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Tomorrow’s
Humanities

Address by James Murdoch, at the launch of the

UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, 

University College London,

20 May 2010

What should we do to restore balance
to the system?

Do we at present have a fair balance? I do not believe we have, and I fear that the problem is growing rapidly worse.  Has it moved against the creators in favour of distributors, whether public or private? In my view, yes it has:  and it has done so decisively.

What should we do to restore balance to the system?  Is there anything that we can do?  The answer is simpler than you might think.

An Act for the Encouragement of Learning

On the wall behind me you see the words:  ‘Remember the days of old:  consider the years of each generation’.  Of all places, in this room we should be mindful of that maxim in answering those questions. Because we have been here before as a society, and we have arrived at rather different conclusions to those of the digital consensus that I described a moment ago.

We happen to be almost exactly at the three-hundredth anniversary of one of the first codifications of intellectual property rights:  the introduction of literary copyright into British law. In 1710 – on the 10 April, to be exact – Parliament passed the so-called Statute of Anne.  I’ll quote from its preamble, in which it announces itself to be:

An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.

It then explains what had been happening:

Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families…

 

And it goes on to say that a law should be enacted:

…For Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books.

 

The Statute was a reaction to a time of unprecedented technological change. Printing presses offered the prospect of cheap copies of books, and the knowledge they contained, for the many instead of just the elite. Low-cost copying and distribution had created a revolution in access to information.

The approach of the authorities in Britain to the invention of printing, as in most countries, had at first been control and censorship.  For many years in English law there had been a legal cartel in printing:  only members of the Stationers’ Company were permitted to publish books.

In 1695 the Stationer’s monopoly was allowed to lapse, and when it was finally replaced fifteen years later, the Statute of Anne ushered in a transformative new approach.

Not only did the Statute create for the first time in English law a system of copyright, but crucially it recognised also the rights of the author – the creator – alongside that of the printer and bookseller.

The legislature had listened to the voices of those, like John Locke and Daniel Defoe, who had argued that – and I quote: ‘To print another Man’s copy is much worse than robbing him on the Highway; for the Thief takes only what he finds about him, but the Pyrate Printer takes away his inheritance…[which] both is and ought to be the Due, not of the Author only, but of his Family and Children.’

The Statute was the start of the development of a system of copyright and of authors’ rights that now extends to forms of creativity that were undreamt of in the days of Queen Anne, and to issues way beyond the regulation of the London book trade.

The statute reflected and encouraged the transition in literature from a system in which aristocratic patronage was key – a state of affairs that had existed since at least the time of Augustus and Vergil – to that in which writing became a profession at which one could make a living.  This was the era of Pope, and Johnson, and writers after them.

It is not a coincidence that Pope himself was a keen litigant in matters affecting his intellectual property, or that Johnson’s most famous remark is directly concerned with the economics of creativity.  ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’ has become worn by over-use, and was in part a joke:  but it carries a clear message about the reality and opportunity of late 18th Century literary life.

Of course, wealthy people still today commission art works or make gifts to museums.  Patronage is far from dead.  But copyright developed a way to provide the creator with an income into the future:  a longer term in which more creation was enabled, and authors could control their careers and pursue their visions.

If you want a neat example of this then consider Dickens, many of whose novels were published chapter by chapter with a popularity directly reflected in the sale of weekly or monthly magazines – a creative discipline which anyone who has worked in commercial television, particularly in the United States, will immediately recognise.

The Statute of Anne was an attempt to control piracy and balance the interests of authors, printers and the reading public – a balance beneficial to all.

By the standards of today’s digital consensus the Statute would have to be regarded as a colossal mistake.  Instead, we should surely applaud the wisdom and foresight of the legislators of three hundred years ago.

They looked to the long-term interests of society and the creative industries of their time.  Their innovation helped to usher in a period of growth in publishing, writing and journalism, and in the size of the reading public.

The recognition by the Statute of Anne of the rights of authors was primarily an economic one.  But I do not need to convince this audience that author’s rights mean far more than simply providing for a financial return for the creator.

Today, copyright gives creators the right to be credited for their work.  The vast majority of things are not written for money, at least not directly, despite Dr Johnson’s jest:  the American Declaration of Independence; the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill; or the outpourings of innumerable bloggers are not the creatures of royalty payments.  But nor are they thrown aside by their authors.  Attribution and the ability to prevent plagiarism are just as important to most writers as commercial return, as the legion of creators licensing their work under the Creative Commons attests.Copyright also can be transferred to others, for the benefit of society, as the Great Ormond Street hospital enjoys royalties on Barrie’s Peter Pan; as does Westminster School for the works of A. A. Milne.

This is not a zero-sum game.  If you want to offer your product for free, then there is nothing to stop you – and it’s a lot easier these days to do so.  The only temptation you need to resist is the idea that what you want to do is what everyone else should be made to do.

The defining characteristic of the world created by the Statute of Anne and its successors has been the protection it offers to artists:  and the encouragement that it provides to risk.

It opens up a literally boundless world for a determined individual with a creative vision.  A good example is James Cameron, the film director. As someone who cares very deeply about the environment, he had been thinking for well over a decade about making a film around the impact of reckless human exploitation of natural resources.  A film that would transfer the action to another, delicately realised and completely self-consistent world.

To do that properly required two things:  massive advances in computational power – rendering a whole new world is no simple math problem; and a partner with the willingness to risk huge sums on a belief that the story would resonate with people across the world.

The result – as I am sure you will have guessed by now – was the movie Avatar.  There are not many companies willing to risk a quarter of a billion dollars on a single project – but ours was one of them. We believed in Jim Cameron and we knew that technology was ready to transform the way we can create and tell stories in audio-visual media.

Nor was Avatar innovative in a merely technical sense.  Cameron’s attention to detail extended to a whole new language, the Na’vi tongue.  At long last those with a master’s degree in Orcish now have a fresh challenge.

In the process, the investment in Avatar gave us major advances in the 3D technology that looks likely to be the next mainstream innovation in both movies and television. A technology now being applied to other worlds – literally – as Jim has shown interest in improving the visual capability of the next NASA Mars Explorer.

But Avatar is not typical.  The importance of 3D was not just that it made the film so exciting to watch:  it also made it relatively less attractive to copy and view illegally.  Other films now have their profits routinely looted through piracy.

The workprint of one film, Wolverine, was stolen and posted on the internet and then downloaded 14 million times prior to theatrical release.  It has now been downloaded more than 25 million times – with five European countries accounting for much of the total.  This shows that great damage can be done at lightning speed.

We might seem to have come a long way from the work of a few gentlemen debating the rights of booksellers and authors in 1710.  But we have not.

The principles set out in the Statute of Anne represented a major step forward in the free flow of ideas.

It recognised that piracy would have led to a long-term decline in the distribution of books.

It provided for a system in which creativity was incentivised – an engine for the development of knowledge and learning – just at a time when a fully literate society was beginning to emerge.

Three hundred years later, and after innumerable books, plays, movies, TV shows, and assorted flotsam, jetsam, and lagan, we can say that the champions of the Statute of Anne offer us lessons we should continue to learn from and apply.

 

We need to approach the future of the creative industries

 

In conclusion, I believe that we need to approach the future of the creative industries – the future of the humanities in other words – in an economically serious way – as we should do with all forms of enterprise.

This is a significant sector.  In 2008 it represented some 7% of the total wealth created annually in the European Union – some €860 billion – and provided some 14 million people with jobs.  Yet billions annually are lost to piracy and a cumulative total not far short of 200,000 jobs have already gone.

That suggests that we should recognise the fundamental role that property rights play in the making of cultural things.  Compared to the exciting rhetoric of the need for everything to be free, that might seem unglamorous, unromantic, and indeed hard-hearted.  But it may be all of those things and yet still be a better road for our society to take.

Do not be misled by claims of high principle in this debate.  When someone tells you content wants to be free, what you should hear is ‘I want your content for free ’ – and that is not the same thing at all.

We must rediscover something that should be very obvious:  the importance of placing a proper value on creative endeavour.

Just look at the newspaper business. For years, many newspapers have put no value at all on the work they place online.  In contrast, at News International here in the UK, we are proud of the quality of our journalism and the contribution we make to life around the country, and indeed for our readers around the world.

We are one of the largest employers of journalists and editors, and maintain an incomparable range of foreign correspondents, contributors and bureaux in all sorts of places.  We attach a fair value and a fair price to the journalism we produce.  What is so controversial about that?

Shouldn’t we welcome a revolution in journalism that answers the needs of readers – and provides the means for sustained further investment?  Without some simple common sense – like this – the alternative we face is a grim one:  to have news that is produced only by the wealthy, the amateur, or the government.

Asserting a fair value for digital journalism is a starting point.  I don’t think we will be alone in taking this kind of action.   And although these steps have provoked some alarmist comment, no-one who really cares about the humanities of tomorrow should be either shocked or affronted by what we are doing.

Can we agree that preserving and rewarding creativity is in the long-term interest of our society?

This problem will not be solved by the creative sector alone.  Governments should enforce basic property rights – even in this digital environment. Some have started.  In some quarters this has caused alarm.  But what is really alarming is that it is controversial at all to shut down vast pirate sites or disconnect repeat offenders who have no regard for creators’ rights.

According to a detailed study by Tera Consultants, if we continue down the path we’re on, piracy could inflict a cumulative 1.2 million job losses in the European Union by 2015.

Is it, moreover, unreasonable to suggest that companies that make a living out of indexing and sharing the creativity of others might make a fair contribution to those who create the material they need for their businesses?

Should it be controversial to suggest that public bodies are prevented from endlessly extending their remits, profiting from work they do not create, or dampening innovation and investment?

Three hundred years ago, when statesmen wrestled with these issues, they struck a fair balance between the rights of creators and the power of technology.  We must do the same:

  • Creative industries must develop and protect the value of what they create;

  • Public bodies should be restrained from crowding out productive investment;

  • Government should act to ensure that the copyright framework in this 21st century digital environment is fully functional; to stimulate future growth and diversity of creativity, by respecting and reaffirming these basic rights.

By taking action and showing commitment, we can succeed in addressing the imbalance that exists today.  We can change things for the better, as society has done before at times of technological change.

In this success, when the statute of Anne has its four hundredth birthday – and this Centre marks its centenary – there will be a whole new set of things to study and whole new eras of human output to celebrate.

We shall still then be able to say that human society, culture and creativity is growing ever richer.

JAMES MURDOCH at the time this article was prepared in 2010

Chairman and Chief Executive, Europe and Asia

News Corporation

James Murdoch was appointed Chairman and Chief Executive, Europe and Asia, News Corporation, in 2007. In this role, he has direct responsibility for the strategic and operational development of News Corporation’s television, newspaper and related digital assets in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. At the same time, James was appointed Non-Executive Chairman of BSkyB and re-joined the Board of News Corporation.

James served as BSkyB’s Chief Executive Officer from November 2003 to December 2007.  Prior to his appointment as CEO of BSkyB, he spent three years, from May 2000 to 2003, as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of STAR, News Corporation’s Asian satellite television and multimedia group.

Before joining STAR, James was Executive Vice President of News Corporation in New York, where he was responsible for various interactive media ventures and corporate development projects.

James serves on the Board of Yankee Global Enterprises, the Board of Trustees of the Harvard Lampoon and the Leadership Council of The Climate Group. James joined the Board of GlaxoSmithKline as a Non-Executive Director in May 2009.