May 26, 2024

What's the Biggest Impact of IT on Copyright?

On Saturday I gave a talk (“Rip, Mix, Burn, Sue: Technology, Politics, and the Fight to Control Digital Media”) for a Princeton alumni group in Seattle. The theme of the talk is that the rise of information technology is causing a “great earthquake” in media businesses.

Many people believe that the biggest impact of IT is that it allows easy copying and redistribution of all types of content. To some people, this is the only impact of IT.

But I argue in the talk that the copying issue is only one part of IT’s impact, and not necessarily the biggest part. The main impact of IT, I argue, is that computers are universal devices that can perform any operation on digital data (except those operations that are inherently undoable and therefore can’t be done by any device).

I stress universality over copying in the talk for two reasons. First, it’s a point that most people miss, especially non-techies. Second, it lets me hint at the most important tradeoff in copyright/tech policy, which is how copyright sometimes stands in the way of developing powerful technologies for creating and communicating. Most people are quick to see the advantages of strong copyright in the digital world, but slow to see the price we’re paying for it.

This debate – whether IT is primarily a copying machine, or a creative tool – seems to run deeply throughout the online copyright debate. Those who see copying as the main impact of IT don’t much mind restricting digital technologies to further their copyright aims. But those who see creativity as the main impact of IT aim to protect the vitality of the IT ecosystem.

I come down on the creative side. I think the biggest long-run effect of IT will be in changing how we communicate and express ourselves. This is not to say that copying doesn’t matter – it clearly does – but only that we need to take the creative effects of IT at least as seriously as we take copying.

As I say in the talk, if IT’s impact is like an earthquake, file sharing is not the Big One, it’s only the first tremor.

(Thanks to Ed Lazowska, whose email exchange with me after the talk triggered this post.)


  1. Er … where’d it go? Now it looks like I’m accusing myself of posting off-topic. (Which I suppose I did…)

  2. That is also off-topic.

  3. Doesn’t that fit better in the “miraculin” thread rather than this one? This one isn’t about food; it’s about copyright.

  4. Several minutes? Make that several hours. Gripe log is in doornail mode. And it looked to be well on the road to recovery, too!

  5. Funny that. The Gripe Log is apparently kaputnik. The front page at has been replaced by a “503” message. It’s not a transient error from the Web server — it is consistent, even with requests separated by several minutes. Apparently the page has actually been replaced with this message. Although it says “service temporarily unavailable”, its persistence for over 10 minutes instead of being, like 500 errors normally are, transient, indicates that they’ve apparently pulled the plug, or let some vandal get in and deface the site.

    There was no advance warning, either. The site was normal with nothing posted regarding any pending maintenance or closure last night. Now 12 hours later … gone, just like that.

    Please tell me you won’t ever let that happen to FTT!

  6. FWIW, I’ve never seen a spam posted here with the handle “Neo”. Then again, it may have been deleted after being posted but before I got the chance to read it.

  7. This is a test. This is a test of whether this “Akismet” is objecting to my handle, email address, or URL, or instead to my IP address. This is only a test.


    Had this been a case of actual censorship, the tone you just heard would have been followed by … nothing. In fact you wouldn’t have even heard the tone.

    Guess the spam filter suddenly started disliking the name/mail/website data that I hadn’t changed in ages, instead of someone deciding to blackhole me by IP.

    Still shouldn’t have happened. Especially without any warning or explanation or error message even. If this hits enough of your regular readers and comment contributors, this blog will become a ghost town, which I’ve personally seen happen twice before (Copyfight, now getting maybe 1 post a month; Gripe Log when it kept spuriously rejecting legitimate comment posts and then all anonymous posting was suspended, but it’s livening up now that both of those circumstances have reversed).

  8. No, I have never censored Neo. I don’t have any IP addresses blacklisted, and I use only standard anti-spam tools without customizations. For some reasons, the Akismet antispam tool seemed to be rejecting Neo’s posts. Maybe there is an actual spammer elsewhere using the name Neo. Maybe Neo used a fictitious email address (for privacy reasons) that matched something a spammer uses. I don’t know.

  9. Abe Weston says

    I don’t recall Neo/Blah being obnoxious or doing anything else wrong — at least until AFTER being blacklisted. And I don’t see Ed popping up to explain what happened or why, which suggests a possible guilty conscience?

    Given that no obvious rules were violated (no spamming in particular), it does look like it has to be simply because of a disagreement with something he said that was, however, not “actionable”. Which leads to an irony: our champion of freedom-to-tinker apparently isn’t one of freedom-of-speech!

    Of course, some question remains. Perhaps Neo posted something really terrible that got deleted, and which we can’t see. If so, as a frequent lurker here I can’t recall having even briefly glimpsed such a thing. Regardless, I guess it’s up to Ed to clear things up and explain what happened, and to elucidate a bright-line rule that Neo crossed, if possible, and that the rest of us can then easily avoid. And if there is no bright-line rule that he broke, I figure to be deleting my bookmark, or at least not commenting any further here, as it will be evident that the acceptable-comment policy is too arbitrary, random, and non-impartial to be trusted. I hope that is not in fact the case.

  10. Blah said:

    P.S. if this appears, it proves that “Neo” is being censored by blocking his IP address. By a supposed proponent of “freedom to tinker”. Ironic, eh?

    Freedom to *tinker* does not mean freedom to be *obnoxous*. I did not find the post you made here obnoxous, but I presume something you said (presumably under the name “Neo” was thought to be obnoxous by Ed). Commenting is a privilege, not a right. Having a blog, now, that may be a right; but commenting on someone else’s certainly isn’t. And commenting on someone else’s blog is certainly very different than tinkering with a device *you* *own*…

  11. Eric Norman says

    I consider “The Digital Dilemma …” a “must read” on this subject. It’s available at

    It does an excellent job of exposing the issues.

    One of the main points is that the Internet cannot function without making copies. This entangles the act of copying with acccess control in such a manner that it’s more difficult to find the balance between incentives for authors and access for the public. Such a balance is believed to be necessary for copyright to achieve it’s purpose of advancing the arts and sciences.

  12. The biggest impact of IT on copyright is actually a consequence of freeing the consumer to be more creative. IT technology allows us to do a variety of activities with content, such as time shifting, recording onto many different devices. The unintended consequence has been the claim of the content producers that they now have a self created right to “control” the how the user may use content. This control is manifested by the content producers segmenting the “rights” of the consumer into ever smaller chunks to the point that the user essentially has no rights. So we have a situation were one has the capability to be more creative but will be legally prevented from being creative.

  13. John Mann says

    I agree that computers are universal devices.

    I think IT is a “brain amplifier” rather than just a creative tool. A brain amplifier amplifies the abilities of the brain, like a petrol engine is an amplification of muscle power.

    So, our brain amplifier can ingest/re-tell content (like a copy machine), or be used as a tool to create new content (as you say), or organise, communicate, archive content, make correlations … in ways that are just impossible to do using one human brain.

    These DRM shackles artificially limits what our brain amplifiers can do, and ultimately, puts boundaries around what we think.

  14. As an engineer and hobby artist I am always amazed how much value authors, musicians and painters see in their mostly humble works. They freely use very complex free Open Source Software to create very often masterpieces of zero value. However, they think their utterances must be protected for hundreds of years by all kinds a copyright laws at no cost for them. I highly recommend the methods established in engineering society. Whoever wants government authorities to protect his work should pay for this service (much like patents). This service fee should be raised every year by at least 10%. Thus the artists would think about the real value of their work and the media industry woukd rethink their protection mechanisms.

    PS In good old days you had to spend a fortune to prepare copper plates to print sheet music for an opera, which was played rather rarely. In those days it was very reasonable to protect this investment for more than 50 years. In the digital age this is plain nonsense!

  15. I’d like to hear more specifically about technological or legislative proposals which, while oriented at DRM, would also prevent consensual and independent context creation. What exactly is being proposed along these lines? Can we distinguish between “good” DRM which leaves open voluntary cooperation, and “bad’ DRM which gets in the way of such consensual efforts?

  16. supercat says

    Improving technologies are reducing the importance of the ‘big boys’ in the music, movie, and television industries. Though the immediate threat to the big boys might seem to be fact that people can pirate and distribute their wares, the real threat is that people will be able to freely distribute wares not produced by the ‘big boys’. They need to clamp down on the distribution mechanisms before things reach that point.

    One issue that’s been touched on that needs to be amplified is the extent to which efforts at pushing DRM are seeking to make true general-purpose audiovisual processing and computing devices unavailable. The supposed goal of this is to block piracy of the ‘big boys’ wares, but it would also have the effect of interfering with the development of independent works. Of course, the ‘big boys’ would insist this latter side-effect is entirely unintentional, but is it really?

  17. Well, goodbye then. It’s clear I’m not wanted here, and that the site’s operator is a hypocrite anyway.

  18. If file sharing is the first tremor, then what is the Big One? Maybe the first mainstream sub-$10,000 feature film with Hollywood-level production quality? (It’s coming — probably in the next year or two. Star Wreck is an effects-heavy, admittedly non-mainstream sub-$30,000 feature film produced by amateurs.)

    Highly cheap and efficient production, and cheap and efficient distribution via bittorrent, of something like that should seriously threaten the existing Hollywood business models without any infringement being required. So they won’t be able to sue and argue that their business models remain valid because only illegal activity is threatening it.

    Then there’s a fork in the road. Do they wise up? Or do they push to make all end-user creativity illegal too? I expect they really will try to push a law disallowing broad distribution of anything without special governmental approval, and that the effort will run aground on the shoals of the First Amendment.

    First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.

    P.S. if this appears, it proves that “Neo” is being censored by blocking his IP address. By a supposed proponent of “freedom to tinker”. Ironic, eh?

  19. Test

  20. One further aspect of this is that what is considered “creative”, or perhaps rather “creating things of importance”, is subject to value judgement. Too often the view of commercial copyright/patent holders and proponents is that only their products (which often but not always fall in the “creation” category, and perhaps even less often are “original creations”) are of such importance, and competition from other creators, who often have no lesser claim to fame, is unfair.

  21. I don’t see these two effects as necessarily being in conflict. So long as DRM is optional and content creators have the choice as to whether to release their material with or without protection, there is plenty of scope for creativity. It’s true that you can’t take someone else’s DRM’d material and work with it as you will, but you could always ask them for permission. It’s arguably justified for creators to have some degree of control over what is done with their creations, especially if they require people to agree to restrictions in exchange for being given access to the content. And if we do see an explosion of creative activity like some predict, there will be plenty of free content to mix and blend however you like.

  22. Let’s see if your premise holds up to today’s evidence:

    We have, today, the ability to plug in a wireless access point/node and create a wireless range anywhere there’s an electrical outlet. Add solar capability, and that expands the geographic scope.

    Once a community wireless mesh network is created, broadband speeds are possible, allowing users to become connected and communicate with VoIP.

    Today, Stanford University’s Center for Research in Music and Acoustics makes freely available audio and video state-of-the-art software that enables users to create all forms of digital works.

    Openmovieeditor enables non-techies to create and edit professional high quality videos, quickly and easily. Graphics are available through freely available apps such as Xaralx. Podcasting applications are freely available to enable pre-recorded and realtime creation of audio and video productions.

    As we witnessed at the turn of the last century, everyone could run a radio station. Today, as we witness, everyone can run a tv/radio/film/recording studio/interactive videoconferencing setup on little more than a cheap desktop computer. Media content producers are now directly competing with those who receive their content.

    Hmmm. I would say you’re smack dead center. Keep up the good work.

  23. “Those who see copying as the main impact of IT don’t much mind restricting digital technologies to further their copyright aims. But those who see creativity as the main impact of IT aim to protect the vitality of the IT ecosystem.

    I come down on the creative side. I think the biggest long-run effect of IT will be in changing how we communicate and express ourselves.”

    Amen. The abiity to use our computers is threatened by some of the most extreme forms of DRM, (such as Vista) and the abiility to make unlimited copies of digital content affects different creative segments in different ways. I t has profoundly affected music, but hardly had any effect on book sales, and my profession, Architecture has been hardly affected in a negative way by the PC as a copy machine.

    It’s interesting that those who advocate DRM, as a tool for increasing the value of content creation almost always focus only on musicians, but never authors, Architects, painters or photographers.