CYBERSHOCK: Steal This Column

Imagine you are a student working on a paper and you find an article you need in the library. But when you go to copy it, the ink vanishes and the copy machine instructs you to call the journal publisher to purchase a copy. Imagine that someone could walk into a barber shop, pick up a tattered copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and identify every customer who had ever looked at it while waiting for a trim.In the early days of the Internet one of the big concerns was how to protect intellectual property and honor copyrights in a medium in which any text or image can be downloaded, duplicated a thousand times, and retransmitted instantly. If a photographer sold an image to illustrate a magazine article, she knew she was retaining some control over the image. People could photocopy it or include it in collages, but the negatives needed for high-quality reproductions of the photo were still in her possession, and a professional magazine was unlikely to reuse the image without her permission.But on the World Wide Web practically any digital image can be downloaded, doctored, and dropped into another publication in a matter of minutes. If our theoretical photographer sold one-time rights for the use of her photograph in an on-line publication, she would lose control over all future distribution of her work, and she could lose money from future sales as well.Technology made control over creative works almost negligible during the Net's early days. Copyright law had not yet adapted to the electronic age, and writers, artists, consumer groups, and public-service organizations argued for better legal protections for intellectual property rights.In just a few years we have seen an amazing shift. Copyright holders soon could have more ownership over their work, rather than less. According to a March 22 report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Association of American Publishers is encouraging proposals to develop "digital object identifiers." Downloaded content would come with an attached file or an address from which potential users could find out who owns the rights to the content, what their usage options are, and whether or not they would have to pay fees to use the content. Some works would be encrypted so users would not be able to distribute copies of them without authorization and, possibly, payment. "Other software will provide hidden digital 'watermarks' that automatically become part of a file and enable providers to identify all users," the article says. Suddenly the examples I began with don't seem so far-fetched.Things are changing on the legal front as well. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing May 7 on S. 1284, the National Information Infrastructure Copyright Protection Act (the House held subcommittee hearings on its version of the bill, H.R. 2441, in February). The bill seems to address earlier calls by many individuals and groups to update copyright law to cover on-line publishing and content. But the membership list of the Creative Incentive Coalition, the main interest group supporting the legislation, includes names such as McGraw-Hill, the Information Industry Association, and Microsoft. These are not representatives of the people who create content -- people like me who might worry about newspapers reprinting this column and not paying me for it. They represent the marketers of information, the people who buy, package, and sell creative works -- in other words, the conduit providers, not the content providers.So where are the folks who represent the artists and writers that the CIC says it wants to protect? The National Writers' Union, along with consumer groups, electronic democracy groups, education groups, and libraries, are all part of another organization, the Digital Future Coalition, and they don't like the legislation currently under consideration.Copyright law strikes a delicate balance. Society needs information to thrive and create, and current law seeks to protect rights holders without constricting the flow of information and ideas. If you buy a copy of a magazine, for example, you're free to lend it to a friend; if you're a library, you're free to lend the magazine to a library user. There's also the fair-use doctrine, which, for example, allows me to quote from a magazine in a news story and allows a professor to distribute copies of a news story in class. The Digital Future Coalition argues that the Copyright Protection Act now under consideration tilts the balance away from fair use, particularly in light of new technologies for monitoring and controlling the use of copyright material. And the coalition is right.What this bill is really about is the increasingly powerful information industry trying to consolidate power over distribution at the same time that it's strong-arming creators to sell or give away their rights. In a digital economy, information is a commodity, and industry is trying to tighten its control over how information goes from the producer to the consumer. With greater control, CIC companies will be able to dictate the terms of exchange to both producers and consumers.As a writer who publishes in cyberspace, I never thought that I would argue against greater copyright protections for electronic publishing. But hey, these are strange times.


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