Everything has Changed: A Note on Copyright

A final comment of mine on a Metafilter thread started on 21 August 2002; background here.

We are at an extraordinary moment in history when new technologies make possible what was never possible before: the making of multiple copies of creative work, at practically no cost (once you have access to a computer), by anyone. Yet the laws governing this new situation stem from a time when all copies were necessarily physical objects made at some expense by specialists; and they're being modified and enforced under pressure from industries that grew up under, and benefitted enormously from, the previous regime.

That doesn't mean there's no place for a concept of intellectual property—and it doesn't mean that there should be one, either. It means that everything should be re-negotiated, because everything has changed. Not 're-negotiated' in the sense of 'laws protecting existing industries reinforced by governments with little public consultation after extensive lobbying from those same industries', which is what we've seen happening in most countries. Because the tools of 'copyright violation' are now within the grasp of most citizens (in Western countries, at least), those citizens must play an informed and consenting role in the shaping of the new intellectual property regime for it to work. It's not just between the publishing/recording industry and governments any more. We are all publishers now. And that's enormously important, much more important than a few stupid mp3s of a few stupid songs by a few stupid RIAA bands.

And: if this is the beginning of the end for the Internet as a whole, as some suggest, then we may not have lost a right, but we've lost a new-found ability to make that right real. Because, yes, we Westerners all enjoy 'freedom of the press', but a lot of good that does us when there's no paper or ink.


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