Dealing in digital rights: will the Copyright Hub show the way forward?
Copyright has been a favourite punch bag of politicians, users and platforms ever since the internet first became mainstream, widely blamed for not being adapted to the new environment.
The process of clarifying how copyright applies to digital services has been a tortuous one but court decisions and legislative tweaks have increasingly removed areas of doubt. Two significant tasks remain, however. The first is deciding whether the copyright regime we now have is actually the one the world needs; a perhaps impossible task but one the EU has bravely taken the first steps towards with its copyright consultation1. The second is optimising the systems and mechanisms through which rights in copyright works are traded, and that is where the UK's Copyright Hub comes in.
The original idea
The Copyright Hub was perhaps the one big idea that came out of the lengthy Hargreaves Review into UK copyright. Professor Hargreaves saw an answer to the dilemma of working out who owned a copyright work and how to get a licence from them in a digital copyright exchange, an idea the government later described as being akin to the Amazon marketplace . He also identified transaction costs as a hurdle to be overcome. Many uses of content would justify only very small licence fees and as soon as there was any human intervention in the licensing process the cost would become too great. But there was no system for agreeing and paying these. An exchange would "... make it easier for rights owners, small and large, to sell licences in their work and for others to buy them. It will make market transactions faster, more automated and cheaper. The result will be a UK market in digital copyright which is better informed and more readily capable of resolving disputes without costly litigation."2
The UK Government accepted the suggestion and a feasibility study was spawned, led by Richard Hooper. This looked at existing licensing schemes and the various solutions which parts of the copyright industry were already working on, and concluded there was a role for a centralised hub. This would be content industry led, with support from government but not a creature of it.
The Copyright Hub was launched in July 2013. Its first few months have been spent getting up and running and bringing on board the people who will bring in to life, in particular the ex-Chairman of NLA Media Access, Dominic Young, as its CEO. He has started to map out a vision of what the Hub will do (including at a seminar for Taylor Wessing clients and contacts on 26 February 2014).
At the heart of copyright is the ability of a creator to control what happens to that creation, who can use it and under what conditions. But how does it do that now that so many small and large pieces of content are created by everyone, so rapidly? Mr Young sees problems not so much with the law but with the mechanisms for licensing copyright works, including rights management information which is wrapped around or embedded in content.
Where he thinks the Copyright Hub can help is in making it simpler for users of content to find who owns what they want to use and then pay the required amount to do so. This would not be via human negotiation, as the cost of that will very often be disproportionate to the likely fee. Rather, the Hub's model contemplates millions of automated micro-transactions. This requires not only improved technology but also agreed protocols for all those involved. While this sounds ambitious, an analogy for making this possible is the myriad machine to machine negotiations required to send a browsing request to the correct website, all done in milliseconds.
The Hub will act as a form of web portal, with technological solutions for helping users and platforms in search of content find what they need and who owns it, and automating payment. Work is underway on a system which will use the already widely adopted Handle System of content identifiers, and take advantage of improvements in the quality of metadata which identifies ownership and rights management information in individual pieces of content. It will link to other initiatives to facilitate online trading of rights, such as the Global Repertoire Database.
While the Hub will be not for profit and does not intend to take a commission from licensing it facilitates, there is a possibility that if its technology is successful that may be licensed to other users and countries.
Will the Hub become mandatory, a registration regime? Throughout its genesis, those involved have been quite clear that use of it would not be mandatory; copyright would not somehow be lost in a work if it was not made available via the exchange. Apart from anything else, such a notion would probably be contrary to Berne Convention obligations.
The Hub might not be a suitable model for large licences, between two substantial parties. However, Mr Young's hope is that developing the systems will benefit larger parties and enable rightsowners of all sizes more efficiently find a market for their content. At this stage, the intention is simply to get as many market participants using it as possible.
Everyone with a stake in an effective digital rights system, whether user, intermediary or rightsowner, will be watching Dominic Young's progress at the Copyright Hub with interest, and hope. We understand the system will launch in beta in or around May 2014.
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Mark Owen looks at the new Copyright Hub, explaining how it might operate and streamline the process of copyright licensing.
"At the heart of copyright is the ability of a creator to control what happens to that creation, who can use it and under what conditions."