Thursday, February 21, 2008

Intellectual Properties by Robbin Murphy

Topic #2: Permissions

© 1996 Robbin Murphy

If you are reading this column in its print version the copyright notice above is a friendly reminder that I created it and have the right to decide if and how it will be copied and displayed. So far, I've given Intelligent Agent permission to print it and, if you'd like to do the same, you can ask me -- or wait until I die plus 75 years when the copyright expires and it becomes public domain. If you infringe on my copyright I can sue you.

But if you're reading it online you've already infringed on my copyright because in order to do so you will have copied the file to your computer and displayed it on your monitor without asking my permission to do so first. According to current U.S. law there's not much difference between this and running a clandestine printing operation that sells reprints on the street.

This is just one of the dilemmas facing an overwhelmingly unwired U.S. Congress this summer as they debate proposed revisions to the existing copyright laws that will provide protection when work is transmitted over computer networks.

Unfortunately our legislators are being courted by well-funded lobbyists who are more concerned with protecting large content owners -- movie studios and book publishers, for example -- than content creators like me. I may think of you as a reader of my work and part of a network that will eventually proove profitable (I hope) but the large content owners definitely think of you as a consumer and a direct source of income. To them the present state of the Internet is that of a lawless frontier overrun by content thieves and hackers in need of law and order. And potential customers.

This "frontier" metaphor is, I'm sure, familiar to the members of the present Congress. In the 19th century the same governmental body determined property rights in the Western United States without much concern for the protocols already in use by the indigenous population.

The Internet isn't a place but a protocol and exists when at least two computers exchange information using the Internet Protocol.

"Permission" is an attribute determined by the owner of a work, not enforced by a law. In UNIX the "chmod" command permits the owner of a file to "change the access mode " and set limitations on who can access, change and/or execute that document. The same is true for objects created in a multi-user online environment like a MOO.

The physicists at CERN who developed HTML and the Web wanted to put some order into their communications network. Hypertext made it easier to create multiple navigational paths and to read papers online. Documents were either open for all to access, closed to all but a select group or closed to all but the owner.

Ted Nelson's Xanadu project evolved this into a "permissions doctrine" where the copyright holder gives permission for republication with the provision that the document is obtained, and purchased, from its original source. This was not only to compensate the creator but also to guarantee the integrity of the document.

"The standard question has been, 'How do we prevent infringement?' If we re-frame the question as 'How can we allow re-use?', the solution may be simpler and more powerful than everyone thinks, with benefits for everyone."
Theodor Nelson, Transcopyright: Pre-Permission for Virtual Republishing

While Nelson's solution may seem overly complicated it does resolve the two major issues of copyright, compensation and integrity, while adhearing to the protocols already in use. It is also the direction the web seems to be going if the popularity of Java applets is any indication. Perhaps our idea of a document or an image may develop in this direction as well. This column would then be thought of more like software than a printed text.

If I wanted to give it away it would be freeware -- software made available at no cost with the understanding that the owner retains the copyright. I could also appeal to your sense of fairness and request a small payment if you find it useful in some way -- called shareware. U.S. law already recognizes something called "implied license" though it usually means the owner has made no attempt to protect the copyright rather than given permission. Except for major content owners with lawyers and staffers who surf the Web in search of infringement it's pretty much the de facto norm on the Internet at this point.

Proponents of tighter regulations maintain that without effective copyright laws there will be no incentive for creativity because there will be no guarantee of profit.

Playwrite-historian Charles Mee, Jr. couldn't disagree more and gives his plays away on his (re)making project website. There he encourages browsers to "take them, print them, perform them, cut them, add to them, re-make them in any way--do freely whatever they want with them."

But then his plays are themselves appropriations of public domain and contemporary texts from Euripides to Vogue Magazine that, he feels, the culture speaks through. They are part of a process that others are invited to continue.

Mee's permissive attitude is, perhaps, idealistic but it is also very much at home on the Internet

copied from Intelligent Agent September 1996

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