Jason Haas writes: "While bad copyright laws such as the DMCA are having strong negative consequences, an even worse bill, the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA), is now before Congress. The CBDTPA would have radical effects upon many of the devices that we take for granted -- including the computer you are now reading this on. Bad copyright law is among the many things that we talked about. Siva Vaidhyanathan has a thing or two to say about this. An avid defender of peer-to-peer, Siva recently debated one of the MPAA's top lawyers on copyright law. A recorded version of this will be available on the web in late May.
Furthermore, he has written Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity, the first fully fleshed history of American copyright law ever to be put in book form. The cool thing about this book is that although it's about copyright law, you don't have to be a lawyer to understand it. Copyrights and Copywrongs covers American copyright law's origins in seventeenth century English law, tracks Mark Twain's efforts to extend copyright in the nineteenth century, and ends at the dawn of the twenty-first century with the rise of Napster and the DMCA."
Jason Haas: How are you?
Siva Vaidhyanathan : Stressed. I'm trying to finish my second book, which will likely be called "The Anarchist in the Library." Basic Books will publish it next year.
JH: That sounds like it may be of interest to Slashdotters.
SV: Probably. I lifted many of the insights from Slashdot posts. The book will be an examination of the battles between efforts to centralize information and efforts to decentralize information. It starts with peer to peer, and moves on to battles over encryption, the commercialization and regulation of science, the regulation of algorithms, and the efforts to fight terrorism using information policy. One of the most interesting stories I'm following is the role that encryption plays on both sides of these battles. Some efforts to centralize and control information rely on encryption. For example, DVDs, and some efforts to distribute and liberate information (Freenet) depend on encryption.
JH: Your book, Copyrights and Copywrongs, covers the evolution of copyright law from its origins to the late twentieth century. Where did you get the idea for this?
SV: From rap music. I grew up with rap music. But in the early 1990s I noticed the music was changing. Everyone else was paying attention to the lyrics -- the sexism and the violence and the anger. I was observing how the underlying body of samples were getting thinner, more predictable, more obvious, less playful. I had heard that there had been some copyright conflicts in 1990 and 1991. So I suspected that lawsuits had chilled playful and transgressive sampling. I was right. The courts had stolen the soul. And rap music is poorer for it. We used to get fresh, exciting, walls of sound that were a language unto themselves. By the mid-1990s, all we got were jeep beats and heavy bass.
JH: Are you dissing Ice Cube?
SV: [laughs] No! He's an O.G.! He and other artists are handcuffed by the law. From my research on rap, I got curious about the evolution of American copyright law and how it altered and got altered by the rise of different media technologies and forms of expression. So I traced the changes from the 19th century publishing industries through the rise of film and television, through blues, jazz, rock, and rap, and finally to the digital moment.
JH: The book ends just after the DMCA has gone into effect and Napster has begun its rise. What's happened since then?
SV: I knew that Napster would radically change the ways we interact with the copyright system. And I knew the DMCA would radically undermined the democratic safeguards that were built into our copyright system. But I knew that there was much more to this story. So I wrote an article for The Nation which defended Napster and peer-to-peer. I used this as the starting point for what would become the second book.
JH: In your first book, you refer to the DMCA as an example of what you call a "thick" copyright law. Can you explain the difference between "thick" copyright law and a "thin" law?
SV: I think the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) is misnamed. I don't consider it a copyright act. I consider it an anti-copyright act. Copyright is a fluid, open, democratic set of protocols. Conflicts are anticipated by Congress and mediated by courts. The DMCA wipes out the sense of balance, anticipation, and mediation, and installs a technocratic regime. In other words, code tells you whether you can use a piece of material. Under copyright, you could use a piece of material and face the consequences. The DMCA replaces the copyright system with cold, hard technology.
It takes human judgment out of the system and drains the fluidity out of what was a humanely designed and evolved system.
But getting back to thick and thin copyright.
One way to measure the thickness of a copyright law is to look at the duration of protection. If works enter the public domain before an author's life expectancy expires, then it's a thin and democratic system. If the duration of copyright protection is absurdly long and potentially indefinite, then it's way too thick.
JH: Senator Fritz Hollings' has introduced a new copyright bill to Congress, the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act. What what would it do? Is it another "thick" law?
SV: Yeah, it would be as thick as the Berlin Wall. But again, it's the extension of a technocratic control regime and a further abandonment of real copyright. All the attention this bill has received has generated an impressive movement for users' rights. People are finally waking up to the fact that their rights to make private, non-commercial use of material they buy is in danger. I think we should all thank Senator Hollings and the MPAA for sparking a revolt against copyright tyranny.
The title of the bill implies that by giving movie companies what they want, they will give us this wonderful library of streamed films, and we will finally have a reason to sign up for and pay for broadband. Paradoxically, nothing sells broadband like peer-to-peer, which is exactly what it would try to stop.
JH: CBDTPA would make a new computer ship with copy protection. What would it do to things like the iPod?
SV: The iPod would be hard to justify under the new law. But the real issue is the personal computer. The computer does three basic things: it does math, it stores data, and it copies data. A computer can't operate without those three basic functions. The law would limit these three basic functions, thereby cutting the Achilles heel of the PC. It would be just another appliance.
JH: It's that bad?
SV: Yes. If the law passes, I could send you a file that I made, but the machine would prevent you from making copies of just about anything else, including sound from web sites, video from web sites, etc. The law works completely for the benefit of big media companies that can afford to conform to the licensed encryption standards of the industry. Only the big boys could benefit from this law.
The law would only affect new stuff, so it'd be your next DVD players, your next TiVo, your next PC. The stuff you have now is going to do more and work better than any hardware that anyone could roll out after the law passes. But there's another, bigger issue. According to an early version, the bill covers not just hardware but software. Under it, you can't distribute a software package that has copy features. Furthermore, how in the world can anything released under the GPL have closed copy-protection standards embedded in it? It can't. It would make the GPL illegal, and future versions of Linux illegal. Even if Congress focused on hardware and excluded software, we all know that distinction is a matter of modular convenience and industry practice rather than a natural distinction. But nobody ever accused the U.S. Senate of understanding technology or thinking through long-term effects of tech policy.
JH: What can people do to stop this bill from passing?
SV: The first thing people should do is check out and support such organizations as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, digitalconsumer.org, and publicknowledge.org. The latter two are fairly new. And they are a sign that people are getting angry and active about these issues. I am particularly excited about publicknowledge.org, a public interest advocacy group that is coordinating and publicizing the concerns of a wide array of concerned citizens and groups.
But just as importantly, discuss this measure with your local librarians. Librarians are very active in opposing it. In 1998, very few groups actively opposed the DMCA, but librarians were at the front lines of its opposition. And once again, librarians are our best friends in this battle. And of course, the simple answer is, write members of the Senate Judiciary Community. [The American Library Association is a national organization of librarians that is active in defending freedom of information and access. The Senate Judiciary Committee can be found over here.]
If public anger doesn't stop this bill now, then we know that the corrupting power of the entertainment industries is at crisis level. The changes in copyright have not been great for our culture and our democracy. But I am optimistic that this new level of awareness and activism will make a difference.
Jason Haas retired from the computer industry in April 2001, and now juggles being a student, fatherhood, and progressive political activism.
This past year, Siva Vaidhyanathan has been an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, but is moving to New York University in the fall. The web page for his book, Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity, is at NYU Press.