Redefining copyrights for a digital age

A group of British academics has just published a paper similar to one I was planning to write about the need to re-evaluate the ethics of the copyright system given the drastic changes in the new digital landscape. Here’s the abstract for “Framing the consumer: Copyright regulation and the public” by Lee Edwards, Bethany Klein, David Lee, Giles Moss and Fiona Philip:

With illegal downloading at the centre of debates about the creative economy, various policy initiatives and regulatory attempts have tried (and largely failed) to control, persuade and punish users into adhering to copyright law. Rights holders, policymakers, intermediaries and users each circulate and maintain particular attitudes about appropriate uses of digital media. This article maps the failure of regulation to control user behaviour, considers various policy and academic research approaches to understanding users, and introduces an analytical framework that re-evaluates user resistance as expressions of legitimate justifications. A democratic copyright policymaking process must accommodate the modes of justification offered by users to allow copyright law to reconnect with the public interest goals at its foundation.

Exactly. We must have a public conversation about just how powerful copyright holders should be, particularly amid “legitimate justifications” of resistance. I will probably build on this paper to create a more overt ethical argument for individuals to follow as they wait for policymakers to adapt.

For instance, I think one can ethically justify downloading illegal content that has been paid for in some fashion. If I pay iTunes for the rights to watch a television show, then I should be able to watch it by hooking the computer up to my TV. However, some copyright holders digitally block that type of arrangement. (I’ve literally had iTunes tell me that my license didn’t allow for content to be displayed on a TV screen, only on a computer.) I have “resisted” this copyright over-reach by downloading the show illegally and watching on my TV via a USB port. This action, I believe, is a legitimate ethical justification.

Other specific examples of group resistance are probably equally justified — but we must be careful that we don’t justify wholesale theft of copyrighted works. I look forward to thinking about this problem further — and using this work as a welcome starting place.

By | February 22nd, 2013|Uncategorized|0 Comments

John Stuart Mill on progress and rights

John Stuart Mill (Source: WikiCommons)

Here’s a favorite quote from the English philosopher who invented Utilitarianism along with Jeremy Bentham:

The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of an universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex.

When we read this section in my ethics classes I like to ask my students what tradition or custom in today’s society will one day be stigmatized as injustice. Always a good discussion.

By | December 22nd, 2012|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Thoughts on British press regulation

OK, regulation is probably the wrong word, but the Leveson report released today does suggest some legislative mechanisms to set up a self-regulating board for the press in the United Kingdom. However, if I’m reading the report correctly, the “regulation” appears to be very light. Here’s how Leveson explained it to the Telegraph:

“The legislation would not give any rights to Parliament, to the Government or to any regulatory or other body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever,” he says.

“Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.

“What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met.”

The new body, he says, should have an arbitration system to enable wronged parties to seek swift redress by way of a prominent apology and fines, if appropriate.

That sounds quite reasonable to me, although perhaps I’d react differently if he were suggesting such an approach to the US press. But, the US press — quite objectively — is ethically leaps and bounds above much of the British press. And this approach seems to only create a quick-recourse mechanism for people who’ve been libeled or had their privacy invaded. It’s important to remember that British legislation already allows for damages for privacy and defamation cases — so, it’s not as though they’re creating new oversight from a complete vacuum.

I find myself thinking that the status quo isn’t working in the UK, so why not try something new? Many journalists appear to have operated for more than a decade without much thought for the rule of law. And ethical lapses probably go back further than that. Besides, lawmakers can always go back and undo the system if unintended consequences develop.

But, with huge interests entrenched against the suggestions, I doubt the Leveson recommendations will evolve into anything approaching reality.

By | November 29th, 2012|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Addressing corruption in Middle East journalism, PR fields

My recent column in Gulf News discusses the issue of bribing journalists for coverage in the UAE and Arab world.

PR professionals will offer cash or gifts in exchange for favorable articles or broadcast reports. I’ve also heard that advertising salespeople will sell editorial coverage as part of a package to clients — a clear violation of independence for newsrooms. Most observers say these practices are rampant in the region.

Here’s the last bit of my column:

In order for codes of ethics to work, organisations need to enforce them. Last month, a US newspaper fired its photographer because he electronically altered a picture to make it look better. His actions violated the US journalistic code of ethics that states clearly that journalists should “never distort the content of news photos”.

By punishing those violating rules of ethics, organisations help create a culture that respects high standards of behaviour.

I’ve never seen a report of a journalist in the UAE being fired for an ethical violation. (A representative from a local daily at the event said that the newspaper had indeed quietly fired two business reporters for ethical violations. I remarked that such actions should probably be more public).

MEPRA has publicly reprimanded one of its members for an ethics lapse — an important step towards helping to create a culture that respects proper professional standards.

The second solution is to promote personal integrity. The concept of integrity is universal — my Emirati ethics students tell me the Arabic word is nazahah. In any culture, the word means doing the right thing regardless of others or even if acting in such a manner carries a personal cost.

Personal integrity is important because research shows that group norms can be a powerful influencer of behaviour. Often-times, people ‘go along’ with unethical behaviour because they see others doing the same. But if one person stands up and objects, then others may find the courage to voice their own concerns.

Perhaps the culture would change if more practitioners — both in public relations and journalism — would simply voice their uneasiness with the status quo.

Attempting to change an ingrained culture may appear to be too daunting a task to tackle.

However, with enforcement of ethics codes and a commitment to personal integrity, the journalism and public relations professions in the UAE can work together to raise their level of professional standards.

Every solution starts with an admission that there’s a problem.

By | March 24th, 2012|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Yes, James O’Keefe is a journalist

One of my former U.S. students insists that the conservative filmmaker — famed for taking down NPR executives and the liberal activist group ACORN — is not a journalist. She recently asked for my opinion, and I hesitated to reply. I suspect she objects to O’Keefe’s methods — he gathers information through deceptive means and I’m certainly one who frowns upon journalists who lie or mislead their audiences or subjects. But, I think she also objects to O’Keefe’s ideology — but only she knows which objection carries more weight.

This recent NY Times Magazine profile of O’Keefe helps shed light on these issues. Take the time to read it–it’s well-written and largely unbiased. In it, two professors of journalism speak to the issue of whether O’Keefe’s methods are outside the norms of journalism:

“Undercover journalism goes back to at least the 1820s in this country,” says Brooke Kroeger, the director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, who has written a book on the subject, to be published next year. “And the use of hidden cameras to do it came into prominence after World War II.” Muckrakers, of course, are advocates, loved or despised according to the targets they choose. “For years, advocacy groups such as those for a better government have partnered with journalistic organizations,” Kroeger says. “Last year the Humane Society released an undercover video of the inhumane treatment of pigs in Virginia that got picked up by media around the country and won applause from animal lovers. Many of those same people vociferously went after O’Keefe for his exposé of NPR. It’s basically a question of what you care about and what side you are on.”

Earlier this year, two of O’Keefe’s actors, posing as fictitious representatives of a Muslim philanthropic organization, had lunch with Ron Schiller, NPR’s senior vice president for development. In the course of ingratiating himself with these potential donors, Schiller was caught denigrating Tea Party members and Republicans in language that the corporation later said it was appalled by. The scandal hastened the departures of both Schiller and his boss, Vivian Schiller (no relation). When it was suggested that the tapes had been dishonestly edited, O’Keefe invited people to watch them in their entirety. “He said it, that’s just a fact,” Dana Davis Rehm, a spokesman for NPR, said of Ron Schiller. In the aftermath, NPR conducted sessions on ethics for its support and operational staff and is planning to publish updated ethics guidelines in September.

His takedown of Acorn was even more devastating, although Bertha Lewis, Acorn’s former chief executive, contends that the videos were dishonest. “He is demon, a liar and a cheat,” she says. “What he did was despicable. He created a fiction.” Bertha Lewis still insists that Acorn did not offer advice on how to break the law. Clark Hoyt, a former public editor for The New York Times, reviewed O’Keefe’s raw footage and edited tapes and concluded that “the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context.”

There is no doubt that O’Keefe disseminated only the material that supported his thesis about Acorn, but this kind of selectivity is the norm in advocacy journalism. “I put James O’Keefe in the same category as Michael Moore,” says Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri’s school of journalism. “Some ethicists say it is never right for a journalist to deceive for any reason, but there are wrongs in the world that will never be exposed without some kind of subterfuge.”

I agree. I think O’Keefe’s methods are questionable but not outside the norms of journalism. His tactics looks quite similar to liberal provocateur Michael Moore, and I certainly consider him a journalist as well. But, they both represent a certain type of “muckraking” journalism — one that belongs on the media fringes, not not on the evening newscasts or metropolitan dailies.

In the end, these partisan journalists add something to media landscape that their more “objective” brethren can’t. And I’d argue that we’re all better off for it.

By | August 27th, 2011|great quotes|1 Comment