[Web4lib] "Strong Copyright + DRM + Weak Net Neutrality = Digital Dystopia?" Preprint

Charles W. Bailey, Jr. cbailey at uh.edu
Wed May 3 14:54:37 EDT 2006

A preprint of my "Strong Copyright + DRM + Weak Net
Neutrality = Digital Dystopia?" paper is now available.


It will appear in Information Technology and Libraries 25,
no. 3 (2006).

This quote from the paper's conclusion sums it up:

What this paper has said is simply this: three issues--a
dramatic expansion of the scope, duration, and punitive
nature of copyright laws; the ability of DRM to
lock-down content in an unprecedented fashion; and the
erosion of Net neutrality--bear careful scrutiny by
those who believe that the Internet has fostered (and will
continue to foster) a digital revolution that has
resulted in an extraordinary explosion of innovation,
creativity, and information dissemination. These issues
may well determine whether the much-toted "information
superhighway" lives up to its promise or simply becomes
the "information toll road" of the future, ironically
resembling the pre-Internet online services of the past.

For those who want a longer preview of the paper, here's the

Blogs. Digital photo and video sharing. Podcasts.
Rip/Mix/Burn. Tagging. Vlogs. Wikis. These buzzwords
point to a fundamental social change fueled by cheap PCs
and servers, the Internet and its local wired/wireless
feeder networks, and powerful, low-cost software:
citizens have morphed from passive media consumers to
digital media producers and publishers.

Libraries and scholars have their own set of buzz words:
digital libraries, digital presses, e-prints,
institutional repositories, and open access journals to
name a few. They connote the same kind of change: a
democratization of publishing and media production using
digital technology.

It appears that we are on the brink of an exciting new
era of Internet innovation: a kind of digital utopia.
Dr. Gary Flake of Microsoft has provided one striking
vision of what could be (with a commercial twist) in a
presentation entitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying
and Love the Imminent Internet Singularity," and there are
many other visions of possible future Internet advances.

When did this metamorphosis begin? It depends on who you
ask. Let's say the late 1980's, when the Internet began
to get serious traction and an early flowering of
noncommercial digital publishing occurred.

In the subsequent twenty-odd years, publishing and media
production went from being highly centralized,
capital-intensive analog activities with limited and
well-defined distribution channels to being diffuse,
relatively low-cost digital activities with the global
Internet as their distribution medium. Not to say that print
and conventional media are dead, of course, but it is clear
that their era of dominance is waning. The future is

Nor is it to say that entertainment companies (e.g.,
film, music, radio, and television companies) and
information companies (e.g., book, database, and serial
publishers) have ceded the digital content battlefield
to the upstarts. Quite the contrary.

High-quality thousand-page-per-volume scientific
journals and Hollywood blockbusters cannot be produced
for pennies, even with digital wizardry. Information and
entertainment companies still have an important role to
play, and, even if they didn't, they hold the copyrights
to a significant chunk of our cultural heritage.

Entertainment and information companies have understood
for some time that they must adopt to the digital
environment or die, but this change has not always been
easy, especially when it involves concocting and
embracing new business models. Nonetheless, they intend
to thrive and prosper--and to do whatever it takes to
succeed. As they should, since they have an obligation to
their shareholders to do so.

The thing about the future is that it is rooted in the
past. Culture, even digital culture, builds on what has
gone before. Unconstrained access to past works helps
determine the richness of future works. Inversely, when
past works are inaccessible except to a privileged
minority, it impoverishes future works.

This brings us to a second trend that stands in
opposition to the first. Put simply, it is the view that
intellectual works are "property"; that this property
should be protected with the full force of civil and
criminal law; that creators have perpetual, transferable
property rights; and that contracts, rather than
copyright law, should govern the use of intellectual works.

A third trend is also at play: the growing use of
Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies. When
intellectual works were in paper form (or other tangible
forms), they could only be controlled at the
object-ownership or object-access levels (a library
controlling the circulation of a copy of a book is an
example of the second case). Physical possession of a
work, such as a book, meant that the user had full use
of it (e.g., the user could read the entire book and
photocopy pages from it). When works are in digital form and
they are protected by some types of DRM, this may no
longer true. For example, a user may only be able to
view a single chapter from a DRM-protected e-book and
may not be able to print it.

The fourth and final trend deals with how the Internet
functions at its most fundamental level. The Internet
was designed to be content, application, and hardware
"neutral." As long as certain standards were met, the
network did not discriminate. One type of content was
not given preferential delivery speed over another. One type
of content was not charged for delivery while another
wasn't. One type of content was not blocked (at least by
the network) while another wasn't. In recent years,
"network neutrality" has come under attack.

The collision of these trends has begun in courts,
legislatures, and the marketplace. It is far from over.
As we shall see, it's outcome will determine what the
future of digital culture looks like.

Best Regards,

Charles W. Bailey, Jr., Assistant Dean for Digital Library
Planning and Development, University of Houston Libraries

E-Mail: cbailey at digital-scholarship.com

Publications: http://www.digital-scholarship.com/
(Provides access to DigitalKoans, Open Access Bibliography,
Open Access Webliography, Scholarly Electronic Publishing
Bibliography, Scholarly Electronic Publishing Weblog, and others)

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