Earlier this year, Eric Hellman, President of New Jersey-based Gluejar, argued that "The eBook copyright page is broken". In a piece published by the New York Law School Law Review, Hellman laid out a case for reconsidering the role of the copyright "page" in digital works, observing "that almost nothing has been done to make them functional in the digital environment."
In the Law Review piece, Hellman starts by outlining seven ways in which a simple declaration of copyright fails to function effectively for digital content. He then illustrates how new copyright agreements, such as those offered under Creative Commons, further complicate matters. Though he doesn't directly invoke Mark Bide, Hellman provides effective examples of an argument advanced by Bide: the absence of clear data on rights turns intellectual property assets into liabilities.
Hellman argues the ambiguity means that "today’s copyright page fails as a license declaration":
The low-tech way to address this failure is to engage an intermediary that can attest to the proper conveyance of a license. The intermediary maintains a registry of CC license conveyance and is available to provide evidence of the conveyance should a CC-enabled use be challenged. The author’s company, Gluejar, Inc., performs this service.
A high-tech approach is also possible. Digital signing technology is now common and easy to implement. The EPUB3 standard for ebooks includes a specification for a “signature file” for use in this sort of application. The rights holder can sign the licensed content together with the license and a public key, enabling anyone to verify securely, without reference to a content registry, that the content has been CC-licensed by the rights holding entity.
Continuing ambiguity is potentially a significant challenge for copyright owners and content consumers, alike. Uncertainty generally shrinks markets and reduces innovation, two trends publishing should actively avoid.
Admittedly, we don't yet have an ecosystem that could rightly be called "a pre-book world", much as we can't yet buy programs outside of established bundles. I think both are coming, and when they do, we'll be looking for an architecture of collaboration that will allow us all to tap into a web-facilitated sea of stories.
What copyright means and how to adequately express that meaning represent important parts of an "architecture of collaboration". Hellman is right to clearly illustrate how our current use of the copyright "page" is broken.
A bit of disclosure: I know Eric Hellman and on a few occasions we've talked about his work (and mine). I recommend his blog, "Go To Hellman", which includes an early-October update with his perspective several months after the original piece was published.