Thursday, September 29, 2022

Q&A with Glyn Moody




Glyn Moody is the author of the new book Walled Culture: How Big Content Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Keep Creators Poor. His other books include Rebel Code, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Techdirt and Wired. He is based in London.


Q: What inspired you to write Walled Culture, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: Walled Culture grew out of my earlier failure. Five years ago, I wrote for a blog called Copybuzz, about a proposed new law on copyright, the EU Copyright Directive, and how bad it was. For two years I – and many others – explained why its main provisions would be harmful for the Internet, creators, and the public.


In the end, the law was passed by the narrowest of margins, after massively dishonest campaigns by some of its supporters. Walled Culture is an attempt to understand the background to that failure to stop a demonstrably bad law, by exploring 30 years of digital copyright, and the forces that have shaped it.


The title was chosen to convey the sense of how much we are losing because of copyright: culture is being locked up behind legal and financial walls that are getting higher. At a time when everyone on the planet with an Internet connection could have frictionless access to all knowledge, it is instead being shut away behind paywalls.


Q: What impact do you see current copyright laws having on the internet today, and on artistic creators?


A: One of the most problematic aspects of copyright is that it is automatic: as soon as something is in a fixed form – written down, photographed, stored in a computer etc. - it is protected by copyright.


That's a problem for everyone online, because the Internet is essentially a digital copying machine. Every one of us is making thousands of copies of digital files every day – the vast majority illegally, because without the permission of the copyright holder.


Back in 2007, John Tehranian, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, made a rough calculation of how much a typical Internet user would be liable for as a result of these unavoidable copyright infringements.


According to his estimate, normal Internet use would result in $4.544 billion in potential damages each year. The situation today is no different: the law is ignored by billions of people, because otherwise the Internet would not function.


Creators in particular suffer from today's copyright laws. In the past, writers, musicians, and painters routinely built on the work of their predecessors; it was an accepted part of how art functioned.


Today the risks of being sued for alleged copyright infringement are so great that most creators try to avoid drawing on what used to be a vital source of inspiration. As a result, artists are constrained in what they can create, and must constantly think about the legal risks, not about how to produce their best work.


Moreover, copyright has become a weapon that cultural intermediaries – publishers, recording companies, film studios – wield against creators. Typical contracts require the copyright in a work to be assigned to companies, allegedly to allow the latter to enforce it against infringement.


In practice, it means that most of the benefits of creation flow to the intermediaries, not the artists. This has led top musicians like Taylor Swift to re-record their music catalog in order to regain control of their own work that was lost when they signed such contracts.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I have been writing about the Internet for 30 years, and about copyright for 20 years. As a result, much of the foundational research was done during that time.


More recently, I have been writing a blog, also called Walled Culture, reporting on the latest developments in the world of digital copyright. In a way, it has acted as a kind of five-finger exercise in preparation for the main challenge of writing the Walled Culture book.


Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, I was surprised how close we were to stopping the worst aspects of the new EU Copyright Directive. There were multiple points when that might have happened, but the deep-pocketed copyright companies pushing for the new law were able to keep up the pressure and propaganda until they finally triumphed.


The long and winding story forms perhaps the most important chapter in Walled Culture in terms of explaining what went wrong, and why we are in trouble now.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: There are two core messages in the book. One is that copyright is failing creators. Although the dogma is that copyright is vital if writers and artists are to receive fair recompense from their work, the facts prove otherwise.


For example, a 2018 survey by the Authors Guild showed that median earnings from book income fell by 50 percent from $6,250 in 2009 to $3,100 in 2017. In the music industry, a 2021 report by the UK Parliament found that performers’ incomes average less than the median wage. Most creators struggle to get by on the money they earn from their art, and are forced to take side jobs to survive.


Contrast that with the rising income and profits of the intermediaries – the publishers, the record companies, the film studios – and it's clear that copyright has become as way for the latter to extract value from the inspiration and hard work of people who actually create things.


And this isn't because of "piracy," as those same companies would have us believe when they call for yet more punitive legislation. That is just a diversionary tactic so that people don't see what the real problem is: that copyright has become a way for companies to control not just consumers, but creators too.


I hope, therefore, that after reading Walled Culture people will appreciate that copyright is broken, and that we need to find better ways to reward creators fairly. Although I don't claim to have the solution to this central problem, my book does offer a few thoughts on the way forward.


The other key message of the book is that not only is copyright broken, it is actively damaging the most important invention in recent history: the Internet.


As described above, there is a fundamental incompatibility between copyright, which seeks to control copying of material, and the Internet, which is powered precisely by the ease and naturalness of making and sharing digital copies.


If we don't fix or replace copyright, we risk squandering the huge potential of the Internet, at a time when we need it most to help solve humanity's pressing problems.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Although I didn't plan it this way, it turns out that Walled Culture completes a kind of digital trilogy of titles for me.


The first book of that trilogy, Rebel Code, looks at how sharing in the form of open source is revolutionising software. The second title, Digital Code of Life, similarly looks at how sharing genomic data led to huge breakthroughs in biology and medicine.


Walled Culture represents the kind of obverse side – how copyright is trying to shut down the sharing of knowledge and culture, with all the losses for humanity that implies.


What this means is that Walled Culture rounds off two decades of work studying the rise of the digital world, its dynamics and implications. I think it is unlikely that I will write any more books in this area, but my work will certainly continue to appear in other formats.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Walled Culture is about the power of sharing, so it is only right that it will be released under the Creative Commons CC0 licence to encourage sharing as widely as possible. The digital versions will be available without charge, while physical copies will be sold close to cost, for those who prefer that format.


This means that anyone can do anything with the text, without paying or even asking permission. In particular, it means that people can produce translations of the text if they wish. That's something that I hope will indeed happen, so that people can read the book in their mother tongue and spread its messages as widely as possible.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment