Computer Engineering Dept., Bilkent University, 06533 Ankara- Turkey.
The Internet now facilitates the unlimited copying and distribution of all forms of intellectual property at essentially zero cost. Those professions that rely upon the sale of physical copies of their works thus face a serious threat to their livelihoods. For creators of such works –including
musicians, writers, artists, filmmakers and, of course, computer programmers– as well as those
who manufacture, distribute and actually sell the physical media on which the works reside, the future is uncertain.
The response to this threat has been a predictable slue of protectionist measures aimed at safeguarding the status quo. Unfortunately, the technical and legal solutions being developed within this framework are, I believe, fundamentally flawed. In what follows I argue this and outline an alternative approach that, in rejecting the conventional notion of copyright, seems to offer a more realistic and morally defensible option. I think it is time that the computing profession began taking such alternatives seriously and persuading business to look at the opportunities that they may offer.
The End of Innocence
In light of the threat posed by the Internet’s ability to distribute most forms of intellectual property for free, it is natural to look to technical and legal measures for protection. Not surprisingly, the hi-tech industry has been keen to develop and sell technical solutions and, spurred on by business, many governments have been strengthening copyright law. Unfortunately, there are serious and seemingly irresolvable issues on both these fronts.
On the legal front, some of the new laws contain extremely controversial clauses. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), for example, has already resulted in programmers being 1arrested and scientists being threatened with prosecution if they publish their work. Such
situations, in which normally law-abiding citizens can, perhaps unwittingly, be branded as 2criminals, have prompted ACM to take the unusual step of issuing a public declaration opposing
aspects of the law as it now stands. Even without such controversy, however, copyright law is in trouble. In the face of widespread public disobedience it has become blatantly unenforceable, being seen by many as a means to prop up an unjust system. Those who use pirated computer software or “share” MP3’s via Napster and its clones, openly flout the law. They attempt to justify their actions by pointing to the high prices charged and the seemingly huge profits being made by some publishers, especially in the software and music industries. The fact that the major publishers also seem to have an almost strangle-like hold over their respective markets, allowing them to dictate who wins and who loses, only serves to deepen resentment. Add to this the injustice that can result from pricing policies that fail to respect either personal or national income levels, and it is easy to see why many feel it is time for change.
On the technical front, safeguards designed to stop illegal copying are also facing difficulties. Breaking copy protection mechanisms has become something of an intellectual challenge. Indeed, given the negative perception of such markets, many young hackers now view themselves as modern day Robin Hoods. In fact, it was the breaking (by a university group) of the music recording industry’s latest encryption technology, in a challenge it set up, which sparked ACM’s legal involvement. Besides, it is clear that all attempts to halt copying are doomed to failure, since it is ultimately always necessary for legitimate customers to decode the product in order to see,
hear or use it, and at this point it can be copied! The computer industry is (or should be) well aware of this given its history of unsuccessful attempts to prevent software piracy. Indeed, one might question the ethics of certain companies attempting to sell such “solutions” to the recording industry!
The copyright and patent systems were originally set up to encourage the production and spread of intellectual works by ensuring that their originators were adequately rewarded. The spectacular growth of science and of the software, music and film industries, are testaments to their success, but, unfortunately, that very success has created the tools and environment (computers and the Internet) that now threaten them. The existing system relies on a reward scheme largely based on the selling of physical copies of a work, but today’s technology has removed the need for physical
media. When production costs are essentially zero, customers naturally see any price as money for nothing. The result, as mentioned above, is a new sense of injustice in which the copyright and patent systems are increasingly seen as unfair and indeed corrupt. Attempts to strengthen an unjust and unenforceable law can only serve to reduce respect for the law in general, consequently, intellectual property law and any technical measures designed to support it need serious consideration.
A Brave New World
Clearly, copying cannot be controlled either by technical or legal means, so the only realistic option would seem to be to allow the unrestricted copying of all forms of intellectual “property”. But how, then, are its creators to be “paid”? Obviously, we want to ensure that artisans receive some sort of reward for their work so that they continue to produce it. Of course, some existing forms of reward, such as salaries derived from the sales of material goods or services, advertisements or pay on a per-performance basis will continue, as will less tangible benefits like honour and fame. What will be lost is the often-substantial income from per-copy sales, a historically recent, but clearly very important, innovation.
One way in which some of this lost revenue might be restored would be via tips or donations. If tipping were simple, quick and inexpensive, then it may become the norm, as it already is in some professions. By expecting consumers to make voluntary contributions to the creators of works they like or find useful, the natural competitiveness of the market place is retained, but within a morally just framework. On the Internet, the system may work something like this:
Whenever someone plays music, watches a video, uses a computer program, etc., they
are requested to make a donation. The user can agree to pay the specified amount or they
can agree to pay a higher or lower amount. They can even decide not to pay at all. A
single button click is all that is required. The monies are not immediately transferred to
the creators of the works, however. At the end of the period, for example the month, the
user receives a detailed listing of the donations they have agreed to make. They again
have the option to accept as is, to adjust some payments, or not to pay at all, depending
upon their circumstances. Whatever they do agree to pay is transferred to the accounts of
those who created the works in the first place.
This model could easily be extended to include the viewing of web pages themselves, thereby encouraging the growth of web sites that provide news, information and commentaries. Sites that acted as editorial filters for the vast ever-changing sea of information that is the Internet would be particularly valuable, as would human and automated search engines!
The vast majority of people do behave ethically, they accept to pay for goods and services they want and they voluntarily give tips to delivery workers, waitresses, taxi drivers, etc. The alternative proposed here simply builds on and reinforces this admirable behaviour. It thus stands in stark contrast to the existing system that tends to label ordinary folk as criminals, that shuts out
the less fortunate, and that devalues the law. Of course, we may not see so many wealthy individuals under such a scheme, but this is not necessarily bad; after all, it is the unfair distribution of rewards that fuel unrest and crime.
There are a lot of details that need to be worked out. For example, efficient ways to enable billions of secure payments of varying amounts, ways to ensure that the monies really do go to the author, ways to equitably distribute payments between multiple producers or to compensate the authors of both original and derived works, and ways to establish “authorship”. Clearly, there are also legal
and educational issues that need to be addressed, not to mention consideration of how the transition might take place. In fact, many of the problems might be resolved by variations of existing systems and technologies. The scientific community, for instance, establishes ownership of ideas by maintaining a public record of works and the same is true of the patent system. Scientists are expected to acknowledge their sources, plagiarism being considered a major offense. Modified versions of Digital Rights Management technology could provide a solution to the collection of donations and variations of the existing credit card payment systems could probably handle the actual payments.
While the problems look similar the context is now significantly different and may have the effect of simplifying the solutions. The important point for now is to appreciate that there is a possible alternative to the existing copyright system and to start investigating it seriously. The Internet may be the catalyst of the current difficulties, but it may also be the key to solving it. The New World being opened up by the net is only just beginning to take shape and it may not end up looking anything like the existing world order. If we have the opportunity to rebuild, it is surely best to start with a strong moral foundation.
A Call to Arms
In liberating the copying and distribution of most forms of intellectual property, the Internet has merely accentuated an existing problem. We have long been able to make copies of text, music and films, without payment going to their creators (but rather to photocopiers and cassette manufacturers.) We were taught that it was wrong to copy and often felt guilty about doing it, yet continued. How could it possibly be wrong for a teacher to copy a photograph for use in their classroom, or for someone to digitise a music tape they owned so they could play it on an MP3 player? Copyright law bent to accommodate “fair use”, but it is now becoming completely unworkable and further attempts to salvage it seem doomed. Alternatives, based on the open sharing of intellectual property supported by a donation system, are conceivable and might now be made to work. They seem to offer not only a sound moral basis upon which to build, but also the opportunity of a fairer solution for all. Technical, legal and educational hurdles remain, many similar to those under the existing system, but with a new and clearer moral basis, they may prove to be more easily resolvable.
In opposing aspects of the DCMA, the ACM is clearly doing the right thing, however, it is also thereby implicitly supporting the notion of copyright, a system in which it might be seen to have a vested interest. To avoid any suggestion of bias, I believe the computing profession should be looking at alternatives such as the one outlined above. It is time to take seriously the idea of scrapping copyright law altogether, to look beyond the existing status quo and to begin setting the foundation for a freer and fairer society in the future.
1 Why the Digital Millennium Copyright Act Is a Failure of Reason by Andrew Grosso, Communications, Feb. 2002,
2 See http://www.acm.org/usacm/copyright/felten_declaration.html