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Doctorow on copyright and digital locks

James Ting-Edwards, Guest Post. 13 March 2018, 6:52 am
Doctorow on copyright and digital locks

NetHui is the local Internet Community's event, a place for New Zealanders to get together to share ideas, debate aims, and think about what's coming next with the ways we use and are affected by the Internet. Today's NetHui Copyright is the first to focus on a particular issue.

The keynote, from author and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow, boiled with energy, speeding off and past the normal rails of big content versus big tech. Copyright, he says, was at some point the regulatory framework for the entertainment industries. In the days of wax cylinders and piano rolls, you could simply look to see who was in the copying industry and who was ripping it off. But computers and the Internet are the greatest copying engines ever made, and they are now in our homes and pockets.

Software is eating our word, digesting it, and layering it with slug trails of data. This data-laden world has us all make ten copies before breakfast: photos, texts, emails, songs. When we all copy, all the time, copyright restrictions expand from activities like pressing records or printing papers to affect everything we do. Our cars are computers, skyscrapers are "computers we put bankers in". As last year's ransomware headlines showed, hospitals are "computers we put sick people in". Changing uses of technology have opened new possibilities for creativity, but have also forced copyright considerations on almost everyone, in almost all areas of life.

Those considerations include "digital lock" or DRM laws, which stop customers and others from tinkering with devices they own or use. In the USA (and under the original TPP text), those rules stop farmers and mechanics from repairing tractors. They create risks for all of us, making computer security research harder and maybe illegal. They also stopped big global publisher Hachette from moving away from Amazon: under digital lock laws, it would be illegal for the publisher and author to crack open their source files and shift to a different device or platform.

Doctorow's key point is this: with only a few global distributors, creators and consumers have a hard time negotiating good deals. In a world where the Internet solves distribution, there should be a better way, with indy and other channels, where open movement between platforms helps artists and audiences get a fair deal.

It's an interesting moment for copyright in New Zealand. The CPTPP Agreement leaves our current copyright rules in place. We don't have to adopt longer copyright terms, or broader digital lock rules. We don't have to, like Doctorow and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argue every three years for the right to refactor our tractors. That leaves us space to reflect on what works for New Zealand.

Much NetHui conversation addressed how our law handles changing technologies and behaviour, and the space it leaves for user rights and expression. New Zealand's "fair dealing" rules give a list of purposes and activities where people can copy without permission. The USA's "fair use" system is broadly similar, except that it is open-ended, allowing new ways of using content, and reasons for using content, to be permitted without needing politicians to change the law.

The difference is about when and how the law allows change. For example, the USA approach clearly allowed shifting of music to an mp3 player by 1999. In New Zealand, legislation took until 2008: an iPod law for the smartphone age.

The strength of NetHui is its diversity, in participants and ideas. Conversations addressed not only copyright, but also related ideas and rules for making, sharing, and respecting creative skill and knowledge. I heard how Te Matatini, the national kapa haka competition, had 1.3 million live-streaming viewers online. That fed a dialogue about how to respect and protect Māori culture and creativity, acknowledging the kaitiakitanga and mana of those who hold these taonga.

My takeaway was the interest from a range of attendees. From people in galleries and libraries, in archives and museums like the venue Te Papa, who want better and easier ways to share their collections (and Graeme Austin was there, asking  whether we need safe harbours for public interest institutions).

I hope that this event, with 150 people, is only the start of a broad, open, and balanced conversation about what New Zealand needs from our copyright law.

James works on the Issues Team at InternetNZ. He wrote InternetNZ's paper "Getting Copyright Right for the Information Age", and welcomes more dialogue on this topic.


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