There are a few interesting rumblings going on regarding copyright in sound recordings at the moment, with term extension being debated in Europe and signs that Britain might be willing to extend term to 95 years. This is an emotive issue for many people, probably because it's simple enough for people to forge battle lines around the topic. Drugs patenting and the intricacies of university-business knowledge transfer don't quite rally the troops on either side.
We know well that the arguments in favour of term extension in sound recordings are entirely bogus. It's EMI going into battle behind the lovable image of the 123 year old trumpeter who's about to lose his Cliff-Richard-based 'pension'. It's the Wizard of Oz in reverse - look behind the frail old man and you find the complex machinations of a failing bureaucracy.
I wonder too if those on the other side of the argument, represented by the Open Rights Group, are also a little inconsistent in their politics. Defending the public domain is all very well, but may be increasingly incompatible with defending the public sphere. ORG tend to be opposed to alternative ways of funding media content, such as Phorm, which is admirable. But this only means that paying for stuff becomes more important for upholding our 'digital rights', not less. Not that this should mean subsidising the creative industries through mercantilist policies such as term extension, on the other hand.
I wrote this paper a few years ago to try and understand the nature of the dilemma, and came up with this table, attempting to define four different fields of the 'public sphere' broadly understood.
The two pillars in grey are those where there are (legitimate) opportunities for commercialisation of knowledge. That is, we don't in principle want to restrict access to public deliberation or heritage through any form of payment. Whether that happens in practice is another matter.
My argument is that the digital age destroys these boundaries technologically, because all four genres of communication can occur via the same media. Therefore they are only left standing as cultural, normative and legal distinctions. Only if the state and/or consumers enforce something called 'content' can it remain distinct from, say, 'heritage'. The main economic battle then goes on between the two central pillars, most notably between google and nearly every 'content' industry. The BBC is also an interesting phenomenon, as it straddles all four pillars - great for the public, but not always great for those minions operating in one of the four pillars.
The interesting question is how these battles will be affected by the economic crisis. I think Jeff Jarvis's increasingly irritating question 'what would Google do?' is not all that helpful (what Google would do is slap a Google logo over all four fields of the public sphere, and beyond). Telling the car industry to become more like Google will not help Detroit sleep easier at night.
It seems logical that a crisis speeds up trends that were latent in the economy already. The rise of the 'service' pillar of public commodification and the decline of the 'content' pillar have been going on for a decade. In and following the crisis, there will be greater appetite for 'free' stuff, that has advertising, product placement and consumer tracking involved, as this Prospect piece predicts. This is not dissimilar to how the 'Long Depression' of 1873-90 ushered in a new capitalism, with large German and American industrial conglomerates, employing steel, electricity and chemicals, leaving British cottage industries behind. Google is Siemens, while EMI is the Manchester cotton mill. Exciting, yes, but no reason to ask 'what would Siemens do?' at every turn.
I'm more interested in what the conservative responses to this are. What do you defend? Copyright law, and these strange new forms of broadband tax being proposed, offers the state the chance to protect the 'creative' industries. In time, perhaps we will start to view content production as something akin to 'heritage', which the state protects and subsidises because it is that important to our culture (how's that for 'Digital Britain'?). So if Andy Burnham were brave enough, he would have to stand up and say that he believes that Cliff Richard is on a par with Elgar. The more realistic perspective is that the state is simply doing what state's always do in times of crisis, and trying to protect its friends against market forces. Yes, its protectionist, unfair, mercantilist, but it's not for the first time or the last.
But how might industrial-knowledge models develop/survive which are neither pig-headedly state-protected nor built on the commodification of 'free' (consumer-tracking, advertising etc)? That to me is the highest priority. I have a curmudgeonly hunch that, for those of us committed to financially viable, culturally unpolluted artefacts and events in the future, we may have to side-step both the state and Google and simply pay a fair price for stuff.