Now you © it, soon you won’t is the title of an article in last Saturday's Times. Under the title, the sub-heading reads 'The laws of copyright are being rendered meaningless by the growth of digital technology. So how will writers and artists earn a crust?' The writer is Jamie King.
One's heart sinks a bit, because at first sight this looks like just another ain't-it-awful complaint about Google, Napster and all like that. Another superficial, beginners-start-here piece, of the kind which, sadly, one has come to expect, even in the Times. But, mercifully, it isn't like that at all.
The article turns out to be entirely realistic, entirely reasonable, and unusually well informed. Jamie King is described, at the end of the article, as 'a writer and activist in the field of intellectual property.' The thrust of his article is that the availability of the internet, plus digital copies of works of art (not just books), means that in five years' time (give or take a bit) there may no longer be any reason to pay for a book, a film, or a piece of music, other than a conscious desire to remunerate the creators -- a desire which, he suggests, is simply not going to be strong enough in most cases. Most people will just take the music track/book and say thank you nicely, but that's about it. Digital rights management systems? King seems to consider them doomed (as do I, and I don't even know anything about them).
Unlike most people who pontificate about this subject, King then goes on to ask some fairly obvious questions, few of which seem to be being addressed anywhere. Questions such as: if paying for a 'work of art' (for want of a better term) will be largely voluntary, how are writers (in particular) going to get paid? If the old model ceases to work, what new, and equally effective, model is going to be put in its place?
King emphasises that 'rethinking copyright does not commit one to a "pro-piracy/anti-artist" position. On the contrary, the question of remuneration is foremost in the minds of many of those working creatively around copyright... If it could be shown that we could do things differently -- sustain cultural production while allowing freer access to work -- what would be the argument not do so so?'
Good question. Of course one argument not to do so -- from a certain point of view -- would be that it would upset a lot of powerful people in publishing, who would have to start thinking in wholly new ways. And that, as is demonstrated daily, is a painful and difficult thing to do.
The Times article does not go into solutions to the conundrum which it describes. However, at a recent conference, Jamie King presented a paper which does put forward one possible solution, and the paper is available online. I have to say that I consider the solution which is offered to be hideously unattractive in principle and totally unworkable in practice. But at least the man is thinking, which most other people in publishing are not. Or, if they are, they are keeping mousy quiet about what it is that they are thinking.
Jamie King offers two web sites which will in due course be worth looking at if you're interested in the general subject of his article. One is the Pretext Project, which is (or will be) a publishing company dedicated to the free distribution of its texts. And the other is Banned Books. Neither site has anything to say for itself just yet, though both prove to have some powerful allies: the Arts Council, PEN, etc.