Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The risks of propping up a corpse

Those of you who have--ahem--occasionally shared copyrighted content through peer-to-peer (P2P) networks know that the music and movie industries have their panties in a bunch over the free distribution of copyrighted material. In fact, these industries are so upset that they've sued uploaders and downloaders of copyrighted material (risking horrible PR among entertainment media end-users) and even hired private firms to sabotage networks like Gnutella and Bittorrent.

Prominent among the companies that hire out their services to track file sharers and monkeywrench P2P networks is Media Defender. This company has earned boos and hisses from around the world from folks who like their information to be free in the most literal sense possible for its efforts, including uploading worthless files to clog file-sharing networks and the establishment of bogus file-sharing sites to entrap would-be sharers.

But the copyright vigilantes have proven vulnerable to high-tech counter-vigilantism (is that even a word?) Media Defender has been targeted by a group of activists who style themselves as Media Defender-Defenders, and who've scored an impressive coup by nabbing vast quantities of internal company emails revealing the painful details of the the pro-copyright business as well as source code for the company's decoy files.

All of this is either good or bad depending on where you stand on the subject of intellectual property and on file-sharing. There's certainly an argument to be made in favor of protecting property rights and respecting the integrity of intellectual property--that argument defines file-sharers as, to one extent or another, thieves who can justly be thwarted. That makes the folks at Media Defender the good guys and Media Defender-Defenders a gang of bad actors who should be vilified for what it's done.

But intellectual property isn't quite like other types of property--it's much different, in fact. There's no inherently exclusive possession of words or images the way there is with land or things. Out of necessity, civilizations around the world have long seen the need to establish who has the proper claim to a field or a horse, but the practice of establishing some sort of claim to all copies of a book or a picture or an idea is a bit more esoteric--and much more recent. Protection of intellectual property is an artificial construct meant to encourage writers, artists and inventors to innovate, rather than a formalized system meant to preclude the need for Ogg to bash Bogg over the head for trying to steal his corn crop.

My own take is that protection of intellectual property is a good thing--but that it has to operate within the needs and limitations of the real world. Yes, writers (especially writers, damnit), artists and inventors should be encouraged to produce and enrich the world around them. But if you reach the point where products of the mind can be reproduced at a whim--or the click of a mouse button--so that intellectual property as we currently understand it can be protected only by prosecution of the public-at-large, sabotage and suppression of technology, then something has to give. And what has to give is the artificial model of intellectual property that has served us so far, but may no longer be relevant.

What should replace that model? I'm not sure--but I think that replacement shouldn't be dictated; it should evolve to meet new conditions.

That means that file sharing and the hacking of Media Defender aren't questions of good vs. evil, but rather fundamental changes in the world in which intellectual innovations are made. Technology has outstripped the old model; it's time for something new. And Media Defender got tripped up in the act of propping up a corpse.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home