Can whitelisting save the copyright on internet? We think not.

Although I am no longer as involved in the online music world as I once was, I am still very much interested to see what is happening there. The growing pains of the digital music world are indicative for other industries as well.

In this post from last week, Fred Wilson outlines an idea to better manage copyright in the digital age. His reasoning is straight forward: whitelisting (and blacklisting) has proven to be a very useful tool to manage email-spam. Why not apply the same approach to the licensing of copyrighted content? If you treat other’s content according to the copyright license selected by the author, you get whitelisted. If not, you’re blacklisted. Everybody would start out on the grey-list initially.

The interesting part of the blogpost is this:

“It would be best if a competitive marketplace developed for copyright whitelists and blacklists. The list providers would use signals like number of valid takedown notices and a host of other data points, ideally provided by the marketplace of services and platforms, to produce real time lists of what services are fully compliant (whitelist), what services are blatantly violating copyright (blacklist), and everyone else (greylist).”

We believe that ‘Markets are conversation’, how does Fred’s idea match our believe?

  1. A market requires buyers and sellers. The sellers in this market would be (new) organizations that put in the effort to create and police the white-lists. Their buyers could be several: it could be the suppliers of content but also the users of content. The first group has the biggest incentive: being whitelisted as a content source means having access to an audience and a measurement/payment mechanism.
  2. The users of content have an interest in being able to use the content without running any risks of litigation or other copyright problems. They essentially will look for the most ‘protection’ from problems for the lowest price. Being able to use original content at a reasonable price will allow them to run a profitable online service with appealing content.

But there is a third party involved: you and me as the end users. We could care less whether or not the content was rightfully used, we just want easy access. Would we prefer a service that billed itself as whitelisted over one that is not? Not necessarily. We only care about the fast and frictionless part of Fred’s second blogpost on the subject, not the fair part.

Therefor, the competitive market for whitelisting services needs to perform in such a way that the consumer does not notice. This makes the market essentially a B2B-market (Business to Business) in a time where more and more of the content producers become less and less Business-like and more and more consumer-like. Consumers do not care about copyright, and for that reason they will not care about a competitive market for whitelisting services if they are not involved in it. To the detriment of the content authors, unfortunately.

We think a competitive market for whitelisting services will not work. Not because it could not exist, but because it does not create the conversation required to make the market successfull.