Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The World's Biggest Copy Machine

I've been continuing to think more about copyright, and how it relates to the "piracy" debate that's raging, and a couple of ideas came to mind.

First, people love to share. It's part of our better nature.

We're taught that being free with our substance is virtuous. We praise people who give freely. We condemn those who are stingy, or miserly. Selfish: bad. Generous: good. And so on.

And when you find something good, (assuming you're not greedy or selfish), you go out and tell everyone about it. When you find something bad, you warn everyone. You're sharing your knowledge and understanding. You're lifting others, at virtually no expense to yourself.

We've always shared. We've talked about good and bad experiences, we've loaned our books, albums, tapes, 8-tracks, CDs, DVDs, etc. As artists, we've played our favorite songs for friends and family. We tell people about what we hear, or learn, or think is neat.

And again, we only get concerned with people who don't share, rather than with anyone who does.

Second is something that Lawrence Lessig points out in Free Culture. It's that, until recently, selling ideas or expressions has always gone hand-in-hand with selling stuff. That music came on an 8-track, or cassette, or CD. That movie came on a tape or DVD. Those words came on paper.

But not any more. Digitize a thing, and it becomes bits on a hard drive. There's no more "stuff" involved. And what's more, digital bits are really easy to copy.

That's what keeps media moguls awake at night: computers, both inside and out, are copying machines. To do anything at all, it must copy. Inside, computers copy bits from the hard drive to memory, and then to your video card for display, or to your sound card to be heard. Outside, all those webpages you're reading (like this one) are copies of files that were sent from some other computer. The Internet exists solely to copy. Everything that happens on the 'net involves copying. Everything!

So now that there's nothing physical involved, and now that digitized stuff resides on the world's biggest and most intricate copying machine, and now that people are waking up to the fact that they can satisfy the (very good and proper) human desire to share, is it any wonder that the old-world media companies are worried? Is it any wonder that somewhere between a third to half of Internet traffic is people sharing "stuff" via these sharing networks?

Right now, we're in a fight between media companies telling us to stop sharing ("or we'll sue you"), and human nature doing what it's longed to do all along: share freely. Throughout history, technology has led to freedoms. The printing press meant that everyone could get books, whereas prior to that, only clerics, scholars and the wealthy had them. Inventing recordable media (records, tapes, etc.) meant that no longer do we need to find a musician to hear music. In each of these cases, (as well as many others), "life as we knew it" changed dramatically as the technology became widespread, and let us do better what we wanted to do all along.

I'm optimistic. I believe that the good part of human nature will win out, that the old media forces will adapt, and that life will continue, greatly enriched by the free and open sharing of ideas and expressions. Despite the fact that some industries will need to change.

No comments: