The age of digital conflict

The age of digital conflict

The debate over copyright, spawned by the shutdown of music pirate Napster, has been prominent for a decade now. And it’s only become sharper in recent months as content originators clash with distributors.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed carried by Mint last week, media mogul Rupert Murdoch sniped at aggregators such as Google News that distribute news articles for free. He went as far as to suggest it was “theft". This month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy also took aim at Google’s book project, where the search engine is attempting to scan and upload nearly 15 million books online—Sarkozy refused to let France’s “heritage" be taken away.

Not just Google, ebooks, too, are putting publishers in a bind, as it becomes unclear who owns digital rights. Last week, publishing giant Random House insisted that it held rights in the electronic sphere. Closer home, the government is currently amending its copyright Act to satisfy artists losing out on royalties when radio stations play their songs. In cricket, the unauthorized use of match footage has the officialdom in a twist.

Theoretically, property rights over a piece of music are just like those over a piece of land. At least it used to be, before the digital revolution.

In the good old days of vinyl or cassettes, a piece of music was what economists would call “rival": In a world of limited Beatles tapes, one person’s owning one tape ensured that someone else couldn’t own that tape. Now that distribution becomes easy—we can duplicate Beatles MP3s with the click of a mouse—it becomes “non-rival". Google chief economist Hal Varian has argued: “Universal access to all the world’s information is technologically possible now; the missing piece is the legal infrastructure that will provide the incentives to make such access economically viable."

Those who own, say, Beatles copyright are intent on making it viable for themselves; by blocking access, they hope to make a “non-rival" product at least “excludable". Essentially, this is what Murdoch proposes by placing online news behind a subscription wall.

And, until governments create better legal infrastructure, what are the likes of Murdoch to do? Even Google’s book project involves a $125 million deal with authors and publishers, signalling that there needn’t be such a thing as an online free lunch.

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