posted Jun 08, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Before Internet - Almost Attained Stasis. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

I believe that in the period between around the 1950's (1940's if you are willing to fudge a bit on the retail distribution issue) and the late 1980's, a time period of thirty to forty years, that there were no major technological developments that truly changed the landscape as described above. This is certainly a bit of a judgment call, as things like the Xerox copier appeared However, other then possible changes in the general legal climate, there is no compelling reason these suits could not have been filed decades earlier and won then., but I'd say that those were refinements to existing law, not truly new stuff. Even when tape technology was introduced, both audio and video, the difficulty of copying analog tapes accurately precluded large-scale copyright violations and the consequent pressure on the law, even if it did prompt the now-notorious Boston Strangler comment by Jack Valenti:

I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." - Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, Hearings before the subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties and the Administration of Justice, 1982. Transcript available at

Thus, for forty or fifty years the law had been revised and refined in Congress and with international treaties such as the Berne Convention, and clarified by our court system, until there was hardly any mysteries left about what was legal and what was not. That's long enough for a complete generation or two of lawyers and lawmakers to come and go; this has the unfortunate effect of convincing people that the current system is the only possible system and there will be no major changes necessary. Veneration of the current system has reached a quasi-religious status, where questioning the current system, or even questioning whether we should continue to strengthen the system (question the "meta-system", as it were), gets one labeled a heretic.

So here's the trillion-dollar problem:

Symbolic Representation of Laws

Our final diagram has lots of isolated splotches here and there, looking totally independent. Rather then taking the time to truly map the domain of discourse and look at all of the issues in a coherent way, laws and judicial decisions exploited the independence of the media types, and each individual segment got its own laws. The laws were informed by the principles of intellectual property law and certain guarantees of rights, but only "informed by"; deviation was seen as harmless or even good, since it helped match the law to the real world better. Thus, we have created a legal system that in practice consists of a lot of special cases and a very few defining principles.

Despite the inelegance of such a system, it worked, it was well-defined, and while large in size, well understood once you've absorbed all the information on a given topic.

It is truly unfortunate that it did work; it's given us some horrible legal habits.


Site Links


All Posts