The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, July 31, 2006

What if no one owned content?

In The Medium is the Massage (and yes, the spelling is correct), Marshall McLuhan notes that the concept of copyright – private ownership of intellectual effort – didn’t exist before the creation of the printing press. He writes:

The invention of printing did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a public – a reading public. The rising consumer-oriented culture became concerned with labels of authenticity and protection against theft and piracy. The idea of copyright – “the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, and sell the matter and form of a literary or artistic work” – was born.

This has created some huge industries, such as publishing, music, and film, all based on the respect for, and protection of, the idea of private ownership of content. But lately I’ve noticed some trends that threaten both the value and the protection of copyright, such as:

  • Volume of authors – One of the underpinnings of the value of copyright is the relative scarcity of content: it’s a basic supply/demand principle. We’ve seen an explosion in authorship of all forms of content – written word, music, video – with any number of people, people who never had access to the high-powered marketing and distribution channels of large publishers, music companies, and film studios, beginning to attract national attention and large audiences. It seems as if the supply/demand equation is changing dramatically.
  • Technology – The waves of authors mentioned above could never reach audiences if it weren’t for technology. Software now allows one guy in a garage to produce music that sounds as good as professional musicians in a studio (assuming he’s got the chops). Perhaps more importantly, the Internet is completely disrupting traditional marketing/distribution channels, not only allowing those heretofore unknowns access to a global audience, but also allowing consumers to easily move copyrighted materials around the world, with music and film piracy rampant despite legal action against organized services like Napster (v1.0), Kazaa, and others.
  • Open source movement – The idea of copyright-free content and resources is growing, again thanks to the Internet. Under the rallying cry of “information wants to be free,” software developers around the world work together to create copyright-free systems and programs on the Linux platform, and some online publishers and aggregators are working to provide copyright-free, and usually community-created, content. One well-known example of this is the Wikipedia (founder Jimmy Wales once bragged that he’s taken the encyclopedia industry from a $10 billion market to a $1 billion market).
  • Rise of China – China is becoming an economic superpower, with some predicting it will overshadow, or at least parallel, the United States on the world stage. And time and again, China has shown little to no regard for ownership of intellectual property. What happens as the country continues to grow in economic power and influence? If China moves to center stage, and continues to essentially ignore private ownership of content, what kind of ripples does that create around the world?

So what we have is a massive growth in production of content, the emergence of a huge underground market illegally trading copyrighted materials, the creation of a free content movement, and the development of an economic giant that has little to no regard for the value and protection of privately-owned intellectual property.

What does this do to a musician – does he have to change his model from getting rich by selling CDs to getting rich by touring? The Grateful Dead pioneered this model, touring almost nonstop and encouraging fans to bootleg their shows and share them with others.

What does this do to an author? It’s much harder for them to take their acts on the road. Will we lose an entire class of professional authors?

What does this do to a filmmaker? As content becomes more plentiful, and films get pirated, the economics of the big-budget blockbuster must become unfeasible at some point. How do studios and filmmakers adjust to the new reality?

And what happens to schools? I think we’ve already seen the first strike in the area of instructional videos, with video being made a commodity thanks to Internet distribution. (The services that provide streaming video to schools do respect copyright, but the advantages of ownership are minimal, and revenues almost negligible). Are supplemental materials the next to be commoditized, given the vast amount of free content available online? And while textbooks are currently safe due to the bureaucratic approval process, how long before copyright-free alternatives (such as Wikibooks) erode their base, just as open source technology are challenging Microsoft’s proprietary systems and tools?

Are the forces outlined simply manifestations of our move towards McLuhan’s global village? Will they be beaten back, with copyright ultimately enforced and maintained, or are we looking at a radically different future? And what does the erosion – or ultimately even elimination – of the idea of private ownership of content mean to our country and our schools?

(Of course, while copyright still exists, I own this article, lock, stock and bagel. C2006, Brett Pawlowski. All rights reserved.)

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