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Copyright Clearance and Transaction Use Permits

There are times at a conference when several people tell you, “You have to talk to Person-X” and no matter how hard you try to align schedules, it just doesn’t happen.  At the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, for me, that Person-X was John Billington of the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC).  John is the Product Manager for New Media at CCC (and, btw, not to be confused with his uncle James, who is the Librarian of Congress, i.e., the head honcho at the U.S. Library of Congress).  

The place of CCC in publishing probably benefits from a short digression.  The CCC, a not-for-profit company, has long provided rights clearing and licensing services for institutions such as libraries and major corporations; they offer a variety of products ranging from suite (repertory) licenses to individual author-based services.  Well-known publishers ranging from Stanford’s Highwire Press to O’Reilly Media use products such as RightsLink to authorize customer-based usage of intellectual property.  Historically, CCC has been most involved in licensing text-based products – written materials, such as articles (e.g., coursepacks), books or their subcomponents (e.g., chapters), and similar materials. 

Like everyone else, CCC has noted the rise of new media forms and the desirability of IP holders to obtain satisfactory use arrangements that do not perceptibly endanger their ability to extract value from their core assets.  Tellingly, I was lucky enough to catch up to John in San Francisco only because he was attending a gaming conference – and with major online games engendering extensive markets in pre-run players at set skill levels, as well as online property development in virtual environments such as SecondLife, rights licensing is an increasingly important desiderata. 

Paramount in growing media usage is video content, and CCC has begun an
attempt to determine the level of video acquisition and its contours of usage within major institutions, including Higher Ed (HE).  Many HE
institutions would give their eye teeth to learn how often their
faculty utilize video in research and teaching; in what fashion; of what
form; how it is discovered, and created; and whether personal
curatorial services such as George Mason’s Zotero would be of use.

This interest is of course selfish on CCC’s part — to the extent that
faculty utilize, or might be interested in acquiring, licensable
content, new business models become possible.  It is within the realm
of conjecture that CCC could become an aggregator of commercially
available video – news broadcasts, or public TV, or other material –
provide a search interface for its discovery, and vend licensing
packages that would then compensate rights holders.  

The most obvious payments arrangement would be some form of transaction
use permit — in other words, a payment for each video access, which
might be aggregated at the institutional level (e.g., a university) if
the user can claim such an affiliation.  This is essentially a
voluntary collective licensing scheme across the set of participating content providers. 

There are several intriguing fallouts from this strategy.  The most
obvious is that the pursuit of video content aggregation whose use is susceptible to monetization potentially places CCC into competition
with other large-scale video aggregators — pre-eminently Google. 
Currently, most video on Google is short-form (including YouTube) and
advertising supported, but this does not preclude Google’s
product development options.

Google has not heretofore licensed access of content resources to
others, although it has publicized plans to do so with Google Books.
Further, if Google were to reach a settlement with publishers and the
Authors’ Guild over potentially in-copyright, out-of-print books, as
was suggested by Jeffrey Toobin in a year-old New Yorker article, then it would
also have to either construct, or otherwise contract for, exactly the
same sort of voluntary collective licensing apparatus in order to
determine appropriate compensation levels for authors, publishers, and
other rights holders associated with digitized books. 

Possessing such an apparatus, or access to one, enables a wide range of
content use cases that would be favored by large, extant media based
companies.  An infrastructure of utility for one form of content is
easily leveraged for others.  

What we may be observing, in sum, is the birth of an era for the
commercialization of digital content that sidesteps the issue of DRM by
creating new forms of per-use transaction licenses, which do not seek
to eliminate content copying, but rather create flexible frameworks for
IP-holder-born definitions of “legitimate” acquisition and use.  

If this is the case, then the possessors of transaction use permit
systems – voluntary collective licensing frameworks and APIs – become
the purveyors of an increasingly important infrastructure for paid
content.  

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