Friday, January 09, 2009

Popular Culture and Copyrights

I've been blogging for over three years now and, during that time, I've addressed the issue of copyright more than once. Dating back to 2005, I've quoted Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and columnist for Wired. I most recently mentioned him in a post here.

Lessig has now written a non-fiction book called Remix which promises to show "how we harm our children--and almost anyone else who creates, enjoys or sell any art form--with a restrictive copyright system driven by corporate interests" as well as offering solutions through what he calls a "hybrid economy."

I'm about a quarter of the way through the book and thought I'd do a post on it.

Lessig approaches the subject from the perspective of culture. He talks about two types of culture. The first is a RO (read only) culture in which members simply consume culture. Examples of this would be listening to music, watching a movie or reading a book. "With each, we're not expected to do much more than simply consume."

The second type of culture is a RW (read/write) culture where the members "add to the culture they read by creating and re-creating the culture around them. They do this re-creating using the same tools the professional uses..."

An analog technology lends itself to a RO culture.
In analog technology, "...first, any (consumer-generated) copy was inferior to the original; and second, the technologies to enable a consumer to copy an RO token were extremely rare. No doubt there were recording studios aplenty in Nashville and Motown. But for the ordinary consumer, RO tokens were to be played, not manipulated. And while they might legally be shared, every lending meant at least a temporary loss for the lender. If you borrowed my LPs, I didn't have them. If you used my record player to play Bach, I couldn't listen to Mozart.
Lessig points out that the producers of the content being marketed did not regard the limitations of analog technology as flaws. "For this nature limited the opportunity for consumers to compete with producers (by "sharing").

Of course, digital technology turned the RO culture on its ear. Consumers could now manipulate content.
" technology removed the constraints that had bound culture to particular analog tokens of RO culture ... When the content industry recognized this change, it was terrified. Digital tokens of RO culture would no longer conspire with the content industry to protect that industry's business model."
One of the things that digital technology has created is an expectation that we should have access on demand.
More and more, even to old folks like me, it seems astonishing to remember a time when to watch a television show, you had to synchronize your schedule to the schedule of the broadcaster. Absurd that if you missed an episode, that was it."

The expectation of access on demand builds slowly, and it builds differently across generations. But at a certain point, perfect access (meaning the ability to get whatever you want whenever you want it) will seem obvious. And when it seems obvious, anything that resists that expectation will seem ridiculous.

Ridiculous, in turn, makes many of us willing to break the rules that restrict access. Even the good become pirates in a world where the rules seem absurd.
Lessig sees the demand for universal access growing and suggests that there will be three possible models: (1) devices that simply provide access; (2) devices that meter access like a jukebox does, "deducting a fee for every download or play"; or (3) devices that police the access like a guard at the gate, monitoring the content being accessed and blocking access without the proper credentials.

Lessig suspects that much more content will be offered for free (the first model) while "digital technologies will continue to resist models that depend upon the heavy policing" (the third model).

Stay tuned for more as I continue to read this excellent book.

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