Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Copyright Today

"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing."
Jimmy Wales, Founder, Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia)

The Internet has created a world where the sum of human knowledge and culture can be made available to every single person on the planet no matter where they are. It's like handing every single person on the planet a Library of Congress, except even bigger than that.

This is not a futuristic sci-fi idea. The technology to do this is already here. The only thing that is stopping this world of total post-scarcity of information is a law that was conceived when the printing press was the most efficient medium of copying knowledge. This law is called copyright law.

Copyright law works on the concept of artificial scarcity, that is forcing something to be scarce by law instead of by nature. In the age of the printing press, this artificial scarcity did not feel artificial at all. In order to efficiently copy something a person required to basically own a printing press machine. These machines were only owned by fairly large businesses and very difficult to use.

Individuals really did not posses the technology to copy things at a mass scale. Thus copyright rarely, if ever, conflicted with the rights of the individual. It was a law that affected printing businesses exclusively, so it could be considered an industrial regulation. Much like trademark law but even more narrow in scope because it only applied to a specific industry. Thus copyright wasn't very controversial.

The information age changed all that. Now every individual potentially has access to be best copy machine available: the modern computer with Internet access. This is a quantum leap forward over the printing press as far as copying technology is concerned. Copyright law now applies to the populace just as much as it applies to mass printing companies. It's scope has increased without the law changing very much. So it is no longer a uncontroversial law.

Today, copyright is very hard to enforce because you have to enforce it on everyone. Copyright itself is also under attack. This blog will examine this phenomena more closely. Compared to many other blogs that discuss copyright, this one will look at copyright from a perspective of sympathy for the current zeitgeist of the information age.