OP-EDS

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May 6, 2003

Rockin' on in a police state

When it comes to freedom of expression, some of the more disturbing developments have not been coming out of Washington, not from Ashcroft and Company, but rather have found their origins on the West Coast. I refer to the continuing debate about copyrights on digital information, especially music and software patents. I would be surprised to find any student here who does not have at least some acquaintance with software or music piracy, and such issues raise larger questions about how we as a society view intellectual property.

This column is not meant to defend the sharing of copyrighted music or software. The law is perfectly clear with respect to this, namely that it is illegal. NSIT is perfectly justified in warning students not to illegally distribute copyrighted material. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America have threatened legal action against corporations and institutions whose networks contained major nodes in file-sharing networks. There was recently a case at the U.S. Naval Academy where many midshipmen were severely disciplined as a result of urging by the RIAA to shut down music trading going on there. I am sure that if action were not taken, someone would have filed a lawsuit.

I think that most people can agree that those who add some sort of value to society ought to receive compensation proportional to their contributions. The question then quickly arises as to whether copyright holders are indeed only claiming their fair share of the spoils for making music, movies, or software available, or whether they are in some sense behaving as a cartel and artificially inflating prices for their wares. Economic theory recognizes that copyright and patent law has a useful place in society, but determining the optimal amount of protection for a particular work or idea (or even works or ideas in general) is quite tricky. I propose that neither the rabid proponents of unlimited access to free content nor its zealous defenders do themselves any favors when staking out extreme positions in this debate.

With the advent of the Internet, it has become a lot easier to share information, and indeed most anybody can now put up a simple Web page expounding his or her own particular ideas. It seems, then, that many expect the same sort of freedom for entertainment and software. Indeed, so-called free or open-source software, such as Linux, has increased in importance over the last several years. Content-providers and software-makers are deluding themselves if they think that such products will not change the way consumers look at products. Nonetheless, proprietary providers of music and software seem to be increasingly insistent on trying to get some unachievable total control. To see this, look at some of the proposed Digital Rights Management systems, or some of the recent anti-copying "innovations" from Microsoft. There has even been legislation proposed that would give copyright holders the right to hack into computers that are participating in copyright law violations and prevent them from continuing. In effect, this is condoning the use of one crime to combat another. Such over-the-top legislation shows how desperate content providers are becoming.

There is a middle ground. Consumers who are upset about high prices can simply refuse to buy products from companies. Additionally, they can urge their representatives in Congress to once again review laws dealing with copyright violations. Ultimately, it is impossible to get something for nothing, and in time content providers and producers will have to learn to deal with the realities of doing business in an environment where information can flow so freely.