Over on IWA’s blog, Colin Thomas writes about bypassing gatekeepers in his write-up of the Creativity in Hard Times event. I like his themes but Thomas could go further and I’d like to identify an “invisible gatekeeper” so here’s a post in response.
Lately I’ve done a lot of thinking and a bunch of posts in Welsh about copyright, licensing and content here. As it’s not my first language I’m hitting limits about how expressive I can be at the moment. I think the ideal language to discuss Welsh language culture is Welsh itself so I hope to rectify that pretty soon. But on with the blog post.
I went to a small premiere of the first episode of Pen Talar, the S4C TV series recently (it’s partly what inspired PenTalarPedia which I co-developed).
At the event Arwel Ellis Owen said a few words and mentioned the Tynged yr Iaith radio speech by Saunders Lewis which features in Pen Talar. For what was to become a pivotal moment in Wales’ history it’s now astonishing that only one person had the foresight to record the audio of Lewis’ speech. His name was Dafydd Alun Jones and the audio would have been lost to history if he hadn’t taken the initiative. As I understand it this was an unofficial, unlicensed recording done at home. I don’t think it was part of his original plan but this enabled the official LP release to happen later. Whatever your politics, I hope you’ll agree it was a pioneering thing for Jones to do.
So I asked myself, “with regard to content how can we be like Dafydd Alun Jones in 2010? What should we be doing?”
Even now you can still be a pioneer by recording audio – and now video. But the revolutionary and exciting changes I want to discuss are in copying and distribution. And the most effective distribution we now know is the web – in other words, uploading something to make it available online. Tynged yr Iaith is now on YouTube and can be embedded on any web page or blog next to any comment you’d like to make. It’s just one piece of cultural produce from Cymru of course.
When I started university in 1999, a friend showed me Napster which was software to enable peer-to-peer music file sharing. It gradually became clear that this would change the nature of the game for content creators, owners and distributors (although I might not have expressed it quite that way at the time). Today there are many people, young and old, who realise that unlicensed copying can be a legitimate practice – it’s just waiting for official, more sensible, licensing. Decades ago it happened with various rights around music like the performance right for songs, in response to unlicensed uses. It really should now happen for other works including TV programmes and films – especially those which are unavailable or out of print and therefore, regrettably, approaching limited use or even uselessness in this digital age. Unlike text, you’re not even officially allowed to lift a segment of a film to use under fair dealing as a “quote”.
YouTube’s own mechanisms for royalty collection are still being debated and sometimes negotiated by lawyers, by many accounts they are flawed. But these are minor details. Similar discussions happen around Spotify the licensed music streaming service which actually uses peer-to-peer sharing in the background to distribute the music and lower costs.
Dafydd Alun Jones (as I understand it) did not write to the BBC expecting to wait for a letter of permission to come back. In doing so he could have missed the programme.
Today we are missing the programme in Wales, not only figuratively but also literally.
Many, many things lie decaying in archives. They don’t make a penny for anyone and they need to be released somehow. Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis was made available recently in an extended director’s cut because a reel containing lost scenes was found in Argentina. That was lucky in a way. It’s a warning for us and shows us what we need to emulate – to the power of a hundred – with Welsh culture. We can’t rely on a tiny number of decaying copies somewhere. Nevermind old things which have gone into the public domain, I actually think we are missing wider availability and business opportunities by not copying the cultural treasures of TODAY. By copying we increase not only the long term value of a work but its value today. But there are more ways to maximise this value.
The Newport parody video which Colin Thomas mentions is a good example of remix which is a major practice which the web enables. This is just a continuation of 20th century sampling and folk cultures which date before that. Remixing can be another legitimate practice which is waiting for a sensible licence (and sometimes tantalisingly close to huge profitability). Jay-Z who raps on the original New York track routinely releases acapella versions of his songs. He’s not stupid. This “openness” leads to more creativity, more underground kudos, more free promotion and more highly paid gigs for Jay-Z. Remember when Danger Mouse unofficially sampled a whole Jay-Z album and combined it with The Beatles on his own Grey Album? He didn’t ask for permission and it led to a legal letter from EMI’s lawyers. But people forget that detail because not long after Danger Mouse signed a recording contract and became a massively successful EMI artist (as a key member of Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley and so on).
The comparative paucity of Welsh language content means we need to use every single trick we can find to make it go further. There is amazing creative potential in Wales lying unused and waiting to be enjoyed – and financially exploited.
Often what’s true for things in English and other big languages is so much more true, utterly true, in Welsh. Lawrence Lessig talks about how creativity is being strangled by the law, which is a perfect example. Lessig’s metaphor of strangulation is sometimes too painful for me to think about in a Welsh language context.
There’s an economic race to the bottom going on now. We need to remove as many restrictions on creativity as possible – the two that come to mind here are the excessively long copyright terms and constrictive “all rights reserved” licensing.
No matter how famous you are, if you create stuff (music, programmes, films, art, blog posts) then you need to make it your business to research what Creative Commons means. I recommend that family of licences because they are the most popular and now the de facto and will ensure the widest interoperability of different works from around the globe.
Creative Commons is a sensible move in a digital era because the digital era is synonymous with copying. Aside from open licences, content owners and record companies will have to change and where the money comes from may change. But our problem in Wales is not piracy – it’s obscurity. (Thanks to Tim O’Reilly for that insight.)
People are already mashing up S4C and it’s leading to, as you’d expect, mixed results. But in order for really cool things to happen in abundance, people need to be explicitly encouraged.
So what is the invisible gatekeeper? It’s the way we approach copyright. It potentially affects all creative people in Wales.
In my ideal world I would like to see all S4C programmes released under a permissive licence such as Creative Commons to allow and explicitly encourage adaptations. All of these would need to be credited as derivative works. I realise there are a whole bunch of things that need to be done before that can happen, such as negotiations with various unions and production companies. These are important but like YouTube’s spats over percentage points with PRS they are details.
We pay for S4C, we pay for the BBC, it’s time we looked to maximise the value of these things. What could happen if creators were given more resources and more freedom? It’s an interesting thought experiment, let’s make it a real experiment.
S4C’s licence or adoption of Creative Commons (in my ideal world) would probably have to allow only non-commercial re-uses. If S4C liked the result, they could then work out a separate deal with the remixers/co-creators. A hypothetical example could be (say) a Galician language production of Pen Talar On Ice. I’m only half joking about this. It could be performed, recorded and copied non-commercially. If anyone wanted to use it commercially they would have to come to an agreement to pay S4C and, presumably, Fiction Factory who are the production company behind Pen Talar. This is all standard practice when something openly licensed leads to use under a separate commercial licence.
Colin Thomas says:
There seems to me to be alarmingly little realisation of what convergence will mean for the future of Welsh media. Only Y Lolfa, it seems, is producing books in Welsh that can be read on a Kindle or e-book…
Book publishers will realise the benefits of ebook distribution, I don’t doubt it. There’s money there.
But while we’re on it someone needs to release Thomas’ TV programme The Dragon Has Two Tongues digitally for those who weren’t around (including me). In the digital age, we need a link to the programme because a misty eyed reminisce is not enough. Stick it up on YouTube if you must.
In summary here are three major benefits – and corresponding threats – which I’ve expanded on through this blog over the last few weeks. You can apply them to creative output from Wales but particularly things in the Welsh language:
- Benefit: wide availability now (threats: restrictive licences and for older stuff, copyright term)
- Benefit: wide availability tomorrow (threat: lack of copies)
- Benefit: creativity, re-use, remix and adaptation (threats: restrictive licences and for older stuff, copyright term)
Bonus: read the story of Bernie Andrews for another example of archival heroism.
UPDATE 19/10/2010: Just found some extracts from The Dragon Has Two Tongues on YouTube, courtesy of someone who’s transferred them from wobbly VHS.
UPDATE 15/12/2010: Just re-read this and realised this sentence is too limited “And the most effective distribution we now know is the web – in other words, uploading something to make it available online.”. I didn’t include online methods of distribution that use the Internet but run outside the web, e.g. BitTorrent, FTP and so on. It also doesn’t include peer-to-peer copying that happens on other networks, e.g. intranets, LANs and other media, e.g. a memory stick. Most of the principles are the same though. Fecundity is good.