Its a real place (part 1 of 5)

If geography is  a learned concept, then there is a stage in our development when it simply gets taken for granted. The phrase, “the shop is at the end of the street” no longer needs to be accompanied by a syntax explaining the inherent geography. We shouldn’t continue to be surprised by how quickly 5,6, and 7 year olds pick up some of the more subtle aspects of the modern computing experience.

It’s all just geography, after all. Youtube is a real place.

Sometimes though the comfort of vibrant metaphors encourages mental laziness, preventing or impairing analysis and planning for our shared digital futures.

Take torrents, for example, or cyberlockers such as Megaupload, or even, something like Google itself. It’s clear that these type of sites can be, and often are, part of the process that connects people with copyrighted material that they have not paid for. That sounds a lot like aiding and abetting theft, to a lot of people.

But the thing is, it isn’t aiding and abetting theft. Mostly because the end of line crime, the 3rd party crime, isn’t theft, its copyright infringement. Its different, in actuality and in law. These aren’t even particularly subtle differences actually, but it’s still easy to see why people equate it with theft.

The differences are important, not because they change the moral imperative of piracy (whether they do or not, and what morality they change are highly subjective topics of course), but because the difference between the two is relevant, with high specificity, to the technology at the heart of the debate, the internet itself.

That’s the problem, copying versus permanent deprival and the internet is nothing if it isn’t a massive copying machine.

This is the crux of it. The functionality we now have, via modern general purpose computing and the internet, is never going to degrade naturally, copying will only get cheaper and cheaper.

The legal distinction between permanent deprival, or theft, and copying works of intellectual property through illegal reproduction (performance or facsimile) is carefully crafted to benefit the society and culture at large, recognising the need to incentivise further creativity and derivative work. It just isn’t as straightforward as we would like it to be, we can’t simply replace our definitions “because it feels like theft”, these are important and complex issues and we should take care to get our response to them right.

Still, regardless of futuristic ideals, there is the problem of today’s lost profits (which I will take at face value for now). It still feels, to many, like theft.

“I should have £100, but I don’t, even though there is £100 of my product on peoples’ ipods”

The RIAA and MPAA et al have spent the last few years targeting teenagers and their families, the actual downloaders themselves, with limited success (although success in this endeavour is difficult to measure. Do you go for the overall health of the industry – “piracy is killing us !” , or the number of reported acts of piracy themselves?).

The latest fuss over SOPA, the slower burn underpinning of ACTA, the widely held suspicion that SOPA and PIPA will reappear tacked onto the forthcoming internet pornography act later in the year, are all elements of a change in strategy, and a significant one. It looks as though the targets have been switched, and they are now looking to influence the structure of the internet itself, targeting supply chain infrastructure with obligatory monitor and liability legislation.

This is all very dangerous. Dangerous, because getting it wrong involves breaking the internet. Getting it wrong destroys hard won and essential personal and societal freedoms.

The rather impressive rallying of protest against the SOPA legislation in the US will need to be repeated many times. I am sure it will be just one fight among many more.

It’s no longer OK to NOT know how the internet works.

Actually, let’s say that again.

It’s no longer OK to NOT know how the internet works

There are 2 ideas in that statement.

Firstly it’s an acknowledgement that some of the people attempting to structure our world through this legislation don’t understand the landscape of their businesses models, and subsequently are misunderstanding the impact of their proposals.

Secondly, and much more importantly, it’s an acknowledgement that we the people have been complicit in this situation. It acknowledges that unless we all try to understand how the internet works then we cannot possibly, through our democratic institutions (or otherwise, frankly), make informed choices about some of the most essential and urgent issues facing 21st century society.

I don’t read that banner and hope it was written for the executives at the MPAA to see. I hope it was written for everyone to see.

  It’s no longer OK to NOT know how the internet works

Once again though, it simply isn’t that easy. On the face of it, even, this seems like a rather contradictory demand. In the name of freedom it obligates everyone to become expert in some rather arcane and complex matters. It is clearly not reasonable to expect all adults to attain specific levels of expertise, in anything, quite frankly. We cannot legislate knowledge.

Moreover, we never have expected our citizens to hold an obligation to learn and update a widespread and accurate knowledge of the great issues of the day. There is no reason to expect that tradition to change.

In times past we relied on the great Statesmen (capital S intended) to do right by us and make informed and intelligent decisions based around an expectation that the government worked specifically for the good of the citizenry, actively and directly. Issues were generally simpler and the reach of the law was more limited. There was space to hide. Hollywood itself was, after all, located quite specifically to escape the legal enforcement of Edison’s technology patents for film making and distribution. A great deal of human innovation, it turns out, has challenged, and broken, legalised monopolies

So, let’s simplify the issues where we can. Let’s try to make it easier to understand. But more fundamentally let’s find ways to replace the trust we used to have in Statesmen, with trust in new forces (maybe some of the newly forming online communities, communities that are going to have power whether we want them to or not), let’s use the technology of the day to bring transparency to the process not censure.

These are big formative issues, so much more than a simple commercial conflict. Copyright and patent law, and how they change in the coming years will be one of the fundamental pillars of the new economic ordering of society. Property protection (intellectual or otherwise)  is and always has been a fundamental aspect of the rule of law that underpins stable economies.

What is different today is that the incumbent and desired methods of enforcement will break todays dominant technology. Somethings gotta give.

This series of posts will look at the intersection of the relevant law and the relevant technology with regard to the copyright / content paradigm issue currently playing out in actuality.

The 2nd  post will look at what we can learn from Malcolm Mclean and containerisation, the 3rd will argue for exclusive protections for essential carrier infrastructure, the 4th post will examine the economic paradox, while the 5th one will argue for and make suggestions for copyright reform.


One Comment on “Its a real place (part 1 of 5)”

  1. […] Part 1 explored the thought that it is no longer OK to NOT know how the internet works. […]

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