2007: A Year in Content Theft

It was this time last year that I began to compile my list of predictions for content theft and plagiarism in the new year. Invariably, some of the predictions were right, others were wrong and some split the difference.

So, before I look forward into 2008, I want to take a moment and look back over the year that was starting with the predictions and previews that I put forth a year ago, almost to the day.

If you want to laugh at me for being wrong and making a few guesses that, in hindsight, were more than a little wrong, this is your chance. If you’re looking to hire me as a psychic, this will probably completely kill me chances.

Prediction 1: Content Licensing Grows Up

2007 was supposed to be the year that content licensing grew up and became not just the norm, but a business model. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.

The reasons for the prediction were clear. Companies such as Lisensa had just started and others were rumored to be started. However, Lisensa ended up not gaining much traction and the other companies failed to materialize.

This isn’t to say that it was a bad year for content licensing. Creative Commons introduced the CC+ initiative, which in turn enabled the promising rights company RightsAgent, from the same people who founded Lisensa, only this time with much better backing (More on RightsAgent to come).

Things did indeed start to “grow up” in this area but it was much too late in the year. All in all, content licensing did not live up to its potential in 2007 but may be poised to make another run at it in 2008.

Prediction 2: Copyright Tools Get Smart

This is similar to the first prediction in that a great deal of progress was made, but the full potential was nowhere near realized.

Copyscape, for example, made vast improvements in its monitoring of content theft. However, all of the content theft tracking tools remain, fundamentally, dumb. They don’t support licenses, detect attribution or spot commercial use.

Attributor holds the greatest promise in this area and they launched their service this year. However, their current offerings are just for corporations such as Reuters and the Associated Press. A version of their service for bloggers and Webmasters is due in early 2008.

This may easily fall in the category of predictions that turn out to be right, but were just made a year or two too early. 2008 holds a great deal of promise for these tools, it is just a shame that 2007 didn’t see more.

Prediction 3: More False DMCA Notices

This one was a bit too easy. But it certainly came to fruition, largely fueled by YouTube. Consider these three examples:

This was easily the safest prediction I made but it still held a few surprises. The biggest one, for me, was that most of the false notices weren’t due to malice, but due to faulty copyright protection systems. Either bad algorithms or overworked humans.

Still, despite the attention these incidents attracted, the number of false notices remained fairly low, especially when compared to the number of legitimate ones filed.

Prediction 4: Hosts to Rethink DMCA Policies

This one is hard to say. The hosts I’ve spoken to have definitely been looking at their DMCA polices and making adjustments, but there has been little public attention given to this.

YouTube, for example, has been the subject of both a billion-dollar lawsuit and the highest number of questionable DMCA notices. Yet, their actual practices remain very much cloaked in secrecy and unchallenged.

All in all, I think I was pretty off the mark with this prediction and it may have been more a case of wishful thinking than anything. Sadly, this one does not seem to be poised to change in 2008, that is, barring any major changes.

Prediction 5: Lawsuit Outlook

In this section, I made a pair of predictions. The first was that the Perez Hilton case would be settled out of court by the end of the year and that the Michael Crook case would be ongoing.

Whoops.

Though I rarely get to be wrong twice in the same prediction, I was here. I not only underestimated Crook’s resolve to dodge, delay and stall his lawsuit but I severely overestimated Hilton’s ability to see a good deal and take it.

As of this writing, the Michael Crook case was famously settled in March and the Hilton case is still ongoing, with other lawsuits tacked on for good measure.

I have to admit, I was wrong, dead wrong, on this one. Just goes to show how unpredictable these things can be.

Prediction 6: Legal Tide Turns Against RIAA

With the Jammie Thomas ruling grabbing so many headlines this year, it is very tempting to try and deny I ever made this prediction in the first place. However, I don’t think it is that cut and dry.

The RIAA has had some severe legal setbacks, the most recent being a case it was forced to drop for using an “unlicensed investigator”, namely MediaSentry. Furthermore, they’ve started trying some contradictory and even insane legal arguments in order to keep their ongoing cases afload.

It is hard to tell if the legal tide is turning or has turned against the RIAA this year. We won’t know that until some time next year when the next round of rulings come down.

The Thomas verdict was a win for the RIAA, no doubts there, but it was just one case in the year. It won’t mean anything if it is their only win.

Prediction 7: UGC Revolt

Revolution was indeed in the air this year at UGC sites. The most famous being the Digg User Revolt of 2007.

However, these revolts, big and small, were not over wanting some of the money, as previously predicted, but over wanting control over the sites.

For example, the revolt above dealt with the removal of an encryption key used to protect HD-DVDs and the alleged censorship of the topic. Other mini-revolts dealt with the desire for a picture section, the new comments system. Similar ones on Reddit dealt with desired features and algorithm change requests.

Users of popular UGC sites are clamoring for dollars yet, but are definitely trying to assert their authority. It seems that I was at least somewhat right on the event, but very wrong about the reason.

Conclusions

In the end, I had one prediction dead on, one dead wrong and five somewhere in between. It was a mixed bag to put it generously but not altogether surprising given how unpredictable this news area tends to be.

Though I can’t say I’m proud of the predictions I made last year, I’m not terribly discouraged either. After all, things could have easily gone much worse.

But what really surprised me this year wasn’t any of the items above, but rather, a shift in the conversation about copyright and content theft on the Web.

Previously, the argument over these issues has been dominated by the two extremes. One group wanting copyright to be little more than a fantasy on the Web, the other wanting the strictest interpretation possible.

Though the extremes were definitely vocal this year, 2007 may well be remembered as the year that, despite everything that happened, cooler heads prevailed.

After all, Creative Commons thrived, spammers were battled and attribution was fought for. The “Us vs. Them” mentality that has thrived on the Web in years gone by is weakening. It is being replaces that artists need to be supported for their works, that piracy is wrong but, at the same time, creativity can not be stifled.

We may finally be pushing our way toward a middle ground. Though it may be optimistic of me to say so and I certainly wouldn’t call that a prediction for 2008, things certainly do “feel” better on the Web than they did just a year ago.

Let us hope that trend continues.

Disclosure: I am a consultant for Attributor.

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