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New copyright-like rights considered harmful

Mike Linksvayer, December 13th, 2010

Today a new German site launched, IGEL (“Initiative gegen ein Leistungsschutzrecht”; in English, “initiative against a related right”). The site, spearheaded by German lawyer Till Kreutzer, provides information on a possible proposal for a new “related right” for press publishers. Original content on the site is released under the Creative Commons Attribution license.

Additionally, Creative Commons has agreed to be listed as a supporter of IGEL. We almost never stake out a position beyond our core role of providing voluntary infrastructure to facilitate sharing. This sometimes leads to criticism of CC from both those who oppose copyright and see us as apologists, and from those who fear sharing, and see anything less than complete control, no matter how voluntary, as undermining copyright.

We take this criticism from both extremes as indication that we’re doing our job well — a job that isn’t even about copyright, let alone apologizing for or undermining copyright. CC’s job is to provide tools to help people who want to, and society overall, to get the most possible out of the sharing and collaboration made possible through communications technologies and human creativity. Copyright happens to be the legal framework that shapes how sharing and collaboration occur, so our tools operate in that framework to grant permissions in advance for sharing and collaboration.

This brings us to new related rights. Examples include sui generis database rights only applicable in Europe, proposals for special broadcast rights, which would give broadcasters a new set of exclusive rights merely for having broadcasted material, and a potential proposal for a new press publisher right to control use of non-copyrighted snippets of press material as well as specific headline wordings, for example. This potential press publisher right is what IGEL concerns.

Such new related rights, when they go into effect, make sharing and collaboration harder, for at least two reasons.

One, all communication requires some common expression. Things that fall outside of the scope of copyright (e.g., facts, abstract ideas) and copyright exceptions and limitations that facilitate quoting and critique give scope for communication, without every single sentence one utters being subject to potential lawsuit. New related and nearby rights can effectively limit the scope of what may be communicated freely, e.g., collections of facts in the case of database rights, and very brief descriptions of news items, in the case of press publisher rights — or even the facts of a news story, in the case of “hot news” restrictions recently mooted by publishers in the U.S.

New York City Gridlock
New York City Gridlock by Roy Googin / CC BY-SA
Two, with a proliferation of rights, it is harder to know who has exclusive control over what, or whether multiple parties have exclusive control over different rights over a work. This phenomena of too many property claims forms what is sometimes called an anticommons — overlapping exclusive claims can prevent anyone from using a work — the opposite (thus “anti”) of a commons, in which anyone may use a work under a clear, easily discernible set of rules.

The press publishers right as it was proposed now for Germany is expressly intended to make linking to (and viewing of) openly accessible press content on the web cost a mandatory fee, whenever it happens in any kind of commercial context. Together with the vagueness of the term “press product” in this sense and the unclear boundaries of commercial contexts, the new right is apt to spread uncertainty as to when a link can freely be set, thus harming a core principle of sharing and of the internet. At the same time, creators using Creative Commons licenses might suddenly find themselves falling into the scope of being a press publisher in the meaning of the new right. This could lead to the paradox situation of original Creative Commons content unintentionally becoming paid-content — that is if the publishers right is drafted to be non-waivable.

This brings us to why Creative Commons considers new copyright-like rights harmful. Such rights are clear barriers to getting the most out of sharing and collaboration and threatens to the open web, with no evidence of any countervailing benefits. New copyright-like rights make it a bit harder to share and collaborate with openly licensed materials, by constraining and confusing what can be openly licensed when multiple rights are involved. More significantly they make it harder to share and collaborate even when copyright is not pertinent, but the natural flow of using digital communication technologies is, e.g., sharing a link with a title.

In some ways increasing default restrictiveness makes the tools Creative Commons provides more valuable. Less default facilitation of sharing and collaboration means those who want to share must take careful steps to enable it — and Creative Commons has encapsulated the hard work in its tools. Furthermore, the more the default condition is lockdown, the more valuable works that aren’t fully locked down become. However, at Creative Commons we are are not simply working to maximize use of our tools, which after all are just a means to facilitate sharing and collaboration.

Finally, one should note, however one feels about the reality of current copyright law, that new copyright-like rights do harm — either adding insult to injury, or making copyright less efficient and credible as it becomes increasingly easy to obtain protection for non creative works, a threshold copyright requires for good reason. If you read German, we encourage you to visit the IGEL site and learn about the related rights proposals it addresses. We’ll also have more to say here, perhaps not about why new copyright-like rights are harmful, but how Creative Commons tools operate in a world in which such rights exist — some readers will be aware that European sui generis database rights are particularly troublesome — for our tools do have to do their best to enable sharing in collaboration in the world we find ourselves in, and as that world changes. (This is a difficult job. Please make a donation to support our work!)

Thanks to John Hendrik Weitzmann, Legal Project Lead of Creative Commons Germany, for introducing IGEL and assistance with this post.

2 Responses to “New copyright-like rights considered harmful”

  1. Rob Myers says:

    This is really good to see.

    I look forward to reading more about how CC licences work with related rights that aren’t harmonized internationally.

    Can/will CC come out against another related right, the U.S. fashion copyright of IDPPPA?

    I agree that the fact CC upsets everyone equally means you must be doing something right. ;-)

  2. Hi Rob, thanks.

    I think the above implies that “fashion copyright” is harmful. I don’t have enough knowledge or bandwidth to push on making a specific statement re IDPPPA right now, but if a coalition like IGEL were to ask CC, that might change.

    For anyone interested, key links (including some provided by Rob) on fashion copyright may be found in this thread http://lists.freeculture.org/pipermail/discuss/2010-December/thread.html#5551

    Mike

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