The Crime of Sharing

How excess legislation will kill your freedom of expression.

We are born savage and self-centered, and then, unless we move to Hollywood, we get over it. We become civilized. We enter a state in which we understand that sharing is good.

And just as sharing makes us civilized, it's sharing that makes civilization. It lets us build a great collective work from the exchange of stories, myths, songs, poems, facts, jockes, beliefs, scientific discoveries, elegant engineering hacks, and all of the other products of human thought and discourse.

I know that this is a fairly obvious observation. That's why I'm stunned that so many kinds of sharing have suddenly, without public debate, become criminal acts. For instance, lending a book to a friend is still all right, but letting read the same bookelectronically is now a theft.

Over the last several years, the entertainment industry has railroaded a number of laws and treaties though Washingotn and Geneva that are driving us rapidly toward a future in which the fruits of the mind cannot be shared. Instead they must be purchased-not from thenhuman beings who created them in the first place, but only from the media megaliths.

Of course, the justification for this tightened control is the Internet, which ironically, grew almost entirely from sharing. Imagine how different things wouyld be today if IBM had mantained propietary control over ther Personal Computer, or if Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn had created a highly propietqary company called TCP/IP, Inc. What if Tim Berners-Lee had decided to take out a software patent on the World Wide Web?

The fact that the Internet makes it possible for individuals to distribute their intellectual creations directly to consumers terrifies the old industrial intermediaries. At the same time, the Internet gives intermediaries the potential to extract a fee from every single repetition of an expression. Unfortunately, this infringes on the time-honored practice of fair use.

none of what I'm saying is an exaggeration. In two recents cases, the Electronic Frontier Fundation (www.eff.org) lost battles that should have been won easily, perhaps losing the war itself. Instead, the court ruled that it was criminal to even link to DeCSS code, software that would make it possible to create open source DVD software. They also ruled that it was legally appropiate to prevent a scientist from presenting a paper that explores the inner workings of the Secure Digital Music Initiative /SDMI) music encryption system. Suddenly, it's as though there is no difference between discussing murder and commiting it.

The list of offenses goes on. Despite clear evidence that more people were buying commercial copies of music as a consequence of file-sharing systems like Napster, the entertainment industry has effectively killed one of the greatest opportunities to share creativity that the world has ever seen. Two overlapping graphs in the New York Times las April 1 (in an article called "Paperback Music") made the point vividly. They tracked the two-year trends of Internet music downloads alongside nternational CD sales. Both rose and fell in perfect unison.

Now the content commissars are determined to do it again. In the wake of Napster, a more distributed sharing system has emerged, using a propietary P2P network and a piece of soft3ware called Morpheus. Primary available from MusicCity.com, Morpheus is one of the most popular downloads in the history of cyberspace. Users have retrieved more than 40 million copies since July. Despite the fact that software can be used to share all manner of expressions, whether commercial or not, the entertainment industry has brought suit against MusicCity and is seeking to ban Morpheus distribution (see www.eff.org/IP/P2P/NMPA_v_MusicCity/).

Why isn't the public makeing a fuss? Why, at a time when the most basic principal of society -the right to know- is being turned into a criminal act, isn't there an army of outrage fighting to protect the free flow of human creativity?

I encourage you to consider what's at stake and at least inform yourselves of the constraints that have been imposed on your ability to share. Learn about the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and the Bono Copyright Extension Act (which essentially gives the media mammoths the ability to prevent the sharing of creative work for 175 years). Learn about similar iniciatives that are about to be imposed on the whole planet by the World Intellectual Property Organization.

And, though it will seem self-serving of me to say so, consider joining the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Help us defend the basic principles of sharing and civilization.

John Perry Barlow

Extracted from "new.architect" volume 7 Issue 03 (March 2002)

John Perry Barlow is co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Since May 1998, he has been a Fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, following a term as a Fellow with the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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