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What Price Innovation?

by Andy Oram

P2P Conference Coverage

Lessig: Fight For Your Right to Innovate

Joy Announces JXTA

Something's Happening Here

Lessons from Napster

David Anderson: Inside SETI@Home

P2P Smuggled In Under Cover of Darkness

A Conversation with Bill Joy

Imagine this: it's the late 1990s. A well-dressed corporate representative armed with PowerPoint slides and glossy charts enters the offices of major music studio executives and makes the following pitch:

My company is creating a database of a million songs by well-known pop groups that we plan to transmit over the Internet using a music-encoding technology our founder helped to invent. Our customers can listen to the song on any computer at any time, after proving that they possess a copy of a CD. All we are asking is to buy the rights to the songs from you.

Believe me, he wouldn't get past the receptionist. But at least he wouldn't sound like fodder for the looney bin, as would someone who offered the following proposition a few years ago:

My company plans to offer music over the Internet for a monthly subscription. But we won't just use the songs your company gives us--other dot-coms are trying that, and it's not reaching the big time. Instead, we'll ask our listeners to provide the recordings: any recordings of anything they want.

No, the recording studios would never buy into plans like this, not for 100 years. Yet the first arrangement is precisely the one MP3.com has struck with several record companies. The second, of course, is the arrangement between Napster and Bertelsmann--and I predict the rest of the recording industry will buy in too. After all, record companies can't ignore the zeal of some 20 million happy listeners. Given a choice between angering them and exploiting the buzz, what company wouldn't choose the latter?

MP3.com and Napster will be good for recording studios, once they go legit. But they could never have started out legit. They had to try their innovations outside the proper channels and get the pants sued off them before they made what looks to me like very reasonable and fair deals.

Is that the way we want innovation to happen in this society? Do you have to risk jail to introduce a new technological concept? MP3.com and Napster weren't threatened with jail, but others (like the DeCSS defendants) were. Several recent U.S. laws extend intellectual property rights and impose jail time where before there were simply civil penalties.

Think of how long it would take automobiles to become popular if horse-and-cart drivers could have determined what was allowed to travel the roads. We might stick with horses and carts forever. As it is, the cars took over. The horse-and-cart drivers adapted to the new technology and did fine--the proper term for "horse-and-cart driver" being "Teamster."

I am not defending the original business models of MP3.com and Napster; I think there is good reason to consider both violations of copyright law. I am just worried about what copyright law has become, and I believe its original goal of increasing the public good has been lost.

Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is www.praxagora.com/andyo.

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