Thursday, October 28, 2004

Bring Back Copyright Registrations...


The Copyright Barons have spent years and untold millions of dollars trying to prevent consumers from copying digital content. Since copying is a fundamental physical requirement for modern consumer electronics, what this really means is that they're spending all that money trying to convince (or bully!) manufacturers into creating modern electronic devices that don't function as modern electronic devices. It's kind of perverse, like trying to turn a silk purse into a sows' ear instead of the other way around.

My favorite example of this is CSS, the DVD Copy Control Associations' Content Scrambling System. The DVD CCA describes CSS as a copy-protection measure that purportedly prevents unauthorized copying. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate description of what CSS does. CSS was not designed to prevent copying. CSS was developed for the explicit purpose of preventing manufacturers from creating devices that have "unapproved features" (e.g. I don't like that feature. Remove it or I revoke your CSS license). The real problem facing the Copyright Barons today, which CSS doesn't address, is re-distribution.

What does this have to do with Copyright Registrations?

I think the reason why the copyright Barons have been focusing on copy prevention is because they don't know how to prevent re-distribution (a.k.a. sharing). Since there's no practical way for them to prevent you from giving a video (or cassette) tape to your friends, the only way they can stop it from happening is to make the act of copying as difficult as possible.

Now that everything's going digital there is no way to prevent copying. Even Orin Hatch knows this. And since half of the wired households in the US have broadband, we now have millions of potential publishers. The Copyright Barons are afraid of this, and justly so...

Right now, the Copyright Barons are fighting a losing battle between computers and lawyers. They are losing because computers are faster than lawyers, and computer technology evolves faster than the law... It's like giving your teenager a Ferrari and giving the cops a Yugo. The results are predictable, and not very pretty. There is better way, and it's called...

Automatic Digital Copyright Registration and Detection.

Before 1976, every publisher was required to register copyrights with the Copyright Office. The Copyright Act of 1976 changed this requirement so that everything had automatic copyright protection. No paperwork, no bureaucracy, all nice and streamlined.

This looked like a good idea at the time, but this was 1976 and the personal computer didn't exist. The PC revolution changed a lot of things: Joe Sixpack has a supercomputer on his desk, and for less than $50/month Joe gets to use this giant digital copying machine called the Internet.

Maybe eliminating copyright registrations wasn't the best idea after all... Without some form of registration, there is no process for determining what's been copyrighted and who owns that copyright. And, more importantly, there is absolutely no way to exploit the power of computers to make things more efficient.

All (or at least some of) the efforts spent trying to prevent "copying" (e.g. encryption, watermarking, etc... ) should have been spent on finding ways to automate copyright registrations. Copying isn't the problem anyway, it's re-distribution.

We should be using all of this encryption and watermarking technology to create unique digital signatures for every published digital work and have those signatures registered with the Copyright Office over the Internet.

Those registered signatures need to be available over the Internet so that any consumer electronics device can automatically determine whether or not they're about to publish (or download) something they're not supposed to...

This takes the human element (almost) completely out of the loop. This not only speeds up the process, but it also reduces the associated costs (legal fees). I see this as a win-win scenario for both sides of the Copyright equation (consumers and distributors). This is also the only scenario I can see where the lawyers don't win.

In order for this to work as quickly as possible, the methods for creating these signatures should be available to all software developers, just like any other recognized technical standard... and there should be no economic or legal barriers that would prevent this technology from being deployed world-wide.

Let's be honest, the next great innovation in digital publishing is going to be created by a college student... not a Fortune 100 corporation. And college students can't afford expensive licensing fees. If you want to make this technology available to cutting-edge developers, you need to make it available at a price they can afford.

Free sounds good to me...