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<publicationTitle>Journal of Information History</publicationTitle>
<articleTitle>Book Review: ‘History of Copyright 2012 – present’ by Engstrom and Grucht</articleTitle>
<authorName>Lu Xu Fei</authorName>
<pubDate>14 April, 2072</pubDate>
In History of Copyright 2012 – Present, Erik Engstrom and Karel Grucht explore the recent history of copyright, from its heyday in the early 2000’s through the middle of the century. In revisiting these issues – many of which are now of merely historical interest – the authors hope to bestow the modern reader with a sense of the road travelled towards current creative production. I here present some highlights of the book, before reflecting on its broader themes and lessons for the modern day.
The histories collected here indicate the sheer complexity of the copyright crisis of the 21st century, and the diversity of responses to that crisis from governments, businesses, artists and consumers. They also show how the disputes over copyright which took place during that time stemmed from fundamental economic, political and philosophical questions; questions about the nature of creativity, incentives and rewards, rights and freedoms, and the value of immaterial, infinitely copyable goods – questions which remain equally pertinent today.
Despite the many changes in knowledge production which have taken place over the last eight decades, the format in which most knowledge is curated – the academic journal – has remained relatively stable since its initial incarnation in the 17th century (in the form of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society). This very journal, which is now nearing its 60th anniversary, is testament to the resilience of the format.
What has changed is access to this realm of knowledge. When Information History was first published in 2013, it was part of a growing minority of open access academic journals. At that time, most of the world’s peer-reviewed knowledge was locked up behind paywalls; only the most well-endowed institutions could afford access to the whole catalogue. But through a slow and steady movement for open access, the dream of a free online library of the world’s knowledge was eventually realised.
This change is documented by Engstrom and Grucht, in the first chapter ‘The Demise of Closed-Access Academic Publishing’. They argue that the incumbent publishing industry eventually crumbled due to three major events. The first was driven by research funding bodies. Their increasing adoption of open-access mandates ensured the fruits of their research grants were published open-access. The second came when academics began saying ‘No’; no more submissions to closed-access journals, no more refereeing, no more editorial work. Starved of this free labour, the closed-access publishers began to lose their only source of value.
The final nail in the coffin, argues Engstrom, came when the remaining three major publishing companies went bankrupt after losing a high-profile joint lawsuit. Elsevier-Wiley-Springer vs ScholarSec (2022) was a landmark case in which the defendants, a group of students, had harvested several million academic articles from behind a paywall and disseminated them online. After a stirring defence, the prosecution lost and could not afford the court fees and damages. The bankrupt publisher’s assets – millions of copyrighted papers – were then seized and turned over to the public domain.
With the adoption of open licensing of academic literature as the default, educational opportunities opened up not only to scholars but also to those outside the walls of academia. Health workers in the developing world could access medical research. Concerned citizens could better scrutinise the scientific evidence cited in government policy-making. High school students around the world now had exactly the same informational resources as a Harvard professor – significantly levelling the playing field.
At the time when data mining was truly taking off in all areas of business, it became possible to apply these techniques to the vast trove of scientific literature. Where the legacy publishers had prohibited researchers from mining datasets attached to scientific papers, open access led to a wave of new research based on the new data mining techniques. Meta-studies proliferated, allowing researchers to gain a broader perspective on their own disciplines. New insights came from statistical inferences drawn from the mass of data. Even the humanities and social sciences were transformed by the new trend in data-driven ‘culturomics’.
(It is worth noting this chapter has great personal significance for one of the authors; Engstrom is the former CEO of Elsevier Publishing who, after a Damascene conversion in 2021, quit to become an open access advocate and historian.)
In the second chapter ‘Copyright Policy Behind Closed Doors: International Trade Agreements of the 2010’s’, Engstrom and Grucht take us back to the 2010’s, when governments of the then ‘developed’ world began attempts to negotiate their intellectual property arrangements in secret. Previous attempts to push agreements through democratic scrutiny had resulted in failure. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which consolidated a number of anti-piracy measures, had been signed by several national governments before being put to the EU Parliament in 2012. A workshop on ACTA was organised by the Commission for members of parliament and civil society groups. The Commission’s approach demonstrated their disdain for public engagement. Archived twitter messages from the time indicate that when the audience clapped to show appreciation for the case made against ACTA, they were asked to be quiet or leave. But after a successful citizen campaign, the Parliament rejected ACTA, and the international treaty was abandoned.
However, this was just the beginning. The dead body of ACTA came back, zombie-like, again and again. Subsequent proposals were negotiated in secret and had equally obscure acronyms: TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), CAUD (Coalition Against Unauthorised Duplication), PITTA (Preventing Idea Theft Technology Alliance), PASTA (Preserving Artificial Scarcity Trade Agreement), and many more. While drafted by the governments of developed nations, each was the result of heavy input from copyright industry lobby groups.
At first it was just Hollywood and the software industry who wanted worldwide legislation to control what individuals could do with their networked personal computers. But as computation became ever more embedded in products – from fridges to cars to pacemakers – and these products became connected to the emerging internet of things, virtually every consumer goods industry had an economic interest in copyright enforcement. Owning copyright over the code that runs on their products became an essential part of their business model, allowing them to control the way customers interacted with their new computerised environments. The combined weight of their lobbying efforts accelerated government attempts at global copyright enforcement into overdrive.
Some developing economies accepted these extreme measures, for fear of invoking hostile trade relations with first world governments. Others did not, and suffered trade embargoes as a result. But the price they paid was, in many ways, worth the benefit: rapid economic development fuelled by free access to knowledge and the fruits of technological innovation. Several rogue European states – especially those who had fared worse in the collapse of the eurozone – also elected to reject the new copyright enforcement measures. In their conclusion to this chapter, the authors argue that this was the beginning of the current divide in the global economy between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ economic models.
Chapter 3 deals with the entrance of 20th century works into the public domain, with the illuminating case study of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Unlike many public speeches, audio and video of speech was under copyright (administered by EMI publishing) and was not widely available. In 2038, King’s speech was released into the public domain in several countries (U.S. citizens are still waiting; copyright over the work is due to expire in 2068 due to the 20 year extension of copyright term). For many, this was the first time they had seen the most famous footage of the US civil rights movement in full. The video was watched by millions, and reinterpreted in light of the political and civil rights struggles of the 2030’s. The authors track how it very quickly became a viral meme, remixed and cut in to thousands of new works, exploring just about every issue affecting 2030’s and 40’s society.
The fourth chapter charts the history of two international organisations; the IAA (Independent Artists’ Alliance) and the CCA (Content Consumers Alliance). They had their origins in opposing sides of the copyright debate, but by mid-century, it became clear that each one had the key to solving the others’ problems; their individual interests were actually in alignment towards a common future.
The IAA had its origins in disputes between the representative bodies of big content companies and the artists they represented. The former had a deserved reputation as staunch defenders of copyright maximalism, having lobbied heavily for SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and their various later incarnations (covered in the second chapter of this volume). By the late 2010’s, sentiment against these industry lobbies was fermenting among a majority of artists. The RIAA in particular was increasingly seen by artists as the mouthpiece of recording industry executives, at the expense of the artists it claimed to represent. The Independent Artists Alliance was then formed by a group of artists who had rebelled against their own labels by encouraging fans to illegally download their music. The IAA became the new de facto representative body for music artists whose interests were no longer represented by the RIAA. It later joined forces with authors, video makers, games designers and others, all of whom were similarly at odds with their former representative bodies.
The Content Consumers Alliance (CCA) was an initiative started in 2019 by a worldwide coalition of consumer rights bodies, technology companies and activists pushing for the reform of copyright laws. Despite traditionally being positioned on opposite sides of the copyright debate, by the mid 2020’s, the CCA and IAA had begun to see their interests as aligned around a set of emerging funding models. Their first joint campaign was to liberate the huge portion of 20th and 21st century culture – music, movies, books, art – for which legal copies were effectively unavailable. The CCA had published figures estimating that around 95% of cultural works created in the preceding 70 years were no longer available. Large multinational companies who owned the copyright were unable or unwilling to release them, while they continued to promote a narrow selection of mainstream content. Most fans had turned to the darknet, where illegal copies thrived.
The IAA successfully lobbied for new laws governing contracts between artists and companies. Artists were granted new rights to renegotiate unfair contracts, and to reclaim copyright over their works if companies failed to make them legally available for a pre-negotiated period of time. Meanwhile, the CCA facilitated crowdfunding campaigns to encourage 20th century artists, many of whom had faded nearly into obscurity, to make use of their new powers, regain copyright over their work and release it to fans. Engstrom and Grucht argue that this combination of legal reforms lobbied for by artists, and fan-based crowdfunding, gradually freed up a treasure trove of cultural works. It led to a renaissance of 20th century subcultures, reinterpreted and appreciated by 21st century sensibilities.
In their final chapter, Engstrom and Grucht attempt what must be a near impossible task; an overview of the business models which gradually overtook the default 20th century model of copyright. This one-size-fits-all model of ‘create, copyright, then sell copies’ is now just one model out of many, a niche practice which works only in a particular set of social, legal and technological circumstances. The authors are quick to point out that there are almost as many business models as there are types of creative practice. And even when they focus on particular creative practices, broad generalisations prove impossible.
Take, for instance, film and video. In the first decades of the century, the film industry had argued in vain that movies needed strong copyright enforcement to survive. In reality, their business model was supplanted by not one, but dozens of alternatives. As increasingly high quality film cameras were embedded in every personal device, and sophisticated CGI effects became available to bedroom amateurs, many more films were produced than ever before, and at lower cost than ever before. Some blockbusters were shown for free and relied on product placement and merchandise for profits. Others survived and even thrived on ticket sales alone, by building in live audience interaction and participation as an essential feature (it is no surprise that the 2030’s saw a revival of all-night cinema parties reminiscent of the 1970’s Rocky Horror Picture Show). But perhaps the most significant change came with film-makers turning to fans for capital. By 2026, 57 out of the top 100 U.S. box-office hits were financed primarily through crowd-funding websites, where thousands of fans put up the cash to get the films they wanted to see, made.
The film industry was not an isolated case. In every niche of every content industry, from romance novels to political documentaries, from collaborative storytelling to augmented reality games, new business models and revenue streams proliferated. But very few of them had anything to do with enforcing copyright. Their combined effect on the cultural landscape was huge, highly unpredictable and incredibly varied. If there’s one thing we can learn from Engstrom and Grucht’s final chapter, it’s that there was not one answer to fixing the 20th century’s copyright crisis. There were hundreds.
But in reading this book, one common theme clearly emerges. For most creators of video, music, art or text in the 21st century, it was no longer a case of selling copies of immaterial goods. Their recipients were no longer consumers interested in buying discrete digital products which can be infinitely copied at zero cost. Instead, they had become patrons, who wanted to support culture through real life experiences and human relationships. And unlike digital goods, which are by nature infinitely copyable, experiences and relationships cannot be pirated.
Lu Xu Fei, 14th April 2072.
This work is licensed under CC-BY-SA.