The Public Consultation of the European Commission on copyright legislation asks questions about the benefits of a registry of creative works (the Fix Copyright web site has some useful summaries to explain). The issue of registries is one that we’ve come across many times in our work. There’s no shortage of registries for creative works, most of them for domain-specific use.
Would a registry at a European level be useful? Yes, and No.
But there are also good reasons why a registry could introduce additional problems. Let’s look at some of the issues surrounding this.
Let’s start by looking at the PLUS Registry of images as an example: it provides a comprehensive database for images and information about images (metadata). If the same work is registered by two different authors, the system theoretically allows them to be flagged, indicating a conflict. This flagging can be relevant for potential users of a work, letting them know that the information may not be authentic. But such a mechanism can also be abused: someone could register all of Person A’s works as being made by Person B, getting them all flagged when Person A uploads their original content. Potential users will be less likely to use flagged works since the flag introduces doubt over authenticity.
The problem is similar with trademarks in domain names: whoever registers a domain name first, gets it. A whole dispute resolutions industry has cropped up to deal with situations where people register trademarked names belonging to someone else, and every domain name registry today has procedures to determine who actually owns the right to a domain name based on a trademark. However, these processes are often time-consuming and require some legal expertise.
Registries of creative works have three alternatives:
- Create conflict resolution processes (and risk that smaller copyright holders and individuals will not have the money or time to deal with such a process)
- Flag works as being disputed (and accept that this can be abused)
- Not do anything
Of course, the last option immediately calls into question the relevance of having a registry at all, if the information it contains is neither authenticated nor regulated. Users of creative works could look up a work in a registry and find that, on the one hand, it’s claimed to have full copyright protection for 10 years…and on the other hand, it’s claimed to be licensed under a Creative Commons license. This would create confusion and misattributions.
Size of the database
As we go about our lives online, we create works that are covered by copyright many times every day – hundreds of times, if counting every email we send, picture we take, story we share. We have the technology in place to build systems that could automatically list everything we create in a registry. But how big would such a registry have to be if it included information about all works created every day?
According to a study by the Radicati Group in 2012, the average number of (business) emails sent per day is 89 billion, with 22% of worldwide email users in Europe. Even with a conservative 256 bytes per email, that would amount to about 4,5 terabytes of data per day in Europe. And that’s just mail: if we include any other creative work, that’s even more massive amounts of information to be stored.
Without that persistent identifier, a user who wants to look up information about creative work is reduced to guesswork, or matching the image visually against millions of other images. Again, this could be partly automated, but doing so is arduous and the success of it depends on whether any other changes have been made to the image as it gets passed around online. Google Image Lookup makes this process a bit easier, but is still in early stages.
Measures to introduce a registry must be coupled with recommendations that the industry retain such persistent identifiers in works as they are transmitted.
This is something that we can solve, it’s just a matter of designing it as such.
So what to do?
Given the issues above, it’s tempting to say either: “despite these difficulties, it’s important that we do it”, or alternatively, “there’s too much danger of abuse here, so let’s not do it”. Neither of these are the right answer. I believe that registries – collections of works – have a role to play in our society. Not as sources of copyright or sources of authenticity about works, but as additions in our day to day activities, to help us remember information which we otherwise tend to forget…such as where we got that latest image of a bunny.
This is the way in which I envision registries to work: as an extension of our individual memories. Computers can be left to do what they do best: maintain large amounts of information which will allow us to do what we do best: create.
But I really, really, want a European-wide registry!
Okay, here are some of the things you’ll need:
- You need persistent identifiers which are URIs, and legislation, best practices or agreements that such persistent identifiers should be retained wherever as work is transmitted online and offline.
- You need an API, that allows people advanced control over information about their works, as well as the ability to automate this interaction, both when creating and updating works.
- You need the same API, or a similar one, to be part of a federation of registries, such that information can be exchanged with registries outside of Europe too — the Internet is global, and so is information about creative works.
- You need to figure out a way to ensure the right to remain anonymous – while still retaining control over registry entries submitted.
- You need a dispute resolution process that is light weight, costs next to nothing to carry out, and can be completed in very short timeframes.
None of these are impossible to accomplish, but they take time, energy, dedication, and world wide agreements. Europe may aim to be a single market, but online, the single market is the world.