The Copyright Cage

There is so much good material in Jonathan Zittrain’s The Copyright Cage that I find it hard to quote without copying half the article.

Yes, copyright is important for ensuring that creative works get created. But yes, we’ve got our priorties all screwed up when the Girl Scouts have to pay royalties for singing “Puff, The Magic Dragon” around the campfire.

I am so glad that Zittrain raises the issue of complacency:

…we do ourselves a disservice by fixating on current income structures and not thinking about future possibilities premised on amazing technological advances, especially when the rights at issue concern the flows of ideas, something fundamental to free societies.

Of course artists and their backers should be able to make money doing what they do, but we have no evidence to support the claim that yesterday’s economic model, whereby record companies collect revenue directly from consumers, one copy at a time, makes sense any more.

The question of viable alternatives has been much in my thoughts lately. I think you have to start from the opposite end of reality to get your head around it. Imagine a world where all recorded music ever made was instantly at your fingertips. You could stream, copy, play and share to your heart’s content with no restrictions. Cover art, liner notes and copious hyperlinks to musician databases (“see other recordings in which Wes Montgomery appears”) would all be readily available.

With that it mind, you can start to ask questions like how would people use it, and how would we pay for it? The closest I’ve been able to come is some sort of bandwidth-based solution. The more you copy, the more you pay. It leverages all that file-swapping energy rather than fighting it head-on. Apparently others are thinking along these lines too. Again from Zittrain:

Scholars like William Fisher of Harvard Law School have floated ideas as sensible as they are radical—not to mention offensive to almost every interest in the copyright debates, from publisher to middleman to anarchist. He suggests in an upcoming book that ISPs remit to publishers a fee loosely based on the amount of copyrighted digital content that they are roughly calculated to be carrying, at which point people can trade music to their hearts’ content.

Amazing. I would pay for it. In light of the differences in capitalization, I find it odd that one of the larger ISPs or even Microsoft hasn’t simply bought out a record label and attempted the experiment.

Thanks, Ben, for pointing to this one.