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Ipods and IP

May 24, 2005

A public radio commentary

This year I joined the IPod generation. Unlike the youth of American mine is filled mostly with public radio - and the occasional Elia Fitzgerald tune.

At first I found it great: I mean no moving parts, just this tiny sliver of a thing, so anytime I exercise I can listen on demand to public radio. Then one day it all stopped.

You see I purchase some of the public radio shows. And for some reason the IPod software stopped downloading it. Turns out that the permissions got goofed up: IPod thought I was illegally downloading them, which I wasn't. But it got me to thinking is it really a fantastic thing to have all this intellectual property tied up electronically? Sure it seems convenient, but what's the downside?

The courts have dealt with this in the past. When VCRs first arrived on the scene Hollywood studios tried to curtail their use by suing the electronics giant Sony, a major manufacturer. The Supreme Court wisely held that individuals had the right to use VCRs to make complete copies of television shows for personal use.

Technological advances have made this issue even more acute. If you had a VCR tape of a show, you could make copies, but they were never as good as the original, and further duplication of that copy made even worse copies. Now, of course, the digital revolution has erased the difference: A computer can make a copy identical to the original - plus a billion more!

This, of course, has the entertainment industry terrified, especially when combined with the Internet, which provides unlimited distribution of these digital copies. While I understand the fears of the entertainment industry, I hope the courts and legislators continue to resist restricting too much our ability to copy files.

When everything turns into electronic form 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 the Courts and Congress regulate digital copying, I think they should keep in mind an aphorism from T.S. Eliot about literary creativity: "Good poets borrow," he said, "great poets steal."

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises