There are so many profoundly stupid, self-defeating or slickly corrupt initiatives out there at the moment in the area of intellectual property and digital rights management. The collective impression I get is of a slow form of economic and cultural suicide in which liberal democratic societies destroy the legal infrastructures of the open society while businesses invested in the production and dissemination of popular culture foul their own revenue streams in pursuit of the diminishing returns they can squeeze from untapped sources.
Via BoingBoing, I’ve come across a serious candidate for the worst of the worst. I wasn’t aware, for one, of just how crappy the prevailing legal interpretation of fair use in Australia is already. It’s so bad that public schools have to pay a per pupil fee for the privilege of photocopying any materials for classroom use to the Copyright Agency Limited. (Cory at BoingBoing gets it slightly wrong: the CAL, when you read through the material, is a private alliance of collecting bodies, but complicatedly, is named by statute as the legitimate body for collection, so it has a kind of peri-official character.)
I don’t understand how so many people can get in such a (legitimate) lather about protecting the rights of Danish newspapers to publish cartoon representations of Muhammed while ignoring this kind of slow strangulation of the free exchange of information, especially in the context of primary education. At best, it’s the kind of stricture that promotes collective national mediocrity; at worst, the cumulative impact on a free society starts to compare to a military attack by an enemy. Why Australian taxpayers tolerate this kind of bureaucratic-managerial extortion which ends up costing them money in the form of fees paid to the Copyright Agency while restricting the scope and potential of their children’s education is beyond me. (The fee is assessed, apparently, by looking at a random sampling of schools and their usage of photocopying: that’s guaranteed to lead to strong fiscal pressures to not photocopy and thus to restrict what children can learn while also guaranteeing that the government has to make a copyright-fee budget line in order to pay the Copyright Agency its pound of flesh every year.)
Now apparently the same Copyright Agency (CAL) is getting more ambitious and looking to extract a per-usage fee whenever primary school teachers direct students to use websites. Holy 21st Century Dickensianisms! Why not just go and steal candy from babies or turn orphanages into schools for pickpockets? Why not rifle through the property of old people in nursing homes? That would be more honest. On whose behalf is the CAL trying to assess this fee? To whom will a share of it be paid? Who puts something up on the web for which they expect to be paid? I hold the copyright to all of what I’ve put up on four blogs. Not in my name! Not in the name of the vast majority of people who put material on the web. Not in the name of at least one author who is a member of the CAL. If it turns out that this is in fact what the CAL is trying to collect, fees from per-usage of all websites in Australian schools, then that’s a violation of copyright, not an enforcement of it–acting as an undesignated agent.
I’m trying to track down more information about what seems to me to be unspeakably bad public policy and unspeakably greedy and self-defeating business strategy (self-defeating for everybody but the CAL, that is: no wonder their revenues are up. That’s like Blackbeard posting good annual results after sacking the Spanish Main). When you read this press release, the picture gets murkier–it sounds almost as if the CAL is trying to make sure schools don’t digitize materials into PDF or other formats and so avoid photocopying fees. But other reports make it sound like this is a classic piece of shakedown rights-squatting where they’re starting as ambitiously as they can to see what they can get people to cough up as a result. Even if it’s just about avoiding a digital workaround of the photocopy fees, it’s still indefensible, since the prevailing Australian interpretation of fair use is a crap idea in the first place.