Mandleson, ethics, culture, commerce and copyright law

November 21st, 2009
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The architecture of authority (photograph Richard Ross)

Just as the leaks predicted, the UK government has offered up its Digital Economy Bill, which includes massive changes to copyright law, including the power of the government to effectively change the law at will with little to no oversight. Basically, it would let the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, change copyright law through secondary legislation, which requires no Parliamentary approval. As people are noting, Mandelson has had to resign from elected positions twice in the past in disgrace, and is now in an unelected position. And he’s the guy who gets to change copyright law at will? That does not seem right. On top of that, the bill doesn’t even specify “three” strikes for users. Instead, it requires ISPs to notify users with warnings — and to notify copyright holders that they did notify users — and if file sharing is not reduced by 70% in a year (with no indication of how this is measured), then the government will tell ISPs to start kicking people off the internet.

Furthermore, Minister for Digital Britain Stephen Timms, who introduced the new bill, claimed that 99% of ISPs are “broadly supportive” of the bill. That’s funny because BT and TalkTalk — two of the largest ISPs in the UK — have loudly complained about the plans (with TalkTalk threatening to sue, and BT saying that this solution is “not the way forward”) and the ISP Association, which represents ISPs in the UK has loudly slammed the bill as unworkable and backwards looking

Via newsNow

But the reality is that companies struggle to shore up the thinning value of their analogue business models. And therefore do some heavy leaning on government, their selfish interest overriding any other issues, needs or concerns – and so they say Thou shall not share.

The architecture of copyright as Murdoch wants it? And Mandy is going to deliver?

The architecture of copyright as Murdoch wants it? And Mandy is going to deliver?

Charles Arthur for The Guardian wrote yesterday,

Labour colleagues are concerned that if he succeeds it could give a future Tory government the ability that Rupert Murdoch wants to quash Google.

In a letter to Harriet Harman, the leader of the house and head of the committee responsible for determining changes to such legislation, Mandelson says he is “writing to seek your urgent agreement” to changes to the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act “for the purposes of facilitating prevention or reduction of online copyright infringement”.

By writing to Harman, the business secretary is seeking to get the change made through a “statutory instrument” – in effect, an update to the existing bill that the government can push through using its parliamentary majority.

That can be done with the minimum of parliamentary time, which is already at a premium.

Arthur continues

The changes proposed seem small – but are enormously wideranging, given both the breadth of even minor copyright infringement online, where photographs and text are copied with little regard to ownership, and the complexity of ownership.

Mandelson says in his letter that he is concerned about “cyberlockers” – websites that offer users private storage spaces whose contents can be shared by passing a web link via email.

And

Murdoch has recently said that he believes that copyright is being abused, particularly by organisations such as Google, which uses short extracts from online newspapers to create its Google News page, and the BBC, which he has accused of “stealing from newspapers“.

Earlier this month Murdoch was vituperative about how search engines have aggregated news. “The people who simply just pick up everything and run with it – steal our stories, we say they steal our stories – they just take them,” he said. “That’s Google, that’s Microsoft, that’s Ask.com, a whole lot of people … They shouldn’t have had it free all the time, and I think we’ve been asleep.”

This is as about as serious as it gets – in the networked society, something that NewsCorp has singularly failed to grasp, as have other media owners, you need a networked economics model that is fundamentally different to the straight lines of a mass media culture. Mandleson is a wily fox and I worry about the Machiavellian machinations that surround such a desire to alter copyright law. Something that we all know Lawrence Lessig has written, taught, and lectured on – extensively. And there is much evidence that sharing drives economies

Here is a lesson on how an open source approach to innovation and commerce can also deliver regional development and growth. And here and here.

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Legacy media business models

Mandleson is representative of the 2oth Century model of government, whereas Lee Bryant explains,

Over the past decade, we have learned a lot about how network thinking and specifically the social web can dramatically reduce the costs of co-ordination and collective action, allowing new ways of involving people in organisational, democratic or social processes. Many people have argued that government and industry should take advantage of these innovations to create more people-powered organisations. Now, in the face of serious crises in both the economy and the political system, and in the middle of a recession that calls into question whether we can even afford ‘business as usual’, it is time to take a serious look at how we can leverage human talent, energy and creativity to begin rebooting the system to create sustainable, affordable, long-term mechanisms for public engagement.

Yochai Benkler Carlota Perez John Battelle Howard Rheingold Henry Jenkins Lawrence Lessig Barabara Ehrenrich Danah Boyd Soshana Zubhoff Thomas Frank Robert McChesney Joseph Steiglitz … and there is more, all point to a world that is in flux, in transition and mutating. Enclosing the commons and locking down culture will do massive and irreparable damage to this country. Something that as someone that is supposed to be championing business in the UK should understand?

Carlota Perez talks about the patterns of technological revolutions and how they impact industry, society and culture.

When the economy is shaken by a powerful set of new opportunities with the emergence of the next technological revolution, society is still strongly wedded to the old paradigm and its institutional framework. The world of computers, flexible production and the internet has a different logic and different requirements from those that facilitated the spread of the automobile, synthetic materials, mass production and the highway network. Suddenly in relation to the new technologies, the old habits and regulations become obstacles, the old services and infrastructures are found wanting, the old organisations and institutions inadequate. A new context must be created; a new ‘common sense’ must emerge and propagate.

We are migrating from a Read Only (R/O to a Read/Write (R/W)culture. The Read Only (R/O) and Read/Write (R/W) transmission and production of artistic and cultural content. Read Only characterized the passive transmission of culture through the 1900s, while Read/Write has characterized the production of culture in the 19th century-and, now, the late 20th and early 21st centuries-allowing for active and collective making and remaking of content. A reviewer writes of Lessig’s book Remix

Lessig points out that the act of writing is near-universal. We teach our children how to write at an early age, and the tools to do so have long been accessible. With so much writing going on, there is bound to be appropriation of others’ work, but its universal character has meant that no one minds, as long as it is attributed. The accessibility of new tools of digital literacy — and with them the ability to remix audiovisual works — is a much more recent phenomenon. Here, Lessig says, our instincts are too often wrongly grounded in the elaborate rules of copyright and licensing practices that date from an era when only big publishers could effectively edit such works. Lessig claims that the new is actually the old: before the rise of mass media, people naturally reworked audiovisual works as they sang the songs or performed the plays of the day. Even the most orthodox copyright proponents did not object. Some, such as composer John P. Sousa, thought this remixing crucial, lest the new “infernal machines” of mass media led to a world only of “the mechanical device and the professional executants”. The loss of amateur ‘yeoman creators’, says Lessig, cheapens and flattens our culture, and worse, alienates us from our kids.

Perhaps someone should send Lord Mandleson a copy of Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The dynamics of bubbles and golden ages? This is the End of the Belle Epoch for a mass media – mass consumer society. I understand the debate is complex, and there is a great deal of fog – which means if you are not well versed on the issues at hand one can end up making decisions that have a long term impact which could do great damage and give more power not less to those that do not deserve to wield it.

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When push comes to pull: the new economy & culture of the networked society might be worth a read here. And I quote

The collaborative peer production acheived through pull platforms can be radically more efficient than classically structured corporation can achieve

Driven by shared meaning and trust and Yochai Benkler in Coases Penguin says

Commons based peer production is an emerging third model of production that relies on decentralised information gathering and exchange and more efficient allocation of human creativity

And the legacy companies are in a bit of a flap as they are being disintermediated twice. Once by technology and rival companies leveraging that opportunity but also via peer-to-peer communities that are communicating and creating without intermediaries.

Its not that the decline of the mass media businesses could be completely averted, however, these companies could have been in a far better position to face a market place defined by what I call networked economics. Instead, these boards have attempted to squeeze more efficiency from the thinning value of their current business models. Though it would be a brave CEO to stand up and say, we are fucked, lets rethink our business model, for the simple reason that he – the CEO must talk up his or her business to the media, shareholders and analysts, and harvest the cash-flow for the quarterly numbers. The whole scale tragedy is eventually the failure to act in a timely fashion means that the road crash at the end is that more final and ugly – for everyone. Lost jobs, lost lives, and a big black-hole for institutional investors wondering how they will ever get their pension funds back.

The paradox is that there is a movement towards devolved government, and a realisation in other areas that taking a different perspective on data, information and content is a relevant a necessary issue to address.

The likes of the Murdoch(s) are digging in for some serious trench warfare – their interest is political only in so far as the protection and control of media empires. As one of my favourite quotes goes,

Companies die as days do gasping for every last ray of light.

I just wonder these media behemoths are somewhat lost in translation? And here is a rather inconvenient truth – your business models are mostly irrelevant in a networked economy. Nick Davies wrote about media companies

These are corporations that think greatly about commerce and casually about journalism

This is the heart of modern journalism, the rapid repackaging of largely unchecked second-hand material, much of it designed to service the political or commercial interests of those that provide it.

And why is this becoming such an important debate? Because, the motivation is ideological – to retard the growing awareness among citizens that they can create a media system superior to the one that currently serves the needs of a handful of media corporations, argues Robert McChesney. In an age of information technology, control of our culture becomes a critical battleground.  The arcane ins and outs of today’s copyright battles now mask a much deeper cultural struggle in which the stakes have grown unthinkably high.

Lessig writes

Never in our history have fewer had a legal right to control more of the development of our culture than now.

A people will only be free, writes Frantz Fanon when they control their own communications.


  1. 5 Responses to “Mandleson, ethics, culture, commerce and copyright law”

  2. By leoplaw on Nov 29, 2009

    Many people have argued that government and industry should take advantage of these innovations to create more people-powered organisations.

    These said governments and industry aren’t going to let that happen. That means sharing the wealth and the power.

    The likes of the Murdoch(s) are digging in for some serious trench warfare – their interest is political only in so far as the protection and control of media empires… the motivation is ideological – to retard the growing awareness among citizens that they can create a media system superior to the one that currently serves the needs of a handful of media corporations,

    I have been watching this with interest for quite some time. The battle lines have been drawn in many countries, not just the UK. Few seem to grasp the importance of this juncture in time.

    Should these people of selfish interests succeed, we see the beginning of a new Dark Age, that one only needs to look no further than the distopian novels and movies for a glimpse.

    Oh, but mind you, make sure you only purchase and rent said books and movies through approved outlets, and don’t access them through file sharing networks. ;-)

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