Today (yes, Valentine’s Day) I attended #Internet2013, a conference organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the regulatory and policy landscape of the Internet: present and future. For those not familiar with large conferences like this, they consist of large general meetings, punctuated by smaller, more intimate panel sessions that focus on a specific topic or theme. I went to a few of those panel discussions and was impressed with all of them. The one that stuck in my mind however was the one entitled ‘The Future of Copyright Online’. The panel consisted of a disparate group of lobbyists, academics, politicians and lawyers who all had their own point of view on the topic to get across. I learned of France’s Draconian HADOPI law, of Dmitri Medvedev’s personal contributions to Russian file sharing and also how Jesus was actually the first content pirate when he divided the loaves and the fishes. He fed so many, yet he only paid for a few fish and a few pieces of bread. Piracy.
Then came questions from the floor. One woman thought national regulators weren’t doing enough, as her friend (a photographer) was having the uploaded content from her online portfolio copied and distributed without her permission no matter what the precautions taken. We can all relate to this, as it is an individual trying their best, but getting stung by copyright thieves left, right and centre. All we can hope is that this photographeuse showed enough in her online portfolio to inspire others to hire her for specific photographic services. After all, this is what an online portfolio is for, rather than direct commercial gain. It seems beyond me in this day and age that someone can post something online, completely public to all viewers, and not expect that it is possible for someone else to see it and claim it as their own. As the most eloquent (and coincidentally also Irish) member of the panel put it: “this is what the internet is. It’s a giant copying machine”. Anyone who doesn’t understand that needs to find another internet.
What I find most rewarding about this aspect of the internet is that under this system, content is king. If you create something good, it will be shared around and you will gain attention. If you produce such work at a consistent and demonstrably proficient rate, there is no way that any amount of copying and plagiarism from others will detract from the main function of sharing such work online: to gain recognition as the author of such works. Every single one of your photos or songs or articles or movies may be copied and used without permission, but if you and your potential employers are serious, the origin of all of this aggregated content will not be difficult to find. One good photograph does not make a portfolio. A back catalogue of many does.
This is one of the ways which I feel the internet does actually benefit society: it separates the wheat from the chaff. If something is released online and is no good, it will perish. If something is released online and is good, it will be elevated, through online sharing, to a level of exposure that was beyond the wildest dreams of PR companies just 20 years ago. Advocates of further regulation for online copyright often point to the starving musician and filmmaker who have suffered as a result of online piracy. The only thing that has really changed (apart from our tendency to obtain music online rather than through physical purchases in record stores) is that musicians actually have to perform well in live concerts on a regular basis rather than just rely on record sales. In a similar vein, the stale cinema-going experience of the HDTV era has been revamped by the innovation/50’s gimmick of 3D. Basically, both music and cinema nowadays have to actually earn money, instead of just releasing something and expecting people to pay for it based on a marketing blitz. The idea of a musician actually being a good performer is welcome, while the Hollywood movie studios solution of 3D gimmickry is probably not so much. Both however are serving the same purpose: attempting to give people a reason to pay for content rather than the alternative of just downloading it, which the distributors of such content would consider as piracy.
What I found most interesting about that panel session was that no one raised the point of the recent proliferation of streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix. Indeed, I attempted to raise this issue; however the panel session was so popular that it had already exceeded its time allocation. To me, these streaming services are the perfect solution to copyright issues in the face of internet piracy. Spotify in my opinion is the best internet service to appear since I first discovered social networks. One can pay a low monthly fee to listen to as much music as is possible, with no possibility of criminal action. Similarly, Netflix for a low monthly fee can offer a vast catalogue of movies and TV shows that can be streamed on demand, without the thought of piracy every entering the mind. Given, streaming services do demand a certain level of broadband development and internet speed. However, once the infrastructure is laid, these streaming services are surely the way forward for constant income for movie studios and record labels. Both Spotify and Netflix are extremely popular for both users and investors. This was highlighted recently by Netflix actually outbidding several traditional American TV networks for the distribution of a primetime TV series, House of Cards.
What I have outlined above hopefully is that nowadays revenue streams for media such as film, TV and music must be a combination of gradual gains via subscription services combined with direct, tangible gains due to the specific performance and quality of the media in question. The proliferation of cloud storage and downgrading of PC hard drive and native smartphone storage convince me that this is indeed the future of online media consumption. The problem is not a general lack of willingness-to-pay for content that could be illegally downloaded for free. It is a lack of agreement and best-practice sharing between the content providers themselves that starves them of income. I live in Austria, and want to pay for a monthly Spotify subscription, yet I can’t because my Credit Card is registered with an Irish address. The first time I tried to pay for Spotify was over a year ago, and even this insane judgement by the internet was acceptable since, at the time, Spotify was not available in Ireland. Recently however Spotify has been released in Ireland and still I am not eligible, even though I am attempting to pay for something in a country where Spotify is available, with a Credit Card registered in a country where Spotify is available. Similarly, I own a PlayStation 3, where my account is registered in Ireland. Netflix is available in Ireland, and therefore the Netflix App is downloaded automatically to my PS3 home screen. Of course, I enter the program and instantly get a screen message telling me that I must move back to Ireland in order to pay for this service and therefore enjoy it.
Living in a different country from ones bank accounts and gaming system account really do outline the point that the current state of cooperation between European countries with regards to copyright control is farcical. The idea for this post came to me when a man in attendance at this Copyright panel session asked which country in the OSCE region had the best solution for content providers in order to get the best value for their content and to prevent copying without permission. This question stuck with me because to think at the national level with regards to content produced in one country and hopefully distributed at an international level is a complete anachronism. The content that I want to pay for is not available to me as a result of this line of thinking. As a conclusion, the answer to the question posed in this paragraph came from the eloquent Irish panellist, of course. He gave two answers, but unfortunately neither were from the OSCE. The countries that offered the best protection to content producers from copyright abuse are China and North Korea.