Copyright and Your Carbon Footprint



Although I am posting this on April 1, it is not an April Fools’ joke. Copyright has a carbon footprint, just like practically everything else. And, like everything else, you can do something about it.

I live in a very “green” part of the world, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia (BC). We are greener than Kermit here, so everything we do is judged by this standard. Vancouver Island boasts the only elected members of the Green Party in Canada, one federal Member of Parliament and three members of the provincial legislature. Many people (in coastal BC at least) profess to be so green that they are against natural resource development of just about any kind, despite energy being one of the few areas where Canada could be considered a superpower.

We are good at organizing demonstrations against the expansion of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline (which currently brings from Alberta most of the gasoline and diesel that BC consumes) and many British Columbians are not too keen on the new LNG export project on the north coast, even though it will add close to $3.45 billion to BC’s GDP over the five years of its construction and contribute about $200 million a year to government revenues once it is up and running. Many of us west coasters drive pickup trucks (not the most environmentally friendly vehicle) to work, or even to anti-pipeline demonstrations! Of course some of us ride bicycles, even though it rains a lot. The provincial capital, Victoria, has lots of bike paths and considers itself very green even though it has been dumping raw (sorry, screened but untreated) sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca for the past 150 years. (The good news is that is about to end as Victoria’s first sewage treatment plant is finally under construction).

On Vancouver Island we cut down lots of trees and catch lots of fish, although we now subscribe to “sustainable” forest management practices and the preservation of fish stocks. It wasn’t always the case. Like many other cities in the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver, Seattle, Portland), we are transitioning to the clean, knowledge-based economy. And what could be better positioned to be at the forefront of a knowledge-based, green, environmentally-friendly economy than the copyright industries? Vancouver is not known as “Hollywood North” for nothing with film production reported to have contributed $3.4 billion CAD (US$2.58 billion) to the provincial economy in 2017-18. Wow, that’s as much as LNG’s contribution over 5 years! That is a lot of “green”. But are copyright industries really all that green? I mean, while copyright products consist of intangible intellectual property, their production still requires consumption of physical resources. Can I consume music, movies, television series and books responsibly, and still maintain my “green cred”? (And thus be allowed to continue to live in BC).

This dilemma was brought home to me forcefully by a fascinating analysis of the carbon footprint of music written by two researchers at Keele University in the UK. The authors, Deidre McKay and Sharon George compared the carbon footprint and “greenness” of various music formats, including online streaming. They point out that the surge in popularity of vinyl records, made with PVC instead of the older more environmentally-friendly shellac of earlier generations, has led to an increased environmental impact;

Modern records typically contain around 135g of PVC material with a carbon footprint of 0.5kg of carbon dioxide (based on 3.4kg of CO₂ per 1kg of PVC). Sales of 4.1m records would produce 1.9 thousand tonnes of CO₂ – not taking transport and packaging into account. That is the entire carbon footprint of almost 400 people per year.”

Then along came CD’s but;

CDs are made of layered polycarbonate and aluminium, which has slightly less environmental impact than PVC, and are manufactured using less materials than records. However, CDs can’t be recycled because they’re made of mixed materials, which are difficult and uneconomical to separate into their component parts for recycling.”

Oh-oh. But thank God for downloading. No physical medium, right? The only trouble is, as our researchers point out;

“Even though new formats are material-free, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an environmental impact. The electronic files we download are stored on active, cooled servers.”

And those servers burn a lot of energy. One report indicates that the amount of energy consumed by the world’s data centres will treble in the next decade. This will put an enormous strain on energy supplies and increase consumption of fossil fuels in order to create electricity, producing more carbon. There is even a suggestion that the amount of electricity consumed to keep the internet operating may have finite limits. One way to reduce the amount of energy consumed by server farms is to install them in colder areas in order to reduce the amount of artificial cooling required. That sounds like a good proposition for remote northern communities. Let’s move them from California to northern Canada! And this is where all that northern natural gas comes into the picture. While still a fossil fuel, it is much cleaner than coal or oil and could be used to create cleaner electricity to drive the servers that make all that online streaming of music and videos possible, reducing copyright’s carbon footprint.

However, the Keele University researchers noted that streaming music may not be the most environmentally-friendly, carbon-reducing option for distribution. If you like only a few tracks and play them repeatedly, it is more environmentally effective to download them and play them on your CD player, which consumes less electricity than the infrastructure necessary to support your streaming of the track each time you want to hear it. In fact the electricity consumption is about one-third less annually to play a CD for the same amount of hours as streaming the content. According to McKay and George, even if you include the carbon cost of producing the physical CD, there comes a break-even point when the carbon footprint of manufacturing the CD and its player, and playing it, is less than streaming the content.

In their words;

So, which (streaming or downloading) is the greener option? It depends on many things, including how many times you listen to your music. If you only listen to a track a couple of times, then streaming is the best option. If you listen repeatedly, a physical copy is best – streaming an album over the internet more than 27 times will likely use more energy than it takes to produce and manufacture a CD.”

Assuming their calculations are correct, consider your consumption habits if you are a green music-lover, especially if you have a favourite artist that you like to listen to regularly.

Well, that’s how to deal with music and stay green but what about audio-visual content? AV files are much higher consumers of bandwidth, especially if they are in HD format, so should we eschew streaming for downloading or purchase of discs? Maybe streaming is a more environmentally-friendly option because people consume AV content much differently than music. Once you have binged Game of Thrones you aren’t likely to watch it over and over again, as is the case with favoured music tracks. It’s usually a one-time thing. Of course there are exceptions like children’s movies which your kids may want to watch over and over and over again. “Hi ho, hi ho…..”

There is no question that digital technology has changed the movie industry and reduced its carbon footprint. Now digital files can be flashed around the world instead of using the cumbersome process of printing and shipping 35 mm. celluloid film prints. The shift to digital has been a recent phenomenon but it not only saves the studios millions of dollars a year in producing prints, but eliminates the manufacturing process and consumption of materials. Offsetting those savings of course, are the costs of all those energy sucking server farms. Digital photos have had the same impact in terms of reducing the need for film and the developing and printing of most photographs, reducing requirements for plastics, chemicals, and specialized paper, as Kodak found to its chagrin.

I have talked about the carbon footprint of music, movies and photography, three very important copyright industries, but what about publishing? If server farms and data centres indirectly emit a lot of CO2 because of their energy consumption, does that make e-books less green than the traditional hard copy version? But books and journals come with the additional environmental impact of cutting down trees and processing them into paper, although an increasing number are now made with recycled materials. Hard cover books are hard to recycle because of the backing and the glue, but then many books have a long shelf life. You can lend them, (and probably never get them back if they are any good), donate them to a library, give them away in a book drive, or just hang on to them to decorate the shelves of your library. Marie Kondo likely would not approve but, if you have extra shelf space, there is nothing more reassuring and solid than a shelf of books. Sometimes it even impresses visitors….unless the books look as if they have never been opened.

Given all of the above, and living as I do in a self-proclaimed “Greenlandia”, can I hold up my end while still patronizing and supporting copyright industries? I hope so and will continue to do my best to be copyright-green. Given that my book shelves are already full, I will try to borrow more from the library, and will of course walk or cycle to get there. I will stream where I can and download or purchase discs only where that seems to be a less carbon-intensive option. I will try to be energy-efficient and be no less hypocritical about my energy consumption, and where it is sourced from, than my fellow citizens. I may even plant a tree as an offset to all that production of carbon for which as a consumer I am responsible. What I won’t do is stop consuming music, films and books. After all, they are what make life worth living.

© Hugh Stephens, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Author: hughstephensblog

I am a former Canadian foreign service officer and a retired executive with Time Warner. In both capacities I worked for many years in Asia. I have been writing this copyright blog since 2016, and recently published a book "In Defence of Copyright" to raise awareness of the importance of good copyright protection in Canada and globally. It is written from and for the layman's perspective (not a legal text or scholarly work), illustrated with some of the unusual copyright stories drawn from the blog. Available on Amazon and local book stores.

7 thoughts on “Copyright and Your Carbon Footprint”

  1. What a brilliant read. well researched and thanks for sharing! I feel we as a community are not aware today. Articles like these only opens our eyes and then the choice is ours, wether we still choose the option that would destroy our planet in cumulative efforts or choose a viable and less damaging option. Appreciate your article in spreading the awareness in the industry you are well acquainted with.

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