Touring the digital through type

Month: January 2011 (Page 2 of 2)

Controversial Changes to Public Domain Works

by Muskingum University Library

A considerable number of today’s copyfight discussions revolve around the usage of DRM to prevent transformative uses of works, to prevent the sharing of works, and to generally limit how individuals engage with the cultural artefacts around them. This post takes a step back from that, thinking through the significance of transforming ‘classic’ works of the English literary canon instead of looking at how new technologies butt heads against free speech. Specifically, I want to argue that NewSouth, Inc.’s decision to publish Huckleberry Finn without the word “nigger” – replacing it with “slave” – demonstrates the importance of works entering the public domain. I restrain from providing a normative framework to evaluate NewSouth’s actual decision – whether changing the particular word is good – and instead use their decision to articulate the conditions constituting ‘bad’ transformations versus ‘good’ transformations of public domain works. I will argue that uniform, uncontested, and totalizing modifications of public domains works is ‘bad’, whereas localized, particular, and discrete transformations should be encouraged given their existence as free expressions capable of (re)generating discussions around topics of social import.

Copyright is intended to operate as an engine to generating expressive content. In theory, by providing a limited monopoly over expressions (not the ideas that are expressed) authors can receive some kind of restitution for the fixed costs that they invest in creating works. While true (especially in the digital era) that marginal costs trend towards zero, pricing based on marginal cost alone fails to adequately account for the sunk costs of actual writing. Admittedly, some do write for free (blogs and academic articles in journals might stand as examples) but many people still write with the hope earning their riches through publications. There isn’t anything wrong with profit motivating an author’s desire to create.

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Review of Telecommunications Policy in Transition

Image courtesy of the MIT Press

This first: the edited collection is a decade old. Given the rate that communications technologies and information policies change, this means that several of the articles are…outmoded. Don’t turn here for the latest, greatest, and most powerful analyses of contemporary communications policy. A book published in 2001 is good for anchoring subsequent reading into telecom policy, but less helpful for guiding present day policy analyses.

Having said that: there are some genuine gems in this book, including one of the most forward thinking essays around network neutrality of the past decade by Blumenthal and Clark. Before getting to their piece, I want to touch on O’Donnell’s contribution, “Broadband Architectures, ISP Business Plans, and Open Access”. He reviews architectures and ISP service portfolios to demonstrate that open access is both technically and economically feasible, though acknowledges that implementation is not a trivial task. In the chapter he argues that the FCC should encourage deployment of open access ready networks to reduce the costs of future implementation; I think it’s pretty safe to say that that ship sailed by and open connection is (largely) a dead issue in the US today. That said, he has an excellent overview of the differences between ADSL and Cable networks, and identifies the pain points of interconnection in each architecture.

Generally, O’Donnell sees interconnection as less of a hardware problem and more of a network management issue. In discussing the need and value of open access, O’Donnell does a good job at noting the dangers of throttling (at a time well ahead of ISP’s contemporary throttling regimes), writing

differential caching and routing need not be blatant to be effective in steering customers to preferred content. The subtle manipulation of the technical performance of the network can condition users unconsciously to avoid certain “slower” web sites. A few extra milliseconds’ delay strategically inserted here and there, for example, can effectively shepard users from one web site to another (p53).

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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.

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