posted Oct 19, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Receiving Messages. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

Generally, message reception can be handled as a contract issue, with optional explicit media-based exceptions for compulsory licensing. In the future, and even to a large degree in the present, the licensing model will be dissociated from the content type, and I think this is overall a good thing as it increases the freedom of the market to set prices. It will be important for governments and informed consumers to make sure no one source of information gets too powerful and starts trying to exert asymmetric control over the receiver or the sender (for instance, one can make a good case the music industry exerts too much control on the music authors because of their collective market dominance and oligarchial actions), but I do not think those are truly new ethical issues.

Public Libraries vs. Digital Restrictions Management

Easily the thorniest question we face as we decide our answer to the reception issue is "What is the role of a public library in the Internet era?" The strictest possible contractual restrictions, which are "only one person shall use this content for some finite period of time", backed up by well-implemented Digital Restrictions Management techniques, are simply antithetical to the existance of public libraries. If strong digital restrictions management is to be elevated to the status of law, as the DMCA strongly hints at if it does not actually already accomplish, it will eventually be the death of libraries.

In the end, we must really choose either public libraries, or strong DRM. It's impossible to have both with the current conception of a "public library" because we'd have to poke holes in the DRM to allow libraries special access, holes that would end up "leaking content" out of the DRM system. (For instance, photocopying resources is still provided by most libraries; the digital equivalent of photocopying, which is "printing", would take text resources out of the DRM system. Speaking as a computer scientist, I have no confidence in the long-term viability of techniques such as "watermarking" that try to keep even such printed resources "in" the DRM system; once it's out, it's out.)

One solution is restrict libraries to what are technically allowed by DRM. In the current environment, that may well be equivalent to eliminating libraries, since there is little or no (perceived) motivation for a sender to allow one's works to be lent out by a library when, from the sender's point of view, the lendee could instead be purchasing them. There are some arguments on whether libraries still provide a net gain to the sender in the end, but truthfully, most of them sound strained even to me, and if this is the only reason we have libraries, then it should be left up to the sender to decide whether they wish to take that risk. Without some sort of law protecting libraries as the First Sale doctrine does now, I can not see the majority of future senders willingly allowing libraries to lend their messages. This also interacts with my question of whether it is even reasonable to imagine taking a message away, which I'll explore in a bit in connection with "How can a sender restrict the receiver?".

Complete elimination of libraries is another option. Since libraries are build upon the First Sale doctrine which I've previously explained as being dead in the current era, if no other library-protecting legislation is passed this is the "default fate" for libraries.

I think we need to preserve libraries for lots of good ethical reasons that fall outside of pure "communication" ethics. I think they are a net good for society. I think the value of libraries to our society far, far outweighs the value of DRM. But there is nothing in these communication ethics or the legal mechanisms being developed that will support the libraries. Our current path will lead to the casual elimination of libraries by the large copyright interests. If we want to stop this, we will need to come to a concious decision as a society.

Librarians, if you're not close to retirement you really ought to be pounding the pavement on this point a bit more; your jobs are in imminent danger over the next couple of decades!


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