The Right(s) Stuff

After sharing my pollyanna assessment of the Grokster ruling the other day, I thought I’d do something useful by revisiting the topic of digital rights management — that is, securing content against unauthorized copying while creating easy ways to enable authorized uses.

Think of DRM as an envelope sealed by (teenage magician) Harry Potter. Once Harry puts a message into a DRM wrapper — be it text, multimedia or software — the enclosed material knows by whom and under what circumstances it may be opened: only by people who pay a specified amount in precise way, or only four times, or whatever. (Harry delivers by owl; I prefer broadband.)

If you want to get up to speed on DRM (or need a refresher) visit the Wikipedia entry. The American Library Association also has an excellent primer that contains links to interest groups that either want to preserve or change the status quo. If you’re looking for a group generally in opposition to things as they are, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I also found some interesting stuff from the Cato Institute that takes a libertarian view — while the status quo needs shaking up, market mechanisms (like Harry Potter envelopes), rather than government rules, are the way to go.

Those seeking a totally different approach to copyright have gravitated to the Creative Commons. This organization, started by attorney Lawrence Lessig, has created a set of graduated protections for content. Imagine a scale one to 10, where one allows unlimited copying and 10 means no copying without prior permission. There is a range of options in between, such as free copying so long as you include a link to the source.

The Creative Commons has become the nucleus of a worldwide effort to build new customs and laws that would be truly magical. Calibrated copyright protections, working in conjunction with micropayment systems, are among the missing links in what we have to build — a new media ecosystem that will coexist with the old order.

In this regard, the Creative Commons is pursuing an evolutionary strategy toward change. It is building an alternative order, without necessarily being hostile to the status quo. This approach makes intuitive sense, not just in this context but in every aspect of life. Pour your energy into building what you want — minimize the wasted effort of trying to tear down what you don’t like.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media