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.)