The Long Road to an Ever-changing Future to Return Again to the Past: A 14th Century Solution to the 21st Century Digital Renaissance Problem of Law and Economics

This is my longest post yet, so I’ll give a tl;dr: Copyright law is immovable and unavoidable, and we keep talking about because things around it change constantly. Navigating copyright for the next century can’t look like successful navigation of the last century’s copyright- but it might look a lot like something from 7 centuries ago, and it might shift some of the focus from Copyright to its older sibling, Trademark.


I love the history of copyright because I can’t separate it from the history of technology. The core thrill of copyright law is the thrill of technological possibilities warping and toying with long-standing concepts of objects and economics.

It’s too bad I don’t have the graphic design tools to put a timeline up, with the legal progressions listed on one side and the technological milestones listed on the other side. But here’s a text version:

Laws and Philosophy:

The printing press was invented in 1440. Statute of Anne was passed in 1709.  Immanuel Kant wrote “On the Wrongfulness of the Unauthorized Publication of Books,” 1785. The US Constitution was written in 1787, with a clause establishing copyright as a federal law, followed by the copyright act of 1790. In 1831, 1909, 1962-74, 1976, and 1998, the US government passed modifications to US copyright law. Throughout the 20th century, photographs, moving pictures, radio broadcasts, phonographic records, videocassette tapes, and internet search caches are each brought face to face with copyright law.


1837 Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message. In 1878, a moving picture of a horse at a gallop is recorded. Gugliemo Marconi transmitted radio signals 1.5 miles in 1895. In 1926, Kenjiro Takayanagi created the first television receiver; Philo Farnsworth worked on an improved television the following year in 1927-1928.  Raymond Tomlinson sent the first e-mail on ARPANET in 1971. Tim Berners-Lee published the first web page in 1991. Microsoft released Windows Media DRM software in 1999; Napster also launched in 1999. YouTube launched in 2006. In 2014, a monkey took a selfie.

In February of 2016, YouTube channels and personalities asked: #WTFU. (Which spurred me to write about copyright yet again.)


The Times are Always Changin’.

It’s a long history to arrive at such a contentious and unsettled point. Contract, torts, and property law are so much more settled and uncontroversial (particularly in the ways that affect average citizens in our daily lives). Why has copyright always been a recurring issue? Why does it seem to be getting less settled and stable, despite the increase in attention from jurists and scholars?

The problems are not going away because their two main causes aren’t going away. Technological progress isn’t going away. The drive of human creativity isn’t going away. But if we can move copyright law through the end of the 20th century, we might be able to reconcile law and art.

From the Ayssirian Tablet to Bob Dylan, human civilization has repeatedly confronted the distance between “old” and “new.” Generations are defined by the space between them that cannot be bridged. History bears out Marshall McLuhan’s observation that, particularly with regard to new technology, “we march backwards into the future.” But when we arrive in the future, we have to grapple with its residents and their customs and culture. There are always “The New Kids.”

The New Kids: Popcorn Time and Social Media “Prosumers.”

One fine afternoon last year, Gabe and Tycho talked about how terrible piracy was, and how funny it was that the ESA was going to allow Social Media Mavens to attend their E3 show alongside the press. This whole podcast is about these two topics, and the two of them seem unaware that the same theme actually permeates the entire discussion. These are two examples of how new media and technology shape culture in a way that dictates how established industries must change – two industries in particular. Though one of these industries was established 83 years before the other, they both face upheaval from the effects of the internet.  The ubiquitous availability of devices that connect the world is the result of a collection of forces that has – and will – entirely change society.

In their comic, “The New Kids” are ostensibly the “Prosumers,” set to arrive at E3 and replace the Old Guard, Traditional-Role Press. But there’s a layer built into this that Mike and Jerry don’t even know about: “The New Kids” are the technologies and media and cultural shift that change ESA’s thinking about who should be at E3. The New Kids are all of the reasons Popcorn Time can exist and even thrive, and why AMC needs to think very fast about how to avoid the fate of Borders Books. A society always has New Kids. Progress doesn’t happen without New Kids.

One Reason Copyright Discussions Never End: They Go the Wrong Direction

Copyright affects a lot of people on the internet, so it gets a lot of attention and discussion. Too much has already been said about copyright law – most of it is pretty unhelpful. Comparisons to the theft of physical objects only invite a hyperfocus on the distinction between copying and theft, which is just misunderstanding the issue in a different way. Arguing one misunderstanding against another will not lead to a better solution, just a different, less obviously-bad problem.

I think a better analogy is in spaying the goose that lays the golden* egg, or gelding some equally bounteous and mythical stallion. Analogies about terminating reproductive capacities are sometimes slow to catch on, for some reason—but maybe we could at least speak of taking an engine out of a car.

Ultimately, I think all of these analogies are really the wrong route. The most significant and salient point is lost in the effort to analogize: the way that digital media allows the manipulation of art is entirely unlike what human civilization has seen so far. It just isn’t like tools or farm animals or agriculture or cars or anything else to which we are tempted to analogize. The digital replication and transmission of images, text, and sound is entirely unlike the things that have happened in last 5 millennia (or 20 millennia) of recorded human history.

The internet, and the bundle of technological developments that have come with computing and telecommunication, fundamentally changes the potentials for human expression and connection. A fruitful discussion about copyright needs to consider how we got to this point, and where we can, must, and mustn’t go next.


Technology Giveth, and Technology Taketh Away.

Justice is a tricky thing, because it seems so obviously favorable and desirable when it’s on your side. The raw, unrestrained, unadulterated, unfiltered, concentrated justice is very difficult and very dangerous – much of the role of the legal and political process is to temper that justice with reason and mercy.

There is an important truth in this discussion which does not get mentioned often enough: through new possibilities in efficiency and distribution, technology made artists and entertainers wealthier and more famous than they could have been without those advances. There was once a time when an actor had to perform every single time the actor wanted to be paid. Now, the actor performs, and then enjoys the rewards of technology repeating that actor’s performance—hundreds of thousands of times, for millions of people. (Not to mention the role that technology plays in editing or reusing art!) No content creators complained when the technology allowed them to make more money for less work, and they aren’t worried about any potential benefits they now reap from increased exposure and dissemination of their products.**

Reaping benefits from digital technology is no justification for the violation of copyrights, of course—but it is important to see the broad picture of how technology has interacted with artistic creation and distribution, and consider at least three important facets of this realization. First and foremost, no one wants to argue that the technology is inherently bad. Anyone concerned about the protection of their works has profited from the efficiency of some technology – even the same technology that threatens to harm them.

Second, it raises questions about what “fairness” really means in this scenario: as we move into the future, how should we evaluate the benefits for creators against the costs to the audience? Who ought to benefit from the powers of digital technology, and what harms and benefits should be considered? There is a very big picture here, and evaluations of fairness will change as one’s values narrow or expand the scope of one’s view. A good discussion can only happen when the whole picture is really considered.

Third, the power of new technology makes us consider what is now possible: the separation of fame from fortune. As I have discussed, the internet allows someone to become famous without becoming wealthy. In ages past, the opportunity to gain fame usually required a lot of money, but now, propagating art does not require the same mountain of resources that it once did. As we move toward new structures to support art and entertainment, fame will become a prerequisite for wealth.


The Way Forward: The Return to Patronage.

IndieGoGo launched in 2008. Kickstarter launched in 2009. GoFundMe launched in 2010.  Patreon launched in 2013. It’s harder to demonstrate mathematically, but I will make the wild assertion that game pre-orders have been more heavily promoted and used in the last 10 years than in the preceding 30 years. (I would love to know if pre-orders are proving more successful than DLC or MicroTransactions as a business model.)

When people pay the creator up front, the creator is less concerned about piracy, because the money is already guaranteed. Presumably, the farmer cares less about the goose that has already filled a basket with golden eggs than the one that is expected to eventually fill a basket.

In the world of patronage, reputation (sub-categories: hype, public relations, image, trust) is everything. Creators rely on their history of quality and integrity to secure funding for their next project. Creators who fail to deliver quality products, or who demonstrate shady or unsavory business practices, will suffer for their failings in their future endeavors. Some artists and companies are already carving out their reputations, through repeated successes, unfortunate failures, public statements, and choices.

Navigating copyright in the conditions of Digital Patronage will be shaped by a different power dynamic than the familiar, one-to-many, gate-kept, closely-owned media structures of the 20th century. Clutching at straws of hard-line, traditional copyright enforcement will not secure survival. Thriving will require earning trust through performance. Creators must give more consideration to next year’s potential earnings than to next quarter’s bottom line. They must create a functional, interactive, cooperative, collaborative relationship with their audience. The successful creators of the 21st century will be those who treasure their reputation as they will rely on the good will of others.

… And reputation and good will are what Trademark Law is all about…




*“By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas” (p. 558) Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises 471 U.S. 539 (1985)


** Those who manufactured physical products did not enjoy this same boon through the 20th century. Advances in 3d printing now give them a direct stake in the outcome of this transformation. There’s room for everyone at this party— I can’t wait for Physical Objects to show up with their partner, Patents!


Software [Non-]Ownership: EULAs and Thinking About Property

We don’t really own most of the software we buy. As one writer put it a few years ago, “the software on my computer may as well be tied to a long piece of elastic, just waiting for the publishers to give it a tug.” That “piece of elastic” is a license, as in “End User LICENSE Agreement.” Almost all of the software we buy- especially what we download rather than physically purchase- is licensed to users by publishers and developers. These licenses vary from one piece of software to another*, but for a lot of games, the licensor (publisher or developer) has the legal right to take the game away from the licensee. Usually, the licensor will include specific reasons why they might do this, but will often round out the list with something like “or for any other reason.” There are not many limits on what this license cannot contain, must include, or how it has to be structured.

This model has been around for a long time, but I think it is fast becoming a serious problem. The core of the problem is that almost all users think, feel, and act as though they do own the software they have purchased. The American concept of property is still fundamentally rooted in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (a text that was a tremendous influence on the Founding Fathers and early US statesmen, politicians, and writers): if you work on something (or pay for it, or both), you have a claim of ownership on that thing. It is how we understand all of the other ownership paradigms in our society, and makes it easy to determine where ownership begins and ends. I cannot think of a single instance where one might purchase a physical object and not have full ownership rights over that object. Any arrangement where something is transferred with some kind of “elastic string” still attached is not called a “sale.” It is called “renting,” “leasing,” “borrowing,” or possibly “putting under mortgage.”

For most American minds, the concept of a “sale” includes the concept of a complete ownership transfer. I think it is easy to consider this one of the central reasons why there is so much resistance to copyright law, digital piracy laws, and other abstract controls on ownership of non-physical property. The laws that guide physical property do not apply to digital property, even though the only model we have for thinking about digital property is our history of thinking about physical property (Locke). A key point of contention is whether the legal concepts underpinning physical property must be different from the legal approach to digital property. The fact that US law does take these two different approaches does not mean that US law must take these two different approaches.

It may turn out that changes in net neutrality will affect how publishers and developers rethink this business model. As internet use becomes a worse experience, especially for data-intensive games, it is more important that companies ACTUALLY sell the product, not just license it. A data-choked internet will increase the need for offline gaming. It will create a whole new level of challenges for always-online DRM and increase the potential for server-crashing launch fiascos (e.g., Diablo3 and SimCity). A big reason that companies went to online-DRM models was to combat piracy. If net neutrality slips away, the ISPs might make piracy difficult enough (intentionally or unintentionally) to make developers feel more comfortable with moving to a sale-not-license model.

The only games currently practicing this kind of model are “abandonware” games: games whose developing companies have closed up, or have simply allowed their works to pass into the public without fuss. It is not clear that all presumed “abandonware” games are actually “orphan works” according to actual US copyright law. Indeed, a lot of games I’ve seen peddled under this banner are decidedly NOT orphan works and are not subject to the same freedom of transfer that the seller implies. But the videogame world operates on the legal principle of developers declining to enforce their civil rights against consumers as heavily as its programmers rely on the principle of “last in, first out.”

*I think the analysis is different for different software. Stricter license make sense for, say, reduced-cost versions of editing, publishing, or creative suite software for “Academic Use Only.” My position in this post is certainly not that “all licenses are bad,” or anything remotely close to that sentiment.


EDIT/ UPDATE:  Another recent blog post on this subject, from a slightly different angle.


Ownership of Digital Material: I own it, so why don’t I have it?

This topic has been well-addressed by a lot of games journalists. The 4th-to-last panel in this comic summarizes the perspectives of many:

Usually, we think owning something is having something. Even for claims to IP, which isn’t tangible, we have a unique and specific claim to the use of something. With some games, I seem to have a claim to use the software, but only at the discretion and convenience of the service; if the service is not functioning for some reason, I cannot play the game. I also cannot transfer the claim to play the game, as I could in the olden days of 2001 when we bought video games in physical format. One might argue that even buying a book was never an absolute claim over the book’s intellectual property. A copyright means that a bundle of rights are reserved for the author/artist/publisher/developer/creator/whoever owns them, and as such are off-limits to everyone else. Yet there is something different here: I could always resell my single copy of the book after I finished enjoying it. I cannot pass on the joy of a used copy of some games managed by certain species of DRM (or at least, with nowhere near the ease one might expect).

It seems that 99% of arguments about rights to own physical vs. digital objects are centered around the right to republish and redistribute (in one way or another). With only circumstantial evidence, I speculate that the overwhelming impetus behind software developers’ decisions to use digital rights management procedures and mechanisms is to curtail the economically harmful practices of the reproduction of their works.

While some may argue the business practices of EA and Blizzard are not economically sustainable, my question is about the legal sustainability of DRM: “Do practices like ‘always-online DRM’ violate fundamental legal principles of ownership?” While they seem to violate some ethical and cultural notions of ownership, they do seem legally permissible.

One of the early lessons in first year contracts in law school is that you can contract out of, or around, almost anything. If you sign (or click accept) a contract that says you agree to limited circumstances of ownership, there isn’t much of a case that you are entitled to more than your contract permits. For example, Steam’s EULA reads: “All… ownership rights … to the Software and any and all copies thereof, are owned by Valve US and/or its or its affiliates’ licensors.” (Section 2, paragraph E: Ownership). Valve owns the software; we humble peons are merely licensed to play with their toys when Steam feels ok with it.

Illegal contracts are not recognized by courts, but consent to not sell a legal videogame is not an illegal contract because neither the subject matter nor the nature of the contract violates the law. So long as the publisher includes some kind of contractual agreement that you acknowledge and accept the DRM restrictions placed on your game, it seems entirely unlikely that there is any legal recourse available to fight these restrictions.

So let’s hope these practices prove economically unfeasible very, very quickly.