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Disk vs Disc

April 23, 2002

A public radio commentary

How you spell the word disk affects how you view laws about copying recordings of music and movies. Lying in the balance is billions of dollars, and perhaps the cultural legacy we'll pass on to our heirs.

Disk with a "k" came about in the mid-17th century, modeled on words like "whisk." Disc with a "c" arose a half-century later from the Latin discus. Most people used these two spellings interchangably until late in the 19th century when they began using disc with a "c" to refer to phonograph records. This usage still persists in Compact Disc, spelled with a "c". Then in the 1940s, when engineers needed a term to describe the data storage devices of their computers they choose to spell disk with a "k." We still see this in the spelling of the "hard disk" of our computers.

Today, though, the distinction between these two spellings is no longer meaningful. In the past if you had a disc with a "c", like a phonograph record, there was no way it could become a part of your hard disk, spelled with a "k." If you had a record you could make a tape of it, but it was never as good as the original, and any copies of it were even worse. Now, of course, the digital revolution has erased the difference between the two spellings of disk. A computer can make a copy identical to the original.

This, of course, has the entertainment industry terrified, especially when combined with the Internet, which provides unlimited distribution of these digital copies. Right now they're using software tricks to reduce copying - certain CDs now work only in players that can't make copies, but they know these software solutions are only temporary. Computer hackers always come up with ways to evade these measures. To counter this threat the industry is turning to Congress. They want intellectual property laws that make all copying illegal. We should be alarmed by these efforts.

We run the risk that every embodiment of thought or imagination may be subjected to some kind of commercial control. For example, as books become electronic, readers may lose the rights they've had since Gutenberg's time. The publishers of an electronic book can specify whether you can read the book all at once, or only in parts. And they can decide whether you read it once or a hundred times.

So, the risk is this: The literary and intellectual canon of the coming century may be locked into a digital vault accessible only to a few. As Congress writes laws to regulate digital intellectual property and copying, I think they should keep in mind an aphorism from T.S. Eliot. "Good poets borrow," he said, "great poets steal."

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises