Roanie recently spoke to BlockLeaders about her advocacy on behalf of rightsholders, copyright in Canada and the importance of innovation driven by purpose in the blockchain space.
You can find a country on a map, but if you want to understand a nation and its people, you must look to its culture. Words, music and visual art are its foundation.
Culture is created by people, for the people. Culture exists for the enrichment of society's collective imagination. Timeless stories like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, or so many other tales, characters, and images became part of popular culture long ago, and so the cultural fabric grows wider and thicker with new additions every day.
But what happens to a culture when its creators find their livelihoods threatened? It’s a situation many Canadian creators and publishers find themselves in today.
Roanie Levy understands this predicament all too well. As CEO and President of Access Copyright, a Canadian organization that distributes licensing royalties to creators and publishers, she is recognized globally as a champion of creator rights.
On the importance of upholding creators' rights
Creators and publishers can only create and invest in new works if they are recognized and compensated for their contributions... Access Copyright works to uphold the rights of creators and publishers, and I was curious to learn more about this, especially in the context of technology.
Our conversation started with photocopiers. It’s easy to forget how disruptive they were only a few decades ago.
Roanie says "Access Copyright was created just over 30 years ago, at a time when photocopying became widespread and began cannibalizing printed work. The photocopier was being used more and more across educational institutions, corporations, etc."
"Access Copyright was founded to ensure that creators got paid when their works are used."
"Technology has now gone well beyond the photocopier. Upholding creators' rights is now a bigger challenge so we continually look at technologies, and try to ascertain how these technologies impact on creators. It is important that creators get paid so that they continue creating."
Prescient: Protecting creators' rights through blockchain technology
Blockchain technology is now set to reshape the publishing world, and Canada is once again leading the way through the work of Access Copyright and its innovation lab, Prescient. The team is exploring the future of rights management and content monetization in blockchain.
For Roanie, this exploration of blockchain to benefit rightsholders is purpose-driven innovation. Access Copyright’s understanding of creator and publisher needs makes the organization well-suited to making sure creators are well-served by blockchain.
Its first blockchain project was a Proof-of-Concept (PoC) project for book sales and distribution of royalties to rights holders.
"We started looking at blockchain technology around 2016," Roanie says. "We were observing at first, trying to understand what the technology could actually do, and how it could affect the writing and publishing sector, cause that's the industry that we service."
"We heard a lot of promises about how blockchain was going to finally allow creators to get their just rewards, take control back over their creative work, ensure that a fair distribution happened, and realize the monetization of their creations."
"So these were all great things," Roanie continues. "But I thought to myself, is it really going to happen? Is this thing for real?"
Roanie recalled hearing the very same promises about the internet, decades earlier.
"We looked at a whole bunch of blockchain projects in the creative space. This is 2016-2017, remember, so back then there were plenty of Whitepapers and Proof-of-Concepts floating around, but very few tangible things. It was hard to get a realistic sense of how transformative blockchain would really be."
"So what the team and I decided was this: Let's come up with an idea that today's technology would not allow, but all these ideas and concepts would. Let's see where blockchain technology can take us."
"We produced a lot of ideas, and one of them was what we called Nfluencer.”
"Essentially," Roanie continues, "we came up with a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) selling method. A given piece of a creative work – it could be a novel or even just a chapter – can be moved around in the space, recommendations can be made, sampling of the work may be viewed, and a payment is eventually requested. Once the payment is made, rightsholders are compensated at whatever proportion is appropriate. And the fan/s who recommended the piece would also receive a reward."
"We built it on the Ethereum blockchain, as a Proof-of-Concept, a sandbox. The entire enterprise was more a research exercise, rather than a product development exercise. We needed to know if the concept would work, and the only way to do that was to get our hands dirty, so to speak, understand the technology, and just do it."
"It did work," Roanie says gleefully. "And it was very exciting to see this idea realized."
On Canada's view of Blockchain technology
Canada is one of the three largest hubs for blockchain tech in the world, through innovation and entrepreneurship.
Roanie had her own vision for rightsholders.
She says that "What I'm seeing is that there are people here (in Canada) playing around with the technology. A number of organizations are exploring the possibility of leveraging blockchain for their own respective projects. Movies, music, and other creative spaces for instance."
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"So I think that there's a lot of positive feelings around blockchain in Canada right now."
Discussing the evolution of blockchain was also on my agenda. The technology has come a long way over the last five years, but it's still in its infancy, so there is a lot of ground to cover.
I wanted to make a point of learning about Roanie's view on blockchain’s evolution over the next five to ten years, and how this may affect creators in particular.
Roanie says that "It depends. There's a fork in the road right now, and depending on which way blockchain goes, blockchain could become a very supportive asset for creators, or it may make the challenges creators face even worse."
But how so?
"When we did our Proof-of-Concept, we realized that there is the potential for a lot of misplaced trust. Blockchain may make this even harder to detect, harder to trace, and harder to stop. Take the internet for example. Creators are sometimes forced to play a game of whack-a-mole, in that a pirated copy of your work shows up in one place, you take it down, then it shows up in another, and so on. As an author or creator, you're constantly fighting to take down content that infringes your copyright."
"Now, blockchain has the potential to take this game of whack-a-mole to a whole new level," Roanie says. "And this may be for a couple of reasons. One, is that multiple copyright infringements may be harder to detect, depending on how services are built on the blockchain."
"And number two, I think that the incentive for bad behaviour could be even greater on a blockchain ecosystem. The reason for this is that on the blockchain, you could have real value exchanges. Money, or currencies, could be exchanged for access to the pirated content."
"This could potentially create an incentive for bad actors, and the way to counteract this is through an attribution ledger to validate the content and the rights holder first."
Advocating for change: The Canadian Government and blockchain
Blockchain tech is now slowly seeping into Canada's very fabric, and I wanted to hear Roanie's opinion on how the Canadian Government sees this emerging trend.
"I think it's important to make the distinction of blockchain versus cryptocurrencies."
"Blockchain is just an enabling technology. It is interesting, it is intriguing, and it may open up new revenue streams, and new business and monetization models. Cryptocurrencies, on the other hand, conjure up a lot of negative factors."
"I think the Canadian Government is curious about this technology and wishes to play around and experiment with it. In fact, the Bank of Canada recently commissioned some research work on blockchain, and actually did a Proof-of-concept using blockchain."
"There's a regulatory aspect of course, and everyone is cautious, as they should be. There are issues around ICOs, etc., but Canada appears quite open about this technology at Government level."
On Access Copyright turning 30, and major milestones
Access Copyright turned 30 in August 2018. The organization has seen a number of major milestones and has fought major legal battles to uphold a creator’s right to compensation.
Roanie was quite passionate about this issue.
"Access Copyright started because of the rights infringement with photocopying, as mentioned earlier. This lead writers and publishers to come together and ask how to stop this. The answer wasn't easy, because once technology is widely available, you can't control it. What you can do is enable its authorised use. So, it's not so much about controlling it as it is about licensing it."
"It did take a while to establish the licensing of written work. That was mainly in the education sector, and at Government and corporate level. All told, it took about a decade to have all of this fully licensed. After photocopying, we added digital uses."
"But then the Copyright Act changed in 2012, and an exception to copyright called Fair Dealing was extended for educational purposes. This allowed the fair use of a given work for education purposes. The education sector (universities, and the ministries of education that represent elementary and secondary schools in Canada) decided that this exception meant that they could do all the photocopying that they were doing before, but now without having to pay the licensing fee."
"The Fair Dealing exception directly led to litigation between Access Copyright and our main customer, the education sector, which is far from an ideal situation, but our backs were against the wall."
"The issue was whether or not the use of the material without paying the fee could reasonably be deemed 'fair'".
The education sector’s interpretation of fair dealing has resulted in a significant decrease in royalties paid to creators and publishers in Canada – an important source of income for both groups.
"Ultimately, we sued York University, which is a large and well-known university here in Canada. This led to a lengthy trial, which culminated in a judge's ruling in 2017 that what York University were doing, in terms of photocopying copyrighted material for educational purposes, was not fair."
"York University, and the education sector at large were not happy about this. York University is appealing the ruling, and the hearing for this appeal is scheduled for March of this year."
"Blockchain technology may now raise similar issues about content monetization, so Access Copyright essentially exists to ensure creators get paid for their work. We always focus on the creator, and wonder is the creator at the center of this ecosystem. Do they have control over their work, and the ability to monetize their content?"
"This is Access Copyright's DNA."