Freedom of the Internet

The InternetI am standing on the shoulders of giants, yet these giants are now asking me to step down.

Until recently, like most people my age, my interest in copyright law, the public domain, and the "digital domain" was minimal. Sure, I understood the importance of the Internet and I loved Napster, but I knew very little about the how the Internet afforded me the freedom that it did. What mattered to me at the time was that I could IM my friends from around the country about my college shenanigans, download images, music and sound clips: everything from a memorable Simpson's line to a crazy collaboration between Brian Eno and Lisa Loeb.

The 1990s were great times, but then April 13, 2000 arrived and the honeymoon ended. The headlines were everywhere. Napster would soon be shutting its doors.

But the Napster case was just the beginning. In the years since it has become more and more clear that the Internet is changing. Gone are the days of free access to all content --not just music -- and what lies ahead is an even bleaker picture. Unless we do something about it.

How did we come to this point? The story starts with copyright laws.

Imagine for a moment that you are a video artist who is working on a new movie. In this movie, you would like to include the title track from Coldplay's newest album. In order to do so you must pay -- and rightfully so -- the record label, or whoever owns the copyright, to use the song. But what about the large Ansel Adams poster in the living room of your movie set, or the truck with the advertisement that drives through the street while you're filming? Will you have to pay for these incidental objects? The answer is yes.

As Larry Lessig says in his book, The Future of Ideas, "I would say to an 18 year-old artist, you're totally free to do whatever you want. But -- and then I would give him a long list of all the things that he couldn't include in his movie because they would not be legally cleared. That he would have to pay for them [So freedom? Here's the freedom: You're totally free to make a movie in an empty room with two of your friends]."


Opsound is a record label using an open source, copyleft model, an experiment in practical gift economics, a laboratory for new ways of releasing music.

Public Knowledge is a new public-interest advocacy organization dedicated to fortifying and defending a vibrant information commons.

The Center for Digital Democracy is a nonprofit organization working to ensure that the digital media systems serve the public interest.

Connexions is an open source education project looking to provide a wealth of knowledge from grades K-6, middle and high school, undergraduate and graduate courses for free to the public.

Have you noticed how many things are copyrighted these days? Suddenly phrases, songs, ideas that have been around for years are showing up with little trademark TMs beside them, meaning they are seen as belonging to one person (or in most cases, one giant company). These companies tell us that the current copyright laws are a way to protect an artist (as in the case with Napster) but most artists themselves feel the laws have gone too far, and that sharing and cross-pollination is the best way to ensure sustainable creativity.

Artists are constantly interacting with one another's work. Sometimes this means an indirect reference that the audience won't recognize, but sometimes it also means replicating, messing with and imitating other artists. Most hip-hop songs are filled with melody and beat samples from other songs, and artists like Andy Warhol are famous for using fragments of images that were deemed public in their work (like his famous Campbell's Soup can paintings). Borrowing from other artists becomes a way for us to comment on and critique the media-saturated world that surrounds us.

But because of increasingly strict copyright laws, just about everything from the most basic phrase like "Just do it," to familiar graphic icons like a seashell (Shell oil), an apple (Macintosh computers) or a camel (Camel cigarettes) are off limits to us creatively. By cutting us off from making artistic critiques of existing media, we are transformed into little more than passive observers at best, uncritical consumers at worst.

Copyright protection is necessary for inventors to invent and creators to create because they provide a monetary incentive to do so. But the Framers of the Constitution stressed that there should be copyright protection for "a limited time" only -- specifically 14 years, renewable for another 14 years, for a total of 28 years -- for good reason. They understood something about how inventors invent and artists create new work. That is, all creativity is built upon the past. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Today, Congress and the courts do not express this viewpoint. Rather, they are expressing the views of the major corporate interests. Since that initial constitutional clause was written, Congress has sought to extend copyright protection to an obscene number of years -- life plus 70 years for individual authors and 95 years from publication for corporate authors.

Under the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act (also called the Mickey Mouse Act), Mickey Mouse, created in 1928, will not be released to the public domain until well into this century. In other words, Mickey's image is the property of Walt Disney Corporation. But the push by Disney to maintain its ownership of Mickey Mouse is ironic because Mickey was based on a Buster Keaton short film titled Steamboat Bill Jr.; a film that was part of the public domain.

The Internet Catches the Copyright Bug

If you thought the Internet was immune to this method of control, you are mistaken. The Internet was free ("free, not in the sense of free beer, but free in the sense of free speech" -- Richard Stallman) but it is no more.

The original Internet was built end-to-end (e2e); there were computers on the "edges" and a central network. For instance, the computer you are using right now is on the edge, as are all the other viewers of this website. There is a group of computers in the "center" that are linking all of these edge computers together. These "central" computers are an intermediary between your computer and my computer. Their only function is to pass information from my computer to your computer without discriminating based on the information contained within that content.

The value of building the Internet in this manner is two-fold. First, it allows all "edge" computers and thus "edge" users (you and I) to send information without fear of censorship. Secondly, by creating a "blind" central network, the "central" computers are unable to favor one technology over another. For example, if you wish to view a Flash enabled website, you have to download the requisite Flash plug-in for your computer. The central network need not have that same plug-in installed, and therefore cannot favor a Flash plug-in to a competitors plug-in. The choice is left to the edges, as is the degree of control.

Currently the majority of World Wide Web users are using telephone lines as their means of accessing the Internet. The laws governing the use of telephone lines are subject to "common carriage" regulation. Common carriage requires that the phone companies provide non-preferential treatment to all customers. No caller's message can be given priority over another, no one's messages may be slowed down or sped up.

Another essential policy, known as "open access," assures that thousands of Internet service providers (ISPs) compete to carry Internet traffic. Thousands of ISPs exist because the large telephone companies are required by law to provide these ISPs with access to their telephone lines. The competition spurred by these ISPs has lowered the cost of access to the Internet substantially.

The Internet Opens Its Eyes

The future is not access to the Internet via telephone lines and 56k modems, but rather through "broadband." Broadband is a high-speed technology that makes it possible to view multi-media content such as streaming audio and video. Broadband is already being used in most offices, schools and libraries and it will soon be the norm at home, as well.

The InternetThe progression to broadband is changing the face of the Internet, but not without consequences. Most importantly two essential provisions -- common carriage and open access -- will no longer hold. Broadband is run not through a dial-up telephone system, but through cable lines, and the regulations governing the telephone industry do not extend to cable companies. In fact, cable companies are lobbying to control the central network, and to "open its eyes." By controlling the central network, cable companies can determine which websites are compatible with their agenda.

If Cablevision deems your anti-war website contrary to their stance, for instance, they can restrict access by other Cablevision users or, at the very least, make sure that your site takes much longer to load than the ones whose politics or values they do support (as Clear Channel recently did with radio stations). One has to look no further than television and radio to see that history looks to repeat itself.

The Internet Generation: Saving the Tools to Creativity.

The fight against corporate interests trumping the public good is not being waged alone. At the forefront of the copyright and Internet battle are two big players: the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Creative Commons.

EFF has been a pioneer in providing up-to-date information on the state of your digital rights as well as mobilizing against their demise. Their active participation in legal cases, including defending Stephen Jackson Games in 1990, have made them one of the visionaries in the framework of digital law. Creative Commons, founded by law professor Lawrence Lessig, has established a new benchmark in copyright law by proposing an alternative to the "all rights reserved" model, the "some rights reserved model."

The Internet is the last great hope of our generation to challenge the one voice coming out of the corporate controlled, mainstream media. It has allowed people to come into contact that might have otherwise not; it has lent a platform for political, economic, and social movements that otherwise had no forum; and it has allowed me and a countless number of other people to host web sites of our own and to communicate across state lines, across oceans, and across cultures. And it has provided us with many ways be creative, to respond, to re-create and re-vision what we see around us.

Isn't that freedom worth fighting for?

Pravin Sathe has just graduated from New York University and will be participating in the New York Teaching Fellows program in New York City. Pravin's previous ventures have included researching Microbeam Radiation Therapy (MRT), Art Director of ITS Visual Speech Magazine, and designing the online presence of artist Jacqueline Humphries, Tony Oursler's Influence Machine and The Lost. Pravin, with friend Colin Mutchler, is presently collaborating on marketing ventures in support of numerous NGOs. He can be accessed online at

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.