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The Internet Threat


In The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, James Boyle devotes Chapter 4 to “the Internet Threat”, which is the way of thinking that “Big Media” (my term–not his–for publishers, music labels, movie studios…) use to justify continuing their grip on power. His explanation helped put things into context for me. The Internet Threat, he explains

… is beguilingly simple. The Internet makes copying cheaper and [so Big Media] must meet the greater danger of illicit copying with more expansive rights, harsher penalties, and expanded protections. … [w]ithout an increase in private property rights, cheaper copying will eat the heart out of our creative and cultural industries.

This has a certain logic – but it also sounds way wrong. Why? Boyle is clear that he does not disagree with the basic idea of copyright, and admits that Big Media are harmed by illicit copying. But, he goes on to show how this thinking is “dramatically incomplete” – and bad for individual freedom and cultural expression.

  • For one thing, although new technology enables the potential for harming copyright holders, it also enables potential for benefitting copyright holders (e.g., with new promotion and distribution opportunities). It’s not clear, on balance, whether the harms outweigh the benefits. (And, even if this could be accurately measured today, the balance will likely change tomorrow.) “A large, leaky market may actually provide more revenue than a small one over which one’s control is much stronger.” Big media wants protection from the dangers, without regard to the benefits they receive.
  • Another problem with the argument of the “Internet Threat” is that Big Media uses it to target the technologies which threaten them. Boyle describes the story of video recorders, which came on the scene in the ‘70’s with dramatically “cheaper copying”. Movie studios were “horrified” by video recorders, which they saw as a critical threat to their business model of tightly controlled distribution. In a famous suit against Sony (manufacturer of the Betamax), the movie studios sought to hold Sony liable because their machines could be used to violate copyright. Effectively, they wanted to be able to control the technology that threatened them. But the Supreme Court recognized that, since the technology could be used for legitimate, fair use purposes (like for time-shifting of TV programs), then the movie studios had no right to control the new technology. They had to learn to live with the existence of video recorders (and, ironically, figured out how to profit from them).

One way to view all this is that the new technological and social developments of the Internet represent entirely new “industries”. And, if established industries feel threatened by that, they can either adapt or perish. But, they should not control the playing field for newcomers. “Imagine”, opines Boyle, “if we had given the lamp-oil sellers the right to define the rules under which the newfangled electric light companies would operate”. We are, together, creating a new world of information and social relations. Exciting. Challenging. Profound.

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