March 09, 2009

Copyright: Dead Man Walking

Greetings. As I type this text, I'm listening to old tunes on imeem in the background. In case you haven't being paying attention recently to the Media Piracy Wars, imeem is perhaps the best demonstration to date that the RIAA and record labels have already capitulated -- a fate likely to follow in relatively short order for all other media that can be easily digitized. Right now I'm playing a stream of Animals classics -- with "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" spinning at the moment (as it happens, long my theme song).

The imeem site, among various other fascinating features, legally allows you to play -- in their entirety -- pretty much any single or album track you're likely to care about. Rock, classical, pop, novelty, soundtrack -- whatever, it's a seemingly bottomless box. OK, there are some exceptions, but I have to try pretty hard to find selections that aren't available.

While in theory you can only play (not download) the tracks for free, there are of course a variety of ways to capture such audio content, in either analog or digital domains. Even postulating the unlikely government mandating of draconian content control mechanisms (like crippled A/D converters, analog tagging blocks, and other similar creepy crawlies) trying to prevent the essentially unlimited transfer of digitized media materials between private parties is already a lost cause.

And while most of the arguing to date has been over illicit media exchanges (e.g., via P2P networks) -- it seems inevitable that ultimately motion pictures will follow a similar path to that of music when it comes to pretty much universal legal free online access in some form -- after all, from a digital standpoint, the only real difference is the much larger number of bytes, and that's decreasingly a practical problem. Books and other written materials may likely follow the same course in due time. Software packages have achieved some protection when tightly tied to individual computers through online registration systems, but pushback from users, non-copy-protected applications, and open source packages are increasingly impacting this arena as well.

Back in YouTube and Google Book Search: Pain, Delight, and Copyright, I suggested that technological change was "diluting" the concept of copyright.

I'll now go one step farther. Copyright -- for most practical purposes -- is effectively dead. Now, that doesn't mean that the slowly moldering corpse of copyright won't be with us for quite some time in various forms. Copyright concepts will maintain their value longest as mechanisms to prosecute illicit commercial exploitation of associated media, but as a tool to prevent or control mass distribution, the coffin nails are being hammered in more deeply with every passing day.

This situation shouldn't automatically trigger fear -- or joy for that matter. We don't have to like or hate the concept of copyright -- which has certainly provided major useful benefits to both individuals and society for many years. But we must accept the fact that technological changes have fundamentally undermined key elements that made copyright practical -- namely the difficulty and expense of duplication and transport. Ubiquitous, inexpensive digitization tools, plus the spread of broadband Internet services, have swept those limitations out the window for most media.

The important question isn't how to save copyright -- because that's already effectively a lost cause in most respects. What we should be doing right now is working together to try find the best models for the future that will reward creativity in ways that foster its flowering (and allow people to make a living!) while still acknowledging that the game has fundamentally changed. The old rules we played in these regards are increasingly marginalized historical curiosities.

Finding the new paths won't be easy. There likely won't be any obvious yellow brick roads in evidence. But this is a task that we must embark upon collectively and immediately -- as individuals, nations, and as an ever more interconnected global community. Isolated or proprietary commercial "solutions" will not win the day.

Once we have worked our way past the "dead man walking" of copyright, we can far more effectively move forward with new creation and distribution models for vibrant music, movies, books, and all of the other media forms -- past, present, and future.

The time to start this journey in earnest is now.


Posted by Lauren at March 9, 2009 12:20 PM | Permalink
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