CCC Conference Examines Copyright Issues From Four Distinct Angles

May 06, 2008

Copyright Clearance Center hosted its first-ever copyright conference at the Union League Club in New York City last Thursday. OnCopyright 2008 was an engaging, cerebral affair that featured four long panel discussions, each of which examined copyright issues from a different perspective, including technology, society, law, and the arts. Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) President and CEO Tracey Armstrong noted that, while her organization has been providing licensing and permissions services to businesses, publishers, academic institutions, and authors for 30 years, it has rarely insinuated itself into the public discourse about copyright policies and practices. Thursday’s conference provided CCC a unique opportunity to "open minds" through a more evolved discussion, according to Armstrong.

University of Virginia law professor Chris Sprigman led the day’s first panel, which explored copyright issues through the lens of technology. Sprigman was joined by Kevin O’Kane, the president and founder of content syndication company Red Lasso, and Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody. O’Kane kicked off the panel by giving a live demonstration of Red Lasso, which he called "an online media center for bloggers." The service allows users to find and clip videos from television and radio broadcasts, and then share those clips with their readers. The demo led the panel into a discussion about how copyright rules apply when new technologies such as Red Lasso emerge. Shirky pointed to the now-infamous example of Napster, the file-sharing network that ran afoul of the music industry for copyright infringement and was shut down in 2001. "Napster shows us that you can shut down software but not ideas," Shirky said, alluding to the plethora of new music-sharing networks that have sprung up, Hydra-like, in Napster’s place. Sprigman pointed out that copyright rules were initially created to encourage creativity among authors and artists by allowing them to own their creative process. This historical fact inevitably raised the question of whether today’s open technological environment, which has the potential to subvert traditional content-ownership practices, is actually better than the old system at fostering creativity.

Tim Wu, a professor of law at Columbia University who is credited with coining the term "net neutrality," led the society panel. He planted the seeds for his group’s discussion by familiarizing the conference audience with the story of Steve Vander Ark, the creator of The Harry Potter Lexicon, an online encyclopedia that is a companion to the Harry Potter children’s book series. The Lexicon gained widespread news coverage in recent months when Potter author J. K. Rowling took Vander Ark to court for copyright infringement over a proposed published edition of the Lexicon. Wu played an official Harry Potter podcast in which other members of the Harry Potter fan community ostracized and effectively banished Vander Ark from their ranks. Wu’s question to the panel was, "Why are Harry Potter fans disowning Vander Ark?" The panel’s answer was that the fan community needs to disassociate itself from anyone who goes to far in appropriating creative content for fear that their own access to that content might dry up. The panel also noted that Vander Ark’s attempt to turn his online Lexicon into an ink-and-paper book was his ultimate undoing. Panelist Gigi B. Sohn, the president of the nonprofit organization Public Knowledge, pointed out that many people still consider the internet to be the realm of amateurs, and author Douglas Rushkoff said in following that the transformation of an internet-based project into a printed work presents a significant symbolic shift that forces copyright issues to be taken much more seriously.

The most heated debate of the day took place after lunch, during the law panel. Moderator Michael Carroll, a law professor at Villanova University, tried valiantly to get a panel of lawyers to tell him what, if anything, is broken about the current system of copyright law, but had a hard time pinning the panel down to any specific, tangible components of the system that need to be fixed. The discussion was invigorated when the topic turned to Google Books, Google’s project to scan whole books into its archives and render them searchable. Panelist Allan Adler, the VP of legal and government affairs for the Association of American Publishers, entered into a lively exchange with Chris Sprigman (the technology panel moderator, now an audience member) over whether Google Books constitutes wholesale copying, or whether the enhancements provided by the service are "transformative" enough to constitute "fair use." In this debate, the publishers are clearly in one corner and the public is in another, and the debate rages on.

The day’s final panel focused on the arts, and was comprised of author Jonathan Lethem, singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, Brown University professor Mark Tribe, and moderator Paul Holdengraber, the director of public programs at the New York Public Library. John Blossom, president of Shore Communications and a conference attendee, said on his ContentBlogger blog that he was grateful for Vega’s insights into the challenges of working with artists who remix her music. "But at the end of the day," Blossom continues, "it’s not clear to me that artists are really grasping fully the opportunities for monetizing their content online. For music specifically, the suppression of radio on the Web has greatly reduced opportunities for licensed content in new contexts through social media."

Participants left the day-long conference with, at minimum, a bucket full of potential answers to a lot of intriguing questions about where copyright rules are headed in today’s rapidly evolving technological landscape. They also left with a glossy card—an insert to the conference program—that listed all of the songs that played on the sound system during breaks between panels. One can’t help but wonder whether anyone went home and downloaded any of those songs from their favorite file-sharing network.