“And We Shall Call It… This Land.”

The “Wild West” makes a great setting because of the potential for exciting adventures to be combined with deeply human stories. From video games to books to film to television programs, the setting always lends itself to a certain kind of appealing story. The collection of myths and legends about the expansion of the United States around the end of the 19th century was influenced by political conditions at the time as well as the propagation of new, life-changing technologies.

The stories about this era are characterized by three elements: the chaos of lawlessness, the excitement of opportunity and discovery, and the dangers of an inhospitable world.* These elements are also current forces on the internet. As technology pushes the frontier ever further, these “wild” elements become more obvious. Music is the most familiar territory of this frontier, but 3D printing has already started to show its unwillingness to fit some naming conventions – and  even experts don’t have words for what we’re about to start doing this year.

I. Adapt or Perish?

Metallica** famously brought the suit against Napster that eventually led to the P2P service’s closure. Last month, the band’s manager declared that YouTube is now the villain – or, more specifically, “the Devil.” Radiohead put it a little more gently, only saying it is “the Wild West.” Music was one of the first discoveries in the frontier of the internet, but it remains unsettled because the internet keeps unfolding new possibilities. However, there are those who have adapted and succeeded. Metallica won’t “do something” about YouTube, but if Metallica doesn’t join the 21st century, YouTube will probably “do something” about Metallica. It is a mistake to show up to the frontier and behave as though you are still in the city. The Wild West is nothing if not competitive, and survival requires using the new resources to overcome the dangers of the frontier. The internet won’t be the end of music, but it is very probably the end of many 20th century business models of the music industry.

II. Nameless Crafts

Copyright (like all intellectual property) requires attribution to work. The world has to know who created a work in order to protect that work.  Michael Weinberg has pointed out that there isn’t an easy or obvious way to actually affix the attribution of a 3D printed object to the object itself. Other works of art subject to copyright have some kind of attribution somewhere in the work itself. Paintings, of course, are often signed in a corner. Films often play some credits over the main title sequence, and then include the full attribution information at the end. Near the front of almost every published book is a page with the copyright and publication information on it (I was taught in 2nd grade that it should be the second verso, but I was taught that in a room with card catalogues, so it’s clearly archaic). Digital media has publication information (and sometimes purchasing information) included in the data or metadata. But the actual blueprint for a 3D printed object rarely includes the name of the designer (or the conditions for Creative Commons use). How we think about attribution might need to be rethought—or how we structure the ecosystem of 3D printing might need a little adjustment.

III. Unnamed Arts

Tilt Brush is a program developed by Google for use in this year’s generation of virtual reality devices. Google describes it as a painting program, but I think it’s better described as sculpting virtual space itself (and maybe simultaneously painting the sculpture as the creation is summoned). For my part, it’s as awe-inspiring a sight as anything that explorers, settlers, and cowboys saw when they went West. It is just as much of a frontier: breathtaking, wondrous, a beautiful world of possibility.

I have already traced a little of the lineage of copyrights. Photographs and musical recordings had to be worked into the law. Now a new technological possibility is born, and the law must again decide how to accommodate it: Should a work created inside Tilt Brush be considered a painting, a sculpture, a computer program, or some entirely new category of copyrightable work? I think it’s extremely telling that artists use “painting, “sculpting,” and “designing” so loosely and interchangeably. They are the ones doing it, and the ones most proficient in doing it, yet they don’t know how to say what they are doing. Can we blame them? They are conjuring art from the digital ether in a world that we fold up into a microchip. Why would anyone have a word for that until you’ve done it?

Do We Have to Settle This Frontier?

How we decide to think about a new kind of technology and its relationship to copyright makes a very big difference. In 1908, there was a question about whether the player pianos (ever so popular in the Saloons of the Wild West) were violating copyright. The Supreme Court decided that the piano rolls were not reproductions of the music. Part of the dicta explains that the piano rolls were not readable in the way that sheet music was readable, as the rolls could only be read by machines. This case was superseded by other laws and cases, but it’s very obvious that the digital era could never tolerate the principle that translating a work into machine code removes its copyright protection.

IV. The Ever-Expanding Frontier

Civilization “won” and “tamed” the Wild West by just building on top of it. It’s possible that big business interests will shape policy and technology to accommodate their needs in the digital frontier. However, I think the success of start-ups shows that there is success to be had in adapting to the new landscape. Adapting to the landscape might be more successful than forcing the landscape to adapt to the old notions of how civilized folk ought to go about their affairs. The internet is still a frontier. The parts of it that are now wild and lawless, full of opportunity and danger – it will all get settled eventually. Of course, by the time that happens, there will be new frontiers and new adventures.

* Each of these connects with deeply American cultural values of independence, hard work, and determined endurance.

**I love the twist that the most successful and enduring band of Generation X’s loud, anti-establishment music has been the front man in the fight against the sudden and unsatisfying effects of Generation Y’s hallmark technologies. I guess Metallica lived long enough to see themselves become the monster– or the establishment, if you like.