IP laws that stifle the development of plagiarism detection software

COADECIn an interview last month, Jef Lynn, Chairman of the Coalition For a Digital Economy, said he felt that laws such as SOPA, ACTA and the Digital Economy Act are very much not fit for a digital age, and only fit to try to restrain the digital age. This is an important issue for the plagiarismchecker.net team as current copyright laws substantially restrain the development of our plagiarism detection software in a number of different ways. For example, there is no right for us to have access to information that would substantially improve the performance of our software (such as access to databases of journals) and no data provider has to work with us to provide this access. This limits the sources that our scanner can check against and no matter how good our algorithms are, we will never be able to provide a watertight service (the same is true of all plagiarism detection software).  The same applies to use of collated data such as Google’s search results – our scanner currently makes use (with permission) of Bing’s results but could greatly benefit from access to wider search resources.  However, Google has not agreed to this, neither does it have an obligation to do so.

The fact that there is no right of access to valuable work has far wider implications too, past hindering commercial development – it means that holders of significant information – for example, ground breaking medical research – have no obligation at all to share it.  A better system might remove such barriers to innovation whilst ensuring that the copyright owners are appropriately remunerated for their work.

A further way in which we are limited is in the storage of copies of documents to perform searches against.  Jef discusses this below in his interview with Adam Malik (Content Director, Maven Case), in the context of hindering medical research.  A transcript of the interview is provided but you can view the video and related material on the COADEC website here.  For us, this issue places limitations on the way we can develop the software.  Whilst we’re confident our software is good, it could be better, more efficient and more effective for the end user.

SOPAplagiarismchecker.net’s users benefit from our software in another way aside from plagiarism checking.  We offer students a “free option’ allowing them to get a scan of their work in exchange for letting us use the work on websites to help other students revise.  This results in a large bank of coursework that allows students to see examples, for free.  In many developing countries, there simply aren’t funds for education institutions to provide access for their students to expensive journal banks, and these sample essays are a staple part of students’ learning materials.  But a further way in which current laws affect us is that we always have the threat that the Government can take down our site if they suspect we have a significant amount of material that breaches copyright laws.  It could only take a few complaints through the wrong channels from students who have perhaps changed their mind about us using their essay to set this in motion and the Government have the ability to close a project down that benefits thousands of students all over the World who have no access to paid resources.

Our laws are without doubt hindering innovation in terms of our software development and service innovation, as well as in many other ways, some of which are discussed in the interview below.  This is of huge concern to us as a business and something we are trying to be more involved in – two of our team attended the IP review hosted by Consumer Focus and DEAPPG in March last year at Parliament – we also volunteered our company as a case study for the Google/Coadec Copyright report.  We continue to watch the development of the law in this area with interest and cannot say enough about the work done by Coadec to support better legislation and other government policies with the aim of fostering a lasting, sustainable and innovative digital economy for Britain.

Transcript (Video source: Copy and IP fir for the digital world)

Adam: The reason why I mention copyright is, it’s big in the press. There have been bills in many states – SOPA the most vocal one – where copyright legislation supposidly fit for the digital age is trying to be pushed through and ensrined in law, and a lot of people are saying no to that. But I want to ask the question. There is fundamental for a need for copyright – but what’s wrong with the approach thats stopping it?

Jef: Absolutely, there is absolutely a need for copyright law and we are full supporters of it at Coadec, The Coalition For A Digital Economy. But I think the problem is that these laws are very much not fit for a digital age, they’re actually fit to try to restrain the digital age.

digital-economy-act-Digital innovation is meant that what involves copying and what’s involved in copying has changed. It’s changed from a set of laws that have been the same for all intents and purposes since 1710.</p

Now we need copyright laws that are going to adapt to the way that people use the Internet so we are full protectors of copyright but we think that the types of things that have been on the table between SOPA, ACTA, much of what’s in the Digital Economy Act and now potentially what’s coming in the Communications Act – the green paper’s due out in the next week or two – are very concerning – the idea of essentially censorship, the idea of blocking, trying to block websites at IP level – there are a number of measures which we think are very concerning.

On the flip side though, we think that there’s a lot, especially that’s going on in Britain, that’s very encouraging. The Hargreaves reforms – which were proposed by Professor Hargreaves last year, the Government has endorsed them and there’s a current consultation going on about them – are fantastic. They tend to .. if adopted, they will adapt to some of the realities of the digital age

Maybe I should just go into two specifics as what’s wrong. One is an issue of data and text mining. Data and text mining is a hugely important field for scientists. It’s difficult to describe, it’s above my own technological proficiency, but the basics of it are that you take massive sets of data off the thousands of journal articles and by running certain searches through them, you can get new information out of them and these are really important bits of information, information that can help provide medicines, cure diseases and achieve other great breakthroughs.

The problem is that as a technical matter, to run this search you have to make a copy of the journal articles so even if you’ve bought all thousand journal articles, the process of making a copy on your system violates copyright laws. That just doesn’t make sense in this day and age.

The second part, more light hearted but also important, is parody. What we see, things like the Newport state of mind video that came out last year, of JZ and Alesha Keys’ Empire State of Mind, that is artistic, that is great, it’s not just about taking a copy and ripping someone else’s work off, it’s about building on something. The ability to have parodies, that’s not currently allowed under UK law. That’s the sort of thing that the Hargreaves reforms would do and we’re all huge supporters of that. There are many other examples as well.

Adam : Do you think that actually the teams looking at the problem are coming at it from the wrong angle? Because it’s almost like this is an issue that’s created by this wonderful hyper connected digital world that we live in, that’s what’s generating the issue. Isn’t there a need for the people who are the drivers of that connectivity, you know, the Facebooks of this world, to actually drive the agenda, and put forward a flip that is workable?

Jef: Absolutely and there has finally started to be evidence of that happening. The problem is that so far the agenda’s largely been driven by by the music and film industries and unfortunately, those businesses, those industries, they have been significantly disrupted by the Internet.

The fact is, to be very blunt, that for about 60 years record labels had an incredibly good model. What they did was they took 11 mediocre songs combined them with one hit and made you buy all 12. Digital innovation has totally destroyed that for them and their profits and their size have gone down significantly. They are fighting back as hard as they can and frankly they’ve lobbied very, very hard to do whatever they can to slow the growth of the Internet and slow the growth and uptake of potential innovations.

Google and Facebook and others and we at the Coalition For A Digital Economy representing much smaller businesses are finally trying to get our foot in the door to say no, wait, this isn’t what’s good for economy, this isn’t what’s good for innovation.

Adam: You’re right it’s when because when your business model is attacked so much and retarded so much, and actually you cant see a solution back to the old profits, you either do two things: you either accept that and say you either go work at it, you lower costs – or you fight back and they’ve got a lot of money to fight with. That’s the disproportionate thing.

Jef: I think that’s absolutely right and a lot of what you’ve seen with SOPA and ACTA in this country. The Digital Economy Act it was written by the BPI, the record labels, they have been able to have the resources to come forward and write legislation that favours them.

For a long time digital businesses, both because we’re small and we’re focused on innovating, haven’t really stepped as much into the lobbying world, but now we’ve had to. It’s unfortunate, none of us want to be out there protesting or fighting parliament, we want to be building great products but as it happens we have to respond and we have to make members of parliament, united states congress and european parliament and elsewhere understand that these proposals aren’t going to be good for innovation.

Adam: Because there is another danger as well isn’t there because there’s a lot of talk about .. and some of it is hype .. you know we are in an increasingly connected media world, and the chasing of the soundbite that’s going to become pervasive is .. there’s a huge pressure for that.  It’s about this whole tale about personal privacy and cookies and things like that.  I sometimes feel that the agendas driven out of fear rather than the reality and education, because if you teach someone how to create settings and do things – I would rather have the cookies and the personalisation!

Jef: That’s exactly right, I mean on the cookies and privacy issues, it really is about education, people will get scared when they hear that somebody’s tracking what you’re doing online and it can be scary if you don’t know how they use it.  The fact is that cookies by and large, the types of cookies that reputable sites and reputable businesses store on your computer, do not identify you personally and do not break your data to anybody.

They are used for two purposes – one is exactly as you say, to deliver a more tailored browsing experience, and the other is to provide aggregated information to advertisers and that’s very important because to drive more innovation there need to be profits and advertisers help deliver those profits.

I can do more on my website if advertisers will pay to put space on my website.  Delivering aggregated information, the fact that we know that 10,000 of our users have this preference vs that, that is something that’s no harm to anybody’s privacy, but without explaining it and without sufficiently teaching people that people do get scared so I couldn’t agree more.  There’s a legislative set of issues but there’s also a huge educational set of issues there.

Adam: Because this is also one of the things you get with more traditional businesses where they start hearing this, it can be a little bit of a “oo hang on a minute’… which will slow people down in reaching out and creating digital engagement with their customers and businesses as well.  I think is concerning when the soundbites of winning an argument rather than what’s real…

Jef: I think that’s right and you know there’s another important point on privacy which is a tough one to talk about but it is important and that is, a lot of these issues are being driven by Europe and particularly by Germany.  Germany had a century full of very substantial privacy invasions, for lack of a better word, both under the Third Reich and under soviet influence.  They are very, very sensitive about people’s ability as a culture to keep their data private.  We’re very fortunate here that we didn’t have that 20th century experience and tend to be more open about it – we’re all part of the European Union and we have to be sensitive to everybody’s fears.  And that is all the more reason why, I don’t think we need to say to the Germans no you’re wrong – they have a very legitimate set of concerns.  The issue is to teach them that the kinds of issues at stake here aren’t the kinds of issues that they’re worried about.  Instead it is a significant benefit with very very minimal risk to the users.

Adam: And also , there is transparency – this is a global thing and that is another big issue because if you have completely .. I mean we’re finally talking at a European level so, I mean one of my earlier bug bears about having 20 different things to work on when you’re trying to sell in Europe is being addressed. But again I almost think that this conversation is a world conversation because – when you have someone in Hanoi who can do my website?!

Jef: You know it’s interesting, Baroness Wilcox was the IP minister, and I was in the breakfast with her the other day and she was talking about the progress that’s been made after 40 years of discussion on a unified European patent court, and someone at the breakfast said, well that may have been fine 40 years ago but that’s not what we need now – we need a global patent court, you’re too late!

And it was an interesting point, I mean, any progress is good I suppose, but you’re right these issues are global issues and it does render the discussions around SOPA and the Digital Economy Act and ACTA a little bit ridiculous comments for the simple reason that when you’e talking about one particular jurisdiction – the world functions everywhere.

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