Johnny Continues to Ignore Copyright

Given that this week’s theme is ‘Copyright’, I went back to a recent article I had read in CIO Insight, in January, by Larry Downes, Associate Dean of the UC-Berkeley School of Information Management and Systems and the author of Unleashing the Killer App and The Strategy Machine.

In the article titled “Why Johnny Can’t Stop Sharing Files”, Larry postulates that: “Copyright is effectively dead, despite the entertainment industry having won the Grokster case—or maybe even, in part, because it did. The consequences of ignoring the that change are dire.

He makes several key points, albeit from a US perspective:

Any law that is ignored by nearly every young adult in the country is no law at all.

History amply supports this view. The U.S. has seen many revolutions in basic legal doctrines, some accompanied by violence (the Revolutionary and Civil Wars), and others largely nonviolent (the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement). But each had the same characteristics as the intellectual-property revolt going on right now: an economically powerful social class with the law solidly on its side; increased enforcement accompanied by increased resistance from an identifiable group claiming the moral high ground; and, ultimately, a complete and often dramatic reversal.

He asks: “So why can’t Johnny stop file sharing, even when he knows it is illegal?” And proceeds to answer the question himself:

The short answer is that the copyright system designed in the 18th century simply doesn’t work in the era of open standards, high-speed and low-cost data communications, and ever-cheaper and more powerful devices to store, transmit and play digital content. It’s intellectual-property law versus Moore’s Law. The winner is clear. Only the timing is in doubt. …

… Fueling the backlash against the entertainment industry is an emerging ideology among young consumers of collaboration, free culture, open source and bartering value for value in an economy of information. …

… Instead of making copyright stronger, we could have made it weaker; instead of building in draconian enforcement tools that backfire, we could have engaged young consumers in a real negotiation about what was economically reasonable behavior; instead of charging more for physical products that are increasingly unnecessary, the content industries could have embraced a digital channel sooner, and set realistic prices, even if it meant accelerating the decline of CDs and other media.

So I ask – is Larry right in his views? Is this truly the start of a revolution? … and the only issue is timing?

I will let minds more learned than I weigh in on the subject.


  1. One of the issues that’s been troubling me lately is the scope of the copyright monopoly.

    Content is being repurposed exponentially now. Films are seen in theatres, but they’re also on DVD, ripped into XVID and distributed online, encoded for viewing on iPods and distributed online – and so on, and ditto for other types of creative content.

    All because the consumer wants this to happen. We have broken out of the model of being told what to consume, where to consume it, and when, and we are taking that show on the road. Literally.

    But the content owners are far behind the consumer’s appetite for time / place / format shifting. Theatre chains refuse to show movies that are simul-distributed on DVD. Music labels battle Apple over iTunes pricing and resist efforts to release music at a higher bitrate, fearful of letting go. The DaVinci Code publisher delays releasing the paperback until the last possible second, squeezing as much coin as it can out of the more expensive hardback.

    The problem is the scope of the monopoly.

    One price of the patent monopoly is the patentholder’s obligation to license for a reasonable royalty. This ensures that progress is not thwarted. Knowledge advances – inventions are not forced to sit on a shelf.

    But there is no equivalent in copyright law, AFAIK. Infringement of copyright entitles the copyright owner to an injunction and disgorgement of profits, not merely a reasonable royalty.

    So, we can’t drag the content owners kicking, screaming and blinking into the daylight. At the end of the day, they can exploit their monopoly in as draconian a manner as they wish, and they can resist society’s appetite for innovation as much as they want, because the monopoly is absolute, and increasingly, they have terms of imprisonment as an enforcement tool.

    But in the end, the consumer always wins, and the market will be bent to its will. The only issue is how far innovation and development will be sacrificed as we wait for that to happen.