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August 17, 2004
Copyright and Cultural Damage
Just before Tim Wu resumed his excellent blogsitting at the Lessig Blog, Rep. Rick Boucher asked a simple question that sparked many a complex response: "In thinking about the future of my information availability in our society, am I right to be concerned about the emergence of pay per use as the norm?"
The question brings to mind a central difficulty with explaining why the copyfight matters the larger sense -- e.g., why society as a whole should care about whether the Internet becomes "pay-per-use." The major problem is that it's tough to quantify cultural damage. The recording industry has plenty of numbers to quantify its guestimated loss. But how do you explain what is lost from our culture when access to "information goods" is determined by whether you can pay the rental fee?
EFF is preparing comments in a government proceeding about the future design of Regulations.gov and an online federal docket management system (EPA Docket No. OEI-2004-0002). Government documents are quite specifically "for the people" -- U.S. copyright law bars the government from copyrighting its original works. Nevertheless, there are countless ways that these documents are "reserved" for people/companies/organizations with the time and money to gain timely (and therefore useful) access to them.
It's costly to track the Federal Register and individual dockets for occasional references to topics of interest. Those who can afford to hire law firms to monitor regulatory activity are able to keep on top of important events and to make their voices heard. Those who cannot, often do not. EFF is proposing a number of technical fixes, including building in automated notification, RSS feeds, and bulk data retrieval.
So even in the absence of copyright, it remains an enromous challenge to keep forms of "pay-per-use" at bay. And again, how do you quantify damage? It's hardly possible to count actions not taken, no matter how harmful the end result.
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