UK's Copyright Hub: a license to create

April 2016

Richard Hooper, Chairman, The Copyright Hub Foundation, London, United Kingdom

We see the same political narrative in many countries: There are problems with copyright in the digital age, so change the copyright law. Period. This leads to a pitched battle between pro- and anti-copyright forces, with politicians caught awkwardly in the middle.

The UK’s Copyright Hub is a technology platform designed to make copyright licensing easier. It also acts as a discussion forum to tackle licensing problems and promotes copyright education. (photos:

This was the case in the UK, but five years ago I was asked by the British Government to implement a recommendation emerging from Professor Ian Hargreaves’ major review of copyright. It concerned the implementation of a digital copyright exchange (DCE), to make copyright licensing easier. The DCE, which is now called the Copyright Hub, is guided and governed by the London-based non-profit Copyright Hub Foundation, of which I am the Chairman. The first “proof of concept” phase has been implemented, with funding from the creative industries in the UK, Australia and the US and the tech company Google, alongside funding from the British Government.

Secondary/permissions licensing

The Copyright Hub is currently focusing on what is called secondary or permissions licensing, for example when I want to put a certain piece of music on my daughter’s wedding video or when I want to use that image on this website. This is not about primary licensing – a writer licensing a publisher to publish her next novel. Nor is it about consumer licensing – the first screen on the DVD which tells consumers what they are not allowed to do with the DVD, for example charge entrance fees. It is about legal and correct reuse of copyright works to create new copyright works. 

The back story

In 2012, Dr Ros Lynch - the British civil servant who was assigned to help implement the Hargreaves recommendation - and I produced a diagnostic report. Our aim was to ensure we had a clear understanding of the problems associated with copyright licensing and how these could be addressed by a DCE. While the report identified a wide range of problems in the analog and digital space, two main issues stood out: poor data and poor treatment of licensees.

In the analog world users and creators were two different species. In the digital world those species have blended – users are creators and creators are users.

The data used by the creative industries to track works and their creators or rights owners were poor. This might not pose a problem in an analog world of small numbers of high-value licensing transactions with high transaction costs. But poor data are a problem for the high volume of lower-value transactions that are occurring in the digital world. Why? Because creators are not always getting paid properly. And a third of users, as later research quantified, wishing to reuse copyright content cannot find the rights owner so they either do not reuse the work or they pirate it. Both are deeply negative outcomes which the Copyright Hub is seeking to address.

We also found that licensors of rights in the analog world were not always treating licensees in a customer-friendly way. For example, five years ago English schools had to deal with as many as 12 different copyright licensing agencies. It is unreasonable to expect people trying to run a school to have to do this. When they complain to their local politician about it, pressure builds up to make education an “exception” in copyright law. This would significantly reduce the revenues of those who license the materials and the creative industries as a whole.

In July 2012, Dr Lynch and I published our final independent report, which recommended the creation of a Copyright Hub led by the creative industries (images, audio-visual, music and publishing) to try to address the major problems identified.

Today, the Copyright Hub does three things:

  • serves as a technology platform;
  • provides a forum for discussion; and
  • promotes copyright education. 

The Copyright Hub as technology platform

Ninety percent of the very limited resources available to the Copyright Hub today are devoted to its open-source technology platform, which makes the online licensing of digital content by third parties much easier, with transaction costs that are close to zero. The market for high-volume, low-value licensing only becomes feasible for the creative industries if the transaction costs are negligible. The Chief Executive of Cambridge University Press told me in 2012 that the administrative burden and transaction cost of finding and getting permission to use a given image in a publication were often far greater than the return from so doing!

How it works

The idea of the Copyright Hub as a technology platform is simple. A copyright work on the Internet, such as an image or a piece of music, is given a unique identifier. Someone wishing to reuse that image or that music can, with a simple right-click, connect to the computer of the rights owner or creator, who also has a unique “party” identifier. This is called “resolving”. The rights owner or creator can now offer, machine to machine, standard licenses for reuse requiring payment or proper acknowledgement.

The Copyright Hub’s open-source technology platform makes the online licensing of digital content by third parties much easier with transaction costs that are close to zero.

Many creators are happy to enable reuse of their work in return for a simple acknowledgement and the correct spelling of their names. If the re-user accepts the license terms and, where relevant, pays the required fee, the newly created work itself acquires a license identifier which indicates that it has been created legally with the appropriate permissions. The work, the creator and the license each has a unique identifier, which together streamline secondary permissions licensing on the Internet. This significantly reduces the complexity and the transaction costs that have been major obstacles to modernizing copyright licensing in the past.

Great progress has been made in implementing the Copyright Hub’s technology platform in the images sector. Today, eight public services are using it, including Oxford University Images and 4Corners Images. The first public service in the audio-visual sector, involving the British Film Institute and TVARK, has also recently started using the technology. Over one hundred “use cases” or Hub applications are in the queue for implementation, from all four creative sectors. The next use case to go public will be from the music industry. With this level of uptake, we believe we have proven the concept of the Copyright Hub and have made a major step forward in turning words into deeds.

Copyright Hub as a forum

The Copyright Hub also has working groups, which work in collaboration with the four sectors involved to resolve particular licensing problems, especially those arising in the analog space. For example, the Educational Licensing Working Group has brilliantly helped to resolve the problem encountered by English schools referred to above by getting the licensing agencies to work together, saving both them and the schools time and money.

Copyright education

The Copyright Hub is also promoting copyright education through its website, But increasingly, we are convinced that the Copyright Hub technology platform may itself prove the best form of copyright education in that it enables learning by doing. Let us imagine a teacher who encourages her students to write poems. She goes online to show them how they can obtain a unique identifier for themselves as well as for each of the poems they have written and how to establish standard licenses for reuse. Suddenly the whole purpose of copyright comes alive. The students learn first hand that when you create something you should be in charge of what happens to it, and that the Copyright Hub makes this possible. In the analog world users and creators were two different species. In the digital world those species have blended – users are creators and creators are users.

Next steps

Having proven the concept, and attracted great interest both in the creative industries and among policymakers in London, Brussels, Geneva, Sydney and Washington DC, the next step is to drive critical mass. Our aim, in the words of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is to “grow big fast”. But if we are to succeed in this, we will need strong private and public sector funding to ensure we can turn more and more use cases into public services, both in the UK and internationally. The digital content market is global and the Internet is global, so we also need to raise awareness globally about the advantages of the Copyright Hub’s approach. This whole idea fails if it remains confined to the UK.

We also need, as the Copyright Hub Foundation, to ensure that the marketplace that the technology is fostering is properly governed. What happens, for example, when the ownership of a work is disputed?

The marketplace that could emerge from the broad uptake of the Copyright Hub will only work if there is sufficient trust in it and if users are confident that you are the person you say you are, and that you are the legitimate owner of the rights in any particular creative work. The Copyright Hub Foundation has to build and maintain that trust. 

The political narrative: change is in the air

Five years on, there is a sense that by collaborating with the creative industries, tech companies and governments, the Copyright Hub is beginning to change the political narrative for the better. Yes, there are problems with copyright in the digital age. And creative companies and tech companies need to identify what those problems are and do something about them. But it turns out that many of the problems do not require changes to copyright law. They require new and improved licensing mechanisms and organizations. Modernize the licensing landscape and more and better services are available to consumers, more revenue is generated for creators, and there is less copyright infringement. So, while the anti- and pro-copyright camps continue to disagree – this is unlikely ever to change – the ferocity of the battle subsides and everyone is a winner.

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