Thursday, November 11, 2010

Two good reads on digital copyright

David Friedman raises an excellent thought experiment: what if the web had come first, rather than printed documents?
If the web had come first, issues of copyright and credit would have applied only to the rare case where someone chose to copy instead to link. Indeed, the relevant laws and norms might never have developed, since the very fact that what you were reading was a quote rather than a link, written by the quoter rather than the quotee, would be sufficient reason not to trust it.

I agree. The model we have is at odds with what makes sense on the Internet, and the Internet is already a much more important vehicle of communication than any print media. We should adjust our law to make sense for the Internet and let print gracefully decline as the preeminent way to share content.

Friedman's post is apropos for my own blog surfing, because I just now read Lawrence Lessig's For the Love of Culture that he posted back in January. It's a rich subject, so let me give two punchlines. Here's one:
Before we continue any further down this culturally asphyxiating road, can we think about it a little more? Before we release a gaggle of lawyers to police every quotation appearing in any book, can we stop for a moment to consider whether this way of organizing access to culture makes sense? Does this complexity get us something we would not get under the older system? Does this innovation in obsessive control produce any new understanding? Is it really progress?
Whether he is overstating things depends on your point of view. If you are Google, then all current law is just a hand shake with the president away from being changed to something else. It took Google to pull off Google Print. Larry and Sergei couldn't have done it alone when they were students, because it violated a thick cobweb of law, regulation, and copyright agreements. It's a disturbing state. Google Print involves an incomprehensible mess of legal agreements, but worse, the next hundred bright ideas about content sharing just aren't going to get off the ground.

How to arrange things differently is a big topic. Lessig has an important starting point in this comment:
We are about to change that past, radically. And the premise for that change is an accidental feature of the architecture of copyright law: that it regulates copies.
Focusing on copies is awkward when, on a computer, copies are ubiquitous. Computationally, copies are actually cheaper than actually displaying the content.

There are a lot of alternate approaches we could use than controlling the right to copy. As two examples, charging for performances and charging for access to a large archive are both possibilities. The first step, though, is to recognize that we have a problem.

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