Lawrence Lessig’s 2004 book Free Culture is even more depressing 8 years later. But it is really worth reading, even (or perhaps especially) now.
He starts the book by talking about the Wright brothers’ invention of the airplane. I had never read Lessig, so I thought he was going to start talking about patent protection. (Really, I don’t know how I decided to get this book, so I didn’t know what it was about.) But he wasn’t going anywhere so obvious. Instead, he jumped ahead to 1945, when two farmers from North Carolina sued the government for flying airplanes over their airspace.
Until that time, common law said that property owners owned all of the space above their property. The Supreme Court threw out the case, stating that to hold on to this view of property rights would destroy the technology that the Wright brothers had made possible.
Lessig then goes on to talk about the fight between Edwin Howard Armstrong, inventor of FM radio, and RCA. RCA wanted to stop FM radio because they made so much money off AM radio. This all led to FM radio being delayed for decades and Armstrong killing himself.
These two cases are the same in that they both deal with how the law responds to a new technological innovation. They are not the same in that when those who would stifle innovation are just individuals with little power, the technology is allowed; when those who would stifle innovation are powerful corporate interests, the technology is stifled.
This brings us to today where corporate content owners are trying to stifle innovation on the internet. The book is important reading.
I’m very concerned about all this. Over the last 30 years (although it’s been going on longer), I’ve watched as copyright is expanded. This has done nothing for creators. It has done everything for corporations. Who would ever think that a 95-year copyright would be intended for a writer? Only corporations think in terms of these kinds of time frames. But it was one thing when copyright laws did no harm to creative activity. Increasingly, they do harm it. When everything becomes a commodity, someone will own everything.