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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Since We're Talking About Intellectual Property Law. . .

Microsoft seems to be in the vanguard, defending a 19th Century economic model for IP law. Not only has it deformed the purpose of its operating system into one giant copy-protection scheme, but now it’s attacking open-source software vendors with vague threats of patent violations.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: copy protection is essentially impossible. The defenders of old-style IP law are throwing money, lawyers and technology at an insoluble problem. The fact is, if you allow a user to see content, that user can reproduce the content. Throw whatever technical hurdles you want at the issue, in the end, you have to give the user access to the content or there’s nothing to read, watch or listen to.

Everyone seems to focus on the wrong end of the problem. The economic issue is not how we force all the consumers to pay for that Metallica song— tain’t going to happen, as everyone who owned a radio-cassette player in the 80s will attest to. The economic issue is how do we compensate content creators for the effort used to produce the content? Paying royalties on copies of the work is a model from the industrial revolution, back when books were just another widget coming off an assembly line. Not a good model in a digital world where one book/cd/movie/article can be replicated ad infinitum with little or no central control. (Ironic example: look here then here)

The fact is that lack of control has already happened. And draconian measures by Microsoft, the RIAA and the motion picture industry actually worsens the problem by pissing off average end users and eroding the moral compunction against wholesale piracy— which is the only real clothing the emperor has at this point.

The other fact is, I’m not one of those that believe you can legislate the economy. Sure, you can make things worse, or inconvenient, or dangerous— but eventually a new mode of operation will emerge. The corporations that adapt will survive, and those that don’t adapt will collapse, throwing their last few millions at lawyers and legislators trying to make it stop. As for individuals, I am not as pessimistic as the luddite Dr. Hendrix. If anything, the need for entertainment in this economy is increasing exponentially, and there will be no shortage of opportunities for writers, musicians and actors to make a living. Just don’t expect your work to stay in a nice little box after you cash the check.


RobRoy said...

What kind of economic market do you see emerging? Something akin to iTunes and similar music-sharing sites that charge by song?

S Andrew Swann said...

There are several possible models. The three I see as most likely:
1) Various flavors of advertising, including product placement.
2) Some sort of global bandwidth tax/licensing akin to how we've dealt with radio broadcasting.
3) A portal model where mega-sites like Google, iTunes or CBS pay for the right to distribute content and make money by subscription or ads.

RobRoy said...

How does the original owner/creator receive payment under these models?

S Andrew Swann said...

The same way they do now, through whatever companies distribute the content. Or, if you go via the bandwidth tax, from whoever is collecting the fees (BTW- I don't endorse it, in practice it will shaft anyone who isn't in a "Top 40" category in whatever media, but I still think it's depressingly likely to emerge as a possible model.)

RobRoy said...

I wasn't certain where to put this, but wanted to let you know that I just finished reading "The Dwarves of Whiskey Island". It was nicely done, and I'm looking forward to "Unicorns".