Copyright: DRM vs the Darknet

AUTHOR: Bryan Alexander

Reading this post on BoingBoing today, I was reminded of a paper presented more than two years ago at an ACM conference. Now, a story about police manically seizing all non-commercially-produced digital media might not trigger such an academic reaction, but bear with me for a moment.
In fact, a better objection is that one of the major themes of modern copyright is its shift from national regime to international system. But I should leave that for another time, because my point really applies to that.

That paper, “The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution”, raised a controversy when it argued that any system of digital content lockdown would fail, given, ah, imperfections, hacks, and the efficiencies of digital networks. Read, as they say, the whole thing. The paper even inspired a fine book of the same name.

It came out when many companies were striving for digital rights management (DRM) solutions, including that one which funded the think tank where “Darknet”‘s authors worked. I and others were struck by the stark oppositon the paper’s appearance articulated, between digital enclosures and rapid sharing. Between DRM and the darknet, in other words, was a handy catchphrase for describing the battles over digital copyright.

How has that phrase played out between the ACM and yesterday’s Manila cop attack? DRM continues to advance, led most notably by the speedbumps and restrictions Apple placed around iTunes. PDF files have had restrictions available for longer, but without the publicity. DVDs continue to experiment with limits on free access, from self-annihilation to disabling fastforward. At the same time, BitTorrent has sped up file-sharing, and content continues to be hacked open. Between DRM and darknet, the amount of digital content keeps increasing, beyond metadata labeling and effective search.

Back to Manila: is this where things could be headed, as the dynamic continues to operate? DRM is desired, but fails at an important, energetic limit. The darknet unleashes content into the global net, where efficiencies of copying and scaling reduce any DRM walls to rubble, right? Here’s a speedbump on the way, anecdotally:

…it’s a new policy…, imposed, if I understand correctly, by the VRB, to curb piracy. They’re supposed to confiscate all recordable discs and especially obviously pirated purchases (which by the way could land you in jail for at least six months if you’re caught selling them, but what the hey). So recordable discs including those that come from the workplace and are legit? I ask them, with an eyebrow raised. And he says flatly, yes, because, you know, how can we ever be sure?

Again, note the locale. Copyright was originally designed as a national thing, depending on weak cross-border traffice, then strengthened by general international agreements on most norms. However, the ease of transmission across national borders – indeed, the irelevancy of many (but not all) of these borders when it comes to digital content. Walled gardens don’t have to be congruent with nations, not do networks of trading. Those gardens and networkers have not succeeded in undoing each other, and instead continue to struggle in a dialectic of ever-increasing energy, invention, and persistence.

One way out of this see-saw could be open archiving of digital documents, where creators place their work in the world’s way for usage. Digital storytelling and other media-intensive forms really need some sort of commons to draw on. Creative Commons offers a mechanism; will the content arrive?