Sunday, June 12, 2011

Understanding copyright - the absence of accessible debate

I'm about to start some work that will involve knowledge of the copyright debate. It's a subject that I've taken more than a passing interest in at various times and I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into it.

One thing has helped. Quite by chance, while following some links, I stumbled across an Atlantic Monthly article called 'Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea' that I'd read (in hard copy, I think?) back in 1998.

I lost it soon after reading (and heavily annotating) it and I've missed it ever since. At face value, it's over-long. But it's value is in the fact that it lays out the basic problem of copyright in very straightforward terms.

There's a fair bit of tech-prediction (digital 'watermarking' of CDs, etc) that can be skipped along with some not-awful guesses at where the book trade would be in 2010. But the real value in the article is that it strings together a history of copyright, providing some useful overviews of why it evolved and asking big questions about quality in arts and entertainment, and the question of the sum of human knowledge (digging into the term 'information' and it's various definitions) and an understanding of the appropriate approach to the word 'property' in relation to data and the deductions and creations that we make from it.

It's written in ignorance of some concepts that are now very familiar to anyone writing about this nowadays - social bookmarking, collaborative authoring, collaborative filtering, the end-user mainstreaming of open-source software (i.e. beyond Apache servers), apps, proprietary browser-based services that offer access to nuggests of intellectual property (the obvious one being Spotify), etc.

There are some good encounters with John Perry Barlow and Esther Dyson and some healthy scepticism about some of the more ambitious claims from cyber-utopians.

But, for me, the valuable thing in this article - something that seems to be missing elsewhere - is the way it addresses lots of simple issues. It's actually a couple of dozen interesting blog-posts where a bit of information is presented and then pulled together with a summary. Most of the stuff I read on this subject either assumes I've already read an article like this, or it's written by someone who hasn't the breadth of understanding that reading an article like this would bring them.

Copyright (with attendant subjects of privacy and censorship) appears to be a huge issue of our age. It's very complex in moral and practical terms and it's one on which very few people have ever had a back-to-basics course.

I dunno. Maybe I'll start doing short posts pulling nuggets of that article out, investigating them a bit further and discussing them here. WDYT?

1 comment:

Mil said...

I think that'd be really useful. On a slight tangent, I guess you've read Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think", also at the Atlantic:

This has influenced a lot of my beliefs in relation to what copyright should aim to deliver.