19 May 2011

World Copyright Summit: 7 Billion Elephants

In a couple of weeks' time, the World Copyright Summit takes place in Brussels:

Creating value in the digital economy

The World Copyright Summit is a truly international and cross-industry event addressing the future of the creative community and the entertainment business in the digital economy.

All stakeholders involved in creative industries – creation, licensing, usage, collective management, legislation and dissemination of intellectual property and creative content – now have a unique forum to exchange views on the value of creative works, the future of authors’ rights, the role of creators and their collective management organisations.

It's certainly a pretty high-powered event, judging by some of the big names there. There's Francis Gurry, Director General, WIPO; Michel Barnier, European Commissioner, Internal Market and Services; Maria Martin-Prat, Head of Unit “Copyright”, Intellectual Property Directorate; and Marielle Gallo, Member of the Committee on Legal Affairs, European Parliament.

Alongside these, we have the heads of just about every industry association for writers, musicians, filmmakers etc., as well as a few big names from the creative and media worlds - people like The Reg's Andrew Orlowski and Robert Levine.

The organisers really seem to have included everyone, just as they say: "All stakeholders involved in creative industries – creation, licensing, usage, collective management, legislation and dissemination of intellectual property and creative content."

Well, everyone except one: The Public.

The public is the elephant in the room at this conference - or, rather, the seven billion elephants in the room.

Not only is the public not participating here, it is not even mentioned, as if the very word were some kind of defilement in these hallowed halls celebrating the great intellectual monopoly of copyright, and ways of extracting the maximum "value" from it.

In the extensive programme [.pdf], the nearest thing I can find to an acknowledgement that the public exists is the odd mention of "consumers" - that is, passive recipients of the content industries' largesse - like this one:

Several initiatives around the world have attempted to connect rights holders – and primarily creators – to consumers in order to promote values such as the respect of copyright. This session looks at some of those projects which are aiming to bring creators and consumers closer together.

Even here, then, the "connection" between these consumers and rights holders is "respect of copyright". It's almost as if no other connection can be imagined - the idea, say, that art loses much of its deeper meaning as a social act without an appreciative and involved audience.

Indeed, that word "respect" is hammered home again and again throughout the programme. It forms one of the three defining themes of the whole conference. But here "respect" means one thing only: respect of the public for the monopolies of the rights holders.

This huge and insulting asymmetry is perhaps the perfect symbol of all that is wrong with industries based around copyright today: they sincerely believe that the "respect" involved is all one-way - that the public has no right to respect whatsoever; that laws can - and should - be passed that take from the public and never give, just as the copyright ratchet means term is always extended, never shortened.

This conference, then, is the perfect expression of an industry talking to itself, reinforcing its own prejudices and delusions, and unwilling to accept that the world has changed utterly under the impact of digital technologies; unable even to mention the idea that it's time to engage with those seven billion people - not as consumers, but as new kinds of creators, just as worthy of "respect" as the traditional kind - and rather more numerous.

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