From the moment Coaliton MP Jo Swinson (she’s a Lib Dem, apparently, though from her talk she was indistinguishable from a Tory) gave the opening speech at the CREATe launch event, the tensions were apparent. CREATe (whose website is here) is a huge new project, which in its own words ‘is a pioneering academic initiative designed to help the UK cultural and creative industries thrive and become innovation leaders within the global digital economy.’ Four years, funding of more than £5 million, primarily from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (effectively government money) seven universities (including my own, the University of East Anglia) and academics from a wide range of disciplines make it something very, very ambitious – and also very important. And yet, right from the start, it’s under enormous pressure – not least from the copyright lobbyists.
Swinson’s speech emphasised money, money and more money – and particularly all the wonderful things the coalition was doing to support the digital economy. By that, from the perspective of many of the people I spoke to in the audience, what she really meant was to support the existing ‘creative’ industry… and by that she really seemed to mean to do what the copyright lobbyists have told her to do. And those lobbyists were all too obvious by their presence at the launch event. They were relatively easy to identify even if you didn’t read their name tags or know who they were: they were the ones who made a point of mentioning how evil all those pirating content were, and how we need to clamp down on those pirates before we do anything else. Sometimes they could manage a couple of relatively neutral or even positive statements before mentioning the need to clamp down on pirates, but I don’t think any of them managed to get through a comment without bringing it into play. I’d like to make it clear that by lobbyists I’m not referring to the musicians themselves, or even any of the many excellent people involved in music production that I met over the launch event. Many – most – of them understood the issues very directly, and in a way that an academic like me could not hope to. They, however, weren’t the key to the problem – the lobbyists were a different kettle of fish.
The audience was very varied. There were lots of academics from all of the universities involved, and a fair number from other universities too. There were lawyers in the field of intellectual property, there were representative of the IPO, there were people from civil society, there were people from consumer groups (including the excellent Saskia Walzel from Consumer Focus UK) and there were even some of the real ‘creative’ people, musicians, artists and writers – SF writer Charlie Stross’s excellent account of the history of the eBook was one of the highlights of the event. Another was when the keynote speaker, social entrepreneur Dr Frances Pinter made a special mention of the sadly missed Aaron Swartz.
What was particularly good was that most of the people from all these different backgrounds and interests seemed to be open minded and excited by the prospect of CREATe. Most of them – all of those that I spoke to – saw this as an amazing opportunity to do something really important, and to address a real challenge. We almost all seemed to recognise that this is a very, very difficult issue, and that we need to be open-minded and creative in looking for new ways to deal with a very thorny problem. We almost all seemed to realise that the current system doesn’t work – and that something different needs to be tried.
All of us, that is, except the lobbyists, who still seem to believe they have the solution – which is to hit the pirates harder and harder and harder. Some were open to other solutions too – but only after we’ve clamped down on the pirates. It didn’t matter what everyone else said, whether it was those wondered about the ultimate result of alienating or criminalising a generation of young people, or those like Saskia Walzel who suggested that a first point might be to provide a good, cheap, reliable, timely and user-friendly legal source of all the material, or even those who asked for any evidence that the clampdown was working….
…indeed, that last point was the real sticker, and cuts to one of the crucial points about CREATe. A key idea is that some of the CREATe projects will be gathering evidence – and attempting to determine what’s really true about what’s going on. Indeed, the first publication from CREATe is a piece about what will actually constitute evidence from the many, varied perspectives of the different groups involved – you can find it here. CREATe represents an invaluable opportunity for this gathering of evidence – to have the money, the expertise and the time for the kind of research that can really look into this is something very, very special. And yet even before the launch event had finished, not even a day into the four year project it appeared that the lobbyists were already trying to suggest that the project was likely to be unfair and biased. The question that immediately springs to mind is what are they afraid of? Don’t they want real evidence? Are they worried that the evidence will suggest that their current models both of business and of enforcement are flawed and ineffective? Are they afraid that CREATe will help put together new business models – and that the new environment will have no place for the ‘old’ content industries?
Any or all of that could be true – but only time will tell. Time and a great deal of academic research. The trouble is, from the very start CREATe is going to be put under huge, huge pressure to produce the results that the lobbyists want. That pressure is already being applied….