Some thoughts on Intellectual Property and the Internet

The concept of “copyright” dates back to a time when information was scarce and rigorously controlled by factions with a strong incentive to regulate it. The centralized administration of information allowed censorship and monopoly by “authorized” publishers. In antiquity, the Church regulated the dissemination of information to insure their interpretation of it was maintained. The advent of the printing press threatened the centralization of information and was roundly damned by the Church as a tool of the devil.

The sharing of ideas is central to the evolution of civilization and is how culture is created.  Sharing the printed word has always been associated with rebellion and emancipation. Piracy of information, that is dissemination without regard to established rules, has followed a parallel course, and has never in history been entirely suppressed. Civilizations and regimes rise and fall by unauthorized dissemination of revolutionary thought.

Throughout history, humanity has always pushed the limits of information sharing and then gone beyond. If there is any limit to the formulation and expression of ideas, we have not yet seen any evidence of it. We had no idea we could land a man on the moor (and return him safely) or put a vehicle on the landscape of Mars until Sputnik was launched in 1957.

In the new millennium, the concept of controlled, centralized dissemination of ideas has been radically altered by the introduction and evolution of the Internet. There is no more information hub. The ARPAnet followed by the Internet created a decentralized non-hierarchical network of individuals in which anyone is welcome to join and none is more consequential than any other. Services invented and operated by individuals with no identifiable entity in charge.

Yesterday, I accessed the Internet to absorb some ideas from, among others, Fred von Lohmann, a young intellectual property attorney for Google out of (where else) California. Without the Internet I would never have had a clue who he was. I absorbed some of his ideas, formulated them into my own and leisurely put them into print this morning over a cup of coffee. This is a VERY powerful thing.

If you are reading this missive, you are one of about 1000 members of an International medical interest group. Some of you will absorb my ideas as a platform to build your own, and disseminate them in this or another forum. All of our ideas are put into an idea repository with the same availability as Brian Williams, Matt Drudge or for that matter Sarah Palin. The end result is an exponential explosion of thought that could never have happened 20 years ago, and is changing the world. Attempts to muzzle or even centralize this dissemination of information ended with the Internet.

By and large, it has been a good thing for society to give consumers the authority and ability to become producers. EBAY has created a cottage industry of sellers. Musicians and film producers have found a market for their material bypassing parasitic middlemen. Talented and informed people have found forums on YouTube. But with the open information arena comes burps and hiccoughs within the realm of intellectual property.

Simply put, music and film are packages of information no different than any other such parcels and considered fair game by the information age.  Decentralization inevitably affects this and other intellectual properties. In the previous era, artists of every stripe made their living by the encapsulation and subsequent selling of an information “product”. This simply doesn’t work in the Internet age. Once information is out there, it’s no longer the property of anyone. Attempts to maintain the marketing/selling model have roundly been met by resistance, and when legal sanctions have been introduced, the result has simply been more decentralization and an inability to identify scofflaws.

No where is this more apparent than in the BitTorrent network, exemplified by “The Pirate Bay”, a server network for music and film that regularly flies in the face of every known copyright and intellectual property rule. TPB is the largest such system of such information ever devised by mankind and has steadfastly resisted massive legal challenges by the Hollywood entertainment industry for a number of years, to continue unabated as I sit here. It is impossible to stop TPB by legal challenges.

By their nature, legal challenges require some form and substance to sue. By its nature, the Internet repository of information is decentralized to now untold millions of end users with free access that are impossible to identify. Those fighting the natural progression of file sharing end up fighting the fundamental structure of the Internet. Successfully closing down a few centralized centers such as Napster and Kazaa has not affected the structure that created them.

The battle for sharing of information is already lost. Everything the entertainment industry has tried has failed. Identifying and suing a relative few users for copyright infringement, akin to keeping the village in line by chopping off a few heads and displaying them at the gate on poles. The villagers responded by he invention of “seed boxes”, specialized servers in Luxemburg and other areas where users can maintain untraceable IP addresses.

A number of years ago, singer Madonna arbitrarily decided to increase the price of her latest CD from the usual US$15.99 to $18.99. She called it “aggressive pricing” and she did it because she could. She correctly knew that her fans had no other alternative.  Fans were forced to purchase 12 of Madonna’s songs even if they liked only one.  Actors in popular films famously hold out for millions of dollars to appear. Whatever the traffic will bear.

Creating producers from consumers has changed all that. Making money is no longer the point. Making something is the point and this will evolve on it’s own course. The public no longer needs the entertainment industry to create entertainment. Music didn’t begin with the phonograph and won’t end with Peer-2-Peer sharing. Film didn’t begin with multiplex cinema and it won’t end with The Pirate Bay. The same innovative spirit that created, nourished and extended the Internet will have to come to bear in the entertainment industry or they will die.

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