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The Economist on Copyright

The Economist weighs in with an article on copyright and the Internet:

Digital technology... is reducing the cost of publishing and distributing works to almost zero, which should be a boon for creative people, but has also made the unauthorised copying of works virtually costless and, more important, perfect. In retrospect, the copyright balancing act ["between the public's access to new ideas and the incentive to creators to produce and publish them"] has survived only because of the imperfections of earlier copying methods.

Content industries want to respond by abandoning the idea of balance altogether. Through a combination of software encryption and new hardware, known as Digital Rights Management (DRM), they want to make digital copying of their work impossible without their permission. They also want a legal framework that allows them to enforce and protect their rights. For them, intellectual property is property, pure and simple.

The article goes on to pose a number of intriguing questions:

What would happen if the content industries, through a combination of law and technology, were to achieve total copyright protection of their works? Oddly enough, this might not be as comfortable for them as they believe, nor as disastrous for the public as their critics fear, for two reasons. First, one of the most startling things about the internet has been the vast volume of free content that it immediately made available, and that has continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Not everyone wants to get rich from creative work. Millions of people seem more intent on reaching an audience than generating revenue, and do not need the incentive of copyright protection to create something. They include some established writers, artists, musicians and film makers, as well as legions of wannabes.

Second, digital technology is not only making it easier to copy and distribute content, but also to generate it. This is true even of the most expensive medium of all, movies. If content industries overplay their hand, they could end up alienating and losing much of their audience. They are, after all, only intermediaries between creators and consumers. The public may not be willing to tolerate the control of their behaviour that DRM schemes would impose. People may accept copy protections on some products, but are likely to refuse to buy machines which make it hard to copy content in the public domain.

Conversely, what would happen if copyright were to be abolished entirely, as many cyber-libertarians advocate? Again, this might not prove as liberating as they hope, at least in the short term. Content industries would be unlikely to realise their threat to withhold their products from the digital marketplace. Instead, they might digitise everything as fast as possible, but rely more than ever on technological rather than legal protection. In any race with hackers trying to break through encryption barriers, the media companies would probably stay far enough ahead to suppress most piracy. Governments might do more to criminalise attempts to break these barriers, as Congress did in passing the DMCA. But even if they balked at this, they would be unlikely ever to ban the erection of such barriers.

In this scenario, the most commercial books, music and movies would remain behind a pay barrier. "Fair use" of these would be lost, unless granted by the creator, and copies that consumers could make for private use would be tightly controlled. It is true that, without legal backing, this control would endure only as long as the copy protection withstood technological advances, but content providers would probably also experiment with business models other than outright sale, such as subscription and advertising.

Ironically, these two outcomes seem rather similar. So is the debate about copyright irrelevant? Eventually, perhaps. But first there will be constant warfare between those who see copyright protection as a threat to the new digital world, and those who see that world as a threat to their wallets. Certainly, the content industries are likely to experience the most upheaval. They may be able to retard the growth of copying on the internet for a time, but they cannot hold back the advance of technology altogether. This will undermine their existing business models, based as they are on print, analogue broadcasting and the sale of physical products such as compact discs. Even if the "total copyright protection" scenario sketched above prevails, content providers will have to reinvent themselves. But whatever happens, creativity is unlikely to grind to a halt. The show must go on.

It's a good point to be made. Singers sing. Painters paint. Writers write. Art has survived millennia of societal, technological, and cultural changes, many far more radical than those posed by the Internet. Will Universal or Bertelsmann exist a century from now? Perhaps. If they do survive, wiill they exist in anything like their current form? Probably not. But irrespective of this, we will be listening to new music, and reading new writing.

There were neither neither agents nor promoters, neither copyright law nor copy protection at Lascaux. There was simply the creative impulse. It is a fundamental, undying truth of the human existence.

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