Review of Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture

Image courtesy of the MIT PressGillespie argues that we must examine the technical, social-cultural, legal and market approaches to copyright in order to understand the ethical, cultural, and political implications of how copyrights are secured in the digital era. Contemporary measures predominantly rely on encryption to survey and regulate content, which has the effect of intervening before infringement can even occur. This new approach is juxtaposed from how copyright regulation operated previously: individuals were prosecuted after having committing copyright infringement. The shift to pre-regulation treats all users as criminals, makes copyright less open to fair use, renders opposition to copyright law through civil disobedience as challenging, and undermines the sense of moral autonomy required for citizens to recognize copyright law’s legitimacy. In essence, the assertion of control over content, facilitated by digital surveillance and encryption schemes, has profound impacts on what it means to be, and act as, a citizen in the digital era.

This text does an excellent job at working through how laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), accompanied by designs of technologies and the political efforts of lobbyists, have established a kind of ‘paracopyright’ regime. This regime limits uses that were once socially and technically permissible, and thus is seen as undermining long-held (analogue-based) notions of what constitutes acceptable sharing of content and media. In establishing closed trusted systems that are regulated by law and received approval from political actors content industries are forging digitality to be receptive to principles of mass-produced culture.

This continued imposition of consumer-based engagement with cultural products challenges hopes that the digital might offer a way of reinvigorating democratic discourse. In effect, content industries are continuing to undermine democratic notions of what individuals should be able to do with their cultural artifacts and technological systems.

Gillespie’s work can be seen as a nuanced examination of how encryption technologies embedded in digital rights management systems curtail speech, action, and moral autonomy in contemporary democracies. Such limitations are only possible because of the adoption of digital technologies and the integration of surveillant sub-systems to limit the uses of content, often to the detriment of individuals. He has written a book that speaks to the contemporary struggle around digitized content: should content be more ‘accurately’ restricted in the digital era, where all uses are monitored and monetized, or must we instead fight to retain the socially-acceptable norms of non-commercial content sharing and dissemination from the pre-digital era? He powerfully argues for the latter, and warns us of the dangers of the former.

T. Gillespie. (2007). Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.