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The UK's copyright industries have agreed to fund new content trading exchanges, which will make it easier to use images and other creative works at a lower cost. That's according to Richard Hooper, the ex-Ofcom bigwig tasked by the government to oversee the creation of these copyright hubs.

Arguably, this is something businesses should have agreed to years ago - but better late than later.

The idea of "digital copyright exchanges" was mooted in the Google, sorry, Hargreaves Review of intellectual property last year; Hooper and senior civil servant Ros Lynch were asked to investigate. The pair appear to have overcome initial suspicion from the industries - and even Google now sees merit in the idea, Hooper said at a round table last week.

"Rights registries were a dirty word when I started," Hooper said. "They're not now. People realise they solve a lot of problems."

The idea is to lower the transaction costs of licensing a copyrighted work. If more people can license content cheaply and easily - rather than just rip it off the web - then higher volumes of low-cost transactions should result.

Blogger Dominic Young described how he had once been in charge of licensing content for a major newspaper group - and quoted £60 a time to make it worthwhile. If the transaction cost could be lowered to pennies, then more people would license the stuff. That's the hope of the Newspaper Licensing Agency too.

"There's a fundamental political dynamic," said Hooper. "If copyright industries can streamline licensing then politicians look at them in a different light."

It's likely to annoy bureaucrats and taxpayer-funded academics who have carved out a niche turning copyright into a regulatory boondoggle. The market-driven approach of free trading makes legislative and regulatory meddling with copyright, to "fix things", redundant.

Hooper said the issue of metadata, specifically the information about a work's creators stored alongside the content, had taken more time to work through than anticipated. Copyright industries are in a transition from cataloging and tracking physical units to issuing bundles of rights - and that's a work in progress.

As we pointed out in July, Hooper's cleverest idea is to reject the top-down approach to IT projects that's blighted much of the public sector. He let slip an interesting story that explains why. In 1968, Hooper said he was invited to examine an early time-sharing system that had been designed to educate nurses in the US. The system was impressive for its time, he said, but it had produced "the most expensive terminals in the world" when the plan had been to use cheaper technology: the costs had ballooned, the project was out of control and it put him off ambitious top-down projects.

So rather than build an uber-database-of-everything, the hub will use whatever databases people already have - the GRD (Global Repertoire Database) for music rights, for example.

"It's not top-down, and it's not government funded," he pointed out. He cited Mixcloud as an innovative web company that had successfully dealt with rights holders.

Any mystery over the copyright hub should soon be dispelled. The next meeting of the Copyright Licensing Steering Group, led by Ros Lynch, will be held in a fortnight, and all subsequent meetings will be public with all minutes published.

With the UK rapidly becoming an international copyright pariah - facing a "firestorm" of lawsuits from US individuals - the digital exchanges offer a cheaper and less risky alternative.

As software libre advocates know, if you have copyright law with solid foundations, you can do wonderful things with it. The GNU GPL owes its existence and endurance to strong intellectual property protections. ®

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