u_topn picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Copyright?
Can the sum of our ideas be reduced to "intellectual property"? Or should all information, all knowledge, be set free? As we rethink our institutions governing copyright and intellectual property in the digital age, what touchstones, what principles, should we look to? What is at stake in the legislative battle over the ownership of culture?

Atlantic Unbound has invited Charles C. Mann -- the author of The Atlantic's September cover story, "Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?" -- and a panel of other expert commentators, to debate these questions.

September 10, 1998 -- Introduction and Round One

Immanuel Kant had a problem -- and so did every other writer around him. After Gutenberg invented the printing press, Germans read little other than religious texts for 300 years. In the eighteenth century the emergence of a middle class and innovations in printing transformed the German market for information. Suddenly the public was inundated with new novels, plays, poems, and philosophy. So explosive was the demand for literature that some worried commentators decried the "reading plague" (Leseseuche) that had swept the populace.
Host: Charles C. Mann
A contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Mann is the author, most recently, of @ Large (1997), written with David Freedman. His article, "Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?", is The Atlantic's September cover story.

John Perry Barlow
A retired Wyoming cattle rancher and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Barlow is co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a Fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Lawrence Lessig
The Berkman Professor of Law at Harvard, Lessig teaches and writes in the areas of constitutional law, contracts, and the law of cyberspace. He is presently completing a book, Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

Mark Stefik
A principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and head of its new Secure Document Systems group, Stefik is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI). He is the editor of Internet Dreams (1996) and the author of The Internet Edge, forthcoming from MIT Press in 1999.

Previous Roundtables:

  • "Is the Party Over?" (June, 1998)

  • "Race in America" (November, 1997)

  • "AIDS: Privacy vs. Public Health?" (June, 1997)

  • "Welfare: Where Do We Go From Here?" (March, 1997)

  • "Immigration: One Nation, Inhospitable?" (November, 1996)
  • mcov9809 picture So what was the problem? It was that Germany then consisted of about 350 tiny states, each with its own laws. When writers published books in one state, printers in adjacent states were free to copy it -- and did. Indeed, some states actively encouraged such piracy (as it is now called). If one state closed its borders to unauthorized editions from another state, the printers simply shifted location -- they could always operate somewhere. As a result book sales soared while writers starved.

    Serious writers, whose books have ever taken longer to sell, were especially affected. They denounced unauthorized editions -- and were denounced back by the people who printed them. Writers, the pro-copying forces argued, had long considered themselves vehicles for inspiration from Heaven. How could they lay claim to what had come from God? "Piracy" helped keep the price of books down, benefitting the public and facilitating the spread of ideas. Was it moral to restrict the flow of knowledge for writers' private gain?

    Raging for more than twenty years, the debate over "intellectual property" (to use the modern term) involved many of the best minds in Germany, Kant among them. German thinkers tried to go to first principles: What is artistic creation? How should we treat it? Kant provided one answer in The Critique of Judgment (1790). Every artistic work, he said, consists of a physical object and a piece of its creator's spirit. People can buy the object but not the spirit, for soul cannot be purchased. Thus readers can freely copy books, but only in ways that respect the writer's integrity -- an idea that slowly grew into the current European system of copyright.

    Like eighteenth-century Germans, we are experiencing powerful cultural change. The decline of folk culture, the creation of a global market, and the rise of digital media (including, eventually, electronic books) are forcing us, also, to revisit the question of intellectual property. Two main camps have emerged. One side argues that, in effect, Kant was wrong: protecting artists need not include limiting the reproduction of their work. As culture goes onto the Net, copying will become so cheap and easy that anti-copying laws will be like Soviet-era bans on photocopiers: unjust, unnecessary, unworkable. The other side argues that unless creators and publishers are given sweeping new powers over their work, cost-free copying will effectively destroy them. Most of the legislation now pending in Congress reflects this view.

    In my article in this month's Atlantic Monthly, I argue that both sides are wrong, at least in part. In the past, unrestricted copying diminished the diversity of artistic production. Fearful of piracy, publishers concerned themselves only with works that could be sold quickly and in volume, thus eliminating the unusual and personal. Why would opening the floodgates now have a different effect? But the solutions to the threats faced by creators -- at least those proposed by Congress and the states -- are worrisome, too. They are being enacted before the economics of the Net is understood. And by effectively permitting artists and publishers to release works on a pay-per-view basis, they may change the relationship between creators and the public -- something not to be done thoughtlessly.

    I expect other panelists in this Roundtable will disagree. They may be right to do so; the one certainty in any conversation about the future is the lack of certainty.

    --Charles C. Mann

    Roundtable Overview

    Introduction by Charles C. Mann

    Round One: Opening Remarks -- posted on September 10, 1998

    Round Two: Responses -- posted on September 17, 1998

    Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- posted on September 29, 1998

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search