Close to the Machine: The DAT, the Net and the Dead

[Ed. note: no edits without author consent, call AlterNet for more information.]It happens every time a new means of communicating emerges: somewhere, in some hall or chamber, some international rotunda, a mess of mostly men, mostly in suits, convenes to decide what to do with it. In 1934, U.S. legislators passed the Communications Act, presumably banning obscene phone calls, but forgetting that, as a polis, we'd rather defend privacy with a few moral glitches than morph into the Republic of Singapore. In 1984, the Supreme Court defended privacy again, this time to avert a law that would have made it a felony to tape a movie for your own personal enjoyment. In 1992, the recording industry's fear that average citizens could make high-quality audio copies on their newly acquired digital audio tape (DAT) recorders led to the Audio Home Recording Act, which added a royalty surcharge to digital audio equipment and required that it contain encoded copy-protection systems. (DAT machines have since been declared a market flop: not only are they prohibitively expensive, but only tapers have anything to play on them.)Late in 1996, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is meeting in Geneva, updating the 1971 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works to suit the peculiarities of the Internet in all its multimedia manifestations. Certain lobbyists -- law professors, scientists and Internet service providers -- would have you believe that the WIPO's draft proposals are scary in the extreme, but, as much as I support their vigilance, so far there's little that's new to worry about. No one's likely to arrest you for downloading a Web page for your personal enjoyment, and you'll always be able to quote batting averages without paying dues to Major League Baseball. None of which means that the law professors and librarians should quiet down, but that the rest of us shouldn't get distracted from more palpable threats.Take, for instance, the Church of Scientology, which has racked up so many copyright-infringement lawsuits that it's earned the eternal scorn of the truly wired and a Web page detailing its sins, "Church of Scientology v. the Net" (http://www. cybercom.net/~rnew man/scientology/home.html), and an archive of its legal activities maintained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (http://www.eff.org/pub/ Censorship/ CoS_v_the_Net/). Or EMI Publishing, which threatened the creators of the On-line Guitar Archive (OLGA), a collection of 15,000 songs with chords and lyrics, with a lawsuit serious enough to cause the site administrators at the University of Nevada Las Vegas to shut it down (read about it at http://www.olga.net/ closed.html). Or the Fox Network, which in October began harassing X-Files and Millennium fans for using publicity shots on their pages, resulting in the disappearance of several Web pages and the cancellation of at least one fan's account (the story's at http://members.aol.com/ capslockjr/protest.htm).Leaving aside whether Rupert Murdoch finds the provision of copyright law known as "fair use" useful these days, it should be important to him and to any church or music publisher -- that the X-Files got so hot precisely because its incredibly well-wired culty kid audience plastered the Internet with fan sites full of pictures and trivia. Lately, though, postings in alt.tv.x-files carry sigs quoting Al Gore ("Fear of chaos cannot justify unwarranted censorship of free speech") and imploring readers to "Save the Fan Websites -- FREE SPEECH IS OUT THERE!" The former OLGA site calls for a boycott of EMI, and nobody familiar with Scientology's war on the free flow of information is likely to invest the money to get clear in this lifetime.While Scientologists undoubtedly have more complicated reasons for squelching heresy on the Internet, Fox and EMI are proceeding on the assumption that the Internet is a great place to make tons and tons of money. It's an unlikely, if not dangerous, assumption, not so much because information wants to be free but because so much of the best information simply is free. When you think about it -- really think about it -- the Web doesn't have much to offer that existing technology doesn't already. You don't need it for online banking or home shopping, live TV is hardly unusual, and those KFWB ads are right -- instant news isn't exactly a new idea. The only verifiable and unique value of the Internet is that it's a haven of freedom, from cost and from censorship. As such, it's a poor medium for commercial publishing. But it's a great place to propagate a reputation that can make money in the real world.That lesson lies in the legacy of the Grateful Dead: had Jerry Garcia -- a former taper himself -- treated the fans who taped and traded DAT recordings the way Fox treats its Webbed fans, the band would never have survived. On Seth Greenstein's Web page for the Home Recording Rights Coalition, there are daily updates of the WIPO convention, a comprehensive history of home-recording-rights legislation, and advice about how to be a free-speech activist. There is also, appropriately enough, a tribute to Jerry Garcia. "Whenever the record industry complained that private taping hurt recording artists," it reads, "the Home Recording Rights Coalition pulled out its ace in the hole: the Grateful Dead. Concert tapes brought music to the fans and brought fans together. Deadheads traded tapes from hundreds of concerts. Individual shows became legendary and were shared with thousands worldwide. Years later, the Dead released some of those shows on compact disc -- spawned by the popularity of the traded tapes." It was, in essence, a Web of tapes.A whole year after Garcia's death, I'm listening to the Dead more than ever, for reasons I fully recognize have less to do with music than with the band's spirit. Significantly, though, I can't watch the X-Files anymore. It's not that the show has changed, or the personnel; David Duchovny is still a babe, I still love Scully's unusually voluptuous lips, I'm still drawn to the grisly imagination of the show's creator, Chris Carter. But I can't watch it anymore for the same reason I haven't watched Major League Baseball since the strike: once they've exposed the corporate machinery, the magic is gone.

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