Communicating Copyright 2012

Communicating Copyright (2012) by Dr Lee Edwards and Dr Giles Moss, University of Leeds.

We worked together as co-investigators on an ESRC funded research project entitled ‘Communicating Copyright: An Exploration of Copyright Discourses in a Digital Age’ which ran from July 2011 to December 2012. The project team also included Dr Bethany Klein (who was the Principal Investigator), and, David Lee and Fiona Philip. We’re all based in the Institute of Communication Studies at the University of Leeds.

In this short presentation I’m going to begin by saying something about our starting points in the research, what our research questions were and our methods. And then Lee’s going to give you a flavour of the findings. I should say in the presentation we’re going to talk about the research project as a whole, and one aspect of it in the paper that was circulated was talking about just one aspect of the research. It will become clear what part that was.

So, what did we focus on? We were interested in looking at how copyright is understood and communicated amongst different groups. So rights holders in the creative industries, members of the public, policymakers, creative workers and campaign groups. And given the controversial and eristic nature of the copyright debate we were particularly interested in the different types of justifications that these groups were employing around copyright. So, for example, claims about why copyright and copyright restrictions are necessary and important and to what extent other groups found these justifications and justificatory claims convincing and legitimate. And we were inspired in this respect by the sociology of justification, sociology of valuation and developed by French sociologists like Boltanski & Thevenot and Boltanski & Chiapello which focus on the role that justification and justificatory discourses play in social practices and social life.

In addition, we were also driven in the project by a normative sense, in particular the importance that we thought that while the public and users were in one sense very central to the debate, especially around piracy and concerns around copyright infringement not enough attention was being paid to the actual views and perspectives of members of the public, and we felt in particular they were being excluded from debates around copyright policy and regulation. And that’s something that’s true of media policy more generally.

In terms of our methods we adopted two main methods in our research, discourse analysis and also focus groups. So, in our discourse analysis we wanted to examine how copyright holders understood and justified copyright, and so to do this we look at the submissions that they made to government consultations, focusing on the UK and in particular focus around the Gowers and more recent Hargreaves reviews. So we’re looking at how they’re justifying copyright and the copyright regime to government and we also looked at their marketing and educational campaigns that they have made aimed at consumers, to look at how they were communicating copyright and justifying it to the public and consumers.

In order to see how these industry discourses might be contested publically we also looked at the discourse of various alternative or oppositional groups, such as the Open Rights Group, Creative Commons, Featured Artists Coalition etcetera. And our approach to this analysis was very much qualitative and interpretative in a sense we were really interested in trying to decode the meaning of these discourses and the text. And it was also inductive in a sense that we were immersing ourselves in this corpus of text and trying to record and analyse the themes as they emerged.

Our second method was with focus groups with members of the public or users. Accessing the public’s view about copyright was more difficult, there wasn’t a ready source available to go and analyse. We considered looking at web forums or social media, but decided that that wouldn’t really give us the range of views that we wanted. And so we decided therefore to conduct some focus groups with members of the public taking some pre-existing groups, like groups of students or a mumsnet group, or a group from Age UK and we can talk about the implications of doing that.

Although our groups were diverse in terms of age, social background and media use and quite deliberately so, we are aware of course that these groups were not representative in a strict statistical sense. So unlike a survey we’re not able to talk about the distribution of views amongst the public and say, for instance 50% of the public think this in relation to copyright or that in relation to copyright. In our study we were much more interested in, and this is where I think focus groups and a qualitative approach is really valuable, in ensuring that we captured the range and also the complexity and detail of different views amongst the public about copyright, rather than the distribution of these views.

The advantage of a qualitative approach, it seems to us, is that you don’t need to start with a very fixed idea and predetermined categories, although obviously you have that to a certain extent of what you’re going to find before research begins. Instead, you can be far more flexible. This appeared especially important to us in such a controversial and dynamic subject area like digital copyright and a copyright debate which seemed far more difficult to be confident about the existing assumptions we might have.

Final point here about the performativity of the method. As already noted we were driven I think by a general normative conviction that the public is often excluded from debates about media policy and regulation. But also a strong sense normatively that any legitimate resolution to the kind of debates we have around copyright policy and regulations is going to need public debate and involvement at some level. And this I think shapes our methodological choices. The sociologist, John Law, and John Urry have argued that social science methods are, and our methods are, what they call performative, which is to say the methods we choose can have social implications and effects since they contribute to enacting certain types of social reality and certain types of relationships rather than others. So they’re having an impact in the world. And understood this way our choice of methods, and choice of qualitative and discursive approach can be seen as aiming, albeit in a very small way of course, to give members of the public a voice and to facilitate a public conversation around copyright policy and regulation.

Over to Lee Edwards who’s going to say something about our findings.

Thanks Giles. So first we’ll give you a brief idea of the discourse analysis data and the themes that emerged through the consultation submissions. And as Giles said we’re just illustrating a selection on these slides. So the first finding that we had, or the first theme was that rights holders represented the copyright regime as essential to supporting and facilitating creativity and creative production. Now, creativity tended to be conflated with the copyright regime itself so the only incentive for creativity is financial. The protection and growth of creativity in this quote for example is equated with a chain of marketization processes. So facilitating, creating, distributing and monetising that together generates the required return on investment. But these claims were challenged by oppositional groups who located creativity and productivity outside as well as within industry structures. So rights holders were seen by these groups as exaggerating the instrumental effects that follow from the copyright regime and as ignoring how copyright can both hinder as well as foster creativity. So, for example, in this quote the Open Rights Group contrast strict copyright regulation with the public access and possible creativity made possible through digital media and this kind of opposition was very common.

The second theme that came through in the analysis was that copyright was presented as in the national interest. So rights holders would appeal to national economic interests using statistics and figures that illustrated how the creative industries were crucial to British success in a competitive global economic environment. So national economic security and prosperity is the good if you like that is seen to follow instrumentally from the copyright regime. But again there was critique from other groups that countered this, so for example the Association of Independent Music in the second quote on this slide argues on behalf of the independent music sector that in fact the foreign ownership in the music industry undermines industry claims about the need to protect British interests in the form of creativity or revenue or employment and all of their submission really focussed on this argument.

The third theme that came through was that copyright was presented as a moral right by rights holders. So submissions would justify copyright as a valuable end in itself and morally legitimate reward for the work done by creative workers. But again these discourses were challenged by others who revealed the power imbalances within the current copyright system. So, for example, the Featured Artists Coalition called for greater fairness on behalf of featured artists, and thereby questioned the moral terrain underlying the content industries intrinsic justifications of copyright and their pleas for things like equality and justice that you see in the first quote there.
In the user directed campaigns by industry we saw an evolution in the discourse from hardline focus on criminalisation of users to emphasising the pleasure and the pride experienced by users of cultural products through their kind of consumption if you like. So these discourses in contrast to the consultation submissions very much operated on an emotional level and they emphasised both the pleasure of consumption and also the suffering if consumption was illegal, the suffering imposed on creative workers. An example of this would be the campaign You Make The Movies which was run by the Industry Trust on behalf of the film industry, and this is a series of trailers that parody famous movie scenes, and at the end of trailer a voiceover comes on which says that first quote if you like at the top, that’s the voiceover. And interestingly in this voiceover the roles of consumer and producer are conflated, so consumers don’t just watch movies, they make them and as support rather purchase the act of buying a ticket defines the consumer as someone who is on the industry’s side if you like in the struggle against infringement. And the partnership is symmetric because the industry gratifies the consumer by providing films that they love. But in the end through these discourses partnership was always superficial. So consumers may be partners but their role in the partnership was clearly defined, they always had to pay for their pleasure.

The campaigns also drew on a more intrinsic view of copyright so elsewhere the Industry Trust used the voices and names and stories of other behind the scenes workers such as runners and make-up artists to illustrate how creative labourers also struggle to make a living, all kinds of creative labourers, not just artists themselves. And this kind of creative worker witnessing illustrated how illegal downloading was not a victimless crime as consumers may believe and that all creative workers rightly deserve to be rewarded for their efforts.

In contrast, user communication by oppositional groups like Open Rights Group and Creative Commons critiqued the emphasis on market systems that characterises industry discourses. And instead they emphasised the importance of the digital environment beyond the marketplace as a source of benefits in relation to democracy, information and creativity. So they counter this positive partnership message by arguing that in fact freedoms and rights are under threat from vested business interests and from an overly strict government regulation. So users in this discourse are not simply consumers or pseudo producers but they’re also very much citizens with associated rights and entitlements, and they’re also potential creators. And we see another example of the kind of dismissal of the business model if you like on this particular slide where the focus is on the existing copyright regime as being very much out of touch with this new digital world that we live in.

Now, because industry discourses fail to acknowledge this space of citizenship the participation that they seem to offer users ultimately ends with the voice and the vote of the consumer translating simply into the capacity to spend money. There’s no real room for discussion or dissent, there’s no real engagement with users in terms of the copyright regime itself and the inadequacy of this space for users to participate was very much revealed in our focus groups where users showed themselves to be very complex, rational and cynical in their engagement with copyright and copyrighted messages if you like, copyright messages.

And so three themes came out of the user focus groups, which you’ll have seen in the paper. First of all we saw very much that users were complex. So a quote here illustrates how users felt that illegal access and use of copyrighted material was contextualised as part of a wider set of consumption practices. So they mapped out quite complicated pathways of consuming media with choices justified not only around price but also around multiple encounters with the product, immediacy and in relation to other consumer choices in their lives. For example, another area of complexity involved users own position as non-professional creators which also informed how they felt about rewarding creative work at different times and at different spaces and places.

Now the combination of practices and views that they presented was not particularly random nor, particularly, contradictory. They were always supported by reasoned justifications and that brings us to the next theme which is that users were very rational. So they offered very rational expectations for their positions and for their habits and Sadie’s quote here highlights the fact that many ordinary behaviours that they saw as completely reasonable fell foul of copyright law and they simply felt that the law was totally out of touch with their lives in this respect. Harry on the other hand illustrates how many users viewed file sharing as partly related to life stage, sometimes a transitory life stage to the amount of wealth they had to their employment status and could be justified on that basis. And here there was an implicit sense of users having a right to media culture even if they couldn’t afford it. And also that there was a belief that once they were able to pay then they would consume legally.

The final theme that came out of the focus groups that we want to present here is that users are cynical, they were very aware of the kinds of communications that they were being presented with, they were very aware of the interests of industry in communicating those messages. So we shared a few examples of industry campaigns for the focus groups to discuss including the Knock-Off Nigel advert and a quote from Jesse J about being a good fan buy paying for her product. Grant on the other hand introduces this notion of morality being applied to the industry as much as to the user, so he considers how much reward is enough reward and suggests that the industry really needs to engage with these kinds of questions as well as with questions of how to get the consumer to pay. Bill on the other hand counters this notion of the good fan and jokes about the fact that as a good fan he should perhaps not have purchased a lot of pretty terrible records that he had done in the past, and that might have been more responsible in terms of his fandom than the position that the industry was suggesting he take.

So in conclusion, what advantages then did our choice of methods bring to the study, or how did it shape the study that we eventually enacted? Well, first of all the discourse analysis allowed us to pick out and follow the different justificatory themes that characterise the debate across different texts and across different participants rather than looking at individual discourses and participants in isolation. And that meant that the picture that we’ve built up of the debate is much more holistic, and it allows us to understand the debate in terms of how those different justifications align and diverge. This gives us a much more fluid notion of how copyright is being talked about and the direction it might go in. It tells us, for example, that in the digital world copyright business models are not just about how to make money effectively for a company but are also about how to make it fairly and about how to ensure that democracy and freedom of information can coexist with copyright. It also means that we are more readily able to see where the discourses articulate so where they connect and where they might disconnect and we believe that in particular the spaces where they connect might be spaces of possibility where the debate might develop towards a more satisfactory conclusion in terms of justifications meeting on common ground.

The performative nature of the method that Giles mentioned in the beginning was very important in the focus groups in particular because they allowed us to construct a conversation that users may well not have in their day-to-day lives but nonetheless illustrate their logic and rationality around copyright and how they engage in copyrighted work. And those things are very important to integrate into discussions into how you develop copyright policy. And then finally, the combination of discourse analysis and focus group helped us build a much more comprehensive picture of the influence, the potential influence of different parties on policy making. So when we looked at the final consultation documents the government produced for example it was still very clear that industry voices were very dominant in the conclusions that they came to. One of our conclusions is that policymakers really need to find much more creative and sustainable ways of integrating user voices into their discussions and ultimate decisions when it comes to developing copyright that is sustainable over the long term.