Digital media — who has the rights?

I wrote a novel a few months back (a standard travel-through-time, historical romance), which I then sent off to a writing agent. If the agent liked me, I reasoned, they would pitch my novel to a publisher. If the publisher liked the novel pitch, they would offer me a base fee — probably a few thousand dollars — and a small percentage (less than 10) from the sale of each book. If they were an influential publisher, my book would be picked up by a few larger bookstore chains, and if they were really influential, it would be prominently displayed in the stores, enough so that customers would see my novel and decide to give it a go. With luck, a few thousand would sell — enough to make my name and convince publishers to continue to invest in me. By my third book, I would be well-known and popular enough to sell millions of copies and make a full-time living off of writing.

That was the idea. The reality is that I never heard back from the writing agent, and even if I did, my chances of ever getting accepted by a publisher are around one in a million.

Well, as it turns out, my publishing plan was completely behind the times. More and more authors are deciding to bypass the cumbersome print industry dinosaur and sell their own books directly to readers via the internet. With more e-books and e-readers being sold as each day progresses, this makes perfect financial sense. Who needs a printer, binder, cover designer and marketer when all that is required for online readers is a digital file? With just a small amount of work on my part, I could be sharing my sci-fi-romantic-epic with the world as early as, well, tomorrow.

Now, here's the rub — digital copyright. Once a writer or painter or photographer or videographer's work is published to an online forum — say Amazon or YouTube or iStock — who owns the rights to it? What if the artist's sister wants to host that work on her website, and the original website it is being sold on says no? What if that artist decides to take his/her work and sell it on a competitive website, and the website again says no? Who's in control here?

Welcome to the minefield that is digital copyright law.

Cory Doctorow, science fiction writer, blogger, and advocate for liberalizing copyright laws, touched on that minefield at the SIGGRAPH 2011 conference recently held in Vancouver, BC.

"One of copyright's most important roles is to serve creators," argued Doctorow. "But we've given intermediaries rights they don't need and don't deserve — the right to tell a creator's audience what to do with a creator's work, even if the creator doesn't agree with them." (See below for the video of his keynote address)

The problem stems from the US 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and the still-to-be-passed Canadian Bill C-32, both of which give digital rights management (DRM) companies the power to enforce their own rules when any form of digital media is entrusted to it to share or sell. This, in turn, takes ownership away from the original creators.

For example, iTunes, which sells the majority of the world's online audiobooks, requires new audio files to have the company's DRM rules added to them before they can be sold as Apple products. "If, after selling your audiobook on iTunes, you decide to try and sell with a competitor, you can't grant your customers/listeners/readers permission to break DRM from iTunes off of the audiobooks and bring them with you to the new platform, neither can the publisher," notes Doctorow. "The only entity that is allowed to authorize people to take works that were sold in an Apple store to a competitor's media management platform is Apple. So your fans either have to abandon you, or maintain two, separate, non-interoperable parallel libraries of your stuff, and use different devices and systems to get at them. The company that contributed no creative input [therefore] gets the lion's share of DRM."

As well as being an issue for the creator, these copyright laws raise a greater question about the rights of corporations versus individuals, and the needs of an Open Internet versus commercial requirements of artists and businesses. These discussions will no doubt be further drawn out by Tim Wu and Michael Geist, legal experts and keynote speakers at the 2011 Cybera Summit. But it is still worth debating on an individual level (as we've begun to do in Cybera's LinkedIn group, and it is something that all internet users should be made aware of.

There should be a way, argues Doctorow, for us to "make copyrights that pay artists without requiring absurdities like surveillance and control."

What is the ideal solution — more open or more control? Join the debate and leave your comments below.