Thursday, December 15, 2005

Dude, Where's My Culture?

The whole Sony BMG rootkit fiasco has given me an active interest in the broader issue of the new "culture wars" we face in the so-called Digital Age: namely, the many ways that copyright law is being expanded and abused to criminalize and control vast swaths of ordinary human behavior.

I know I'm coming very late to the party and I've a lot of catching up to do, but getting up to speed so far has been a fascinating, albeit rather depressing, exercise.

The main issue in copyright lately has been framed in terms of property vs. piracy -- i.e., you are either on the side of legitimate property owners or else you're some kind of thieving bastard, lower than dirt. That's the attitude of the big copyright holders, anyway, and apparently also of government in general, which keeps increasing the punishments for infringement to asinine levels, not to mention lengthening copyright monopolies beyond any single human lifespan.

But the larger issue, as Lawrence Lessig points out, is whether we are to enjoy a "free culture" that fosters and benefits from creative uses of shared knowledge or suffer under a "permission culture" wherein a few big corporations "own" most of the media we see and hear and spoonfeed it to the public only on those corporations' terms.

It is the classic decentralization vs. consolidation argument, here applied to culture instead of to government. Interestingly, the "conversative" public policy world, whence I come, seems to be mostly on the side of cultural consolidation. This is ironic in that the normal (and correct) conservative view is that concentration of power = bad, while diffuse and competing sources of power = good. This was largely* the view of America's founders as well.

Of course, since conservatives nominally believe in property rights, they automatically take the side of the people who sue Girl Scouts, grandmothers, and 12-year-old kids for downloading songs off the Internet. Because, you know, if you oppose "property," you must be a communist.

But what is this thing, "intellectual property"? The Cato Institute, generally regarded as libertarian (as opposed to conservative), at least knows to ask this question. But the other alleged "less government" folk are cheerleading for more laws and stiffer penalties. Is this a good idea?

No. Increasingly, Lessig argues, "the law’s role is less and less to support creativity, and more and more to protect certain industries against competition." In other words, we're talking not about copy "protection" but copy protectionism. Most conservatives used to oppose this anti-market behavior, too, correctly arguing that it's not only unjust, but it results in fewer choices for consumers and, ultimately, in harmful cartels and monopolies.

Rabid copyright enforcement is also neutering the Internet. At least one commentator suggests the next target could be blogging itself. What will the future of the 'net look like? O brave new world, that--

Excuse me, is this the "blog" known as "Suds & Soliloquies"?

Er, yes.

We represent the estate of William Shakespeare. Here's a cease-and-desist letter. Your unauthorized quoting of the Bard could result in a lawsuit if you don't stop.

OK, never mind. Anyway, I'll probably write more about this stuff as I get further into Lessig's eye-opening book "Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity."

I suppose now this makes me a "copyfighter."

* Forget that bastard Alexander Hamilton.