On the net, moral, ethical and legal codes are still fluid – they're 'in play'. So, there's a land-grab mentality, especially among the big owners of intellectual property (media owners in particular). They see this period of uncertainty and confusion as an opportunity to extend their ownership of ideas and creative works – into new media, new territories and – crucially – into the future.
In almost every culture, protection of ideas and creative works has always been time-limited, constrained by law in the interests of innovation and access to ideas. Many formulations exist – simple time limits, obligatory re-registration of copyright, protection for the artist's life + 50 years and so on – depending on a work's type, the territory etc. International treaties (WIPO, WTO), economic integration and new distribution technologies have produced uncertainty about the purpose of ideas and the value of the public domain.
Some see this as an important moment – an 'inflection point' – in the history of ideas and their dissemination. They worry that the public domain (a notoriously difficult-to-define concept) may be at risk of permanent damage – that Disney, Time Warner, Sony and the rest are effectively enclosing previously unprotected areas of human endeavour and using action against pirates and downloaders as a cover for their longer-term goals. It's unlikely that any such conspiracy exists but the out-of-control file sharing networks and busy CD burners do provide a convenient justification for the extension of technical and legal protections.
Here are some links and references on the net's attitude to IPR.
- Creative Commons is an ambitious attempt to roll out an alternative copyright framework, one in which artists can make explicit assignments of copyright and, for instance, deliberately protect the right of DJs to sample and reuse their work while preventing businesses from doing so for commercial use.
- Larry Lessig is a Harvard law professor and the most prominent and articulate activist against Big Media in IPR (there's also some inspiring stuff on his blog about last month's World Social Forum in Brazil).
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a broadly libertarian pressure group, now over 15 years old, funded by rich IT industry entrepreneurs, whose aim is to protect free speech and free culture in cyberspace. They defend teenage hackers, cut-up artists and whistleblowers.
- Brewster Kahle is one of those rich IT industry entrepreneurs and his current project is an archive of all human knowledge – starting with the web. He wants IP law changed to permit his library of everything to legally store copyright material and has already obtained an exception from the DMCA for that purpose. This is a most exciting and inspiring project, if you ask me!
- Nearly a year ago (before Director General Greg Dyke was forced to resign over the corporation's Iraq coverage), the BBC announced its Creative Archive – a project whose promise (which, let's be honest, might never be fulfilled – it's still only an announcement) is immense. The archive will make available (under a Creative Commons license, of course) all of the BBC's content for reuse and extension by... anyone. There are obvious exceptions – stuff that the Corporation is still exploiting for profit, stuff that belongs to other creators, stuff that doesn't exist any more – but this is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive adoption of the net's IP ethic by a major institution anywhere in the world so far. Admirable. By the way, you can see an early effect of this approach with an excellent weekly BBC radio show called In Our Time which is made available for download as an MP3 file straight after broadcast – still a very unusual practice amongst mainstream broadcasters.
- Late last year I helped with a response to a mock tender document from the UK's media regulator, Ofcom. We were bidding for £300M of license fee payer's money to build an 'open source' media owner for the next generation of post-Internet citizens. Very interesting.
- I've made a couple of attempts at technology, IP and the public domain on my own blog: in 2002 and in The Guardian in 2003.