Archive for August 2012

Copyresponsibility

There has been a great deal of discussion about copyrights in the new world, where the ability to copy or distribute any piece of information without destroying the original is virtually infinite.

Much effort has been put into preserving the “old model”, where the right to copy is restricted based on the author (or more often, the publisher/distributor), in the form of DRM, civil lawsuits, new laws, and intellectual property. Overall, this effort has failed, and continues to fail. The laws are becoming more complex, but enforcement is still impossible.

We live in an exciting time. Society has not yet decided whether copying information is moral or not. We already know what a world in which copying data is immoral is like — the “old model”. But what would happen if a world where it was both accepted and expected that anyone who has access to a piece of information has the legal and moral right to redistribute it?

Personally, I think we must plan for such a world, because it seems inevitable. Perhaps the various organizations attempting to hold onto the old model will succeed, but not forever. I think coming generations will demand the right to access and distribute information as they see fit.

Ultimately, this would mean that anyone who has access to (“read”) a piece of information has an equal right to share that information as the author. We already see models where this is the case; very few people know or care who the authors of Wikipedia articles are, for example. When a YouTube video goes viral, you rarely look to see who uploaded it. Even if you do, you don’t know if they actually created the original.

I think this will place a great deal of responsibility on people who have privileged knowledge. The author of a document has exclusive right to its content until she shares it with another person. At that point, those two people would have an equal share in the right to the content. This is implicit and obvious, but something that has not been discussed much to date is that they also have an equal share in the responsibility of deciding who else may view that document.

If every single person who has access to the information agrees that no-one else should see it, then the information is private to that group. However, if the weakest link chooses to share it with outsiders, nobody else in the group would have the right to stop them.

Thus, in the copy-responsibility world, a huge amount of trust is required before sharing information that you consider sensitive. I know people who claim, “if it’s on the Internet then it’s public”, even if it’s inside a private Facebook group or Google Plus circle. This claim simply acknowledges that every member of that circle has an equal right to share that data, or equal responsibility to keep it within the cartel. (They are overlooking the fact that employees at Facebook and Google are also implicit members of that circle that may not be so reliable.)

In summary, I think it’s fair to say we live in (or will soon live in) a world where we no longer have a right to privacy. Instead, we will have a responsibility to privacy. We are responsible for our own “secrets” as well as the secrets of anyone who has shared their secrets with us.