SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 13 OCTOBER 2002
Buying more than time
ON its own merits, the Eldred v Ashcroft copyright case, which opened in the US Supreme Court last week, wouldn't rank as one of the most important cases to come before America's highest court.
The constitutional challenge to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extends existing and future copyright by 20 years, is an attempt to get a Supreme Court ruling on what is a fair assessment of the amount of time a copyright should exist for, before falling into the public domain forever.
The originators of copyright protection did see the need to balance author copyright with the importance of eventual wide accessibility. Knowledge, education and learning were considered important for society's well-being and progress. But what's deeply significant about this new case is that it shines a light into the future.
Copyright was a product of the printed word. The ability to distribute authors' works by printing and binding enabled dissemination way beyond what was possible by previous oral traditions. The need to encourage creativity was part of the reason envisaged by copyright. Authors could receive an income from their writing while also guaranteeing that no one would interfere with or change their work.
But that need to encourage and protect authors was also balanced with the need for society to share knowledge and learn. Academic studies, theses, mathematics, works of art all play crucial roles in shaping knowledge, creativity and innovation.
It is no coincidence that Eldred v Ashcroft is taking place after the first wave of the new communications era has ended. The demise of the dotcoms may be one thing, but now all the global economic woes are being pinned on technology and internet over-exuberance. The markets have gone into decline and investing houses have pulled the plug on technology. And with that the first chapter of Internet economics is complete.
The amount of books that were written with the intention of explaining internet economics was astonishing. From the hustler-oriented 'Get Rich in 10 Steps' variety to the more cerebral machinations of academics, intellectuals and poets and the 'Is There a There?' genres. There must be millions of books on internet economics that are now used either to prop up the leg of a table, or are banished to the dark recesses of the book shelves sitting beside The Joy of Sex.
If there is one thing that runs like a seam through the acreage of print devoted to internet economics it is the existence and promises of 'the network'. This is the foundation stone of so much of what has been called the new economy. Network was the raison d'etre for the new economy. Its challenge and disregard for 'old' economics lay in viewing networks as a new form of production and distribution. Even old Karl would have been spinning in Highgate Cemetery.
The new economy was The Field of Dreams of the electronic era. 'Build it and they will come' was the strategy which would overcome cumbersome and expensive technology, mind-numbing download speeds and expensive phone charges. It would only be a matter of when, not if, the internet would facilitate a seismic shift in the economic rule books.
The 'networked' world had its own internal processes and mechanisms by which to abide by - first-mover being one of the most promulgated. It even had its own church, where mystic high priests extended the logic of the new economy into cloning, cyborgs and assorted deus ex machina.
Decades from now, however, it might be seen that the failure of network theory and the new economy was hindered by scale and its inability to grow faster. Cumbersome computers and software, a bandwidth desert and expensive connection charges might justifiably be offered as reasons for failure.
But if the attempt to turn networks into a new economic model failed, where does that leave the biggest networks of all - the telcos?
Internet economics was an attempt to graft the young branch of the new economy - computers and software - to the solid old oak tree of the telcos. And the telcos have rejected it. Set up on a proven decades-old business model of per-minute call charges, the telcos were never designed for anything other than voice, which may have been a technological miracle once, but not any more.
The telcos fear the internet. They fear being forced to abandon per-minute charges and having to upgrade their networks to accommodate modern communications technologies. But they also fear not being part of the future riches that lie in carrying more than just voice. The telcos want very much to be part of the entertainment business. There lies the real money.
If they can just hold on until copyright, legalities and political interference are all to their benefit, they might hold on long enough to cash in. 'Don't build it and they will come'.
If the telcos can switch to new revenue models by charging for the oceans of content that might flow across their networks, then they will retake their place as the darlings of the stockmarket. The effects and consequences of a networked world are very far from being over, and it will more than likely be the telcos who are the next casualty.
Ironically, it is technology that will lead to their undoing. Using technology to maintain an iron grip on market share is a failed business model. It might shore up profits but only in the short term. It is the last resort of companies who cannot or will not change by innovating.
If chapter one of internet economics is about the irrational exhuberance of the dotcom era, then chapter two will be about the irrational resistance of the telcos.
Eldred.cc collects material related to the constitutional challenge of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended by 20 years both existing copyrights and future copyrights. Eric Eldred is the lead plaintiff on the case. link