July 24, 2015

Hubbub

One of the least fun aspects of the copyright wars has been the persistent sameness of the arguments. One side wants copyright terms extended; the other wants them shortened or even removed entirely. One side wants ever-increasing enforcement; the other wants new exceptions. Changing this conversation is the goal of the Copyright Hub.

One of the big issues it - and its CEO, Dominic Young - keeps coming up against is the kind of thinking that wants every problem solved up front. dominicyoung-small.jpgAs Young explains, this isn't what the Copyright Hub is trying to do. Instead, it's trying to pick a starting point from where the process of change can start. That point is a plug-in for Firefox and Chrome that allows anyone landing on a piece of content to right-click to find a URI - uniform resource identifier - that uses an index to find the server belonging to the owner of that content. The URI has two parts, one an ordinary URL to identify the server from which the content can be licensed, and the second a specific identifier for that piece of content. Once connected to the server, a simple app pops up offering options to get a valid license for the content, which might include (as in the demonstration I saw - paying a small fee for non-commercial use and a larger one for commercial use. copyrighthub.jpgBut there's no reason the content owner can't include in the offered options "public domain", any of the various Creative Commons licenses, or GNU's General Public License. The Copyright Hub is not an intermediary in any of these transactions; like a torrent site it's merely an index that connects a prospective user with a rights holder. The Copyright Hub takes no commission from any money that changes hands, and holds no data about who obtains licenses. Young argued strongly against offering time-limited licenses. As he says, no one is going to remember to renew a license for a photograph on a blog post they wrote five years ago. The code is all open source.

The way Young describes the system, it reminds me most of the way the domain name system works, where every name used to send email or access a website (such as pelicancrossing.net) is sent to a resolver, which responds to the query with the matching numbered Internet Protocol address. The chief difference: unlike the DNS, which traditionally limited the number of available top-level domains, the Copyright Hub is intended to scale up indefinitely. Young's idea is that eventually there will be myriad such hubs run by commercial organizations, countries, creator collectives, and so on. In his imagining, eventually the need for *this* particular Copyright Hub, the one that's kicking all this off, will become surplus to requirements.

"Our ambition," he told me, "is to create no centralized infrastructure, and the Hub can disappear."

The notion of assigning a locator string to an individual piece of content within a page feels reassuringly old-school to me, somewhat returning the web to its original conception as a read/write medium and to precursors such as Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu. The difficulty is that it's easy to find all sorts of ways in which the Copyright Hub's system is inadequate. For example:

- Hackers and social media sites have techniques for removing metadata like the URI that will be attached to these bits of content. Yes, they do. But, Young argues, providing options for paying for the content users like and use means that those who want to can actually pay. If lots don't, that doesn't change the fact that the content's owner has gotten some revenue where now they wouldn't. "It won't prevent shoplifting, but it will make it easy to take it through a till if you want to pay," he says.

- The system might open up new avenues of surveillance and privacy invasion. Given the design, where the Hub hosts just an index, has no part in transactions, and keeps no data, it shouldn't be the Hub that's the risk there. The identifier attached to the piece of content tells you - or your computer - nothing more than where to find more information about it. Content owners, especially those that want money in trade for licenses, are a different story. By analogy: although DNS data can be immensely revealing, it isn't the root servers that are the risk so much as the destination servers. The Hub only knows how to resolve identifiers and uses the existing DNS to do it.

- Plug-ins are an ex-technology. Young agrees: but they're a place to start. "I can't change what Google does." Ultimately, Young would like to see the plug-in's functionality built natively into browsers and mobile.

The Hub has, Young says, 94 use cases - implementations people want - in the pipeline, with more coming in all the time. Over time, given that the system is all open source, he assumes others will build their own implementations. The idea of dumb identifiers that resolve to servers can describe much more than a piece of content, but doesn't require rethinking how the internet functions.

"It has to be something the world can adopt," he says. "What we're launching is one implementation of something which will evolve rapidly and in ways we can't know."


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.