Avast, Ye Scurvy Internet Dogs!
Why Intellectual Property Still Baffles Network Societies
Think of intellectual property as a frontier within a frontier -- one of the thorniest issues facing shepherds of the new information society, with more legal questions being raised than answered these days.
Hardcore Internet users insist the Net makes copyrights obsolete; others say they're alive and well. As the infobahn is built, pundits, policy-makers and business interests are mulling the issue of intellectual property -- how to present it, protect it and ultimately make money off it in the emerging cyber-marketplace.
The central problem is a digital one: Perfect copies. The spectre of mass Internet piracy may be overblown, but the meta-network of 20 million and growing already has its share of Bluebeards. Last April, San Jose, Calif.-based Novell released its Netware 4.0 software package in Europe, only to see it turn up illegally a week later on a U.S.-based Internet bulletin board.
"Any kid in college with a Net account can be a massive copyright infringer," said copyright attorney Lance Rose.
As property becomes a flowing stream of ephemeral ones and zeroes, Internet futurist John Perry Barlow says the protective "bottles" containing intellectual property will be shattered.
"Even the physical/digital bottles to which we've become accustomed -- floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and other discrete, shrink-wrappable bit-packages -- will disappear as all computers jack-in to the global Net," Barlow wrote in the March issue of Wired.
Not so fast. Both industry and government policy-makers are working hard to create new containers to help sell drinks at your cybercafe of choice. A working group of the Clinton administration's National Information Infrastructure Task Force is wrestling with the adequacy of copyright laws as well as digital protection of networked property. It plans to finish its report in late May.
Many information providers and copyright lawyers feel that current copyright law is good enough to keep intellectual goods from getting hijacked on the information superhighway.
"Our view is that current copyright law affords adequate protection to software publishers," said Mark Traphagen, counsel for the Software Publishers Association. "What we need are means of enforcement."
That will be supplied by new technologies that track and pass on copyright information, and more restrictive systems that limit access and copying.
Radical internauts may feel all information should be free, but data control and dissemination will be the engine of profits for NII commercialists, just as it is for information providers now. "You will see [information] corrals on the electronic frontier. If you are going to ride the pony, you will have to pay the man in the hat," Traphagen said.
Large private network services like America Online and Prodigy are prime examples of the corral approach. But true commercial exchange on the Net will call for systems capable of controlling smaller information transfers -- the act of buying a program or an online book -- that make sure the goods get to the paying customer in mint condition.
Jerry Linn, with the Computer Systems Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, says that specially designed rendering software, used by the buyer, could both authenticate and limit redistribution of intellectual property. He also suggests the use of an "information envelope" that would function the same as a paper one today -- giving addresses of both the sender and receiver, but protecting the digital contents until "opened" by the recipient.
Said Linn, "The notion that as information goes on the Internet it becomes public domain is insane."
Copyright lawyers heartily agree: "You don't vitiate your copyright just because you make it available on the Internet," said Stuart Sinder of the law firm Kenyon & Kenyon in New York. In fact, U.S. copyright laws aren't as behind the times as many think. Congress added language to the copyright code in 1976 that specifically gives the copyright owner rights over electronic public display of a work (ie. on continued on page 15
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Internet): "a performance made available by transmission to the public at large is 'public' even though the recipients are not gathered in a single place."
The Internet shareware industry is an exception to the copyright rule. These are companies that offer new software openly on the Net, and ask for payment after the fact. The approach depends heavily on the honesty of Net users, and only an estimated 5 percent actually register -- but even that return is enough to keep small shareware companies in business.
Less trusting information companies will either wait for technology to help protect their intellectual property, or just wait for payment until they ship their products.
"This isn't rocket science," said copyright attorney Rose. "There's nothing subtle going on."