Ars Electronica: Towards A Society Of Control?

I am at Ars Electronica Center again and this time I am watching a panel on the future of freedom of information. On the panel is Cindy Cohn, legal director of Electronic Frontier Foundation, Erich Möchl of quintessenz, Juliane Alton of IG Freie Theaterarbeit and Konrad Becker of public netbase. This panel is on „Implications and consequences ‘codes‘ like DRM (Digital Rights Management) have on the free flow of information“.

The panel is part of the Radio FRO Conference at Ars Electronica. Radio FRO itself (Freies Radio Oberösterreich) is the only independent radio in Austria and has its home just a few meters away from the AEC.

Cindy is explaining the current situation in the USA concerning copyright laws and – more important – „meta-copyright“ laws banning tools that might be used to produce an illegal copy of any copyrighted material. These laws are not only a problem by criminalizing simple tools that might be of good use for lawful activities, it is also limiting the use of the remaining „fair use“ laws that still exist.

Actually, there are quite a lot of loosely and strongly interrelated law initiatives going on that endanger freedom of speech and freedom of information and out general freedom in the digital world. One of the more problematic things is that blind politicians of the European Union think some of them are a good idea and the recent activities towards allowing patents on software in Europe is one of the more annoying. If this is something that hasn‘t already reached your ear, you should read about it at the site on software patents of the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure

Software patents are real danger. Today, patents are not primarily used to secure a company‘s product but to prevent other companies from intruding their markets or even to drive out other companies out of business. The ugliest form are the trivial patents like Amazon‘s One-Click shopping: when Netscape „invented“ the HTTP cookies, it was totally clear that it would be used as a shopping supporting tool. But the actual use of it is now patented by Amazon and if you want to use it on your web site, you have to pay Amazon (or give the access to one of your patents in return – if you have one). This both totally ridiculous and frightening.

Apart from software patents,the panel also touches the general problems with peer-to-peer file shaing and the „redistribution“ of copyright-protected material on the net. The main problem is always that there is no clear recommendation on what the artist should do instead. Of course, it would be more helpful if they could use the net to advertise, distribute and sell their work but that alone does not solve the problem. The open source scene is usually quite split on this topic, talking religiously on the stage and copying MP3s backstage. Konrad Becker states that Courtney Love and her band sold one album one million times and basically gained nothing from it. So it seems that any other solution than the current system will be helpful anyway. I basically agree but I still miss the right ammo to confront artists with easy-to-swallow arguments.

However, the copy-phenomenom won‘t go away and alternatives to the current restricted licenses for creative works are necessary. One of these projects is called Creative Commons who provide a range of licenses for different needs. Somebody in the audience here mentions Bruce Schneier‘s Street Performer Protocol which might be helpful to some artists (but which I doubt is a a solution for everybody).

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