Friday, June 25, 2010

(Everyone Except) The (New York) Times, They Are a'Changin'

What if, 15 years after Johannes Gutenberg assembled and deployed the first modern printing press, every other house in Europe had hosted such a press in its living room, with an unlimited supply of paper and ink moving continuously through the kitchen to feed it?

That's what the first 15 years of widely available and accessible Internet access has wrought with respect not only to the printed word and still images, but audio and video as well. A solid majority of the populations of western industrial nations have the Internet and its effectively limitless publishing capabilities at their fingertips. Outside the "first world," access statistics range from a low of 8.7% in Africa to nearly one in three in Latin America and the Caribbean [Source: Internet World Stats].

The spread of printing technology was obviously much slower, and the average person's access to it much more limited, than that ... and look at the political, economic and cultural changes which can be traced to it.

The freedoms secured by that first technological revolution serve, to some degree, as guardians of the freedoms opened up by the second. From 1483 to 1729, the use of a press to print Arabic script was prohibited in the Ottoman Empire "on pain of death." But modern Turkey got widely available Internet access about the same time as everyone else (1993), and today 26 million of its 72 million citizens are Internet users.

The reactions of the politically connected and the state-privileged to the second revolution seem to differ in degree rather than in kind.

Just as 15th century clerics cried foul on the idea of a Bible in every home, to be read by the masses instead of selectively quoted to them by approved religious authorities, today's "professional" journalists howl against the proliferation of bloggers and citizen journalists ... and for the same reasons. How dare the unwashed seek truth along any pathway that doesn't lead through the toll booth of the authoritative?

And just as the printers (and to a lesser degree, the authors and composers) of yore turned to the emerging state to protect what they deemed a new, "intellectual" class of property, today's publishers (and, to a lesser degree, content creators of all kinds) seek coercive recourse through government to maintain their ever more tenous control of "intellectual property."

Frankly, it's getting almost embarrassing to watch.

I cannot, in the space of a column, cover all the theoretical ground over which the subject of "intellectual property" is scattered. That's a book-length topic, and there are libraries full of books on it. Instead, I'm going to just jump straight to the consequential, and I'm going to start with a quote from Jefferson Davis, first and only president of the Confederate States of America:

If the Confederacy fails, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a Theory.

In the case of the late Confederacy, the theory is that one commonly referred to as "states rights" -- the context of the quote above was his concern over his national government's inability to enforce various taxation, conscription and other laws on its member state governments in support of its war effort to tear itself away from the United States.

In the case of "intellectual property," the fatal theory is an illusion, false on its face, of control.

"As a professional writer whose name is his commercial brand," writes J. Neil Schulman in a piece published right before I began writing this one, "I can no more allow someone else to rewrite me as they like and put my byline on it than the Walt Disney Corporation can allow someone else to publish cartoons of Mickey Mouse buggering Donald Duck."

The problem with Schulman's claims as to what he can or cannot "allow" is that he has about as much control over what's done with his work -- or with his name -- as I have over the orbital characteristics of the moon. And, as the long, storied, pre-Internet history of Disney porn demonstrates, he never really did have much control over those things (for what it's worth, it took me about two minutes on Google Images to turn up a cartoon conforming precisely to Schulman's description of that which Disney can't allow).

The current situation of those attempting to protect "intellectual property" claims resembles that of the Dutch boy with his finger in a dike (yes, I know, you're off to Google Images to look that one up too, you naughty, naughty thing, you).

The state's never been very good at protecting "intellectual property," and technology has finally and forever outstripped its ability to do so by any means short of imposing totalitarian controls on all information exchange (and that probably wouldn't work either, but they'd love to try it).

Content creators and distributors who don't adapt to this simple fact of life are going to die of their theory. Let's hope they don't drag the rest of us down with them into yet another dark age of state terror by courting those totalitarian controls in defense of a lost cause.

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