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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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November 15, 2004

On the Roots of Copyright Activism

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As many of you already know, Siva Vaidhyanathan is one of the leaders of the current movement for balanced copyright, and his first book, Copyrights and Copywrongs, is among the handful of canonical texts for understanding what a number of us have been calling "the copyfight" -- not only what it is but why it matters.

The Nov. 19th edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great new profile of Siva, exploring (among other things) why and when it began to matter to him:

Mr. Vaidhyanathan came to his academic career in copyright not through an interest in law but as a fan of hip-hop music. In college he loved how rappers used samples of recorded music to form the backbones of their songs, which brought new meaning to both the rap lyrics and the sampled, looped tune.

Despite poor grades, he slipped into graduate school -- also at Austin -- and took a course on American music. At the time, hip-hop was getting "bum rushed," he recalls. Established songwriters were threatening rappers with copyright lawsuits, effectively stripping a whole creative element out of the music.

"I decided I had to read everything I could on copyright," says Mr. Vaidhyanathan. "I went looking for a clearly written book for laypeople to read, and I found that there wasn't one. I thought I should probably write one."

What's intriguing to me about this is what it reveals about the people in this movement -- that what inspires many of us to become copyright activists is our admiration for the creative process. This is, of course, the opposite of what we hear from the "other side," which imagines/insists that people fighting for balance are a bunch of lazy freeloaders -- adherants to a morally suspect "Everything-For-Free" philosophy.

Yesterday, my Everything-For-Free colleague Seth Schoen, who is far more brilliant than he has any right to be, wrote an email to the Dave Farber IP list that is ostensibly about whether TiVo has betrayed its customers by selling out to copyright holders. What it's really about is the struggle to maintain creative freedom in the face of companies or organizations that would dearly love to own (control) the process. My friend and former boss, Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, says watching TiVo is like "mainlining" television -- and for the copyright cartel, that's plenty good enough. It has decided it's It's time to stick a fork in the PVR and move on. Seth begs to differ:

I would not get so worked up about any one action that TiVo takes. We know their strategy, and it involves co-operating with movie studios to impose restrictions on end users. The reasons why they do this are not mysterious. If you want to criticize TiVo -- and that's fine with me! -- the right place to start is much earlier in the company's history.

But if you actually want to opt out of the DRM game, it seems to me that the thing to do is to spread the remaining unrestricted technologies as far and wide as possible while they're still legal.

People who got excited about "convergence" last decade often didn't mention DRM (and sometimes weren't even aware of it).


In terms of end user control, there is an opportunity for [Consumer Electronics] devices to converge up (enhancing customers' control) and a risk of PC devices converging down (eroding it). I think the world the entertainment companies have built is providing exactly the wrong incentive at every point as this question is worked out.

These are not the words of a freeloader. They are the words of someone who plans to spend his Friday evenings after work patiently guiding a group of volunteers in developing new recipes for something far better than mainline TV: technologies that allow us to continue to create as well as to consume.

There's a lot more to say about this, but alas -- the day calls. Do check out the Siva profile and Seth's IP list email in full. Both are rich in food for thought.

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Interesting People


1. Dr. wex on November 15, 2004 4:57 PM writes...

I appreciate the trackback ping, but I don't think I was trying to say "stick a fork" in the PVR. Heck, I haven't even bought one myself (yet) in part because I don't think I need to be mainlining television.

I view the Copyright Wars (or copyfight, if you prefer) as a long-term battle. I think it's a battle we have a fair chance to win. However, we don't win it by buying into the enemy's doctrine, which is what I was complaining about.

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2. Donna Wentworth on November 15, 2004 5:12 PM writes...

Sorry about that -- I was reading your post and meant to include a link, but not at that point in the text (now removed). What I meant to convey is that the copyright cartel is advocating sticking a fork in PVRs -- that is, it wants to decide unilaterally when it's "done" for everyone, stopping innovation in its tracks.

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3. joe on November 16, 2004 5:58 PM writes...

If you've ever wondered how to pronounce Siva's last name: mp3 clip of "Vaidhyanathan".

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