Where were we? Oh yes, the industrial information economy becoming the networked information economy. Do throw a party in celebration.
Anyway, there are new debates of information ownership being carried out at the moment. It’s likely that these will carry on for the next couple of decades or so. Everything, including the most basic philosophy of information ownership, is being hotly contested, and it seems at times that the whole informational world is up for grabs. Questions like ‘what can/should we do with this information?’, ‘who owns it?’ and ‘how, for how long?’ are all up in the air.
It’s a caricature to say that there are only two sides to this debate, but let’s simplify it to that for now. So let’s put the incumbent information owners (Hollywood, big media, the music industry) in the blue corner, and what I’ll loosely call ‘information freedom activists’ in the red (Sweden’s Pirate Party, people like the EFF and so on). They’re not quite at loggerheads, but it’s a very close thing.
The problem with these debates is that you need to speak an arcane mixture of geek and law to understand what’s going on with them. That’s not to say you can ignore them either. Take, for instance, an apparently yawnsome consultation being done by Ofcom recently, prompted by a BBC document titled ‘Proposal to implement the Huffmann lookup tables licensing approach to ensuring content management measures are included in DVB-T2 receivers’.
Obscure? Yes. Should you care? Well, it depends whether you want to hand control of your shiny new high-definition Freeview recording box over to the BBC. It could mean that they, and they alone, decide exactly what you’re allowed to do with their HD programmes. They could stop you from recording some of them entirely, they could stop you burning them onto disc, or they could ensure that some of your other recordings self-destruct after a given number of days.
I can’t help being slightly worried about land-grabs like this. I’m even more worried that the BBC’s hand may be being forced by Hollywood’s threats to stop selling it programmes if it doesn’t comply with their wishes.
At the same time, I hold up my hand and say, yes, I have downloaded pirated copies of BBC programmes. Never a film, never anything for which I can go out and buy the DVD or CD, but yes, I have gone on BitTorrent and downloaded (mostly) recent and classic radio comedies that I can’t find anywhere else. My simplistic argument? I paid for them with my license fee (so that means they sort of belong to me anyway, right kids?) More importantly for my ethics, the BBC hasn’t given me any reasonable method to pay for those programmes the second time. If it did, I’d happily cough up the cash.
I’m aware that it’s a world of complex technical issues, and big and little fleas. I’m also aware that while on the one hand my breed of Christianity seems to give me some sort of responsibility to be vaguely counter-cultural, the religion’s big boss did make it very clear that Caesar’s should remain Caesar’s.
So with all that in mind, those first-year seminar questions, to which I never pretend to know definitive answers:
- Should information automatically be protected (by copyright, or similar)? If it should, for how long?
- Where do you draw the line between sharing information and stealing information?
- Should you accept that, if you can copy a CD, a DVD or a TV broadcast with no obvious loss of quality, you should face some restrictions in doing so?
- Are you happy to pay money to someone for a media file (from the iTunes store, say) that you know has had some restrictions put on it?
- Does how rich you think the author is affect any of the above for you?
- Lily Allen. Discuss.
Answers on a postcard, or in a comment…