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S E P T E M B E R 1 9 9 8
by Charles C. Mann
BOUT twelve years ago I walked past a magazine kiosk in Europe and noticed the words "temple des rats" on the cover of a French magazine. Rat temple! I was amazed. A few months before, a friend of mine had traveled to northwestern India to write about the world's only shrine to humankind's least favorite rodent. The temple was in a village in the Marusthali Desert. That two Western journalists should have visited within a few months of each other stunned me. Naturally, I bought the magazine.
In Atlantic Unbound:
Atlantic Unbound welcomes Charles C. Mann, John Perry Barlow, Lawrence Lessig, and Mark Stefik for an interactive Roundtable on the ownership of culture in the information age.
Readers can join the debate in a special conference in Post & Riposte.
From the archives:
As the U.S. government reproves China for its disrespect of intellectual-property rights, we may do well to remember that our own past record in that area has been less than impeccable.
"Perhaps the lawmakers really couldn't have foreseen in 1909, the year the copyright law was passed, that there ever would be such a universal dispenser of culture as a jukebox."
"Instruments are at hand which, if properly developed, will give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages."
The article began with a Gallic tirade against the genus Rattus. Le
spectre du rat, le cauchemar d'humanité! Quel horreur! -- that sort of
thing. Then came the meat: an interview, in Q&A form, with a "noted
American journalist" who had just gone to the rat temple. The journalist, who
was named, was my friend. No such interview had occurred: the article was a
straight translation, with fake interruptions by the "interviewer" such as
"Vraiment?" and "Mon Dieu!"|
I was outraged. To my way of thinking, these French people had ripped off my friend. I telephoned him immediately; he had the same reaction. Expletives crackled wildly across the Atlantic. Reprinting his copyrighted article without permission or payment was the same, we decided, as kicking down his door and stealing his CD player.
We were wrong. Although the magazine had done my friend wrong, what was stolen was not at all like a CD player. CD players are physical property. Magazine articles are intellectual property, a different matter entirely. When thieves steal CD players, the owners no longer have them, and are obviously worse off.
Intellectual property is knowledge or expression that is owned by someone. It has three customary domains: copyright, patent, and trademark (a fourth form, trade secrets, is sometimes included). Copyrighted songs, patented drugs, and trademarked soft drinks have long been familiar denizens of the American landscape, but the growth of digital technology has pushed intellectual property into new territory. Nowadays one might best define intellectual property as anything that can be sold in the form of zeroes and ones. It is the primary product of the Information Age.
A Harvard Law School site devoted to issues pertaining to the Internet, law, and society.
A section of the Berkman Center Web site specifically devoted to exploring "problems of copyright, fair use, authorship, and ownership on the Net."
A tutorial designed "to help educators move away from the fearful image of copyright as an annoying or threatening beast and to work with copyright while maintaining focus on academic pursuits." The tutorial, which begins September 2, 1998, is conducted by email, and is open to anyone.
"Union for the Public Domain (UPD) is a non-profit citizens group. Our mission is to protect and enhance the public domain in matters concerning intellectual property."
"The IIPA is a coalition formed in 1984 to represent the U.S.copyright-based industries ... in bilateral and multilateral efforts to improve international protection of copyrighted works."
Harris Tulchin, Esq.'s notes for his lectures to UCLA Multimedia Law Classes in 1997.
All three forms of intellectual property are growing in importance, but
copyright holds pride of place. In legal terms, copyright governs the right to
make copies of a given work. It awards limited monopolies to creators on their
creations: for a given number of years no one but Walt Disney can sell Mickey
Mouse cartoons without permission. Such monopolies, always valuable, are
increasingly lucrative. For the past twenty years the copyright industry has
grown almost three times as fast as the economy as a whole, according to the
International Intellectual Property Alliance, a trade group representing film
studios, book publishers, and the like. Last year, the alliance says,
copyrighted material contributed more than $400 billion to the national economy
and was the country's single most important export.|
These figures may actually understate the value of copyright. Today it is widely believed that personal computers, cable television, the Internet, and the telephone system are converging into a giant hose that will spray huge amounts of data -- intellectual property -- into American living rooms. As this occurs, according to the conventional scenario, the economic winners will be those who own the zeroes and ones, not those who make the equipment that copies, transmits, and displays them. Because copyright is the mechanism for establishing ownership, it is increasingly seen as the key to wealth in the Information Age.
At the same time, the transformation of intellectual property into electronic form creates new problems. If the cost of manufacturing and distributing a product falls, economic forces will drive down its price, too. The Net embodies this principle to an extreme degree. Manufacturing and distribution costs collapse almost to nothing online: zeroes and ones can be shot around the world with a few clicks of a mouse. Hence producers of digital texts, music, and films will have trouble charging anything at all for copies of their works -- competitors can always offer substitutes for less, pushing the price toward the vanishing point.
In addition, creators must deal with piracy, which is vastly easier and more effective in the digital environment. People have long been able to photocopy texts, tape-record music, and videotape television shows. Such leakage, as copyright lawyers call it, has existed since the first day a reader lent a (copyrighted) book to a friend. With the rise of digital media, the leakage threatens to turn into a gush. To make and distribute a dozen copies of a videotaped film requires at least two videocassette recorders, a dozen tapes, padded envelopes and postage, and considerable patience. And because the copies are tapes of tapes, the quality suffers. But if the film has been digitized into a computer file, it can be E-mailed to millions of people in minutes; because strings of zeroes and ones can be reproduced with absolute fidelity, the copies are perfect. And online pirates have no development costs -- they don't even have to pay for paper or blank cassettes -- so they don't really have a bottom line. In other words, even as digital technology drives the potential value of copyright to ever greater heights, that same technology threatens to make it next to worthless.
This paradox has engendered two reactions. One is to advocate eliminating copyright altogether. Led by a small but surprisingly influential cadre of libertarian futurists, anti-copyrightists believe that the increased ease of copying effectively obviates the © symbol and all it entails. "Information wants to be free" -- a phrase apparently coined by the writer Stewart Brand -- is the apothegm of choice here. In this view, copyright restricts what people can do with the intellectual property coming through the wires. Futilely but dangerously, it tries to fence the electronic frontier. It unjustly creates monopolies in the basic commodity of the Information Age. It is a relic of the past and should be expunged.
The other, opposing reaction is to strengthen the hand of copyright owners. Realizing the growing economic import of copyright, Congress is rapidly trying to overhaul the nation's intellectual-property regime. The changes would give copyright owners more control for longer times; some would make it a crime to work around copyright-protection schemes. A different tack is being taken by state governments, which may bypass copyright altogether by amending the laws governing sales contracts. If they succeed, copyright owners will be able to ask individual customers to agree to contracts regulating the zeroes and ones flowing into their homes.
Because I make much of my living from copyright, I find the to-and-fro fascinating, and have a vested interest in the results. But issues bigger than the financial status of writers are involved. Copyright is the regulatory authority for the marketplace of ideas. It lays out the economic ground rules to create the hubbub of debate that the Founders believed necessary for democracy -- one reason that they included copyright in the Constitution (Article I, Section 8, instructs Congress to "secur[e] for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their Respective Writings and Discoveries"). Copyright law allows Michael Jackson to make a fortune from the Beatles catalogue, and Bill Gates to add to his untold wealth by licensing electronic reproductions of the photographs of Ansel Adams. But its real purpose is to foster ever more ideas and ever more innovation from ever more diverse sources. When, in 1790, George Washington asked Congress to enact copyright legislation, he argued that it would increase the national stock of knowledge. And knowledge, he said, is "the surest basis of public happiness."
Today the marketplace of ideas is being shaken up by the competing demands of technology, finance, and law. Large sums of money are at stake. Change seems inevitable. One way or another, we will lay a new institutional foundation for literary culture in the United States. How we do it will play a big role, according to the logic of the Founders, in determining our future well-being. It would be comforting to believe that decisions will be made thoughtfully and well. But little evidence suggests this is true. Indeed, we may be heading into a muddle that it will take us a long time to escape.
ET next to a horse pasture in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center is a flat, Miesian rectangle with the bronze-tinted windows and anodized-aluminum mullions that are ubiquitous in Silicon Valley. Despite its nondescript appearance, PARC occupies a special place in the annals of computing. In the 1970s researchers there created the windows-and-mouse interface now seen on millions of desktops around the world. Xerox failed to capitalize on this innovation. Steve Jobs, of Apple Computer, saw it demonstrated on a tour of PARC in 1979. He borrowed the idea, hired some of its creators, and went on to build the Macintosh.
Xerox's decision to shelve the mouse is notorious in digital circles. Less well known is that at about the same time the company decided not to pursue another big innovation: the technology for electronic paper. In this case the company was lucky enough to have a second shot at the idea: the original researcher, Nick Sheridon, remained at PARC, and in 1991 he was given permission to pick up where he had left off. The results of his work were unveiled in an advertisement broadcast during the Olympics last winter.
Sheridon calls his invention Gyricon, for "rotating image," but it's really a flexible, cordless computer screen that looks and acts like a piece of paper. Or will look and act -- in its current, still-crude state, electronic paper resembles thin, floppy pieces of gray vinyl. Sheridon asked me when I recently visited PARC if I wanted to hold a sheet. I felt like someone being offered the chance to see the first, staticky RCA television in 1932. The sheet of Gyricon was dark and grainy and had an unlovable, spongy feel. But despite the imperfections I was fascinated. There in my hands was a rough draft of a possible future. If E-paper is widely accepted, as seems plausible, it will turn the world of copyright upside down, and with it literary culture.
"A system which requires ... payment for every access to a particular expression ... defeats the original Jeffersonian purpose of seeing that ideas were available to everyone regardless of their economic station."
An article by the dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT.
As skeptics note, these triumphalist predictions recall the scene in The
Hunchback of Notre Dame in which the dour, scholarly Archdeacon Frollo
confronts a scary new technology: the printing press. "Ceci tuera cela!"
the archdeacon cries. "The book will kill the church!" Frollo's vision of the
demise of religion was spectacularly wrong. Technophobes argue that the
predicted death of the book is equally exaggerated. Who will curl up with a
computer in bed? they ask. Readers can't dog-ear pages or highlight favorite
passages on today's computer screens; they can't even see where the text begins
and ends. Indeed, many prophets of the book's demise make their claims in the
pages of books -- a practice, the PARC consultant Paul Duguid has observed,
"which has much of the logic of making yourself the executor of your own
Although Sheridon loves the flexibility and ease of digital technology, he tends to agree with the pro-book forces. "Paper has remained unchanged for two thousand years," he told me. "There's a message there." The message is that people like paper; they have not adjusted to bulky picture tubes on their desks. Sheridon likens the monitor to polyester, a substance that did everything but make people want to wear it. Xerox studies suggest that most people print out electronic mail that is longer than half a page; paper use rises by 40 percent in offices that introduce E-mail. Instead of trying to make computers replace books and paper, Sheridon concluded, computers should become books and paper.
Each Gyricon sheet is made of transparent silicone rubber. Inside are millions of plastic balls, each smaller in diameter than a human hair, embedded in the silicone like so many marbles. Every ball has a white half and a black half, making it look in magnification a bit like a model of the moon. The ball carries an electrostatic charge -- the same kind of charge that makes clothes stick together in the dryer. If electrical fields approach, they attract or repel the black half, causing the spheres to rotate within their little pockets in the plastic. If a white half points toward the surface of the paper, it makes a white dot; if a black half is up, the dot is black. Arranging the black and white dots creates a black-and-white image in much the same way that arranging pixels creates an image on the computer screen.
Once rotated, the balls stay in place, locked in position within their cavities. "You can get very long-term storage of an image," Sheridon says. "Or you can run the paper through the charge again and make another image." The plastic can be made cheaply, and each sheet can be used at least a million times before the balls stop working. In contrast, a million sheets of the bond paper in my photocopy machine would cost thousands of dollars and make a stack more than 300 feet tall. Sheridon told me that this technology might be available by 2000. He didn't want to guess when the world might see the next step: electronic books.
From Atlantic Unbound:
The book is the network, the network is knowledge, and someday soon you'll be able to curl up in bed with all of it. This calls for some serious rumination.
A New York Times article about the future of electronic books.
A Wired article about the future of electronic books.
"In this paper we describe our efforts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory toward realizing an electronic book comprised of hundreds of electronically addressable display pages printed on real paper substrates."
What would such devices look like? "Regular books," Joseph Jacobson, a
researcher at the MITMedia Lab who is working on another version of E-paper,
says. Electronic books "might need a small battery and a port to link to
computers, but otherwise the basic format of the book is so useful that I see
little reason not to keep it." Three companies -- SoftBook and NuvoMedia, in
Silicon Valley, and Everybook, in Pennsylvania -- are poised to introduce
"electronic books" within the next year, but these will be, in essence,
keyboardless portable computers that can display words. To Jacobson, true
electronic books should open and shut like paper books and have bendable pages
that can be flipped through. To show text, each sheet in an electronic book
would have to be covered with transparent electrodes, much as the screens of
laptop computers are now controlled by transparent circuitry. The electrodes
would be controlled by chips in the spine. Manufacturing an electronic book
would thus be the equivalent of wiring several hundred thin, flexible laptop
screens edge-first into a narrow circuit board. Such mechanisms would be
hideously expensive at first, but in researching this article I did not meet
many people who thought they would never be built.
Readers would open their E-books and see a list of works on the title page -- the collected works of William Faulkner, say. To read The Sound and the Fury, one would tap the title, and the text, stored in the circuitry of the spine, would flow noiselessly onto the pages. If the tale of the Compsons seemed too involuted, one could tap Light in August and actuate it instead, or Absalom, Absalom! Given the advances in computer memory, it should be feasible to store entire libraries in every electronic book. Readers could use a stylus to underline favorite passages and write in the margins; the next time the text was generated, the marginalia would appear as well.
Giving me a tour of his laboratory, Jacobson dilated cheerfully on the possibilities of electronic books. In the future, he suggested, books will never go out of print. Landfills will not be clogged with obsolete telephone directories.
Imagine, Jacobson said, a world in which decaying stacks of old National Geographics did not sit in garages. "You guys must spend a fortune on paper, ink, and postage," he said, referring to this magazine. Why not zap text and artwork directly to subscribers? "That's what they buy the magazine for, isn't it? Not to mention that the whole business of printing and mailing takes so much time." Atlantic Monthly subscribers might receive blank electronic magazines, he suggested. Every month readers would plug the magazines into their computers to receive the next issue -- or an issue of another magazine, depending on which chips the receptacle contained.
I asked, not for the first time, about piracy. What would prevent unscrupulous entrepreneurs in faraway countries from buying books and magazines and reselling them at half price on the World Wide Web? Would the existence of electronic paper make it dramatically more difficult to sell written works?
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Jacobson said, smiling. Technology always has an upside and a downside, he said. He thinks that electronic books and magazines will inevitably come into existence, because they promise such economic and ecological advantages. "But we need to do it all in the right way," he said. "Otherwise the intellectual-property issues ... " His voice trailed off. "Well," he said, "you might really have a negative impact on the culture."
OW real is the threat of piracy? Very real, according to Jack Valenti, of the Motion Picture Association of America. The world, in his view, is a "heartbreaking," "devastating" "pirate bazaar" in which counterfeiters with "no sense of morality" steal billions from America's moviemakers.
Movies are not the only losers. Publishers complain that pirates knock off expensively produced textbooks in fields ranging from business management and computer science to medicine and English. Music companies hire a firm called GrayZone to hunt down bootleg-CD makers and Web-site pirates around the globe. In some countries -- Russia and China, for example -- more than 90 percent of all new business software is pirated, according to the Business Software Alliance and the Software Publishers Association, the two major trade associations in the field. The International Intellectual Property Alliance claims that foreign copyright infringement alone costs U.S. firms as much as $20 billion a year.
Critics charge that these huge figures are absurd, and not only because of the obvious difficulty of measuring illicit activity. While researching this article I obtained a CD-ROM called "CAD Xpress" for about $30 ("CAD" is the acronym for "computer-assisted design"). It contained a copy of the current version of AutoCAD, the leading brand of architectural-drafting software, which has a list price of $3,750. According to the Software Publishers Association, my copy of CAD Xpress represents a $3,750 loss to Autodesk, the manufacturer of AutoCAD. This assumes, of course, that I, and every other buyer of CAD Xpress, would otherwise pony up thousands of dollars for AutoCAD.
More important, in the view of Stanley Besen, an economist at Charles River Associates, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., the huge estimates of piracy losses don't take into account the copyright owners' responses to copying.
Such accommodations might insulate software firms from some of the effects of copying. But Besen does not think that they can insulate the companies from all of them, especially when a single bootleg can spawn so many other illicit copies that the original company can't raise the price enough to compensate for the losses incurred. I bought CAD Xpress at the Golden Shopping Centre, in Hong Kong. The Golden Shopping Centre was a kind of shopping mall for copyright infringement: three stories of pirated video games, CDs, videotapes, and software. Situated next to the Sham Shui Po subway station, in Kowloon, the mall was not hard to find -- the address was in my Fodor's Citypack guidebook to Hong Kong.
The mall consisted of an unlovely concrete block jammed with small, kiosklike stores. Stores on the first floor sold mainly bootleg video games and devices that permit players illicitly to use games built for one company's machines on machines made by another. The second floor was full of pirated music and film. I wasn't interested in the music, because most of it was Chinese pop I didn't know. But I was intrigued by the stacks of digital video disks. DVDs are compact disks that contain entire movies (they are sometimes called video compact disks, or VCDs). Expatriate cinéastes complain that most theaters in Hong Kong are devoted to the local product: action pictures starring the fleet-footed likes of Jackie Chan and Chow-yun Fat. But the stacks of illegal DVDs included such esoteric fare as the works of the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose trilogy, Red, White, and Blue, was available for $20. Grand Illusion for $6.00! The Crying Game for $8.00! Fellini's Satyricon for next to nothing! I began to see what low-cost distribution was all about.
The third floor was devoted to computer programs. Here I bought CAD Xpress. In a gesture to the law, it was sold under the counter. Actually, what was under the counter was looseleaf binders that catalogued the store's illicit wares. Confused by the descriptions, which were written in garbled English, I asked a woman at one store if she sold AutoCAD, and she spoke to a young person who ran off and ten minutes later reappeared with the CD-ROM. "How much is it?" I asked. She wrote "240" on a slip of paper -- 240 Hong Kong dollars, then about $30 U.S. Because I make my living from copyright, I felt funny about buying pirated software. To satisfy my curiosity without arousing my conscience, I had decided to buy software that my family already owned. This idea collapsed when I saw CAD Xpress and its ilk. Competition among pirates ensures that their CD-ROMs are crammed with software; buying a single program wasn't easy. According to my local Autodesk dealer, my $30 copy of CAD Xpress contains more than $20,000 worth of computer-assisted-design software.
For me, the software was less than ideal. Most of the instructions were in Chinese, and some of the programs didn't work (or at least I couldn't make them work). But overall the disk was still a good buy. For another $30 I bought a CD-ROM called Power Dragon Software. One of its forty-eight programs was Quicken, the popular accounting software. Given the relatively small size of Quicken, I presumably paid less than a dollar for it -- indeed, less than a quarter. In another store I bought the same version of Quicken on two floppy disks. This cost $25 -- about a hundred times as much, and almost as much as the whole CD-ROM, which included forty-seven other programs. The difference was that the floppy disks came with a photocopy of the manual, which is more informative than the program's help screens. Because the manual was not available electronically, it was considerably harder to copy than the program and hence considerably more valuable.
Many stores in the Golden Shopping Centre sold compilations of computer games, fifty or so per CD-ROM. It occurred to me as I flipped through them that I was inspecting a kind of precursor to the electronic book. I had recently written a book. Completely formatted, the manuscript was about 600,000 bytes in size. A CD-ROM holds more than 600 million bytes, enough for scores of books.
Complaining too loudly about illicit software exposes Americans to a charge of hypocrisy. During the nineteenth century U.S. copyright law did not extend to foreigners' works. New York City became the piracy center of the world. Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol sold for the equivalent of $2.50 in England. On this side of the Atlantic bootleg editions cost six cents. U.S. publishers were unmoved by the plight of their writers who were pirated in England: they could make more money by stealing Little Dorrit here than by selling Little Women there. Only in 1891 did Congress pass international-copyright legislation.
I asked the man who sold me Power Dragon if the threat of prosecution worried him. He asked a friend to translate. The friend said, "He is not worried. Soon, very soon, his boss will sell on the Internet. They will send the programs through another country." Which one? I asked. Iraq, India, Bulgaria, somewhere in Africa, the friend said. It didn't matter. In a world made up of hundreds of different nations, someone would always be willing to assist his operations. Later I found out that the salesman was right. When the United States pressured China to stop piracy, last year, most of the industry simply moved across the harbor to Macau. At the time, I asked the salesman's friend if business was good. "Yes," he said. He pointed to the crowd around us. "Better every day," he said.
The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.
Charles C. Mann is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His most recent book is @ Large (1997), written with David Freedman.
Illustrations by Theo Rudnak
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?; Volume 282, No. 3; pages 57 - 82.