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Stop the Copying, Start a Media Revolution
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One of my favorite exhibits at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), when I would visit it as a child, was an abstract, smoky, shifting-color film that changed without interruption all through the day.

It's strange that copyright law talks about an individual unit of art as "a work." Most people think of "work" as a collective noun representing something that goes on continuously throughout a lifetime (for instance, "My work is editing"), not as discreet units. And perhaps the artistic "works" of the future will return to that more organic concept.

Most people expect to go back to the same piece of art over and over; they wish to reproduce or at least revisit their original emotional state upon first viewing the piece. But inevitably, the art is different each time.

It's thrilling to enter the cathedral in Rouen, France, and ponder how I am walking the same nave trod by the medieval residents of that town. But of course, my modern upbringing grants me a very different experience of the cathedral from theirs. In fact, if I go back the next day I am not having the same experience as I had the day before. My subjective experience of the cathedral at Rouen changes as rapidly as the light captured by Monet in his series of paintings of the cathedral's facade.

The new art may be built on an understanding that an experience cannot be repeated. The artist may change it at whim, or build in an automatic form of evolution like the video I used to like at the MOMA. Like the river in Buddhist theology, art will be both eternal and evanescent.


The continual surprise delivered by online media is the importance of group interaction. The original designers of ARPANET thought it would be used mostly by scientists to share the resources of a few central supercomputers; instead the first killer application was email. (Networks are now returning to the original supercomputer application, but in reverse: grids farm out processing to thousands of endpoints in order to get the job done.)

Then came proprietary services like Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online, each assuming that their flagship product would be static content. Instead, people flocked to them for email, message boards, chat rooms, and ultimately access to the larger Internet.

After all the portals and online journals go broke trying to make a buck by offering content, a new form of peer-to-peer media may grow. This media will make it easy for end-users to collaborate in producing exciting and beautiful artifacts. Imagine that every time you look at a document or picture, you see a new element that has its own personality, but that you also appreciate anew the gestalt of the whole.


The new art will be public art. Since more contributors make a (potentially) better work, network effects will encourage the creators to allow all comers. The essence of encouraging multiple contributions eliminates the purpose of ownership (an artist's control over his or her own work) and derivative works will be the norm.

And how can you copyright an ever-changing work? What allows you to say that the image you copyrighted last year gives you rights over another created today? The rules will have to be entirely different--which is reasonable because means for rewarding the artists will have to be different. Payment is an issue that still needs to be worked out, but micropayments are not likely to win out.


The medieval Commedia del'Arte troupes would mix local gossip and political commentary into the plays they performed in the town square. Modern TV shows sometimes do the same. Florentine Renaissance artists placed their Caucasian virgins and angels in Tuscan settings with classical architecture and 15th-century garb. While this kind of anachronism used to be common in all the arts, it bore here the additional thrust that the Christian message was one for the viewers' own time and place, not just for Semites in Levantine deserts.

As artworks evolve and as more and more users weigh in, the message and the outward trappings will also take on the color of the times. And this will be the Achilles heel that will allow the traditional media and large corporations to attack this media. They'll harry it with copyright law, trademark rights, defamation suits, and God knows what other weapons. So while we get busy inventing new media, we have to take another look over our shoulders at the old.

Impact on Current Media

Changes in media are an additive process. Many musicians write with the same basic tools and in the same unbroken tradition as the 16th-century Palestrina. Plenty of artists use tools that go back even further, perhaps to the era of cave-dwellers.

So I am convinced that all arts will last. Movie theaters will be able to draw viewers for a long, long time. In fact, movie makers would do better work if they went back to designing their films for the big screen. When they started fitting their shots to the television screen, their range of expression drastically diminished. And if people stopped depending on television itself for entertainment, perhaps someone would find something useful to do with that extraordinary medium.

My optimistic view that each medium will return to what it is best suited for depends on the premise of unfettered experimentation and innovation. With the SSSCA, large copyright holders have admitted their unwillingness to join in the great experiment. They wish to bring innovation to a halt and to substitute a counterfeit innovation: a regime in which the only lawful chip, or disk, or operating system, or application is one that processes particular formats and enforces particular access rules they set down.

This is a serious danger, as Lawrence Lessig pointed out in his books Code and The Future of Innovation. Congress, the U.S. courts, and their international equivalents have been pretty well bamboozled by the studios crying out that technology is a threat. But if we can depend on their continued technical incompetence for a while longer, we may be able to make it through the gates into a paradise of new media.

And now I will end, because I have an inkling of what journalism will be in the new era, and it won't look at all like this article.

Postscript: A Place to Discuss These Matters

As I became interested in new ways of communicating, new ways of interacting, and new forms of expression, I realized that a lot of technologies affecting those trends are being discussed at the Emerging Technology Conference sponsored by my company, O'Reilly & Associates, in May. It's because this conference really gets me excited that I'm inserting a plug here.

For instance, the conference's Adaptive track talks about systems that change automatically to reflect their environments and their user's wishes. While I find it disturbing that my desktop could change itself automatically without asking me, I think there are endless areas of life where adaptive technology makes perfect sense. And the artistic possibilities (related to the stochastic or random art) are fascinating.

The Untethered sessions are about new ways of interacting with your friends, and being able to log in from new places. Everything about wireless access--cost, response time, graphical interfaces, and the way the experience fits into the rest of your life--will be different from the desktop. That's going to affect community and personal expression.

The Distributed sessions are critical to developing an infrastructure for people to find each other and get data back and forth. We all know how Napster and KaZaA work, but operating at the granularity of the file is pretty crude Much better systems are on the way. Similarly, most people understand the current evolution of Web services to be concerned with the flexibility and programmability of centralized sites. But what would it be like if the average schmoe got in on the game? You could selectively make parts of your life opening to querying, tallying, commentary, and aggregation by others.

Those are the kinds of directions I see right over the horizon, thanks to technologies we are just learning how to use. The conference will show us these technologies, along with commentary by well-known and significant social observers.

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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