Copyright, Pandering, and the Universal Library

While I was washing dishes today, I found my thoughts turning to the Universal Library– this being the theoretical library that would contain all existing knowledge. This, and the much less useful Library of Babel (containing all possible knowledge, including nonsense) seem to be where my thoughts turn given any sort of down time.

While my mind was frolicking among the stacks, I began thinking about real-life efforts to gather information– Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, Google’s book-scanning efforts– and how lovely it is that so much information is now freely available. Now, I don’t know how things work in your thoughts, but in my head, free-association is de rigueur. So it was no surprise that I had made the leap to my own growing collection of music, and how it is sometimes difficult for me to locate a recording I wish to hear.

In fact, it is sometimes difficult enough (or at least I perceive it to be difficult enough) that I have occasionally downloaded a track that I know I already own– why bother getting up to search out the proper disc when it’s probably on SeeqPod? Although I’ve long been rather liberal in my views on property, I’ve been surprised lately– rather than the Internet creating a desire for material goods, it has actually had the opposite effect. For the past few months, I have had the growing realization that I am no longer attracted to ownership, but to the convenience of ownership.

Just a ten years ago, I’m not sure this distinction could have been made. But now, in a time where a song or television episode can be as easily accessed online as by pulling it off one’s living room shelf, ownership provides little benefit to consumer beyond that of a physical fetish. In fact, not owning something– but allowing it to be commonly “held” in a shifting manner online– has significant benefits. The material in question can be shared by many, requires no redundant storage space, and disappears when not in use.

Naturally, this led me into copyright. Obviously, someone’s rights are being violated if people are just sharing one copy of a new album. But is this a necessary situation, or simply an outgrowth of our refusal to deal with the source of the problem: the artificial marriage of human creativity to business?

It’s no joke that I’m an incredible idealist, but bear with me a moment– copyright supposedly protects creators, with the general idea that this ensures their ability to continue creating. But in my experience, creative people are driven by something other than this. It’s really only those who make things for money who are worried about their copyright– and if their goal is making money, then it is safe to assume that their creations are not necessarily going to have any real “value” for society at large. In fact, the most popular creations (pop albums, movies, books, blogs) are often the least useful. Look at Web 2.0. What is it but tools for marketing oneself? If you look at MySpace, WordPress, YouTube, Blogger, Digg, Del.icio.us– really, any of the big players– it’s all about page views, popularity, marketing, stats. The most successful blogs each day are the ones writing about celebrity gossip, sex, even the promise of sex! Another big draw is a fight– how else could infamous troll posters draw such a crowd?

It’s when the marketing, the page views, and the advertising revenue is removed that we can get a clear picture of what would remain– altruistic work useful for the common good. After all, who wants to write about celebrity gossip if its not driving some sort of money machine?

And back to copyright! If everything is online, who needs copyright anymore? With so many choices, and none with a motive to pander to society, wouldn’t the idea of “popular” vanish? Wouldn’t we instead think of things in terms of their usefulness, and find that the accessing of all music, writing, and technology be evenly distributed throughout the various information available?

Think about the Universal Library if you doubt me– its the end of the continuum, where my ideas are writ large enough to be read, even here in the Dark Ages. In this Universal Library, there exist so many objects of beauty, so many useful texts, so many incredible movies; that it is an impossibility for any one person to come into contact with them all. This information would be like the leaves or sand grains of the world– nobody hoards these, unsure of an unending supply.

This is what I’m working towards. It’s our possible future that we really only have to reach out for now.

One Response to “Copyright, Pandering, and the Universal Library”

  1. oiio Says:

    Hey! I rekon you are pretty much in resonance with geek-libertarian Richard Stallman, hacker of copyright into copyleft. fsf.org

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