After Napster
"This isn't just about a bunch of kids stealing music. It's about an assault on everything that constitutes the cultural expression of our society. If we fail to protect and preserve our intellectual property system, the culture will atrophy. And corporations won't be the only ones hurt. Artists will have no incentive to create. Worst-case scenario: The country will end up in a sort of cultural Dark Ages."

--Richard Parsons, Time Warner President, as quoted in the
LA Times

Obviously, Richard Parsons hasn't actually spent that much time on the Internet.

Otherwise he'd know that Britney Spears fans can now enjoy at least 30 different versions of "Oops, I Did It Again," thanks to Napster and a few dozen amateur producers equipped with inexpensive music-editing software.

He'd also be familiar with, where thousands of amateur DJs have created Internet radio stations that promote the likes of Madonna, Third Eye Blind, and lots of other artists who release their work on Time Warner's various record labels.

And maybe he'd even know about FanFiction.Net, where at last count 16,467 authors have written 63,095 stories, poems, novels and musicals using characters from Dawson's Creek, the Monkees, Scooby Doo, World Championship Wrestling, and many other TV shows and movies, many of which, like the ones just mentioned, are affiliated in one way or another with Time Warner.

Listen, it was bad enough when it was just Time Warner pushing this dreck on us. But now, when everyday citzens, empowered by technology, inspired by the artistry of Shaggy and Kid Rock, are pushing Time Warner and Time Warner-inspired dreck on us too? Well, Mr. Parsons, the cultural Dark Ages aren't coming soon - they're already here…

Of course, that's the cynical take on this subject. You could also argue that 63,095 stories and 17,000 amateur radio stations and dozens of Britney Spears remixes mark the dawning of a new, unprecedented era of widespread creativity and self-expression. Maybe even a cultural renaissance of sorts. Or is it only "culture" if people in Los Angeles and New York are making it, while everyone everywhere else simply lines up and pays for it?

At the very least, Richard Parsons is right on one count: this isn't just about a bunch of kids stealing music. Instead, it's about changing attitudes toward intellectual property, and about how the Time Warners of the world are just now starting to understand the full implications of "interactive media."

People are no longer satisfied with read-only media encapsulated in whatever proprietary formats the entertainment industry sees fit to distribute. And true interactive media isn't just a movie with three alternate endings: it's media that's flexible enough to allow users to do whatever they want with it. Which means copying it at will, using it on different platforms, modifying its contents, combining it with other media, and basically doing anything else that can be done to turn centuries of copyright law on its ear.

Of course, interactivity of that magnitude presents a major challenge to content creators and media companies, who generally make money by withholding control from users. Unfortunately for them, it's a whole new world now. New technologies have given users more power to copy, distribute, and modify media than they've ever had before. At the same time, media has grown abundant, ubiquitous, and consequently less valuable than it's ever been before.

In addition to Napster, there are plenty of other examples that illustrate the consequences of this new dynamic between media and the consumers of media. In dance clubs, DJs are idolized the way artists once were: when music is a commodity, curatorial talent becomes more important than creative talent.

Of course, even though new technologies give users much more power to control the content they consume, that doesn't mean users necessarily have the right to exercise that power. Still, users have definitely shown that they want to exercise that power. And in the face of that, why invest time and money into intellectual property education and enforcement efforts when the War on Copyright Infringement seems about as impossible to win as the War on Drugs?

At least a few companies are doing the exact opposite - creating products and services that allow users to exercise even more control over the media they interact with. Such efforts recall the mid-1990s, when the Web was being heralded as the many-to-many future of independent media and companies like GeoCities were capitalizing on the concept of user empowerment. But while services like GeoCities and tools like Macromedia's Flash have streamlined the technological aspects of media production, tomorrow's opportunities lay in services and tools that streamline the creative aspects of media production: which is to say, tools and services that let you take other people's intellectual property, and use it in your own creative endeavours.

-- G. Beato

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