Copyright in the digital age (January 2, 2007)

Copyright is important, but the current approach to it is out of date now that computers make copying so cheap. The way copyright is designed impacts any business involving digital material, including software, books, music, and video.

In the form we currently know it, copyright is only a few hundred years old. Currently, if you write a book or put a string of notes in a row, then you automatically have the sole copyright -- the right to copy -- for that work. You can then license permission to others to make their own copies, typically charging them a fee for each copy. The better your work, the more you can charge. Thus, you get paid for producing good material.

To contrast, musicians of just a few hundred years ago had no protection against other people copying their material. Bach could not and did not get rich by selling copies! The main barrier to copying was the sheer difficulty of making a copy at all. Before the days of mass production, this barrier was significant.

There is no reason that we must continue with the current approach to copyright. Yes, existing businesses crucially rely on the current approach to copyright. However, this approach is based on technology of the past.

A particularly important change is that copying has become cheap and easy. Fifty years ago, making a copy of a book was an expensive operation. Now, you simply Google with "" in your search field and you can find a copy of the book to download.

This change strikes deep at the design of copyright. When copying requires a major enterprise, violation for personal use is not worth the cost, and violation on a massive scale is easy to detect. Nowadays, however, copies of all popular works are freely available on the Internet, even though everyone posting such works is paying the risk of living outside the law.

If we continue with the current approach to copyright, then some outcomes are predictable. All means of content copying and distribution will get closer inspection. Since all computers are also copying devices, the devices themselves will come under legal oversight. People will not be able to own just any old computer any longer, and people who buy parts for hobby machines will be viewed just like those who today buy ingredients for bombs or for illegal drugs. Further, popular computer software will include more attempts at digital-rights management (DRM). For example, Windows Vista disables itself if it decides -- correctly or incorrectly -- that the user is no longer allowed access. Users do not precisely buy a copy of Windows Vista; they lease access to it.

As a result, insisting on our current approach to copyright will, perversely, undermine our current intuition about copies. Traditionally, people buy and own copies of a work, and they can do with those works as they please up to the point of making and distributing new copies. Now that copying is cheap, however, people will increasingly find that they do not own copies in the traditional sense. "Their" copies will disable themselves without the user requesting. "Their" copies will be uncopyable, even for purposes of making backups.

It is a major problem, and well worth careful consideration. Let me start by sketching just two ideas about redesigning copyright. I hope this discussion is picked up by computer scientists and legal theorists, so that we can design a system that will work well.

As one comment, note that it is not a terrible choice to simply abandon copyright. After all, the current approach works best in a world where copyable materials are generally mass produced, but that world is passing. As with any change to the rules, current businesses in the area will have to majorly change or go out of business. In this case, big-budget, mass-produced works like Microsoft Windows and The Matrix would no longer be profitable. However, there would still be plenty of software available and plenty of film. At the least, open source software and creative commons artwork would be available. Art would not die, but big-budget art mostly would.

The first idea is mainly meant as a starting point, an example to show that there are copyright designs that are simple and have good results. If we cannot come up with some good redesign of copyright, then we can abandon copyright entirely and do quite well.

A second idea is to change the focus from the right to copy to some other kind of right. We would need to choose an activity that is cheap for mass production but expensive for personal use, akin to the way copying itself used to be expensive for personal use. For example, perhaps we should control the right to publicly produce a work? In that case, The Matrix would have a business model but Microsoft Windows would not. Whereas people could own DVD's of The Matrix for free, movie theaters would have to pay to show it. The basic formula of traditional copyright would hold, and the system should work out equally well.

At any rate, the current design of copyright is flawed, and the problems are only going to grow as copying gets even cheaper. Computer scientists, who understand this material so well, should be at the forefront of efforts to redesign copyright to match current technology. If we find nothing to propose, then we should expect the trends to continue: full ownership of copies will decline, and surveillance and control will increase for our personal machines.

Lex Spoon