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Mashups not so easy for copyright law

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I’m posting an article from ZDnet that was called to my attention by prolific tweeter and social change arts thinker Lina Srivastava.  Check out her site when you have a chance.

The point is that copyright law was written for a pre-Internet age; and there are serious questions about how restrictive we want any updates to be.  Heck, in the NYTimes Magazine last week Steven Pinker (Harvard College professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature”)  said information wants to be free.  It’s a whole new world, and we have to find a balance between intellectual property protection, particpatory culture and the public domain (a commons!).

User-generated mashups are changing the face of copyright laws, which have to evolve to catch up with the Internet generation, said Mary Wong, an expert on intellectual property (IP).

The professor of law at the U.S.-based Franklin Pierce Law Center, said in an interview with ZDNet Asia, copyright laws are clear on protecting stolen IP such as videos and music, but enforcement reaches a murkier area when it comes to user-generated content such as mashups, which are not a direct copy of original material.

“The new generation of digital natives are manipulating content online as a form of expression…The democratization of the Internet has facilitated a remix culture, where people are not passive recipients but active creators,” said Wong.

And the openness of the Internet has further facilitated a culture of “taking”, she said. “Everyone has access [to content]. Enforcement is a global problem. It is a practical problem, because of the reach of where the content might appear. Finding [infringed copyrighted content] is harder.”

The gray area is created between the original material–that is someone else’s IP–and the “new”, composite product that comes from the mashup. “One issue the law has to deal with is this new sense of a user ‘right’,” she said, referring to that of mashup creators.

“Copyright law is a sturdy creature, always adapting–as it has from the start of the printing press,” said the professor. She noted that the copyleft and Creative Commons licenses are “great examples of the direction we are headed in”, but added that these licenses are not a unified base to build new laws upon yet because they differ in mechanics.

“Their objectives are the same, but they have different mechanisms–some have greater restrictions than others, for example,” Wong said.

“Laws need a way to catch up with changing culture. This could be in a greater recognition by the courts of the social use of user expression, or legislative change,” she said.

On the part of businesses, having a solid online business model will help prevent broadcasters from taking down every use of their content, she said. “Businesses should have a clear and robust revenue stream online. We’re not there yet.”

The Asian dimension
As Asia evolves, so will awareness and user comfort with respecting copyright laws, said Wong.

“Asia does not have a huge grasp of respect for IP. We have respect for physical property, but not so much the intangible. Western culture does have a greater respect for IP, although it is not equal to that for the physical, either,” she said.

But progress will likely come in the form of the young generation, which has been exposed to the same online content as counterparts in the West, and will likely be more in-tune with “so-called Western concepts” of IP-respect, she noted.

On Asia’s reputation for piracy and IP-infringement, she said: “It is not simply a matter of Asia versus the West. The problem [of IP infringement] is the same, and every IP-owner wants protection.”

But IP awareness will likely be affected by the broadening digital divide in Asia, too. She said the parts of Asia which are not as exposed to the Internet will correspondingly not be as exposed to such education on IP respect.

“But this is an issue we will be talking about only in many years to come,” she said.

Wong was in Singapore to speak at the 2nd Global Forum on Intellectual Property. She is also an Associate Fellow of the Intellectual Property Academy of Singapore and a member of the Singapore Academy of Law’s Technology Law Development Group, a Singapore-based think-tank for IP issues.

Written by Brad Lichtenstein

January 15, 2009 at 10:33 am