The future of the Digital Economy, or not…

Thank you Brianna for pointing out that the Australian Department of Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy (with the memorable acronym DCBDE) has published all 116 public submissions to their ‘consultation draft’ for the Digital Economy Future Directions Paper.


You can find Wikimedia Australia’s two cents right down at the bottom between the “West Gippsland Regional Library Corporation” and “Yahoo!”. The perils of having a name that starts with a “W” I know only too well…

There are submissions from the usual suspects (Telstra, Google, Microsoft, seven from IBM and one from Sony – the corporation with a CEO that “…doesn’t see anything good having come from the Internet…“) as well as some from organisations you wouldn’t expext, like Lonely Planet – yes, the travel publishing company. LP focus their submission on Australia’s “Safe Harbour” scheme and why they believe it should be strengthened. They even favourably namedrop Wikipedia. How very kind of them. On page 4 they write:

In short, interactivity and collaboration have become the mantra of the digital age.

The use of interactive and collaborative communications technology is often economically and socially valuable. For example:
Wikipedia provides an outlet for subject matter experts to self-publish and share knowledge with the world on all varieties of topics, thus providing an ever increasingly helpful research tool, as well as a public forum for new, topical or arcane issues;

There is also another group of submissions – althogether expected – from the copyright collection agencies and related groups who represent a copyright maximalist stance.

What strikes me as interesting is the dichotomy. On the other hand, there are the submissions from organisations that represent education, research, user groups and the like, which all talk about innovation, collaboration, sharing, development. On the other hand, there are submissions from the copyright clan, which all talk about protection, theft, exploitation (the good kind – commercially, by them) and exploitation (the bad kind – any, by you) etc. It is as if they were speaking two different languages. Here are some highlights:

I like how they have decided to not let you copy text in their PDF. It's like they're afraid of someone quoting them. Wonder why?

(I like the way they have decided to not let you copy text in their PDF, here's a screengrab instead.)

In other words – better access to modern communications technology will harm the business model of corporations who rely on people being passive consumers of cultural output (such as ‘you’ll get what you’re given’ television and cinema). This is the same as saying that better access to motor vehicles harms the horse & carriage industry, which is very true, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing.

“The Government should look to strengthen rather than dilute its copyright regulations and introduce no new exceptions to the Copyright Act without conducting a thorough, fundamental review of the legislation to take into account the needs of the digital economy” [p3.]

In other words – they think Copyright laws are too lax. Exceptions that are being proposed (such as allowing teachers to display free, public websites in schools without paying royalties) go too far down the road of making “free education” practically viable. You wouldn’t have thought that it would even require an exception but apparently Australia is the only country in the world that requires educational institutions to pay to use publicly available websites. The school system is asking for an exception to this but it is being opposed…

“The introduction of “access” services is the single most important current development in the music business. Online services like Nokia’s Comes With Music are transforming the way people enjoy music, offering more choice in music downloads than ever before. Music track sales were up to 1.4 billion globally in 2008.” [p3]

Later in the same page (and elsewhere in the document) they go into detail about how much money the industry is losing to filesharing of in-copyright music. At least the Australian music industry peak body is not suggesting that every illegal download equals a lost sale. They figure it’s 1 in 5 (same page) – this is not what they used to say and the change to a more reasonable method for calculating potential lost sales should be recognised. However, combining in the one page a section that says how well the industry is doing out of digital sales followed by a much lengthier section about how much the industry is losing, seems to be trying to make an argument both ways at the same time. That is, they argue that the industry is healthy, responsive to market changes and important to the national economy. At the same time they argue that it is being attacked and in need of government regulatory support.

“The Consultation Paper refers to the Powerhouse Museum and the State Library of NSW having recently placed photographs (in which copyright has expired) from their
collections onto the US website Flickr. Flickr generates revenue, through advertising, for its US owner, Yahoo…”

“…When considering the success of this project, however, the generation of revenue that does not come back to the collecting institutions to further their activities must be
taken into account. That must be weighed against factors such as the numbers of people who view the items online, whether those are the people the collecting
institution wants to reach, and the quantity and relevance to the collecting institutions of the information about the photographs contributed by Flickr users.” [p3]

one of the wonderful images taken from the PHM archive, placed on Flickr, then copies across to Wikimedia Commons.

(One of the wonderful images taken from the PHM archive, placed on Flickr, then copied across to Wikimedia Commons.)

This seems to directly contradict what the Powerhouse Museum (PHM) is reporting about their decision to put their pictures on Flickr. Their image services manager presented a paper at the recent “Museums and the Web” conference entitled “Open licensing and the future for collections” on exactly this topic. On all metrics this experiment has been a success – even to the point of reducing the number of phone calls to the curatorial staff from the public wanting to ask simple questions. People now ask their questions on the Flickr comments section where the rest of the viewing community can usually answer satisfactorally – allowing the staff to be more productive.

The ACC also suggests that the PHM has willingly or unintentionally ‘sold out’ to an overseas commercial company.

First the ‘commercial’ aspect: In Wikimedia-land, we have copied across onto Wikimedia commons many of these photographs and would indeed like to see the Powerhouse upload directly there – Wikimedia being non-commercial after all. But we understand that Flickr offers a better workflow for collection management and also has a larger direct audience than Wikimedia-Commons. As they are Public Domain images anyway, Wikimedians can copy the images freely by themselves. If the Powerhouse had chosen to put a digital padlock on the images then there would be a problem and the proprietary nature of the Flickr system would be rightly questionable as the best method for publication. However, since the Powerhouse are using this tool the way it should – to encourage access rather than to extend restrictions to a new platform – everyone is happy. Hey, even Obama’s doin’ it.

Secondly, the ‘overseas’ aspect: There is an expectation, and indeed a requirement, that government funded content be hosted on Australian websites so that it remains within the national jurisdiction. There is also an element of the ‘national interest’ argument here, along the same lines as why we want to be able to build our own submarines and not have to rely on foreign contractors. I understand and in fact agree with this concern – I would like Australia to be self-sufficient in providing access to its own culture. However, what the ACC submission does not mention is that all of these photographs placed on Flickr were already available on the PHM website – which is hosted within Australia. As with the commercial discussion above, if the PHM had published exclusively on foreign websites then this would be a problem. But given that these are copies of Public Domain images published on their own website and the original objects are all safely stored away (in Australia) the PHM did not do anything that would go against their mandate to protect Australian cultural independence.

I love what they've done with the fax-machine motif there. [p3]

I love what they've done with the fax-machine motif there. (p3)

CAL’s submission focuses mainly on the suggestion that the Government might be looking into releasing Public Sector Information (PSI), you know, like, publicly. An extension of the “it’s taxpayer money that paid for it to be written so why should we have to pay to read it” argument. One of the most obvious roads to do this would be to adopt Creative Commons licensing – a step that some agencies are already taking up, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics publishing under the CC-by license.

The particular argument being used here against putting PSI under a Creative Commons license is a new one – for me at least. It seems to be saying that by using CC licensing, people would be able to rework the government’s words to mean something they did not originally intend and the government would have no way of stopping them. Since when is that a concern of copyright law? More than likely there will be many incorrect quotations and incorporations of PSI into other materials but the copyright status of the PSI one way or the other will have no effect on this. People misquote and misconstrue (intentionally and unintentionally) PSI all the time and no one is especially bothered – and that is with Crown Copyright firmly in place. In a cost/benefit analysis the question would be: How great are the potential advantages of allowing the public greater freedom of use of the the content that already own as taxpayers, relative to the potential harm associated with an increase in misquotations as a result of copyright licensing changes.

And in recognition of your having read down this far, I award you the Copyright Society of the United States’ hastily drawn “copyright cat” .gif:

I think they're serious too!

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2 Responses to The future of the Digital Economy, or not…

  1. Lodewijk says:

    Hmm, do you get that diploma if you scanned, read the post or only if you also read all the links that are given?

  2. Pingback: The (Australian) Govt 2.0 Taskforce – introduction and initial thoughts

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