“The Information that Wants to Be Free Always Belongs to Someone Else”

by Alex Swartsel 08/15/2011 09:51 (UTC-08:00) Pacific Time (US & Canada)

Robert Levine, the author and former Billboard executive editor, had two insightful articles published over the weekend, in The Guardian and Wired, exploring the interdependencies between the creators who produce information, art, and other content, and the people and platforms that distribute it online – and what that means for copyright. 

His bottom line is that generally, everybody who produces things of value – whether it’s the creators who make movies or music or TV shows or the engineers who write software and build technology that makes that content available more quickly – needs to be able to earn some kind of return on their work in order to keep doing it.  That’s finally the problem with the “information wants to be free” argument, about which Levine comments in both articles; in his words in Wired, “[t]he problem is that the cost of distributing information has very little to do with the cost of creating it.”

The labels and studios that invest millions in music and movies want to maintain a market for their products. But ISPs and technology companies know their own products will have more value if they can offer that content at a lower price, by tolerating piracy or using it as a bargaining chip to negotiate deals. On the internet, the information that wants to be free always belongs to someone else.

More along the same lines, from Levine’s piece in The Guardian:

It seems obvious, but an information economy needs a functioning market for information. Traditionally, that market was created by copyright, but those laws haven't been enforced effectively online. This helps companies such as YouTube build businesses on the backs of creative professionals.

Certainly, copyright laws need to be updated for the digital age. Many reformers say they favour protection, but view any attempt to enforce it as unacceptable. This doesn't make sense: a market can't be based on voluntary payments, and laws don't work if they can't be enforced. There needs to be some penalty for illegal downloading, although slowing the access speed of a lawbreaker makes more sense than cutting their account entirely. By the same token, why should internet users be allowed to access sites that clearly – and that last word is important – violate UK law? If the UK simply declines to enforce its laws online, it will leave many of its businesses vulnerable as the internet becomes more important to commerce in the years ahead.

As pressure builds to enforce copyright law online, technology companies and the activists they support have started to argue that any attempt to block pirate sites will "break the internet", as though it were an iPhone teetering on the edge of a table. The truth is that the internet is broken already: it's simply too chaotic to provide the infrastructure for a 21st-century economy. This has to change, before newspapers and film suffer declines like that of the music industry. Technology companies have long lectured creators on the need to adapt to a changing digital world. It would be a shame if they couldn't heed their own advice.

Both of Levine’s columns (online in The Guardian and Wired) are worth reading in full.

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