Pirates, peers and intellectual property

With the advent of new media devices, the way information circulates is reformulated. In this blogpost I would like to talk a bit about the origin of copyright, issues that have arisen from its creation, and how this tool is used today, observing which purposes and interests it stands for.

In his book, “Intellectual Property and Copyright Issues in the Global Economy,” Downes writes that the history of copyright beginning with the creation of the printing press in the 15th century. The historical context in which copyright law emerged was characterized by the innovation of reproducing information at less cost, and the ability of transporting and registering information at a higher speed. Before the printing press, everything had to be hand written. During those days, the basis for introducing the copyright law was to protect the right of authors so they could profit from their own work.

Copyright allows owners of information to control what happens with their original productions. Any kind of circulation of copies from the original version will be protected by the copyright law and ownership rights are guaranteed by it. However, the original purpose of copyright law has evolved through the years, and today it is percieved much more differently. As Downes notes, these “creative acts” come to be “commodities” – morphing readers and writers into consumers and producers. It is due to this process of turning creative productions into commodities that the copyright is described as the “enclosure of the information commons.” From the moment that copyright law starts being used, “commons” are no longer seen the same way and are regulated by a new set of conditions. Once information becomes a commodity, it is controlled by conglomerates which have money to generate information and create corporate rules of production from which they can profit. The reason for creating any kind of information ceases to be attached to the quality of the information and becomes exclusively based on how “sellable” the product is, rather than the product as simply a piece of human creativity.

This argument leads to the influence of copyright law on the free flow of information. On the one hand we can understand that copyright was developed to protect the author’s right. However, when art or information becomes a commodity, its use is dictated by the power of corporate conglomerates such as AOL, Warner, and Universal Studios. The existence of copyright law guarantees that the information available on the market is protected, which should benefit the free flow of information. However, once copyright law centralizes the power of choice in the hands of those who own the power to produce, reproduce and circulate information, it also restricts the number of authors producing information. Only some will have their work reproduced either because there is not enough money for all the information to be circulated or because the information may not go along with corporate interests. Therefore, copyright at the same time enables and impedes information to flow. On the one hand it allows information to be spread all over the world but it also restricts the sources from which this information will come, privileging points of view which are compatible to the interests of some corporate minorities.

In this context, I see the Internet as a possibility to change this scenario. In his seminal text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin talks about the effects of technology on the reproduction of art. At a certain moment of history, reproducibility of information reached such a high level that it took away the tradiational aura that used to surround art work. As a consequence, art work has become more accessible. Having this process of reproducibility allows the production of art work to be subsumed to corporations that would have the means to reproduce in big scale (nowadays we might say globally) art work according to their interests.

With peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing through the Internet, copyright is being challenged, and the flow of information and its use is being drastically changed. The Internet allows information to be reproduced for lower costs and decentralizes the power of production which used to be owned by corporate conglomerates. With online peer-to-peer file sharing, a diverse range of productions are offered for free worldwide. The potential effects of this kind of activity are that people may benefit from the equal and free propagation of all categories of information which come from different places and defend different perspectives. The sharing of information through the Internet represents an important change, increasing the possibility of people having their voice heard around the world, as Martin Laba writes in the book “Pirates, peers and popular music”:

the story of peer-to-peer file sharing is infinitely more than a story of the shift from the analog to digital technology and technological capacities, it also details a profound shift, a deep and active engagement with the possibilities – some obviously illegal – of new enabling technologies.

Reproducibility has become so widespread that it has decentralized the production of information and enabled people to have voices as loud and powerful as corporations. As a result, traditional productions of knowledge, such as the Britannica Encyclopedia, are competing with online tools such as Wikipedia; and P2P file sharing has become pervasive, especially in regards to reproducing music. In Born Digital, Palfrey and Gasser note, “Shawn Fanning let the genie out of the bottle when he released Napster. Not even a federal court could put it back in.” I believe other genies as Fanning’s benefit all counterhegemonic activity that happens on the Internet. It seems that means can still be controlled by noncorporate power, at least for some time, and that might result in activities from which society can benefit.

Google DC: Thoughts on Policy

As Diana posted earlier this week, we had joined John Palfrey as part of the DC Talks series at Google’s Washington, D.C. office. I just wanted to echo that it was an fantastic experience, and I am truly privileged to have taken part. Since we were in DC no less, one of the salient questions that emerged was how Digital Natives will affect policy as we move into the next decade or two. In his post at in reaction to the DC Talk, Drew Bennet has a great analysis of the issues at hand.

Will we see a dramatic shift in priorities that will lead to the development of new paradigms and new solutions for internet policy conflicts? Will a digital native in the White House do for broadband what Eisenhower did for highways?

I asked the panelists if they felt today’s policy makers and presidential candidates were really addressing the issues that are important to digital natives and the researchers seemed to say that they couldn’t be sure yet. It seems the digital natives are only beginning to come of age when it comes to their political and policy preferences…

When I was initially asked these questions at the panel, I admit I didn’t know how best to respond. Working on Digital Natives in the dual roles of researcher-subject has trended me toward a lot of self-analysis, but it has only brought up more questions in the process. Part of my difficulty with this question was how to tease out the various interactions. The question isn’t simply how will Digital Natives affect policy, but how will the two interact with one another. Because Digital Natives are not the policymakers now, everything that happens between now and that point will shape our attitudes on these issues. Could we have predicted a site like Facebook could embody and arguably even have set the standard for privacy online? It is indeed, as Drew also notes, that our opinions are still being formed.

Drew also writes of the dividing line between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.

Thinking back on some of the issues discussed – privacy risks, political engagement, online safety – I fear that digital immigrants, though they may have achieved vital access, will be at risk and at a disadvantage as the larger population of digital natives ascend.

This is a good question to ask because Born Digital focuses on current policy, at a time when Digital Natives are the ones affected by policy but don’t have an input in it. So what happens when the tables are turned? Tech policy in general – whether it’s in the realm of privacy, copyright, etc. – seems to be trending toward greater openness. I wonder though, at least when it comes to privacy, whether there will be a boomerang where a generation that has grown up without privacy begins to demand more control of their privacy. Or does privacy simply become something we value more as we grow older? How much of these differences are simply generational differences between young and old? How much of it is actually a function of the Internet?

I’m going to end on one more question, a question that I expected to get but didn’t: “How much time do you spend online per day?” It seems like a natural entrée into a survey of Internet usage, and it’s a question I often field from my parent’s friends. Perhaps that’s a nod to the savvy of the audience because I think there is no answer that that question. I am constantly online. Unlike the age of dial-up, there really is no distinction between online and off. I live on a college campus blanketed by Wi-Fi and even if I don’t carry my own laptop around, I can easily hop onto a computer and plug in online. The cell phones in our pockets no longer a portal only to the people in our phonebooks, but to the entire Internet. Email can be constantly checked on the fly. This kind of total immersion – there’s something unique growing up with this kind of constant access.

– Sarah Zhang