In this post I will discuss an proposal of mine for the creation of digital libraries protected by a new act of parliament which I will refer to as "a digital libraries act". I shall explain what the purpose of such an act would be, why we should want it and finally give an overview of how I think it should work.
A digital libraries act would establish the right to collect together digital works and charge reasonable rates for access to these works whilst distributing the earnings fairly to the respective creators.
I think the act would benefit society in the following ways:
1) It would lower transaction costs for the use of 'copyrighted' material. If I want to create an on-line documentary (legally) using text, videos, newspapers and photographs all of which are copyrighted by different people and distribute this documentary to a small group of people I cannot effectively do this because of the cost of chasing down each rights holder. A digital libraries act would considerably lower this cost. The act should be designed to allow autonomous software agents to perform transactions driving the cost of the transactions close to zero.
2) The public would gain access to much information hidden within copyrighted works that it would otherwise be unable to access. The number of times that I have tried to access single data points from copyrighted works and been asked to fork out £20+ for access to a journal article, book or database that I do not need for any other purpose. A digital library act would allow such access without compromising the authors economic needs.
3) Most requests for information are likely to be from individuals who rarely access information on related topics (this is the long tail phenomenon) and so systems which allow broad access to academics, or special interest groups will deny most data requests that are useful to society as a whole (and which come from people who do not often access such information). This is a counterintuitive but well documented feature of the Internet.
4) With lower transaction costs and greater access to larger domains of hidden data (in a computer readable format) new media forms will become possible (the style of documentary listed above is a prosaic example). Most of the value of a digital library is likely to come from forms of media which are only possible with a digital library act. When video was invented it created the 'film' which was a completely new media form. Most of the value of video is now in forms of usage (including film) that no-one anticipated before video was created. The telephone and the Internet themselves are other examples.
5) A more liquid market for 'copyrighted' works would make it easier to assess the true value of information and so encourage creators to produce works more useful to society. This is just standard economic theory.
6) Academics spend a considerable portion of their time looking up material on disconnected and idiosyncratic systems (many of them still paper based). A digital library act would massively boost their productivity.
I now move onto asking how such a system should work. I think that:
A) 'copyrighted' works should be included under the digital library act if they are being sold in the public sphere, are not trade secrets or personal data. Possibly other exceptions might be useful.
B) It should be entirely legal and free to keep copies of 'copyrighted' works (hence the scare quotes!). This would legalize file sharing and allow a much more efficient storage and retrieval system for 'copyrighted' materials.
* The storage of information should be legal and free because a file sitting on a hard drive is not relevant to anyone until it is used by someone. It can be very useful to have potential access to a 'copyrighted' work but one should not be charged anything until the work is actually used/viewed. It should be possible for me to own a device that contains all published music but not be charged a penny until I choose to play a song. Furthermore I should be charged solely based on what I play (or otherwise use).
C) Copyright should be replaced (for works covered under A) by usage rights. If you have a usage right over X then you have a right to payment for the economic benefits derived from X by its use.
* X is used if it is displayed (e.g on a monitor, speaker, haptic output) or it is given as input for a computer program. A definition of when X is used could thus be expressed in a way that a computer could understand thus removing the need for cumbersome legal challenges.
The question remains as to how usage should be charged? In the interested of simplicity it would make sense for charges to be determined by the rights holders unless others query their payment system. We could have a system where auctions can be forced if enough parties request them but are not automatic.
I would argue that those requesting auctions should be able to decide on extra responsibilities for bidders (E.g Can only be sold to X demographic, can not be sold to government or must be part of a certain derivative work). This allows the market to bundle items and to break markets down into segments (otherwise the economics are too silly).
Obviously we would need a restriction on insiders bidding in the auctions to prevent abuse of the system (just like with most existing systems). Customers would need to be insulated from the complexities of such a system just like we insulate them from the complexities or the financial markets, actuarial calculations and many other modern industries/services.
I claim that the above system would not actually require excessive bureaucracy as all the important systems can be computer automated. This is an important point. Systems may sound incredibly convoluted but if the system can be handled by software systems they can be entirely manageable. This is true of the systems I describe above in my opinion.
I don't think I've addressed fully all of the plethora of questions that need to be answered about the systems I propose and the associated legislation. Hopefully though I have given you pause for thought over my (overly bold) suggestions.