A Private War
I used to read stuff like this and get upset. But then I realized that my entire generation knows it's baloney. They can't explain it intellectually. They have no real understanding of the subtleties of the law, or arguments about artists' rights or any of that. All they really understand is there is are large corporations charging private citizens tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, for downloading a few songs here and there. And it's intuitively obvious that it can't possibly be worth that.
An entire generation has disregarded copyright law. It doesn't matter whether copyright is useful or not anymore. They could release attack dogs and black helicopters and it wouldn't really change people's attitudes. It won't matter how many websites they shut down or how many lives they ruin, they've already lost the culture war because they pushed too hard and alienated people wholesale. The only thing these corporations can do now is shift the costs to the government and other corporations under color of law in a desperate bid for relevance. And that's exactly what they're doing.
What does this mean for the average person? It means that we google and float around to an ever-changing landscape of sites. We communicate by word of mouth via e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking sites where the latest fix of free movies, music, and games are. If you don't make enough money to participate in the artificial marketplace of entertainment goods -- you don't exclude yourself from it, you go to the grey market instead. All the technological, legal, and philosophical barriers in the world amount to nothing. There is a small core of people that understand the implications of what these interests are doing and continually search for ways to liberate their goods and services for "sale" on the grey market. It is (economically and politically) identical to the Prohibition except that instead of smuggling liquor we are smuggling digital files.
Billions have been spent combating a singularily simple idea that was spawned thirty years ago by a bunch of socially-inept disaffected teenagers working out of their garages: Information wants to be free. Except information has no wants -- it's the people who want to be free. And while we can change attitudes about smoking with aggressive media campaigns, or convince them to cast their votes for a certain candidate, selling people on goods and services they don't really need, what we cannot change is the foundations upon which a generation has built a new society out of.
Just as we have physical connections to each other, we now have digital connections to one another. These connections actively resist attempts at control because it impedes the development and nature of the relationships we have with one another. People naturally seek the methods which give them the greatest freedom to express themselves to each other. That is a force of nature (ours, specifically) that has evolved out of our interconnectedness. Copyright law has been twisted to serve as a bulwark against the logical result of increasing social interconnectedness between people and computers: Access an ever-increasing amount of humanity's history, knowledge, and culture. Ultimately, this is a battle they cannot win -- they can only delay, building dams and locks to stem the tide, but they will fail. It's how, when, and where it fails that will decide the fate of economies worldwide.
Every law advantages one group while disadvantaging another. And every engine, be it physical or social, functions because an energy imbalance exists and by moving energy from one potential to another, we can skim some off to do useful work. Laws work the same way -- by creating artificial differences between groups of people, society produces goods and services. This is why we will always have new Prohibitions. It's not a comfortable or politically correct thing to admit, that for societies to function there must necessarily be inequality between people. It is nonetheless true.
This is not a reason to give up hope or be cynical! We are in the middle of a social revolution that has few outward signs. Unlike generations past, the revolution that is happening now exists in fragmentary communications by a collectivistic movement that lacks any real core. It has been created by an unspoken understanding between its participants. That is to say, the participants of the digital community to varying degrees develop the same coping mechanisms to frame their understanding of this environment. These coping mechanisms develop into ideas and beliefs that we then form the basis of our interactions with other members. Put another way, these coping strategies that we interpose between ourselves and our environment form the basis of culture. The interesting part is, this change occurred without any indoctrination or central leadership to accomplish. Mere exposure to the environment alone seems to predispose people to a certain kind of thinking that cuts across barriers of country, culture, sex, and race.
There are no real leaders for the digital culture, yet the culture is there. This is unprecidented. There are very, very few social movements that organize around principals instead of individuals who exemplify those ideals. Whether you live in Iran or America, Africa or Europe, the same values systems are spontaniously developing in reaction to exposure to the digital environment. And while the state of the art has advanced at an incredible rate, our methods of understanding and interacting within the new social spaces created by that aren't changing that much. It's a stable environment evolving at rate sufficiently slow to allow culture to form.
That, in and of itself, is amazing. Forget copyright for a moment and consider all the other social advances that are taking place because of our digital interconnectedness -- and then realize that there are only a very few friction points in this revolution! That is also unprecidented in modern history.
Copyright won't end anytime soon, but I'm suggesting we look at the fundamentals here: it is an artificial construct within the digital environment. It's something we built extraneous to it, and in fact is antagonistic to it. The exchange of information is fundamental to the existance of the internet. Copyright is not. Copyright is an institution, like marriage, the church, the government, etc. Like those things, it has a maintenance cost. It is a coping mechanism. That's not a judgement on its sustainability nor its justification for existance (or lack thereof).
Copyright is an institution and like all social institutions remain in existance only for as long as its members continue to support it. There is a substantial and growing number of digital identities (people, organizations, projects, etc.) that exist outside of that institution. Why? Because information is very, very cheap to replicate. Production of that information however can vary in cost. Everybody agrees that there must be some compensatory mechanism, however artificial, to reimburse people for the effort invested in the production of the goods and services that copyright protects. If there is no protection at all, many staples of modern life cease to exist. This is the loci of why copyright exists.
The cost to society now outweighs the benefits and we exist within a market bubble right now: A copyright bubble. Large corporations and governments alike have bought into it and driven up its cost. Like any market-driven force however, it will eventually return to equilibrium. We had the dot com bubble, and the housing bubble, but that's nothing compared to what's going on right now -- we lost billions when that one burst. We stand to lose trillions when this one does. And, ironically, it will be burst by the very forces that businesses are embracing right now -- labor capital in the third world.
Which is exactly why, right now, governments around the world are drafting a copyright treaty between themselves in secret. They know that as soon as the lesser-developed countries have come forward a bit more infrastructurally, they'll be at a point where they can leverage a free flow of history, ideas, and information to dramatically improve their economies. Just as plans for the machinery that powered the industrial revolution was witheld from countries that didn't have it, so too have the tools to begin the information revolution been witheld.
Let's face it -- less developed countries are not going to pay licensing costs and fork over the money circulating in their economy back to us: They're going to pour it back into modernization of their own economies. The only way they can do that is by asserting sovereignty and independence from the global copyright framework being developed. That's why there's such a push right now to lock them out if they don't join in the global copyright racket. If this effort fails, the bubble will burst and trillions of dollars will drain out of the economies of the western world like someone pulled the plug out of the bathtub, because the marketplace will be much, much bigger. That's why if you ask for copies of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, the government will tell you it's unavailable for reasons of national security. But you don't need to have the text to know what it intends to do.
The chinese are already producing very cheap material goods. What do you think's going to happen when they start producing very cheap services as well? Nobody's going to pay $400 for an operating system; Not when the Chinese have their own that sells for $5 each on a DVD. They have more honor students than we have students -- and each will work for dollars a day.