Tuesday, April 28, 2009

So ... what does it mean to "own" "content"?

Coming back to a simple question I tried to address a while back, only to find I had only the foggiest idea what it even meant, I think I've now got a reasonable theory: It's a mess out there, folks.

The open source and free software communities have arrived at the rough consensus that trying to "own" information is counterproductive. There are some doctrinal differences. Open source leans more toward utility, meaning that in many cases it's more useful to let everyone have unlimited access. Free software holds that there is something ineffably un-ownable about information and that trying to act otherwise invariably sets one against the grain of the universe. Ironically enough, both camps take great care to retain some control, in order to make sure that no one ends up asserting ownership of something realeased as free.

In the commercial world things are less clear-cut. Leaving aside any upcoming revisions in its "site governance" FaceBook says it owns anything you put up on it, even if you take it down. FaceBook users are less comfortable with that than is FaceBook. Record labels, movie studios and other entertainment providers try their best to control how much and when you access their products. Newspapers would just like someone to buy ads. Online, print, they don't much care at the moment.

Artists, for their part, are trying all kinds of experiments in the area of how to get paid. And good for them. Experimentation is part of the job, after all. Some argue for strict copyright enforcement, some argue for widespread free distribution. Many would be happy just to have the problem of people trying to get at what they produce.

So like I said, it's a mess. But what caught me slightly off guard, despite my occasional "not-so-disruptive technology" screeds, was realizing that it's always been a mess. Who owns your likeness? Or rather, who controls who can see what pictures of you when? Well, it depends. If you write a good old-fashioned letter to your print newspaper (if you still have one), do you own it? The paper generally claims you don't.

Who decides which songs a particular advertiser can use in a particular ad? The short answer: lawyers. How many Tops does it take to call a band the Four Tops? Ask the judge. Who decides how much your local venue pays to BMI and ASCAP? It's somewhat complex. Just how much James Brown can you sample for your old school rap? Most of it, apparently, but don't even try it with Frank Zappa.

In short, the question is an ill-defined and contentious one without clear bright lines, one which is answered piecemeal one test case at a time. And this is not news.

1 comment:

David Hull said...

Note to self: it's still a mess.