Friday, October 28, 2005

Benjamin Mako Hill on copyright in the technological environment

Benjamin Mako Hill made a name for himself in Free Software ad Open Source technologies, a background which makes him a natural choice to discuss the nature of copyright in an era of free information, piracy and p2p file sharing.

The Problem: In the digital context, information is defined by technology and copyright, the the emergent technologies are making the definition of ownership and copyright increasingly muddied and strained. How can the information be controlled and authorship retained? As the gap between the legal reality of copyright and the people's right to information are obvious and deeply problematic, Mr Hill stated. After all, if everyone eeverywhere had everything at no cost, what is the justification of depriving anyone of anything? It's an interesting moral and ethical question. More importantly, what are the solutions?

The first suggestion: Make copyright stronger - expand it to match current requirements and technology. But does that make much sense, when current laws are already so hard to enforce? Both copyright holders and pirates feel it is unlikely at best.

Second: Copyright reforms. The initial take on the notion would be to reduce length of cpyright, that certain goods would not be protected, the return of registration... But even if such a reform were feasible, Mr Hill pondered, it would be unfeasible. More likely would becompulsory licencing - or access on set terms. Such a movement would be more likely and easily executed, with taxes applied and appropriate monitoring systems.

Third: Piracy - ignore the distribution companies long enough, and eventually they would indeed go away, but not without severely undermining the production, and as a result, the point of the exercise.

Fourth, and most supported by Mr Hill, would be the development of an "alternative ecosystem". That is to say the development of a new system which abandons the older distribution and production models in favour of something which more closely follows modern technology, and utilising voluntary licencing schemes for consumers and modifiers, a la open source software. Such a project would follow the Four Essential Freedoms - to run software for any purpose; to study how the program works and make improvements; to give away copies; and to also give away and improvements added.

Furthermore, he posited, such notions should also be taken into consideration by people developing creative works - such as artists and writers - and not just those creating functional works, such as software developers. He also stated his hope to see an emphasis on the Creative Commons and the positive impact of collaboration.

When questioned on the nature of derivative works, Mr Hill expressed favour for them, taking the obvious example of Disney, who frequently use stories in the pulbic domain for their movies. He was also asked about the notion of sampling in music genres such as hip-hop, to which Mr Hill mused upon how the form lost something as its sampling was crushed by legislation, in spite of the genre having a long-standing prior history.

When asked how you could stop people from altering software, he replied that it would require the alteration of the licence, but this would also become a legal minefield as that could be construed as a breach of licence itself, with the most recent modifier in a position to sue if they so wished. In closing, he was also asked how sustainable production would be in open source production without patronage, he admitted it's a difficult situation. One potential solution would be a basic amount of capital would have to be received before the software would become freely available to everyone, but he admitted this is only one possibility.

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