RE: Information & Power /Copyrights
Fri, 7 May 1999 09:11:30 -0700

Billy Brown writes:
> Well, after looking back over the archives I can see that we aren't likely
> to come to a meeting of minds on this topic. I think that property rights
> are a necessary precondition of production and trade, and therefore that
> abolishing copyright would lead to a precipitous decline in the production
> of intellectual property. You apparently believe that abolishing copyright
> would actually lead to an increase in such production.
> [...]
> Since you apparently don't accept the arguments from economic theory, or
> from historical precedent, I suppose we'll just have to continue to disagree
> until someone actually performs the experiment.

One of the reasons why this argument has increasing relevence is because of predictions that the new information technologies will allow violations of copyright without effective enforcement being possible.

We see this already to a limited extent with the MP3, porn and "warez" traffic, where the violators are so numerous and widespread that it has apparently not been practical to enforce copyright. They also are able in many cases to shield themselves with technological anonymity strong enough for the purpose.

Theoretically it should be possible to use cryptography to make this kind of information trading even more secure and anonymous. The crypto wars are still being fought, of course, and it remains to be seen how it will all come out, but if cryptographic anonymity is not outlawed then it will become even easier to share copyrighted information. This appears to be part of the motivation for David Brin's proposal for his "transparent society" which would not allow public forms of secrecy and anonymity, particularly when protected by cryptography; as an author his livelihood would be threatened if people could freely share his works.

There are countervailing technologies under development. Fingerprinting marks each distributed document so that if it later appears on the black market it can be traced back to the original purchaser. Special hardware could sit in your computer and only allow data to be displayed if you had the proper key. The controversial Intel processor ID feature was apparently intended as a step in this direction, although Intel later tried to deny this.

I suspect that we will see occasional shifts in the balance as this technological arms race continues. At times the crackdowns will be relatively successful and the illegal information traffic will be suppressed, but at other times some new method will be found to get around the restrictions and we will once again see widespread sharing of data. So we may have the opportunity to witness both environments over the next few decades, and it will be interesting to see whether there is any impact on the rate of production of intellectual property.