. Among seized assets were a Lamborghini, a Maserati and 15 Mercedes cars with personalised number plates including the legends "STONED", "GOOD", "BAD", "EVIL" and "GUILTY". Oh, and a Rolls-Royce Phantom (list price £250,000 to £300,000) bearing the number plate "GOD"".
On the assumption that this isn't a sufficiently mouth-watering proposition to encourage authors to say, "if you can't beat'em, join'em", she then lists her suggestions for tackling the phenomenon:
  • Contact: Companies whose advertising or services benefit trafficking sites. When you find ads for companies on filesharing sites contact those companies through the "investor relations" pages on their website and point to the specific places in which their advertising revenue is being used to support illegal sites. Ads are usually supplied by services such as Google; again use the investor relations page to contact the provider and point out that its service is helping fund a trafficker [it would be good to hear of any empirical evidence that this has any effect. Where advertisers are not public companies with a corporate conscience -- for example small retailers and etailers who are selling big brand products that may be grey goods or infringements in any event -- this may either be impossible or unlikely to bear any fruit]. 
  • Note: Every time you search for a piece of music, book or film and the first result page that appears is illegal downloads, inform the copyright holder and the search engine. One of the issues faced by copyright holders is the ease with which illegal sites get their content to the top of search results, making it easier to entice punters into stealing [Again, it would be good to know how effective this is.  Other than depressing copyright owners, who are generally aware when this is the case if they're commercial enterprises or unable to do much about it if they're not, it's not clear what effect this has]
  • Lobby: The Open Rights Movement has massive lobbying power. They put their case to MPs and MEPs through lobbyists based in London and Brussels. Counter their arguments and contact your MP, MEP and relevant ministers to show how copyright infringement is undermining creativity, not feeding it [the Open Rights Group does call for an evidence-based overhaul of copyright law, as its website indicates, which rather leaves open the question as to what its final policy might be on the subject. Given that MPs and MEPs generally know little and care less about IP, which is never a vote-winner, it might be more effective for authors and copyright owners to join the Open Rights Movement and debate the issues with it from the inside]
  • Join: Organisations like ALCS, the Publishers Association and the Society of Authors can keep you updated on what is needed, such as changes to search engine protocols to stop traffickers ranking top in searches [this isn't going to change the world, not at least initially, but a better-informed author or copyright owner can be expected to make better decisions]. 
  • Publicise: No company wants bad publicity. Use shareholders' meetings, blogs and articles to point out how specific businesses are profiting from the Big Rip Off of Writers [blogs, tweets, Facebook and the social media in general have had some notable successes in influencing corporate behaviour, and sometimes even policy.  The big problem here is the risk of an action for defamation if authors and copyright owners get the facts wrong]. 
  • Argue: A recent study of BitTorrent traffic showed that 35.8% was pornographic. Ask these businesses if they know they are making money from sites that include the exchange of child pornography. Ask filesharing friends about the company they keep" [Again, brand owners who are sensitive about their image may not be able to influence the marketing and sale of products once they have been placed on the open market -- but it can do no harm to draw this to their attention].
Danuta closes with the following sentiment:
"This is not an easy fight, but writers and other artists should not assume they cannot fight back. We can. We know we can, because we have been in a world where ripping off writers was endemic before. It was the active and vocal campaigns of writers in the 19th Century that established copyright in the first place. It’s time we brought our fighting skills up to date".
This is true, but back in the 19th century authors like Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo had an easier time of it than did the authors of today.  It was a time when much if not most of the debate over the existence and extent of copyright focused on moral issues, not purely economic ones -- and the public sense of what was right and wrong, fair and unfair, was probably a good deal more pronounced in those days than it is now.

8 comments:

Francis Davey said...

I speak as an author as well as an Open Rights Group supporter.

ORG supporters' have a wide range of views. Only a small minority are opposed to copyright per se. Engaging with ORG may turn out to be fruitful - certainly any kind of constructive engagement in the field of copyright would be welcomed by many of us.

The problem with copyright is that much policy is made without any strong evidential basis and often without any real understanding of how the existing law works.

For example: the proposed repeal of s52 of the 1988 Act does not appear to be backed by any empirical evidence and was not particularly widely consulted or discussed before being submitted to parliament. This - it seems to me - is how policy should not be made.

I doubt ORG could be described as having "massive lobbying power". It certainly does not feel like that.

There is also an impermissible elision between "pornography" and "child pornography" in Danuta's "argue" point. The conclusion does not follow from the premise.

I'm also not entirely happy with societies like the ALCS - of which I am a member of course. They collect licence fees on an authors' behalf without telling them that they are doing so and require a membership fee before revealing whether paying a fee is actually worthwhile.

To someone outside the publishing industry that might seem like sharp practice and a way to exploit poorer authors. That may not be true, but ALCS is not necessarily a direct representation of authors' views in general.

Anonymous said...

Dickens complained long and vociferously about copyright violation. He hardly made a penny from US sales because his works were reproduced and sold without his permission. He was a very well-known campaigner for copyright as a result.
He most certainly did NOT 'have it easier' than today's authors.

John Hoggard said...

I don't understand you final statement at all. Charles Dickens had a huge problem with Copyright. His entire body of work was taken by US print firms and printed without his permission. The US completely ignored his UK Copyrights (ironic really, given US stance on Copyright at the moment).

Charles Dickens had to book tour the US, and charge large audiences to hear him read aloud from his work. That was his US income stream. So Charles Dickens had Copyright problems most of us couldn't possibly comprehend.

See: http://charlesdickenspage.com/america.html and a hundred other sites pertaining to Dickens' bitter battle with US Copyright infringements...

John Hoggard said...

I don't understand you final statement at all. Charles Dickens had a huge problem with Copyright. His entire body of work was taken by US print firms and printed without his permission. The US completely ignored his UK Copyrights (ironic really, given US stance on Copyright at the moment).

Charles Dickens had to book tour the US, and charge large audiences to hear him read aloud from his work. That was his US income stream. So Charles Dickens had Copyright problems most of us couldn't possibly comprehend.

See: http://charlesdickenspage.com/america.html and a hundred other sites pertaining to Dickens' bitter battle with US Copyright infringements...

Sarah Brown said...

So much misinformation in the quoted stuff here that it's difficult to know where to start. Perhaps with the suggestion that some attempt is made to understand the nature of what they're dealing with. For starters,the assertion that hosting file sharing sites requires vast storage space is simply incorrect and suggests no attempt has been made to understand how protocols such as bit torrent actually work. Yes, a file sharing site can actually be run by a teenager in their bedroom because they don't host the files.

More concerning, however, is the suggestion that the open rights movement somehow has the upper hand in lobbying. This is the complete opposite of a reality in which copyright terms are getting extended upwards and upwards, where concepts such as Fair Use and the Public Domain are being slowly strangled under the weight of legislation lobbied for by the content industry, where constant battles are having to be fought against egregious legislation such as SOPA and ACTA.

The reality is that the legislative agenda is dominated by a content industry that seems intent on mass corporate ownership of culture, whether it's entitled to it or not. If anything, the content industry is the common enemy of both authors/musicians/etc. and the open rights movement (which, it should be noted, are not two distinct and separate sets of people), intent on dominating both.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy is simply reflecting the bien pensant view that Intellectual Property is fine in theory, so long as nobody tries to enforce it in practice.

While most of us would prefer support co-operation that stimulates market growth to enforcement, a right that cannot ultimately be enforced is ultimately meaningless.

So Jeremy reflects the familiar squeamishness about companies trying to protect their valuable brands, about authors trying to enforce property rights - inviting us to infer that none of them should bother at all?

To which he adds a novel twist. Creators should shun groups that fight for their interests, and instead join marginal groups that are hostile to their interests, like the ORG. This is, frankly, bizarre - but the ideology allows no other conclusion.

Everyman

Anonymous said...

@Everyman

Re: "Jeremy is simply reflecting the bien pensant view that Intellectual Property is fine in theory, so long as nobody tries to enforce it in practice."

I don’t think that is the case. The problem is that Danuta Kean, after ranting about nothing very specific (mostly US stuff really, and stuff to do with the music industry), proposes largely unworkable and ineffective solutions.

Instead Danuta, along with the Publishers Association, ALCS and Society of Authors, should educate authors on what enforcement action they can take. For example how notice and takedown works in Europe (not an easy subject), or the small claims track in the Patents County Court which will be launched on the 1st October.

Authors should also get involved in the draft Collective Rights Management Directive, which would give them a right to actually get paid by the collecting societies who collect money on their behalf all over Europe. And maybe the Society of Authors could start fighting on behalf of authors who find that they are pressured by publishers into assigning all their rights, or who find that their publisher refuses to re-publish their work digitally. And maybe all three organisations can get together and lobby Government to remove the IP exclusion from the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977, so authors can challenge their contracts if necessary.

It is not like the majority of authors and writers were well paid for all their hard work before the internet came along. Or that the majority of authors could enforce their copyright before the internet came along. We do not have authors’ rights in the UK, we don’t even have basic moral rights, such as the right to attribution. Authors have been ripped off well before the internet came along.

Jeremy never said that companies, or authors, should not bother enforcing their copyright. Jeremy never said that authors should shun the ALCS, the Publishers Association and the Society of Authors (authors can become members of the Publishers Association, but anyway) and instead join the Open Rights Group.

Jeremey offers his reflection on how effective her suggested solutions are. Jeremy also suggests that constructive dialogue must be part of the way forward, in my mind does not mean that he is anti-enforcement.

Peter Bradwell said...

Hi

Pete Bradwell here - I work at Open Rights Group. The referenced article makes some decent points about why commercial piracy is bad news. But it's characterisation of the shape of the broader copyright debate and the position of those in it is a serious oversimplification. I just wanted now to quickly note that there are two entities worth separating out.

One is Open Rights Group, which exists in real life.

The other is the Open Rights Movement, which doesn't. It's hard to understand the group of ideas, organisations and financial relationships Danuta is describing in the article.

Example of the importance of the distinction: Danuta suggests that the 'Open Rights Movement' (helpfully shortened to ORM to make it sound like an actual thing) is funded by big business, and that this lies behind its incredible lobbying successes.

Open Rights Group is not funded by 'big business', and we can only dream of being as successful and well connected a lobbying outfit as is implied.

It's worth thinking about this distinction, and whether inventing the Open Rights Movement and then confusing it with ORG, as is done in the original article, is intentional.

What is clear and understandable is the anger and concern that creators feel when they see sites and services taking work, making money from making it available in some way, and not making any effort to remunerate them. And apparently getting away with it. Certainly ORG will do more to understand this situation, and are willing to work constructively to reconcile concerns about freedom of expression and privacy online with the rights of creators.

(Unrelated, I would also echo Francis and point out that pornography is different to child pornography).

Peter
peter@openrightsgroup.org