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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Copyright RIP

ZDNet has an interesting article on the problems with trying to preserve copyright provoked, no doubt, by the recent SOPA/PIPA controversy.

As an author and publisher, I have some small interest in the problem.
Unfortunately, I think we are coming to the end of the copyright age.

The world has seen three great revolutions in the dissemination of knowledge:
1) the transition from oral to written language
2) the transition from written language to the printing press
3) the transition from the printing press to the Internet

Each transition changed the way authorship was viewed.

Socrates and Plato were famously placed on either side of the oral-written transition. Socrates wrote nothing, everything he taught was orally transmitted. It fell to Plato to make use of the new writing technology to record Socrates' thoughts.  There was no such thing as copyright law.

Indeed, although the written word became a normal means of communication, copyright law did not naturally follow the development of writing. Literacy was self-controlling because it was a very expensive hobby in terms of training, material and technique. External controls were largely unnecessary.

As a result, most literate societies did not recognize copyright law or anything like it. Pretty much anyone who was literate could make copies of anything they could lay their hands on. When most literate people spent good portions of their time hand-copying works so as to make them available to other literate people, authorship was not highly prized and the concept of publishing was a non sequitor.

The Rise of the Author and His Copyright
It was only with the rapid dissemination of information and of literacy made possible by the printing press that ideas like authorship, publishing and copyright began to make a lot of sense. The printing press drove down the cost of literacy, placing it within reach of a much larger segment of the population.

The ability to rapidly spread printed works meant that literate people could actually take time to savor previously unknown  authors. That is, it was actually possible for a staggeringly large number of authors to make names for themselves by their writings alone. In fact, it wasn't until the 1650's that Athanasius Kircher, a priest renowned in his time for his learning, became the first man to be able to support himself through book sales alone.

Both kings and the Church recognized that the ability to print material contained within it the ability to rapidly spread treasonous or unorthodox ideas. Furthermore, since printers required presses, it was fairly easy to find and regulate the spread of ideas at the point of production - at the printer. Thus, both kings and the Church had good reason to implement printing and copyright laws.

The printing press was invented in 1453.

By 1500, Pope Alexander VI had issued his first bull against the unlicensed printing of books, and the Index of Forbidden Books followed by 1559. Most European countries had instituted some kind of copyright law about the same time that the Pope was issuing his bull. 

450 years later, the cost of printing and the dissemination of books had become so inexpensive, that the Church saw the handwriting on the wall. The Index was abolished June 14, 1966.

By 1966, the Church had realized there was no real way to control the production or the consumption of books. While the nihil obstat and imprimatur still remain as remnants of this attempt at content and production control, both are now pro forma exercises in marketing without any real expectations of doctrinal utility or applicability. The only reason a publisher seeks them today is to appeal to a certain niche market - they are now marketing tools.

The End of the Author and Copyright
It is interesting that the Index was abolished just thirty years before the next revolution in communications technology smashed the old printing model to smithereens. Today, the Internet makes the spread of ideas almost instantaneous. Whether for good or ill, however, there is no way to regulate the spread of ideas.

And when I say there is no way, I don't mean, "there is no good way."
I mean:    There. Is. No. Way.
It cannot be done.

If it is in electronic format, anyone can copy anything for any reason anywhere. Everyone with a PC, heck, everyone with a cell phone, can be a point of copy and redistribution. Today, cell phones can carry 32 GB  or more of memory - more than enough to hold several full-length movies. This capacity will only increase with time.

As a result, I strongly doubt that copyright law is very much longer for this world.

Laws against adultery and fornication fell when contraception made both so prevalent and so socially acceptable that it was no longer possible to maintain the facade that the laws served a purpose. If society embraces contraception, it cannot hold onto the idea that fornication or adultery should be outlawed.  Indeed, it cannot hold onto the idea that homosexuality, necrophilia, bestiality or pedophilia should be outlawed. The first has already been legalized, the rest soon will be.

Similarly, if society embraces the rapid spread of ideas which computers make possible, it will no longer be able to hold onto the idea of copyright.

Computer geeks like to say "information wants to be free."

They are correct. People want information more than they want food. The Internet is turning large swaths of information into a commodity like electricity or running water. The best anyone can hope for is to meter usage (thus, the fee to connect to the Internet). Beyond that, I can no more control how you choose to use information than I can control how you use the electricity or water that is piped into your home.

If I can figure out a way to take tap water or my electrical outlet and turn what pours from it into cash, you cannot stop me. The same will be true for the Internet and the information that pours in through that portal. Information used to be attached to personalities, but that connection will only become more tenuous with time.

If the 1960's gave birth to the Free Love generation, the 2010's will give birth to the Free Information generation.

Copyright was fun while we had it, but it's gone now.


1 comment:

Tancred said...

Your analysis looks real London School of Economics-like.