Internet policy is probably not at the forefront of most people’s minds. Which is mostly a good thing, because it indicates that wide swaths of humanity have come to see the ‘net as akin to a public utility, if not a basic right. There are however, some unresolved concerns regarding the advancement of open communications and the protection of intellectual property. (Obviously, there are other issues at play as well, ranging from cybersecurity to privacy to competition and adoption.)
For those who did not know, my work in Washington, DC covers some of this bizarre ground. Mostly, I try to figure out ways in which the content community can achieve workable business models without undermining what makes the internet so awesome. We’re on the content side of the argument — inasmuch as it relates to creator compensation and access to audiences — but we certainly stomp our feet when overzealous rightsholders push for policies that would inhibit legitimate expression.
A couple of years ago, in the midst of the so-called “net neutrality” debate, I was struck by a dystopian vision. In it, I saw the movement to ensure open communications platforms co-opted by the Free Culture crowd. I also anticipated aggressive anti-piracy efforts by Hollywood, due to their inability to completely control the modern distribution pipe. The latter came to pass with SOPA and PIPA — two overly-broad bills pushed hard by the content industries. These legislative attempts at combating infringement were ultimately defeated by a massive outcry from everyday internet users (and yes, tech companies).
What I wasn’t able to predict with precision was how the Free Culture movement would expand the fight against Big Content using the moral shield of human rights. I find this to be highly troubling, and utterly disingenuous. For culture and expression to thrive, there needs to be a recognition of the rights that attach to expression. As staunchly as I defend individuals’ speech and the ability for entrepreneurs to innovate without having to ask permission, I am wholly opposed to a marriage of convenience between those who would promote open technologies and those who would consume creative expression without a moment’s thought how creators fare in this bargain.
Meanwhile, Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman David Lowery is busy re-litigating tired arguments about how things were soooo much better for artists back in the old days, when they had to transfer their copyrights under onerous contracts as a condition of entering the marketplace. Lowery’s basic assumptions are correct: musicians are en masse are not necessarily winning big in the new paradigm. I understand the cathartic response of the many artists who felt like they weren’t allowed to talk about things like piracy and digital ethics in the wake of the Napster/Metallica brouhaha. A decade later, many are too fatigued to consider the nuances of these issues, and are too willing to go with what one belligerent “expert” has to say about how things should be. I’m a huge Camper Van Beethoven fan, and I have to admit that it stung to be personally called out in one of Lowery’s screeds. But what irritates more is that this is a man who is looking backwards. He is not trying to fix any of the issues around the efficient licensing and delivery of content in a digital environment. Nor does he have anything to say about what structures could enable transparent and equitable compensation for creators.
But that’s not his job. It’s mine.
The perpetuation of a false dichotomy between content and technology benefits no one. The more the Free Culture movement undermines intellectual property frameworks, the harder the Hollywood lobbyists will push for draconian enforcement. The more the content industries try to thwart innovation to preserve unworkable business models, the more they fuel consumer patronage of unauthorized distribution channels. And ’round and ’round we go.
I wholeheartedly believe that there is a way to uphold the virtues of an accessible internet where free expression, innovation and entrepreneurship can flourish without inhibiting new business models around creative content. But in order to realize this digital Eden, there must be a greater recognition of the value that each actor brings to the internet ecosystem. No more bullying from the content side of the fence. No more provocation and moral cowardice from the digital commons. Get your shit together people, or else we will never arrive at a mutually-rewarding and sustainable future.
Why should we have to choose between being digital chickenfeed or the playthings of vampire squid?
Let’s take this opportunity to explore how technology and creative commerce can be the rising tide to lift a great many more boats. No more bullshit. It’s time to grow up.