Is Copyright Wrong?

Today’s intellectual property laws weren’t designed for a world where just a click, drag, and drop is all that stands between your new idea and expression and my ability to make unlimited copies with worldwide distribution.

It’s become easy to copy bits. The only restrictions are storage, which is super cheap, and bandwidth, which is abundant. The Internet Archive, home to the really cool Wayback Machine, lets you look at Web pages dating back to 1996. This nonprofit organization is archiving the Web over time and it currently consists of over 40 billion Web pages. With all other media being archived, that’s probably on the order of two pentabytes of data. That’s 2,000 terabytes. A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes, which is 1,000 megabytes… you get the drift.

Web pages, pictures, music, video, text documents, email, voice mail, chat records, and much more are being stored as bits on our personal computers, TiVos, iPods, and PDAs and simply out there in “the cloud” — on an Internet server. Does it matter where the bits are? Does it matter where they are stored and for what purpose? Of course it does. It matters today, and it will matter even more tomorrow.

Napster has come to symbolize to many how established interests’ deep pockets can squelch an innovative new application. Napster’s blatant disregard for copyright law didn’t serve it nor its users well in the end. It had some good ideas. But facilitating unlimited sharing of copyrighted music with no restrictions, while popular (free chocolate for everyone would have been popular, too), was poking a stick in the eyes of artists and the entire music recording industry.

Have you noticed the “cached” links on Google or Yahoo SERPs (define)? When search engines crawl the Internet, they store copies of everything they find. They copy, or, in technical parlance, cache, those pages. If the page changes or becomes unavailable, you can still view the original version, courtesy of the search engine. Check out this cached copy of one of my columns, courtesy of Google.

Is there a difference between sharing my column and sharing a song I wrote and recorded? (I promise I won’t sing it!) Why can the Internet Archive, Google, and Yahoo grab Web pages from anywhere on the Web, store them on their servers, and share them freely while presumably you and I cannot?

ClickZ columns are covered by fairly standard intellectual property Terms and Conditions. In them, you will find, among other things:

No parts of any Incisive Media [ClickZ] publication or Sites may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into any retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the copyright owners…. You may not display the Content on a public bulletin board, ftp site, website, chat room or by any other unauthorized means.

Are Google and Yahoo breaching Incisive Media’s copyright by storing and reproducing a copy of my column? If they are, the folks at ClickZ seem to be OK with that, as are most Web sites.

What Yahoo and Google are doing is and must be legal. They copy the Web pages they find, index those pages so you can search them, then store them in their original form without making any changes. When the engines display regular search results, they don’t display the entire page but a fair-use quote from the page that’s related to your search.

Displaying the entire page is impractical. It also crosses an important threshold because Google and Yahoo ads would compete with the cached page’s ads. When the cached pages are displayed, there are no Google or Yahoo ads surrounding them. Therefore, there’s no conflict with the cached page’s financial interest.

But what if as private citizen I wanted to make my own cache? Let’s say I blog a story about my sailing experiences in Scandinavia. I quote and link to lots of Web pages and pictures. So far, I’m covered under current fair-use doctrine and on safe ground. But what if to ensure all those pages and pictures are easily available to myself and my readers, I make full copies of the material I gathered for my article? Would I be breaking the law? Is this something I should be able to do?

The Internet’s beauty is connecting to all things and discovering the unexpected is easy, fun, and powerful. Connecting with people. Connecting with ideas. Connecting your thoughts. What is social networking if not about making connections? What is Skype if not about connecting with friends and family? What is search if not about connecting information? What if I could connect my blog with other related stories? What if making those connections involved connecting all the material surrounding my story?

Copyright isn’t wrong, yet new models, such as the Creative Commons initiative, are critically looking at new intellectual property approaches for the 21st century. Intellectual property protection is necessary to ensure people and organizations are fairly recognized and remunerated for their creative pursuits. But copyright can stand in the way of facilitating the power of connections. This will increasingly happen as it becomes easier to collect and connect ideas, information, stories, entertainment, people, indeed everything by using the ever-growing suite of tools and services the Internet offers.

The intersection of collecting, sharing, and connecting is fertile ground for new businesses and ad models. The debate over what is good copyright protection and what limits innovation, commerce, and learning in the world of bits has only just begun.

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