Anyone who relies on Wikipedia to maintain their position as most knowledgeable spark in their milieu might have struggled yesterday (particularly if they hadn’t Googled how to ‘View Source’ beforehand). If you missed it, several of the world’s largest Internet sites ‘took action’ yesterday in protest against the proposed SOPA and PIPA Acts currently being discussed in the different chambers of the US parliamentary system. This would be an awfully long blog posting if I stopped to explain them; thankfully the BBC News pages provide an overview and the (now-restored) Wikipedia can also tell you more.

Essentially, the arguments are around intellectual property rights and digital piracy: as we embrace Web 2.0 and user-content (and, by extension, social media, crowd-sourcing and many other topics you may already feel you’ve read your fill of), it’s technically far too easy for people to upload copies of films, music and so on that has someone else’s copyright legally attached to it. (Unless you’ve never watched anything on YouTube or burned a copy of a friend’s CD to iTunes, it’s a fair bet you’ve broken copyright law.) Because it’s easy, it happens; because the end result is free, other people watch, listen to or re-download it. Various high profile websites’ issue isn’t so much with the problem as with the proposed solution: if someone uploads a copy of a Hollywood movie to Wikipedia or YouTube, SOPA would – if enacted – mean that Wikipedia/YouTube has broken the law and could be taken down in total, Google could be forced to remove links to them, and so on … That’s why you either had to do your own thinking or find it in a book yesterday.

Predictably, it’s become something of an ‘old media vs. new media’ battle. In the old camp, the film, music and publishing industries are understandably keen to protect their IPR and their revenue. In the new media camp, they may appreciate the IPR/copyright argument, but they see sledgehammers about to be applied to nuts. Having worked in publishing, in national libraries, and in new media, I personally see something that’s been a long time coming, a number of cats being let out of bags, and a lot of attempts to bolt stables that the horses left some time ago.

At one level, there’s an argument that the media industries might have done well to learn a lesson from the recorded music industry since the arrival of MP3s and the Internet. Technology has wrought profound changes in social behaviour around music: not just Amazon and its ilk undercutting record shops (which are dying out at quite dizzying speed), but sales of physical media falling too. I buy CDs by the sack load, but a) I’m quite old, b) I still burn them to my own computer, and c) I have some sympathy for the performer, as they usually get a slice of slighter larger cake that way. (We’ll come back to that point too.) The trend towards downloading, however, continues: it’s quick and easy, and even where it isn’t free it’s usually cheaper. From the consumer’s point of view, what’s not to like? Meanwhile, when onward distribution is just a click away (the BBC’s coverage of the launch of 60 new Facebook apps says tech reporters are calling this ‘frictionless sharing’), on it inexorably goes.

On a day when Kodak has filed for bankruptcy protection, it’s easy to think that industries might learn to take a keener interest in the writing on the wall. Or the postings on the Walls, the tweets, blogs and all the rest. Kodak actually invented the digital camera, as explain:

A Kodak engineer credited with inventing the digital camera has revealed how bewildered company executives couldn’t understand why anyone would ever want to look at images on a TV screen when he first proposed the idea of a ‘filmless camera’ to them in 1975.”

Nearly a hundred years earlier, Kodak had launched the world’s first consumer camera. The slogan at the time was: “You press the button, we do the rest.” Now, of course, our premise with most tech is “we press the button – or the screen – and we do the rest too”. Kodak’s dilemma is that we moved on faster than the company.

As a musician and writer, however, I can’t help look at the whole debate from another angle. It’s one that was raised in one of 2010’s more provocative books about human interaction with technology and the world it’s creating: Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget (a book we reviewed here earlier). Lanier is also a writer and musician (as well as a technological genius), and is concerned not so much for the health of the industries that license and distribute humankind’s creative endeavours as for the impact of digital rights and payment systems on creators.

Myths about poets starving in garrets for the purity of their art aside, creators need to eat, house themselves, buy iPads and pay their broadband bills too: without a means of making a living from their art, there is no incentive to produce it. There is a basic reward and recognition argument here: we get what we pay for, and we can’t count on not getting what we don’t pay for – it has to come from somewhere.

But there is also a lesson for the digital industry giants here, largely around the rush to embrace what’s technologically possible without necessarily thinking through the larger consequences. In the interest of trying to maintain balance in what is a far more complex issue than the headlines can ever suggest (but then subtlety isn’t the point of headlines), some of the very original pioneers – the ones working in research labs years before any of us had a web browser – had actually given the economics of an online world serious consideration. To quote from Lanier’s book:

[Ted] Nelson is perhaps the most formative figure in the development of online culture. He invented the digital media link and other core ideas of connected online media back in the 1960s. He called it “hypermedia.”

Nelson’s ambitions for the economics of linking were more profound than those in vogue today. He proposed that instead of copying digital media, we should effectively keep only one copy of each cultural expression – as with a book or a song – and pay the author of that expression a small, affordable amount whenever it is accessed.”

Unfortunately, as a race we have been no more successful in developing a universal online micro-payments system than we have in resisting the early Net trope of ‘information wants to be free’, or in eliminating theft as a human behaviour simply by making it illegal. (Which is, after all, another nutshell way of saying what SOPA and PIPA are trying to achieve.)

Lanier also pointed out another factor that contributed: the sceptical disbelief that one day millions of us would ever want to publish our words, actions, music or whatever for the world to ‘share’. The early pioneers of the New and the web mostly saw it as something we would contribute to rather than merely absorb or consume: even Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay that was to subsequently inspire some of them saw his ‘memex’ as something its user would add to. But steeped in a world in which publishers, record companies and film studios were cultural gatekeepers, many could not foresee “a world with a million active voices”.

Writing with hindsight, Lanier says:

If we idealists had only been able to convince those skeptics, we might have entered in a different, and better, world once it became clear that the majority of people are indeed interested in and capable of being expressive in the digital realm.”

I can’t say that people uploading pirated content to the web are ‘being expressive in the digital realm’: most of them aren’t doing it to make overblown points about property being theft. But theft is a universal aspect of human behaviour. And Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr and the rest all already exist: the cat has left the bag and the horse has left the stable. Much as several websites’ behaviour yesterday was a novel form of protest (unsurprisingly attacked in print today – David Aaronovitch’s article in today’s Times is one example), it would be interesting to see if the industries seeking to protect their interests as the world moves on could come up with a new model that not only works for them but accepts that the world has changed.

It’s not a case of ‘the revolution will not be televised’, to co-opt an over-used quote: it’s that the television will be revolutionised and that resistance probably is futile. Possibly confounding our kneejerk expectations of American political divides, the BBC today reported the following among a number of responses:

Senator John Cornyn, a Texan Republican, also expressed his views via Facebook. “SOPA: better to get this done right rather than fast and wrong. Stealing content is theft, plain and simple, but concerns about unintended damage to the internet and innovation in the tech sector require a more thoughtful balance, which will take more time,” he wrote.”

There’s nothing that says the future has to be either the web or the traditional industries (another example of a conundrum that reminds of HRBartender’s excellent Thinking Both/And post), although that’s how it could all too easily play out. And the ball is in the traditional industries’ court, waiting for a well thought through return shot. It’s a big challenge, but one that relies on their forte – creativity – to address it. If they held out an olive branch across the analogue-digital divide, maybe their digital ‘foes’ could work with them to put it in place?

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