Just Stop Putting Public Content Behind a Paywall

Newspapers are struggling to make money online, so paywalls make sense I get it.

But if your whole story is about a couple of tweets then that story does not belong behind a paywall. Here’s what inspired this post.

A story came up on facebook, I clicked on the link and saw this;

From the story description and preview I could find enough keywords to find the story on Yahoo.

I could also find the original tweets;


and then JK Rowling’s genius response which I think is probably what attracted the Telegraph to report it; screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-16-33-25

I do pay for a couple of online subscriptions, where the content is extraordinary, quality, original, researched and well-written. This story is none of those things, it’s a witty aside to the real news. Telegraph did not create the content, it’s not unique to them, they have no ownership rights to it, but feel entitled to put it behind a paywall. Just stop it.

Image:  Stop  |  Kenny Louie  |  CC BY 2.0

World Intellectual Property Day

Today is World Intellectual Property Day, the site commemorating it has film clips from a number of creatives discussing the challenges in intellectual property, and a map of events around the world.

Intellectual property refers to anything created by the intelligence of a person (or group of people), which is then owned by the creators according the law, and which the creators/owners can then sell.  The laws protecting these rights include trademarks, copyright, patents, and industrial design rights.

The fundamental reason for having intellectual property rights is that it allows creators to be paid for their inventions or creations and in that sense it is a good thing.  Musicians, writers, artists and designers get to earn a living. Inventors get to have a temporary monopoly on their invention to earn money from it.

But there are some downsides; defining original work can be challenging, protecting intellectual property rights is difficult, the rights can be inherited and sold like other property, protection is temporary, and the digital world presents its own challenges. I’ll show some examples of these, and point to some ways in which the law is evolving.

Defining Original Work

Richard Prince, a photographer has tested the definition of “original work” in his work, most recently in an exhibition of screen captures taken from Instagram. His contribution to making this into an original work is a single comment. He is currently being challenged in court regarding one of the images. But he’s won similar cases before, notably when he photographed Marlborough ads and edited them.

Protecting Property Rights

It’s up to the holder of the intellectual property to protect their creation, including finding and prosecuting infringers.

Large organisations, or wildly successful artists can afford agencies and lawyers to sort this out for them. For smaller artists it’s more challenging, although one, Matthew Inman – the genius behind The Oatmeal raised the stakes when one content aggregator when after him in a law suit (spoiler alert; he raised 200,000 USD for charity).

When such cases do come to court there tends to be an out of court settlement that includes a non-disclosure  clause so few details are known and the publicity around the case ends. Examples include “The Full Monty”, which was alleged to be an infringement on the New Zealand play “Ladies Night”. I saw the play back in the late 80s when it was newly released and sat through the movie in 1998 with a strong sense of déjà vu – for the storyline, the characters, and the jokes. But the case is now reduced to a couple of lines in a wikipedia entry.

Rights Sold

Intellectual property rights can, like any other property, be licensed, sold or inherited. (Copyright exists for 50 – 100 years after an author dies for example, the exact length of time depends on the country. )

Which means that the rights can end up being fought over in court, as in Disney’s recent battle over Winnie-the-Pooh.

Temporary Rights

Patents, which protect intellectual property that defines and describes an invention last for 20 years under the WTO guidelines. Copyright extends beyond the death of the creator for 50-100 years, or – in the US – for 95 years after first publication.

This means that with age items become copyright free; you can republish all of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen but you’ll need to wait a bit for Barbara Cartland.

It’s also led to a fascinating controversy over the Diary of Anne Frank. According to Dutch law her original diary enters the public domain this year, as it is 70 years since her death in Bergen-Belsen. But under US law, the copyright extends until 2042, and copies are removed from US sources.

(There’s a second controversy around the copyright of the diaries, relating to authorship, in which Frank Otto has been promoted to co-author which means that copyright is extended on the basis of his lifetime. In the meantime versions are being published in Europe to test this decision).

Digital World

The rise and rise of digital comes about because of the incredible inventiveness of thousands of people. Some of the ideas generated are genuinely original and deserve protection, and some of those have been patented. But there’s been a rise of a counter movement – the “open source” programmers who create code and licence it for everyone to work on.

There have also been over-zealous patenters, in the US you can patent a process without ever developing a working tool. For example the process of assessing someone’s knowledge online and assigning courses based on that test is patented. Even though the exact same process has existed off-line since the Knights of the Round Table. Patent offices seem to be more aware of the digital world now and require a little more originality in a patent that “making it work online”.

In fact some jurisdictions have severely limited the patentability of any software, New Zealand being one. The idea being that software itself isn’t patentable, except in limited examples. The debate continues as to whether this enhances innovation by allowing more people to exploit an innovation, or limits it by removing the right to have a monopoly on a new invention.

Copyright vs Rights Free

The digital world makes it incredibly easy to copy and share content, and I regularly seem claims that “copyright is dead”. There’s a sort of myth around content should be free and copyright is dead but I think this stems from the multiple meanings of “free” in English. Yes content should be free – in the sense of freedom of movement – you are free to express your views, you are free to share content

It doesn’t have to be free – in the sense of no payment necessary. It’s someone’s work. I’m all for openness and sharing of content, which is why this blog is published on a creative commons licence; but recognition and payment should follow the creator.

My perspective is that IP is important but the law is still catching up with the reality, and I’m celebrating World Intellectual Property Day by writing about it.

Image: 3D Broken Copyright  |  Chris Potter  |   CC BY 2.0


Copyright Math

There’s lots of debate on the state of copyright. I happen to think that the current situation is not good for creative people and does not protect their originality. We get sucked into the “free content” concept, but while content distribution is free, it’s not free to create and promote. We’ve yet to figure out a way that rewards creation of content and supports free distribution – SOPA wasn’t even close. There are vested interests on both sides of the argument, so I really appreciated this light-hearted take on the numbers being used in the case to protect copyright.


3 Things I Hate About Pinterest

I am having a lot of fun playing on Pinterest, I probably visit it daily and add something each day. But there are a few things that annoy me.

1 Lack of Curating of Categories

Pinterest have set up a set of default categories, which you don’t have to use.

I like to browse through these categories for ideas, particularly the architecture, history and geek categories.

I’m prepared to stretch a definition but it’s getting ridiculous. Here are three items from each of the categories I mentioned.

Architecture History Geek

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for yoga and for more understanding of individuals with autism, and I’m really happy for you if Leather Honey Leather Conditioner really is the best leather conditioner. These things just don’t belong where they’re categorised.

The history category seems to be the worst curated – with images of everything from Cameron Diaz at the Oscars to a memorial of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to perfume bottles from the 1950s. I get that all items represented stuff from the past, but it’s not History.

2 Lack of Privacy controls

You cannot set up private boards – where you could collect images of Christmas presents or wedding ideas before the big day. Or protect yourself from online stalkers.

You cannot block people – so those annoying posters who provide 20 percent content and 80 percent advertising will always appear in the main streams.

Pinterest have no plans to change this as the goal of their site is to share as much as possible. Fair enough in one sense, until someone comes along with either a site that allows more functionality or a tool to complement Pinterest and give users the functionality they want.

3 Image rights

The terms and conditions state

By making available any Member Content through the Site, Application or Services, you hereby grant to Cold Brew Labs a worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license, with the right to sublicense, to use, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast, access, view, and otherwise exploit such Member Content only on, through or by means of the Site, Application or Services.

Which means that any image that goes on to Pinterest could be resold by them without any payment to you. If they did a deal with a digital publisher your images could land in a book without you getting royalties.

For amateurs like me it’s not much of an issue – I’d probably be so thrilled that a photo I took was published in an actual book I’d immediately order five copies. But for professional artists this is an issue. On one hand they want their images seen on pinterest, on the other hand they don’t want to lose revenue. Which means that the pinterest “no pin” code is not a solution. One artist, Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void fame, has solved this by slapping a big ‘copyright’ watermark on all images in his online shop. Smart guy.

Pinterest is a relatively young site, and they’ve demonstrated that they can drive traffic and that they listen to user input. Let’s hope they’re listening!

Copyright or Right to Copy?

In amongst all the flag waving and chest beating following the EU election was the news that the Pirate Party has won at least one seat in the EU parliament. This lead to a flurry of lame nautical puns in various newspaper headings “Ahoy! Pirate Party gets berth in European Parliament” for example.

It’s a relatively new party, started in 2006 and getting a huge publicity boost based on the conviction in the Pirate Bay case in Sweden. In the days following the verdict around 9000 people joined the party, making it the largest in Sweden.

The Pirate Party has a fairly narrow platform, their three stated goals are;

  • reform of copyright law
  • abolish the patent system
  • respect for the right to privacy

The first has a particular relevance to online communications, where theft of content is frequent and difficult to combat.

The Pirate Party wants to reduce the term of copyright to five years, and argues that the current long copyright terms stifle creativity and only support corporate value. I have my doubts about this so decided to do some digging. Continue reading “Copyright or Right to Copy?”

Stolen Content or is Copyright Dead?

I write this blog, and another one about Amsterdam, for fun. I don’t earn any money from it, so I get a little annoyed when I find that articles I’ve written here are picked up, copied or syndicated, and appear on a “splog” (spam blog), often without giving me any credit.

For companies in the business of creating content, it’s more than annoying, it’s expensive. But going after content syndicators is impossible, there are thousands and the cost and effort of pursuing each of them through the legal channels is prohibitive. Until now.

Attributor has started a new consortium, the Fair Syndication Consortium,  of content creators to push ad networks to pay publishers a portion of the revenue generated from ads placed alongside stolen content.

They’ve analysed splogs and state that most of the ads are delivered via google adsense, doubleclick or yahoo so their theory is that going after these three will kill the sloggers.

Some of the comments on the TechCrunch article, and some of the comments I heard at a workshop today are along the lines of “copyright is dead”, “the Net Gen is different”, and the rather lame “game’s over for oldies!”

Reluctant as I am to class myself as an oldie I’m not so sure that copyright is dead yet.  It’s a simple economic question. Content has a value to the producer and to the consumer so there is some level of transaction. There is plenty of user generated content; blogs videos and youtube. But plenty of that content is created by professionals, highly paid professionals. And those paying for content creation will ultimately find a way to protect their “asset”.

It’s clear that everything is in a state of flux, much is being made of the demise of newspapers – the paper version, while our hunger for information grows each year. It’s clear that many of the legal models we’ve taken for granted aren’t going to work in the “borderless” world of today, not because the legal principles are wrong, but because laws themselves are almost impossible to enforce.

There is one ray of hope amongst all the doom laden articles; Creative Commons. This is an easy way to share and re-use content that gives credit to the creators but doesn’t relinquish control. It formalises the “play nice” rules that content creators would like to live by. It doesn’t offer much in the discovery and enforcement of content theft though.

So how can this be resolved? Individuals cannot monitor this, legal systems and governments can’t cope with the cross-border aspects for single cases. Businesses can monitor, and afterall it’s cases where their content is stolen that there might be a big enough economic threat to make pursuing the theft worthwhile. But they have resources to go after someone.

I predict a much greater responsibility being put on service providers from ISPs to domain name registrars to ad servers. Creative Commons, Fair Syndication Consortium and CADNA are just the first steps.

Image graveyard via pixabay