Siva Vaidhyanathan on Journalists, Google, and the Future of Copyright

“As the most pervasive regulation of speech and culture, the copyright system will help determine the richness and strength of democracy in the twenty-first century,” Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote in today’s Columbia Journalism Review. In “Copyright Jungle,” Vaidhyanathan examines the borderline legal/illegal copyright issues in the present day and how copyright law is currently being reshaped before our eyes — and most reporters are missing the point and risking the access and freedom that they (and most everybody) have grown so dependent on in the digital age.

In recent years, large multinational media companies have captured the global copyright system and twisted it toward their own short-term interests. The people who are supposed to benefit most from a system that makes ideas available — readers, students, and citizens — have been excluded. No one in Congress wants to hear from college students or librarians.

What begins as a critique of Kevin Kelly’s “Scan This Book!” feature in a May ’06 NYTimes Magazine (which mentions Google’s Library project at least 50 times), continues as a timely updated supplement for those of us thumbing through The Anarchist in the Library for the first time.

Google’s project, if it survives court challenges, would probably have modest effects on writing, reading, and publishing. For one thing, Kelly’s predictions depend on a part of the system he slights in his article: the copyright system.

Tim O’Reilly, who once argued that fewer than 4% of all books ever published continue to be commercially exploited, supported Google’s Book Search initiative posting research after Kelly’s article indicating the “long tail” effect of online indexing of as many books as possible (or in Google’s proposal, all of the titles in five major U.S. libraries). [link is to UC Berkeley research paper PDF, Google’s documentation on the library project is here].

But with corporations and media conglomerates hankering to lock up digital rights and ignore/shun the concept andn value of CC-style copyrights, the mainstream is missing the point by focusing on Google’s ambition to slightly alter or circumvent U.S. copyright law in an effort to add only a little to society — and “snippets” at that, writes Vaidhyanathan:

Google is exploiting the instability of the copyright system in a digital age. The company’s struggle with publishers over its legal ability to pursue its project is the most interesting and perhaps most transformative conflict in the copyright wars. But there are many other battles — and many other significant stories — out in the copyright jungle. Yet reporters seem lost.

The essay as a whole serves as a great heads-up to journalists and Free Culture-ite copyright activists alike, alluding to distortions in the media and confusion regarding ethics and legality (Da Vinci Code case), technology and it’s effect on consumer culture (p2p scare pieces) and one-dimensional dichotomies (hackers v. movie studios). (In fact the piece concludes with a “primer” for journalists).

It’s only natural for journalists to report stories with characters andn consequences regular people can relate to, but:

Reporters often fail to see the big picture in copyright stories: that what is at stake is the long-term health of our culture. If the copyright system fails, huge industries could crumble. If it gets too strong, it could strangle future creativity and research.

The modern journalist depends on Google’s system of copying (or caching) practically every pixel of information on the Web — be it for research, fact-checking or even publishing. Understanding media/copyright law in the digital age is crucial, but to report on the controversies of the day as if the sky were falling could only precipitate further restrictions on fair use and information sharing.

LINK

Future of the Internet: Liberty + Privacy

Among the more interesting studies released Sunday in the second installment of the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s Future of the Internet (PDF) survey, are respondents reactions to the following hypothetical:

Prediction: As sensing, storage and communication technologies get cheaper and better, individuals’ public and private lives will become increasingly ‘transparent’ globally. Everything will be more visible to everyone, with good and bad results. Looking at the big picture – at all of the lives affected on the planet in every way possible – this will make the world a better place by the year 2020. The benefits will outweigh the costs.

The mean response of 742 individuals is of uncertainty (46% agreed vs. 49% disagree). But it’s the substance of the varied & impassioned responses that set the course for what many believe is one of the most important issues of modern time and the near future.

Here is a link to credited answers. And here’s a collection of anonymous one-liners.

The answers range from amusing to asinine, but overall the essence is that transparency — while essential to and inevitable in an open society — is a double-edged sword.

In a rather oddly phrased question, a majority of respondents agree (to my dismay) with Thomas Friedman’s mostly-BS “The World is Flat” argument, aggreeing with utopian naivete, that, by 2020, “the free flow of information will completely blur current national boundaries as they are replaced by city-states, corporation-based cultural groupings, and/or other organizations tied together by global networks.”

Perhaps it’s only appropriate — in a very Sci-Fi-esque study, that there would be no more New York and China and Japan.

Other notable conclusions from the abstract:

* A low-cost global network will be thriving and creating new opportunities in a “flattening” world.
* Humans will remain in charge of technology, even as more activity is automated and “smart agents” proliferate. However, a significant 42% of survey respondents were pessimistic about humans’ ability to control the technology in the future. This significant majority agreed that dangers and dependencies will grow beyond our ability to stay in charge of technology. This was one of the major surprises in the survey.
* Virtual reality will be compelling enough to enhance worker productivity and also spawn new addiction problems.
* Tech “refuseniks” will emerge as a cultural group characterized by their choice to live off the network. Some will do this as a benign way to limit information overload, while others will commit acts of violence and terror against technology-inspired change.
* People will wittingly and unwittingly disclose more about themselves, gaining some benefits in the process even as they lose some privacy.

As Bruce Schneier said at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy tonight, “freedom equals liberty plus privacy.” Digest that…

The IEEE prefers their recently released “Bursting Tech Bubbles Before They Balloon” survey, authored by Marina Gorbis and the Institute for the Future’s David Pescovitz.

For historical reference, see PBS’ 1998 survey: Nerds 2.0.1 — a who’s-who of nerdtrepreneurs and their late 20th century musings on the future of the Internet.