Technological advancement is synonymous with societal progress.
At first glance, many people would fully support this seemingly obvious claim—medical advances, the telephone, electricity—these are all generally held to be good things. However, a handful of relatively recent advances in technology have the potential to negatively impact our lives in ways that we might not even realize. In this digital era, mp3s, digital videos, and eBooks seem like they have been woven into the fabric of society, and, to some extent, they have. However, these new digital forms of media have the potential to limit our consumption of art and culture in ways that we have not yet confronted.
As media has migrated to digital forms, publishers have developed methods of regulating the use of these digital cultural artifacts. These new restrictions are rooted in and justified using copyright law—but this term does not accurately reflect what these restrictions have become in the modern era. Rather than promoting societal progress, as originally intended, the ways in which consumers now encounter copyright law in their daily lives could be more accurately described as “personal property regulation.” This term may seem over-dramatized, but some of the newly implemented technical manifestations of copyright law are actually an unfair invasion of a user’s right to his or her own personal property.
In every major culture industry there has been a gradual collapse of fair use. We’ve recently seen how the use trusted systems and Digital Rights Management have eroded the first sale doctrine in the eBook market, which has existed since copyright law was originally drafted many decades ago. These changes alone have drastically increased the extent of control a copyright holder has over the use of his work. Because of the rapid uptake of digital media in the market, content publishers can now exercise near perfect control over a huge segment of their products, even after they are owned by the end-user. These changes, if left unchecked, will result in a complete upheaval of copyright as codified by Congress under their Constitutional mandate. (A tech-savvy reader might suggest seeking out a work-around for such restrictions, as undoubtedly they exist. Unfortunately anti-circumvention provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibit such behavior, even if the intended use could otherwise be considered fair.)
By its very nature, the code enforcing restrictions on copyrighted works is focused on the economic gain of its benefactors. Short of some sort of government intervention or a drastic change in the market, this code will continue to erode at the culture of our society. The culture industries have implemented a complex and rigid technical solution to the social problem of copyright infringement, one that clearly is not in the best interest of society as a whole. In order to halt and reverse the negative impact of their technical solution, other societal forces must push back on these changes, before it’s too late. Every day we spend with these technical restrictions in place is a day that cultural development is stifled, thereby robbing the American public of the “Progress” promised by the U.S. Constitution.