While proposed changes to the US Copyright Office will balance the needs of rights-holders and users, the one surprise impact may be on the fake news epidemic.
Our 21st century copyright needs are managed by a Copyright Office using 20th century systems and processes. This lag has the potential to close as the bipartisan leaders of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee recently outlined a series of proposed reforms to the U.S. Copyright Office to ensure that it can meet the needs of a 21st century copyright system.
One of the biggest proposed reforms is modernizing the Copyright Office’s technology infrastructure so it can carry out its roles and responsibilities in the connected world. Not only is IT modernization required to meet the needs of today’s copyright holders, but it may have the happy side effect of also being one key to fighting the epidemic of fake news.
The price of not keeping pace with digital disruption
The Internet, and the technologies and innovations it has spawned, have been among the most disruptive influences on copyright since the first U.S. Copyright Act was enacted in 1790.
The digital age transformed how we create, share and view ownership of content. The ensuing explosion of content has resulted in many more people owning copyright rights. We are more likely to simultaneously be producers, authors, and copyright holders – AS WELL AS readers and users of others’ works – than at any time in the past.
And yet, the digital era has done more than any previous period to simultaneously erode these rights.
The disruptive force of digitization hit mainstream consciousness in the late ’90s and early 2000s when the music industry fought back against so-called “sharing” of copyrighted materials. Online services changed how people consumed copyrighted music content. And even now, with new models of copyright-respectful consumption such as streaming, the sales and financial returns for the recording industry, and especially the artists, have not recovered to their pre-digital levels.
These same issues have eroded the foundation of other critical media industries, the most noticeable being journalism. The rise of fake news is about more than click-bait articles and false information spreading across social networks.
The gradual weakening of copyright in our share-and-share-alike digital world has sucked the oxygen out of reputable journalistic sources and created a vacuum in which fake news thrives.
Copyright – The bulwark against the fake news tide
Copyright makes it possible for news media to invest further in journalism. Under this traditional model, publishers produce high-quality content and reporting to draw large audiences for the revenue generators, the advertisers. These revenues supported an entire global structure of reporters, photographers, researchers, and more.
But the rise of Google, Facebook, and similar platforms has also been fueled by the drive for more eyeballs. And to achieve even larger numbers of users, these platform companies have taken high quality content from news sources, usually without authorization and without paying for the privilege, and have also relentlessly fought against copyright in courts and in legislatures, thereby destroying the economic foundation of legitimate news.
And when sharing copyrighted content turned out to be too little to fill the economic needs of the platforms (which of course have no space limitations and virtually zero costs for delivery), fake news filled the void. Today, our platforms are inundated with clickable content that yields numbers (of dollars and eyeballs), regardless of quality.
Maybe this trend is good in the short term for platforms looking for more advertisers, but it’s bad for the rightsholders and creators of real news content, not to mention the public at large. While discussion continues about using technology to identify fake news, supporting a modern system that rewards creators and rightsholders is a more direct, sustainable, proven path that provides benefits for all.
Rebuilding the protections that copyright can provide to journalism is the most effective way to start reversing the fake news trend. To do this, the Copyright Office needs the resources to modernize.
Embracing technology reforms for the future of copyright
A modernized Copyright Office with upgraded IT infrastructure would be a major step forward.
Any IT upgrade needs to embrace network architecture that allows for semantic enrichment, shared metadata, and APIs. This would help maintain much more accurate records, while also enabling the processing of records at scale. This would go a long way towards solving one of the more legitimate needs of the platforms and large-scale users.
The recommended reforms that will be in front of Congress will have critical impact on all creators and publishers who rely on an effective copyright system for their livelihood. Ignoring the changes the digital era brought to copyright has contributed to the decay of institutions a free country relies on. The time to reverse this trend is now.
Roy Kaufman is the managing director of new ventures for the Copyright Clearance Center, and a member of the Copyright and Legal Affairs Committee of the International Association of Scientific Technical and Medical Publishers. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Art Law Handbook: From Antiquities to the Internet, as well as the author of two books on publishing contract law.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.