Permission to innovate

As someone who makes his living (such as it is) as a writer, I can certainly sympathize with those who seek to extend and protect the sanctity of copyright. But like your relatives, the family resemblance can sometimes make you cringe.

One such occasion was attending the World Copyright Summit in Washington, DC this week.

milos-formanThe summit was organized by the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), a coalition of royalty collection societies from around the world, including ASCAP, BMI and SESAC in the U.S. It’s a community that sees itself as under siege these days from hordes of “thieves” and “pirates” and from callow, ungrateful young people who have “no respect” for “the value of intellectual property.”

Director Milos Forman went so far as to accuse “our opponents,” as he phrased it (otherwise known as the audience), of promoting a “communist ideology” with respect to intellectual property.

 “Karl Marx was very clear,” Forman said. “To everyone, everything according to his needs. Now, we all need a little entertainment from time to time, so why shouldn’t I just take it?”

What became apparent over the two-day gathering, however, was that the siege mentality itself is a major part of the very problem the summit ostensibly sought to address: how to reconsile the 400-year old system of exclusive rights with the very non-exclusive gestalt of the Internet.

It betrays a sense of entitlement–essentially a demand that the world not change in ways not to their liking–that is simply not reasonable for anyone to expect, whether in their chosen profession or any other aspect of life.

hurley-chenThe biggest applause line of the conference–used once by ASCAP CEO John LoFrumento and once by NMPA CEO David Israelite–was the suggestion that YouTube (the bete noire of many speakers) should have “sat down” with copyright owners before introducing the service to “work out and arrangement” (i.e. payment plan) acceptable to both “sides.”

“Shouldn’t you have sat down with the [intellectual] property owners before you built your business to work it out?” LoFrumento asked YouTube general counsel Zahava Levine during a panel discussion. “We worked with broadcasters, we worked with cable, but when it comes to the Internet it’s like they forgot about the property owners.”

The crowd went wild.

“Why don’t [technology] innovators come to the creative community first?” Israelite demanded of Consumer Electronics Assn. CEO Gary Shapiro. “If YouTube had come to us first we probably could have worked it out and we wouldn’t be suing them today.”

Clapping and stomping.

In other words, YouTube and other innovators should seek permission from copyright owners before innovating.

But Chad Hurley and Steve Chen didn’t set out to create a platform for exploiting copyrighted works when they created YouTube. The impetus came from their frustration at not being able to share videos that had been shot at a dinner party in Chen’s apartment in San Francisco. So they built an extremely useful tool for sharing video over the Internet.

Yes, YouTube is now owned by Google, a commercial venture that seeks to  profit from its ownership of the video sharing site. Insofar as YouTube’s ultimate profitability is driven by the exploitation of copyrighted works it absolutely should compensate copyright owners (a point YouTube readily concedes).

But that wasn’t the case in 2005, when Hurley and Chen built their tool. 

Israelite’s argument–taken to its logical conclusion–amounts to a claim that Hurley and Chen should have had to seek prior written consent from copyright owners (all of them? some of them?) before they started writing the code for YouTube because it could be possible for others later to use YouTube to display or reproduce copyrighted works.

That’s simply not how life works.

I was recently laid off from my job at a magazine after 16 years because the market for print magazines–and thus the market for my services–has changed. Much of that change has been driven by the same digital technology that LoFrumento and Israelite seek veto power over on behalf of copyright owners. But it’s still up to me to adapt.  The world doesn’t owe me a living as a newspaper reporter. And it certainly doesn’t entitle me to decree how people should or should not get their news.

The very sense of entitlement Milos Forman decries in his audience, those disciples of Karl Marx, is equally matched by the sense of entitlement exhibited by those who applauded LoFrumento and Israelite for insisting that technological innovation conform to their professional interests.

That’s not an argument, it’s a neurosis.