How You Got to This Place
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a man bought a printing press. But because he was busy running the printing press, or perhaps because he was more interested in the wonders of the rising mechanical age than the whimsy of making things up, he did not write books to print with his press.
He bought it because it was readily apparent that he could sell books, if he printed them. So he offered others money on a profit-sharing basis if they would send their writing to him.
He then talked to the general stores in many towns around him, and wrote letters to others, giving them lists of the books he had to offer their clientele. He became a publisher (packager) and distributor of other people’s content.
A long time ago, in the next galaxy over, the phonograph was invented. Something similar happened between those who realized they could make and sell recordings, but couldn’t sing worth a bent penny, and those who could sing like larks, but couldn’t tell a phonograph needle from a bent penny.
The idea of “media” is that it’s something that mediates between the creator and the consumer. These are the key components:
- The creative expression
- The physical package which carries the content, in single or multiple copies
- The system which delivers the package from creator to consumer
That’s the basic need-to-know for all media and the weird stuff that happens with them. Including the medium of the internet.
Copyright Versus Licensed Rights
Since neither publishers nor creators could do for themselves what the other could, or at least, very much not as effectively, laws and contracts developed to govern this situation.
1) The content belongs to its creator automatically. There is nothing the creator needs to do to assert this right. It is inherent. The creator has the right to determine who may make copies of the content to sell to others. The duration of the copyright expires when Mickey Mouse dies, and not a moment before.
2) In order to use the works of a creator, the publisher will pay the creator for license to make copies and sell them. The publisher may also buy the right to sub-license the content: to have someone else use or reproduce it. Or the right to have someone make a story into those newfangled things called a moving picture.
That’s the license of rights.
As people interacted over these matters, some chaos and the occasional lynching ensued from time to time over who could do what with whose contributions to the various partnerships.
And somewhere in the middle of it all, the contract lawyers quietly smoked a cigar.
Creation, Packaging, Distribution
There was no other way. Printing presses were too expensive for individual writers to own one, and record producers never did learn how to sing.
Besides, there was that sticky bottleneck called “distribution.” Writers and musicians could, of course, spend a lot of money to get someone to turn their creations into physical products using expensive machinery. But they would only ever sell a few copies to their own distribution network, which mostly consisted of Mom and Aunt Joan. Cousin Fred tried to hide whenever the topic of “the new book” came up. He was no help at all.
Distribution — the art of putting the desired content, pre-poured into the desired packaging, in the hands of multiple recipients who wanted it — was a power held by those who had spent the time building connections. A hundred years and more of letters sent to general stores, then bookstores, then big-box stores, letting them know what was available for their clientele to listen to and read today.
The Imbalance of Experience and Knowledge Base
The publishers also had a hundred years’ practice designing and tweaking contracts to allow them to repackage the content in every way possible, for as little profit-sharing as possible. (That is business.)
It is fair to say that, as creators weren’t the ones dealing directly with sales and competition and cost risks, their community members didn’t necessarily make themselves as educated about the ins and outs of rights, licensing and contracts as the community of publishers.
Eventually, intergalactic communications were invented. They called it “the internet,” and quite naturally it destroyed everything for the galaxy of printing press owners and the galaxy of phonograph recording.
Except, not really.
That’s because the internet is not like the telephone or the post-box. Those delivery systems involve transmission without reproduction of or monetary gain from the content itself.
On the internet, you’re not merely paying a fee to have someone else carry your message. (Well, you do, to your internet service provider. But.) You also communicate by signing over the right for another party to replicate and transmit the data you type on your computer screen. Replication is copying the content you create. And that requires a license of rights.
Change, Opportunity, and Intergalactic Space Trucks
There is a third galaxy out there, and it’s called long-haul trucking. Imagine that a truck is full of books. It takes them one way only: from the publisher to the store. There, people who are not content creators consume the books.
But what if every person who bought a book also created something and loaded it onto the truck, and sent it on its way? What if the truck was made of electrons, and it could go anywhere, to as few or as many of their contacts as they wished? Wouldn’t people look eagerly for the truck? It would bring them something of value to them, and send something of theirs back.
All they would have to do is sign a contract licensing the shipping depot to reproduce and distribute their content.
That sounds like a postal service, but it’s not. It’s acquiring the right to reproduce content and distribute it to many endpoints. The internet has intergalactic space trucks with onboard replicators and multi-port teleporters for your content.
But that’s not all. There are also the invisible gnomes.
The Truck-and-Delivery-Depot Shell Game
The intergalactic space truck is also a shell game. Remember, you can use the depot and the trucks as long as you sign the content rights deal. While you’re focused on the free content delivery truck — waiting for it, sending it, making happy driving noises — the content packaging and delivery gnomes (otherwise known as tech developers) are invisibly rearranging the shipping depot around you, terraforming your internet environment to their advantage.
While you’re waiting at the depot (let’s call it, say, Facebook) and constantly checking for a delivery or sending one out, the invisible gnomes can measure your unselfconscious, peer-generated consumer behaviour. This is like a producer/consumer petri dish, giving unprecedented insight into how to sell us what we already want.
Because we trust our friends. We’ll tell them what we wouldn’t tell a company. We tell them using the free trucks.
But no matter how many vroom noises we make, the trucks belong to the depot. They are in league with the invisible gnomes.
Social media — Facebook, Twitter, et al — is publishing and distribution, on steroids, with intergalatic space trucks and gnomes, hooking you in with free postage that isn’t free and pulling a bait and switch on what the real goods are.
So don’t feel stupid. It really is that confusing.
And yet, if you remember the three components of all media, and the difference between copyright and licensing, it gets simple. Because it’s always been the same.
Some Things Don’t Change
– There are still plenty of clauses in rights contracts today which are not favourable to content creators.
– Packaging (publishing) has become immensely simplified. What used to be canvas and paint, or paper and ink, or vinyl and grooves, or 35 mm film, is now all one thing: electrons.
– Distribution is still a power held by those who control the networks. In prehistoric times, it was the roads and city gates. Then it became the telephone lines and radio frequencies. Now it’s the servers, satellites, cables and cellular towers.
– And, most content creators still don’t have a clue about intellectual property laws.
…And Some Things Do Change
The content creator is no longer just artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians who make a living from being semi-educated about this stuff; it’s not the kind of people who may use agents and lawyers and have a team to help them navigate the question of rights and licensing.
The content creator is now you.
It’s now your thirteen-year-old child with a camera phone and no concept of what Terms of Service means.
It’s now your grandma, who thinks the internet is a very fast post-box for free.
Online privacy isn’t about copyright. It’s about who holds the permission to exploit that copyright, and to what extent. The best kind of licensing contract, from the licensee’s point of view, is the one that gets signed by content creators who don’t read it and/or don’t understand it.
Enter the convenient and tiny Terms of Service checkbox. Click here to play.
That’s how the internet works. Now everyone’s both consumer and creator. Their creative product is little bits of their existence in words, photos and videos. In the intergalactic milieu, the private citizen is no more. The rights to the details of his life — your life, your child’s life — have been licensed out by the user for corporate reproduction and distribution.
That’s what you really need to know about copyright and privacy. End of story.