Net or .Net, That Is the Question

Microsoft has made its stand clear. Everything is an economic transaction.

You can’t give and receive any information product — not music, not images, not words, and certainly not software — without an underlying contract covering what that person may and may not do with it.

Without a signed, attached license agreement, every information transaction is either outright theft or part of a conspiracy to commit theft. Anyone who disagrees is either criminally mistaken or a criminal.

Holy Digital Divide! Forget about whether the poor can access information over the Internet. Everything you’ve heard, seen, and read comes with economic strings attached. The bridge to the 21st century turns out to have been a toll bridge.

Microsoft’s campaign against free software systems (like Linux, Apache, or anything subject to General Public License) is quickly turning into the first great First Amendment controversy of the 21st century.

Of course, the case has been building for some time. Microsoft’s software licenses — those arcane collections of legal mumbo jumbo you must accept before using any of its products — are now seen as the model for everything you read, hear, or see.

Music producers, movie producers, and book publishers want the same rights as Microsoft. They expect to control what everyone else does with their products, to ban derivative works, and to further ban any attempt to get around the “protections” they have created.

This stand has been enshrined into law during the rise of the Net, and deliberately so. Backers of the new Copyright Convention say that its purpose is to protect “innovation” by protecting innovators’ legal rights, that without these protections, everything would be free and everyone would be broke.

Microsoft’s legal stance is enshrined in its software, both its client programs (Windows Media Player, Windows Me, Office, and Windows XP) and its network software (Microsoft.Net). Everyone should have the same legal authority over his or her work that Microsoft expects for its work, the company argues, the same power over what it does to people, and the same power over what they do with it.

To my own surprise, nearly every industry is divided over this. It’s nice to know you can control what happens to your work, even beyond the grave. It’s obvious (especially to someone who enjoys old movies and classical music) that many works enjoy an economic life beyond the expiration of their copyrights, just as many drugs enjoy an economic life beyond their patents.

If you don’t think this issue can be lost, take a drive. Most town squares are now shopping malls, where property rights trump rights of speech and assembly. Vacationers prefer private amusement parks and resorts to public parks. Kids much prefer cable TV to regular TV.

Here we have the greatest tool for the free exchange of information ever created, and here we see the door to that future being slammed in our faces by property rights. Wonders never cease.

Of course, everything derives from something, nothing comes from nothing. Freedom of speech depends on freedom to read, hear, and watch — free from criminal suspicion. It may not be Microsoft’s critics who are un-American, but Microsoft.

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