Blowing Copyright

This is the draft of a commentary that has not yet run on NPR's "All Things Considered." I mistakenly posted it, and it got linked to enough that I'm posting it in draft form here.

I lost an argument about copyright protection on the Internet the other night. I lost the same argument a couple of weeks ago. In fact, I lose this argument every time I have it. Most recently, to a Washington lawyer at a semi-friendly business dinner. I said that we've always been allowed to make copies of music and books: Yes, but, the lawyer said, the Internet lets one copy serve thousands of people. I said, the record companies rip off the artists who only get a buck or two out of the 15 to 20 we pay. Yesbut, says the lawyer, that's the contract they signed and you don't have the right to deprive them of those few dollars. I said, photocopiers are used to violate copyright all the time, and we're not talking about disabling them. Yesbut digital technology gives us a way of protecting intellectual property and we have no excuse not to use it.

We'd started arguing when the soup was served and would have made it all the way to figuring out the tip, except around the time that we were putting down the dessert menus, I realized what I actually believe. (Took me long enough.) "Look," I said, "I know my argument isn't coherent. I can't defend the things I'm saying. But, I haven't really said what matters to me. I'm not looking for free music. I'm 51 and employed. I can buy the music I want. And I'm a writer; I'm in favor of people getting paid for what they create. The fact is I don't know what the law should look like . But I do know in my heart three things.

First, the industry's gotta change. We have a recording business that was built around its ability to solve what was once a really hard problem - distributing music. Now any 11 year old with Internet access can solve it. So, the current recording industry has to change or fail.

Second, I don't think any of us know how to change it. Our current common sense doesn't work. I mean, we protect intellectual property, but our own government has a system for making a single copy of a book available for free to thousands of people without the author getting a dime. It's called the public library. But we're ok with that. We don't yet know what we're going to be ok with on the Web. It's too early and it's too different and we should be careful of making bad, hasty decisions.

Third, and this is really what matters to me. The very thing the most conservative among us have dreamt of, have died for since the founding of this country, is now within our grasp: free markets, free speech, worldwide. And we're blowing it because some dinosaur companies insist on maintaining their grip on every last dollar before their industry dies. 500 million of us can see how close it is, how the world economy would blossom, how the human spirit would get dizzy with possibility, and we're arguing about how we can best prevent it? We should be talking about how we can explode the barriers.

So, I don't know how the law should change. I'm not a lawyer or legislator. But what's at stake isn't whether some of us get music without paying for it but the type of world we're building. We're have the chance to move from a world based on scarcity and greed to one built on abundance and generosity. And the effect will be evolutionary growth ....unless we stay really stupid about it.

That's what I said. Then we had coffee. Nothing changed.

-- David Weinberger, August, 2002

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