Depolarizing the copyright debate

Enough, geeks

British think-tank the Institute For Public Policy Research wants to bring some reality to the digital copyright debate, with the publication of a report today designed to nudge the government in the right direction.

The debate has been dominated by two unrepresentative extremes, argues IPPR's Will Davies, who authored the report titled Markets in the online public sphere.

"The two sets of people who have dominated this debate, the rights holders and the geek utopians, are now describing completely different versions of the world," Davies told us in an interview.

"We now have to knuckle down to hard econonic reality and stop looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses," he says. "We have to take the rights holders' concerns more seriously."

"The debate we've heard puts the practical economics on one side of the argument, dominated by the content producers, and the fluffier, cultural issues on some other side. But it's not true that the economic logic is on the side of these content industries, and it's not true that the Open Access model has necessarily got the public interest at heart."

You may remember his essay Circling The Wagons, debunking the frontier myths of the internet, from a year ago.

In the new report, Davies notes:

"At present, openness is exploited for piracy, while DRM is used to ring-fence content without prior public discussion or permission. The internet itself rarely offers the technical possibility of halfway houses between anarchy and control, so it falls to policy-makers and users to create these halfway houses normatively."

It's odd that the debate has been dominated by these two soundbyte-friendly polarities, when the idea of copyright enjoys such popular support.

But Davies' 21-page report does attempt to both widen the context of the subject in a way that offers some real guidance to policy makers, as well as tug it back from its US-centric perspective.

"Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous writings on America in the early nineteenth century demonstrate the ambivalence a European feels in the face of a culture that maximises vibrancy and participation, but potentially at the expense of quality and memory,'" he notes.

The report makes a strong case for the necessity of critical judgement in public policy. Government can't afford to simply leave questions to market forces. Although Shakespeare has been out of copyright for several hundreds years, er still need a publishing industry to provide the Bard's books, he reminds us.

Not everything that can be saved is worth preserving, the report points out.

"Critical judgement is needed to distinguish content that can be left to deteriorate from that which needs to be obtained and protected for the public interest. When this is still relatively recent, there can be considerable problems in obtaining the rights to this content. But this is an area of the public sphere quite unlike that of deliberation. Where democratic spaces rest on a relativist sense that everyone’s voice is of equal value, the normative foundations of heritage are that some forms of information are of intrinsic value, and others are not. There is a difference between ‘great works’ and lesser artefacts; some people’s thoughts are of timeless value, whereas others’ are of only ephemeral value, as deliberation. The question of who is to make this judgement is entirely separate (and it is not part of the remit of public libraries or archives to do so), but one way or another, qualitative judgements must be made."

You'll be able to find a link to the report on the IPPR blog

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