Documentary coverage of IGF-USA by the Imagining the Internet Center

IGF-USA 2012 Scenario Story: Two Possible Futures for Copyright – Anarchy or Totalitarianism

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Brief session description:

Thursday, July 26, 2012 - The laws of copyright were introduced before the Internet, before file-sharing and before the advances in digital tools now used to create sampling, mash-ups and remixes. One example of the complex copyright conflicts faced today is “The Grey Album,” produced by DJ Danger Mouse. It gained notoriety as it challenged the intellectual property structure in place, mashing two legally protected albums in a violation of copyright law. Danger Mouse created the album strictly as a limited-edition promotional item (only 3,000 copies), but it immediately went viral and caught the ear of many people in the music industry and all over the US, making any legal cease-and-desist request technically meaningless. This example illuminates the incredibly complex and nuanced existence of copyright law in America today. This scenario exercise was aimed at exploring two divergent sides of America’s copyright future, one where regulations surrounding copyright law are lax to the point of anarchy, and the other where the regulations increase at an exponential rate, creating a totalitarian atmosphere.

Details of the session:

Moderators for the session were Ariel Leath and Kalyah Ford, graduate students at Georgetown University. Panelists included:

  • Thomas Sydnor II, senior fellow for intellectual property at the Association of Competitive Technology
  • Matthew Schruers, vice president for law and policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association
  • Brandon Butler, director of public policy initiatives for the Association of Research Libraries

Thomas Sydnor II speaks in a workshop about the future of copyright at IGF-USA in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012.

This scenario exercise at IGF-USA 2012 featured a consideration of what might happen if one or the other of two extreme situations – totalitarianism or anarchy – evolved in the future. Students from Georgetown University proposed two possible futures for panelists to discuss.

Scenarios: In an anarchist 2020 scenario, panelists discussed what might happen if a high school student turned in work incorporating aspects of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” Would a teacher be expected to treat it as an original work? In a totalitarian 2020 scenario, panelists discussed a situation in which the phrase “good morning” is owned by McDonald’s, and any online use of it would instantly set off an alarm automatically requiring that the violator of the copyright pay a $500 fine.

These two scenarios tied to copyright, according to panelists at IGF-USA Thursday at Georgetown Law Center, are highly unlikely, but they are still interesting to ponder. They discussed the potential ramifications of both extremes.

“As far as totalitarianism, if (the United States) were to fall into totalitarianism, we’d have done it a long time ago,” said Thomas Sydnor II, a research fellow at the Association for Competitive Technology. “When I take my walk with my dogs, my dogs trespass on my neighbors’ lawns, and I go and I trespass on my neighbors’ lawns to clean up what they left on my neighbors’ lawns. And yet, I do this every day and there is not the slightest chance that I will ever be sued for it, much less arrested because we all realize that, to a certain extent, part of rights is exercising a little restraint in enforcement.”

Snydor also stressed the importance of thinking about where the Internet and its users are going in the long run in terms of copyright law enforcement. “We don’t need to have perfect enforcement, but we do need better than we have now,” he said.

Thomas and Matthew share laughs during a workshop about the future of copyright at IGF-USA in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012.

“Whether we like it or not, it’s a much more complex copyright environment today,” said Pablo Molina, information systems technology professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

“I consider it as similar to considering the tax laws. Tax laws are so complicated, there are so many tax laws passed every term, that you need really expert tax lawyers and CPAs and other people just to figure out how to corporate or individual taxes when things get complicated, and I would argue that it is the same thing with copyright law.” He said we are likely to be moving toward more and more legislation and more and more enforcement.

Panelist Matthew Schruers of the Computer & Communications Industry Association argued that while law regulates the Internet, the impact of other vital factors must figure into decisions about the Internet as well, including markets, architecture and social norms.

Schruers predicted that even if copyright law goes in the direction of anarchy, human norms will most likely still prevent people from entirely disregarding the idea of copyright law.

He said if he were asked to predict which direction Internet regulation of intellectual property is most likely to go in the future, it will be more anarchic than it is today.

“In a low-protectionist anarchy environment, you’re likely to see more noncommercial and derivative work that is based largely on noncommercial creation,” Schruers said. “Control needs to be effective in order to produce [a totalitarian environment].”

Given the same choice regarding which direction on the totalitarian-anarchist spectrum society is most likely to go in the future, Molina said he believes society is moving in the direction of totalitarianism. Even so, he said he believes a full tilt to this extreme is unlikely. “There are always ways for people to circumvent the system,” Molina explained. “Both scenarios are possible. Whether they are likely is a different story.”

In terms of other factors important to the copyright law discussion, Molina and Schruers both said economic growth is an extremely good measure to assess when seeking balance between the extremes.

“In terms of progress, economic progress is the best metric we have,” Schruers said.

– Mary Kate Brogan

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