2021: The move to worldwide copyright

07 Mar

Last week I delved into some big-picture technology predictions for the next decade. This week, I’ll drill down into a little more of the nitty gritty. Let’s start with copyright. The issue – particularly the piracy aspect of it – stirs up some serious debate among consumers and creators alike. I’ve long believed that piracy is inevitable when goods aren’t available legally, easily and inexpensively. Let’s face it, in our digital age there will always be at least a small degree of what can be called piracy, or the sharing of digital content between people. In this way, it’s no different than the analogue days, when you would loan a book or CD to your friend. This is a well-accepted practice that only the most hard-core of content lawyers believe to be a problem.

There is a certain threshold for every creator and/or industry where, once crossed, that small-scale sharing becomes large-scale piracy. Each person and business defines their threshold differently. As a book author, I’ve never sat down and calculated it as it’s more of an abstract, nor can I say that anyone who downloads Sex, Bombs and Burgers for free is a pirate. How am I to know that they haven’t already bought a physical copy and that they just want a digital version? Or that after reading their free copy, they recommend it to friends who then go out and buy it?

In any event, I’m not intending to get into the merits or problems with file-sharing here. The point is, most businesses have figured out – or are in the process of figuring out – just how much “free” they’re willing to live with. The problem they all face, though, is that they have to deal with a global market under an antiquated system that still places copyright walls around countries.

According to my stats, there are people all around the world who read this blog – there’s even a couple in Turkmenistan. Many probably tune in for the porn news, but presumably some get curious about this thing I keep referring to: Sex, Bombs and Burgers. Alas, if they’re not in Canada, Australia, New Zealand or the UK (and possibly South Korea… still trying to figure out if it’s been published there), they can’t get the book. At least not legally. That’s because publishers in other countries either haven’t bought the rights to the book, or they have them but just aren’t publishing there for one reason or another.

For authors – and this applies to creators in other fields too – there are a few options. One is they can initially sell worldwide rights to a publisher, rather than going country by country as I did. I’m told this is problematic for a few reasons – one is, unless you’re a big-name author, this route tends to result in less money paid out as advances. Another is that just because a publisher buys global rights to a book doesn’t mean they’re going to publish it everywhere, which brings you back to square one.

Another option – and I’m finally getting to the prediction part of this post – is self-distribution through online systems. For book authors, this is something like Amazon or Apple’s iBooks, or even a personal website. To boil it all down, I can either watch my book get shared electronically in places like Russia and not make a nickel from it, or I can release my own e-book there and at least get something. In other words, if I don’t release my work globally, I’m losing money. (By the way, I’m looking to do exactly this, as soon as I find some time.)

Over the next 10 years, this is going to become very apparent to content producers. I’ve been talking mostly about books so far, but it’s even more poignant when it comes to television shows and movies. Here in Canada, we’re denied a lot of the legal video content we want thanks to restrictive licensing agreements. We don’t get Hulu, while services such as iTunes and Netflix are mere shadows of their U.S. parents. Personally, I can’t blame anyone here for downloading shows and movies over BitTorrent.

Going back to my first point, when this sort easy availability is lacking, small-scale sharing inevitably turns into large-scale piracy. I don’t believe content producers are stupid, which is why over the next 10 years I believe they’re going to tear down some of the nationalist copyright walls they’ve erected. Maintaining the current system means they’re leaving money on the table somewhere in the world.


Posted by on March 7, 2011 in copyright, netflix


8 responses to “2021: The move to worldwide copyright

  1. Blayne Haggart

    March 7, 2011 at 7:02 am

    The “problem” you describe here has driven international copyright policy for over a century. The Berne Convention was an attempt to standardize national rules. More recently, you have the 1995 TRIPS Agreement and various U.S. trade agreements. I don’t see why this type of harmonization wouldn’t continue; I’m less certain that a global copyright regime is coming any time soon (even 10 years from now), mainly because countries very, very rarely agree to enforceable treaties of any kind (TRIPS was the exception that proves the rule).

    One aside: I know it’s a nice, evocative bit of shorthand, but “pirates” and “piracy” are loaded metaphorical terms. Referring to “illegal commercial distribution” or “unauthorized or illegal downloading” may take up more space on the screen and not be as sexy, but that’s what we’re actually talking about. Not using such emotional, imprecise language may even contribute to lowering the temperature on what often becomes a pointlessly heated argument. I try to save my talk of pirates to situations involving the storming of boats and the murder of people.

  2. Chris

    March 7, 2011 at 7:09 am

    BRAVO! Your lucidity and wisdom is so refreshing. As a content creator myself, I pretty much agree with everything you posted here.

    Your blog is starting to become a Must in my daily ritual of virtual ‘coffee shop’ visits… And as you know, all great ideas and revolutions were born out of discussions started in some coffee shop 🙂

  3. Russell McOrmond

    March 7, 2011 at 7:43 am


    I see attempts to “standardise copyright” as the other end of the spectrum from what Peter was discussing. Peter was suggesting that making sure your work is legally available everywhere is the most important thing a creator can do to reduce copyright infringement. It is a recognition that much of the infringement we see is based on “not available for sale”, not some alleged decline in morality or this fake “theft” concept.

    He is correct to point out that the problem exists here as well. It is not only in the form of regional restrictions, but technology restrictions as well (content only legally available on specific brands of access technology). There are people like me living in Canada who desperately want to pay for content, but far too often have my money refused. In the case of DVD’s I’ve resolved myself to paying the regular price for the content, knowing that I will be circumventing the non-owner lock on the content in order to make it interoperable with the devices I own.

    Explain to me why Margaret Atwood’s _Oryx and Crake_ audio book is available from eMusic to US citizens but not Canadians. Other of her books are available to Canadians, and other performances by the same narrator are available to Canadians. And then we have Margaret signing on to campaigns from the Access Copyright crowd claiming that infringement and uncompensated educational uses of her works are the greatest concerns.

    I fully expect to eventually see here at the C-32 committee using language similar to the past. “Exceptions to copyright are an expropriation of our property against our will. If copyrights were cars, this would be car theft.” was the conclusion of Atwood’s 1996 testimony for that year’s C-32.

    Releasing copyrighted works worldwide rather than chopping it up into regions (or worse, technology brands) allows that same work to be interacted with in each region according to local customs. It doesn’t mean you will make the same amount of money per copy/communication/performance in every country, as the question of what the market will bare is different in each region. Creating regional restrictions will only increase infringement, so trying to block trade across countries will only backfire.

    Attempts to harmonise copyright try to treat the entire world as if it were one culture. This will only get harder and harder over time as majority-world countries recognise the hypocricy of western countries trying to impose their norms globally. There is a wide range of cultural norms around intellectual monopolies within western countries, and I get the growing suspicion that what we see coming from western governments represents a minority position here.

    Countries like the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) that represent the majority of the worlds population are already rejecting that imposition. Their push at WIPO is on limitations and exceptions, and the development agenda. This is a big part of why ACTA exists, as an end-run around WIPO and WTO/Trips as the policy forums for patent, copyright, trademark and related government-granted monopoly rights.

  4. Blayne Haggart

    March 7, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Hi Russell:

    Not much (if anything) that I disagree with in your comment. And just to clarify, I have no doubt that lack of availability (combined with monopoly pricing) contributes to unauthorized downloading. I think you also clarify a problem with Peter’s post, which is that the issue is more about licensing and market segmentation (through legal and technological means) than copyright per se. Although (as you note) silly licensing policies contribute to claims that we need stronger copyright laws.

    If we’re talking about actual copyright law, I think what’s unclear about the post is what “tear[ing] down the nationalist copyright walls” would actually look like, beyond international treaty-making, which is what is typically meant when one refers to eliminating national barriers. Maybe it would be better to talk about moves toward global licensing? That would strike me as a more realistic possibility in line with Peter’s post. I think you can already see such moves in the video game industry. Harmonized copyright laws might contribute to being able to license globally, but I don’t think they’re strictly necessary.

    Moving away from your comment and back to Peter’s post, we also have to account for the fact that the content industries have been leaving “money on the table” for over a decade now. It reminds me of the joke about the neoclassical economist who refused to pick up the $20 lying on the sidewalk since if it were actually there, someone would have picked it up already. That joke points out a serious flaw in neoclassical economics — that markets are fully efficient — that is replicated in the post.

    Competition, as Peter infers here, can be a spur to innovation. However, when it comes to copyright, we’re dealing with a centuries-old policy that is rooted in two core Western beliefs: property and the individual. The major international copyright institutions (WIPO, TRIPS, and now ACTA) are devoted to promoting copyright. It’s so deeply ingrained that people talk as if it’s an end unto itself, rather than one specific tool for regulating markets in creative works. Once people in power start talking about copyright as a tool that should be judged on its effects, then change will become more likely. My biggest hope for the copyright debate is that it will one day shift from the realm of philosophy and legal theory to that of empirical economics. I’m still waiting.

    At this point in time, it’s quite obvious that publishers, the other content industries and content creators who profit from the current copyright system believe as a matter of faith that copying is stealing. Hence the lobbying and the legal battles. A decade of bad press and faltering business models haven’t changed that. As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little evidence to suggest that this will change anytime soon. It has nothing with anyone being stupid. One’s ideologies change very slowly, if at all, since they’re at the core of our self-perception. It’s not surprising that companies, run by humans, leave money on the table all the time and often commit what seems like suicide rather than change with the times. I’m not going to make any predictions, but I’d suggest that taking ideology into account may complicate the story.

    BTW, Peter: Good post. It certainly got me thinking!

    • Russell McOrmond

      March 18, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      Semi-on topic, but did you see what happened in Twitter comments/etc after Jesse Brown published his article titled: Honour among thieves: the only way to get the best selection of television shows and movies is to steal them.

      My thoughts were at: Audiences want to pay for content: their money still rudely refused

      What I find sad is that some groups claiming to represent copyright holders refuse to have this conversation. They want to believe the worst in people, and think this is some sort of moral law-and-order issue where society is increasingly sliding into some sort of abyss.

      Reality is quite different, but without the ability to have rational conversation it will be impossible to solve these problems.

      That and I’m opposed to anonymous cowards alleging to represent “creators” making snide rude personal comments against private citizens. But, that’s become the nature of this deliberately divisive debate.

  5. petenowak2000

    March 8, 2011 at 2:55 am

    Hey guys, thanks for the great comments! I certainly have more thoughts on the issue but those will have to wait till I get back from vacation. One thing I will say is that the impetus to overhaul copyright is increasing very quickly with the digitization of everything, which I think was the point of my post. If content producers and publishers don’t streamline their processes, the “pirates” will do it for them.

  6. Chris

    March 8, 2011 at 3:40 am

    Indeed, pete. And many of those who have favored protectionism in the past have lost big time. Outside of Canada, who knows the story of P. L. Robertson and his screw, doomed to obscurity because he would not even allow licensing.

    As for music, my brother in law only gets 5 cents for each tune on a CD. Who do you think the existing copyright laws profit? The math is not hard to do. Piracy as it is today exists for a good reason.

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