TARLETON GILLESPIE: Welcome. I'm Tarleton Gillespie. I'm in the Department of Communication at Cornell University.
In this Cyber Room, you're going to learn about copyright law and some of the recent controversies around how copyright law intersects with digital information. Copyright law at one point was a law that we didn't really care much about. As long as you didn't work in the entertainment industry or run a library, the law was uncontroversial and obscure. You saw the FBI warning at the beginning of the video, you fast forwarded, you were all set.
Since the emergence of the internet, copyright has become a much more important issue, front and center in our questions of information policy. There's a battle being fought, a battle about how copyright should apply to digital culture and about digital culture itself. For no other reason than that, copyright's a vital question, and it's important to understand it. In this Cyber Room, you'll learn enough about the law to have an opinion about the next dispute, to talk to your kids or your parents about their computing habits, and even take a stand on the next policy initiative.
Let me propose three other reasons why it's important to study these issues, not just from a journalistic perspective-- what's going on and why-- and not just a strictly legal perspective-- what should be illegal and should be legal-- but from a sociological one. First, this is not just a debate about copyright, not just a debate about how the law should be rewritten for the internet. It's also debate about the internet itself. It's a debate about what we expect from digital culture.
If we pass a draconian copyright law or a lenient one, then what we'll find online, who gets to create, who gets to profit, will change. The internet and any technology is not a stable and fixed thing. It is constantly being rebuilt, redeployed, and re-imagined, and the debates around copyright are one of the places where that happens.
A second reason why we might study this topic is that it's a particularly important and elegant case for understanding information policy. We pride ourselves as a nation, the United States, as having free expression, but that doesn't mean there are no laws that regulate what we say and how we say it. There's libel and slander, there's obscenity rules, there's broadcast ownership, and all of these rules set the structure for how culture participation happens.
Copyright is a key part of that information policy, and it's a crucial one. It's the one that turns what we say into something that can be sold. So it's vital to understand the question of how well a commercial media works for a democratic society.
Whenever we ask whether news is becoming too much like entertainment, whether news is politically biased or whether it's too timid to challenge either side, whether mainstream entertainment caters to superficial tastes and shoulders out more challenging artistic fare, whether the corporate funding of science and research is shifting what we know and how we know it, each of those questions is part of a bigger question, which is, if we build our media, our knowledge, our information through a commercial mechanism, do we get the best media, knowledge, and information?
A third reason why we might study copyright is that it's one of the key places where our thinking about technology, law, and their intersection is happening right now. Increasingly, communication and information technologies are not just the object of law. They're also the means by which law's enforced.
The music corporations and the movie corporations concerned about what they see as widespread and illegal copyright infringement have been turning increasingly to technical solutions to this problem. They're pursuing a strategy called digital rights management, or DRM-- I'll talk about that more in a moment-- as a solution in places where the law doesn't seem to solve the problem. The idea is, rather than prohibiting through the law what we can and can't do, we lock up the content so that what we can't do is made technically impossible.
Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford School of Law and an important player in these debates, has argued that East Coast Code, or law, has certain similarities to West Coast Code, or software, and that by regulating through technology in place of the regulation of law, technology can do a lot of the same things, but with different implications. Both law and technology set the terms for what we can and can't do. They both can be redesigned as a form of social engineering, and we could make the argument in a broader sense that all technologies have a kind of politics.
What we're discovering is that they can be deliberately rebuilt to push towards one result or another. This will be the focus of this Cyber Tower Room around the case of copyright, is that the move towards technological regulation has implications. But what I'll argue is that although the question of the role of technology here is an interesting one, beneath that technology is still a set of political questions, a set of economic questions, a set of cultural questions, and those, too, have their own consequences.
Before we go further, I just want to give you a quick sense of where we're going to go in each of the chapters in this Cyber Room. You've had a bit of an introduction here. In the next chapter, I'll tell you a bit about copyright law, focusing on its history, its purpose, and some of the longstanding tensions that have been there since the beginning and continue to persist today.
In the next chapter, we'll talk about what's changed, how the internet and the cultural business practices around the internet are shifting how corporate law works, especially with the rise of peer-to-peer software like Napster, Kazaa, and some of the others. And I'll also introduce the digital rights management strategy, this technical solution to the problem that the music and movie industries see. In the next chapter, we'll go a little more in detail in a specific case, the case about how DVDs have a technical copy protection built in, where that came from, and how some of these political issues played out. And in the final chapter, I'll raise some of the consequences and implications both for the particular DRM systems that we've been pursuing and for the question of whether we should pursue DRM at all.
This Cyber Room is designed to be substantive enough to get to this issue, to give you some of the ways to think about copyright and some of the controversies that have been surrounding it. If you want to explore more, there are a series of readings that are made available on the website. You can also email me directly with questions that develop.
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Join Tarleton Gillespie in examining the effect of copyright on digital culture, and develop insights into the ongoing negotiation about what the internet will be, what shape digital culture will take, and what role technology plays in the organization of society.
This video is part 1 of 5 in the Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture series.