Information rights shape global vision


For some people, "information society" is a dry, analytic term, as elusive as the other labels that pundits use to describe today's world - postindustrial, postmodern, globalized.

For others, the term points to a titanic global struggle between big-money interests and dedicated info-rebels. The victor will shape the ground rules governing who gets to control information, for how long and at what price.

Headline-grabbing skirmishes such as the conflict between the recording industry and the inventors of the popular Napster music-trading system are important, but beyond them lies something larger: a clash of visions for the future.

If one side prevails, we will have a tightly regulated global supermarket of electronic goodies such as computer games, recorded music, videos, software programs and printed text.

If the other side wins, we will have a loosely regulated electronic commons in which such items will be much more freely shared, traded, improvised and generally played around with.

One group favors a worldwide system of strong copyright protection, with effective enforcement to prevent all forms of bootleg copying. In such a world, consumers will have access a vast cornucopia of cyber-products of all kinds, which will flow into our homes over a single wire and be received by a single machine - and everything we use will be billed to a single account.

In some versions of this system, even the now-familiar "fair use" - which allows free quotation of limited amounts of written material in reviews - would become obsolete as the technology becomes capable of tracking and billing all uses, however small. Parodies of books, movies or music will also be restricted.

The competing vision is a world of equally copious information flows, but a lot less regulation and control - a world in which people have much more liberty to use cultural creations in different ways, and in which the public domain of free access will be large and ever-growing.

The two concepts dear to the hearts of those who favor such a vision are: limited copyrights (perhaps closer to the once-renewable 14 years provided by the first U.S. copyright law in 1790), with much more tolerance for borrowing, parodying and improvising on existing works; and "open source" software such as the Linux computer operating system, which carries its source code with it so that users can view it and modify or improve it as they choose.

In a world of limited copyrights and open code, advocates of this vision say, more people will be creators instead of merely consumers.

Both sides have their true believers, but there's little doubt which vision is closer to being realized.

Congress regularly passes new laws extending the terms of copyright protection. The most recent, the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998, grants protection for the life of the author plus 70 years.

Global integration

Meanwhile, an increasingly integrated global system is being formed. Its main institutional frameworks are the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Trade Organization - both involved in negotiating treaties and setting up the mechanisms to make sure that copyrights are recognized and enforced everywhere. This is an attractive arrangement for established authors and artists, and it's a gold mine for the international media empires such as AOL Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

As the global regime grows and begins to flex its muscles, the activists of the free vision mobilize around organizations with names like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons. They draw support from legal research institutions such as the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University; the center's founder, law professor Lawrence Lessig, believes that "never in our history have fewer people controlled more of the evolution of our culture." Lessig is one of a group preparing to challenge the Sonny Bono law in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Focus on Disney

Lessig calls that law the "Mickey Mouse protection act," since the Walt Disney Corp.'s copyright, based on the cartoon in which he first appeared, is one of those that would expire.

Without the extension, Mickey would join Santa Claus, Uncle Sam and other familiar icons that people can freely copy without paying royalties. "Every time Mickey is about to pass into the public domain," says Lessig, "copyright terms are extended."

Mickey isn't the only creation affected by the extension. Copyrights on thousands of works about to enter the public domain - including The Great Gatsby, The Jazz Singer, and the 1927 hit musical Showboat - were similarly extended. But the Disney organization, with its multimillion-dollar industry based largely on the adaptation of public-domain stories and characters such as Snow White and Pinocchio, seems to be the one the activists are most exercised about in this particular case - as is evidenced by their various Web sites offering "FREE THE MOUSE" bumper stickers.

Laws and law-making

The challenge to the Sonny Bono law is scheduled to be heard in the Supreme Court next month. Whether it succeeds or fails, further legal and legislative skirmishes are likely to follow.

Although most of the heavy lobbying artillery is on the side of the electronic marketplace, the commons activists - with their networking skills, their support among the young and computer-literate and their idealistic vision - can't be counted out yet. They are just beginning to mobilize their campaign against the regime. The 21st century promises to be not only the era of globalization, but also the era of information wars.

Walter T. Anderson is a political scientist and author of "All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization" (Westview Press, 2001).

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