[Freelance]

March 1996


Electronic rights:

Who will own what, where & how?

THE EUROPEAN Commission held a hearing on the Green Paper Copyright and related rights in the information society, in Brussels on January 8-9. Jenny Vaughan attended for the NUJ.

Trying to control the use of material in electronic media presents two particularly difficult problems. One is identifying material being used, and the other is tracking down the rights-holder concerned and clearing the material for use.

Of course one way around this would be, as some Internet-anarchists propose, to forget about rights and have a free-for-all. But since neither media companies nor the creators would see much point in producing anything in such an environment, it seems inevitable that systems for controlling material in electronic form will be used.

Here we enter the world of "electronic watermarks", identifiers, encryption, and electronically wrapped documents -- an array of ideas for tracing and tracking copyright material and for trying to prevent unauthorised use.

There was an apparent consensus that such systems should be voluntary. There will be people who want to publish without claiming rights; but those who have a financial interest are almost certain to use any system which helps them claim their reward.

Our concern should continue to be with how we make sure that we, as creators, are a part of this system -- so we retain control of our work. It is all very well having systems for identifying work, and encryption to prevent unauthorised use; but this is useless if it's hi-jacked by publishers who identify themselves as rights- holders and pay no attention to us.

This is not inevitable. Creators elsewhere in Europe are entitled to claim their dues from electronic use, so whatever evolves will have to take creators into account. A one-nation system is not an option.

It seems widely agreed that no single system can be adopted, and certainly none can be written into law. To do so would freeze technical developments. There will always be hackers -- and the only possible legal response is to outlaw devices which break encryption. This poses numerous legal problems.

The Commission has apparently floated the idea of a "one-stop shop" for rights clearance. The argument is that people creating multi-media works will not bother to clear and pay rights if the process is not made easy and cheap, or will go elsewhere for content.

Some argue that this is not necessary at all -- the internet is about distributed, not centralised, systems -- and very few in Brussels seemed to be in favour. Creators would feel that they could get better deals directly with publishers -- remember, we are talking about mainland Europe, where few publishers have tried the "copyright grab" we have suffered, and in most countries it is legal.

The collecting societies like ALCS and DACS envision an "umbrella organisation" which could be approached for guidance on rights. They want this to be demand-led.

The majority of the meeting concluded that it is "premature to draw up Community rules for centralised management". If the discussion seemed sterile and theoretical, such identifying and tracking systems may well evolve -- and we must make sure that they serve us as well as the publishers.

Jenny Vaughan


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