Bandwidth galore and the death of copyright?

Filed under: — Patrick @ 2:16 pm on

William Gibson writes in God’s Little Toys about the death of copyright, although he probably would not characterize it as such. I like his fiction, and I think much of what he says in this piece is accurate. Still, if all expression becomes cut-and-paste redux, where do we draw the line between protecting the output of an artist (like Gibson) so they can earn a living, and the expression of the derivative "artist"? Plenty has already been written about the epidemic of plagiarism among students, and about the problems of assuming the internet (i.e., the online cut-and-paste source) is a complete or authoritative source of information. I heard a great story about a young journalist who did her research using only LexisNexis; when researching a story about Nixon’s death, she was largely unaware of his Watergate misdeeds, because they happened before the online event horizon. The point is that when content creation is just (electronic) recombination, you lose not only genuinely new voices, but a whole host of other voices that are not easily cut and pasted. This does not bode well for students, journalists or artists.

To be clear: I think that recombination is very interesting. In the MSMDX project at SIMS, we are exploring ways to enable community annotation of media precisely to support recombination and other creative forms. It is much easier to create a nice montage of beautiful media snippets than it is to create beautiful content from scratch (for any medium, but especially so for audio and video). If we are to believe the pundits, we will have enough bandwidth in a few years to enable widespread re-editing and sharing of video. As available bandwidth increases, the pressure on the broadcast television and film industry will increase as well, and perhaps legislation will, as Gibson asserts, come after the fact of new realities determined by technology. Gibson mentions broadcast television as an example of the process. Television is the major - when not exclusive - source of information for the "developed" world, but broadcast television has as its primary function shaping a uniform consuming public. Many net publishers are following this model as well (isn’t convergence great?), defining disaster and fashion as news. 

Another earlier example that is germane is the advent of music recording. Before it became possible to purchase phonograph recordings of music performance, many more people could, and regularly did, play an instrument. The new technology converted the audience (and so music itself) into a passive experience. While there are certainly plenty of genuinely creative people playing with recombinant media, the effect of cut-and-paste media libraries affects many more people (like today’s students) by turning them into plagiarists, and poor ones at that.

If the effect of technology is to reduce the value and incidence of original creativity, it can hardly be seen as a benefit to society. There are of course those who want to mass-market throw-away products and politicians, but their disputing my conclusion simply underscores my point.  For me, Gibson’s glib, fatalistic attitude is somewhat dismaying.

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