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Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network

Out Campaign

The digital age and the year 2000 - an age of plenty

When I got my first computer in circa 1980 the typical memory size was 16 Kbytes and the typical disk drive storage capacity was 100 Kbytes. As I write this text in 2002 the typical memory size has increased to 512 Mbytes (32,768 x) and the typical disk storage capacity to 60 Gbytes (585,937 x). We live in an age of virtually unlimited storage capacity, a "digital age of plenty" where anything one writes, and indeed also anything one reads, can be kept, without degradation, for as long as we retain the will to preserve it.

The Internet has removed the important barriers to international communication: cost and delay (or bandwidth). For most citizens of prosperous nations, whether to utilise the benefits of the Internet is a choice which each person may make.

The Internet is an enormously efficient distribution mechanism for anything which can be effectively digitised (in other words, all forms of information, software, music, movies, news, ideas and dialogue). This threatens the "traditional" (i.e. pre-2000) publishers: the recording industry, the movie industry, Microsoft and Disney.

While I support the encouragement of creativity by allowing the creators of a work to benefit from their effort, any legal protection which they receive must be balanced against the detriment to the public good which comes from restricting who may use the work and how they may use it. The law of Copyright was originally conceived as a limited time (7 years) for a creator to derive commercial benefit from the created work through a temporary monopoly. After that time the work would be freely available for any use.

The term of copyright protection has been lengthened 11 times since then, and now stands at something like 92 years. That's a long time to derive exclusive benefit from something.

In this digital age of plenty, the cost of copying something and sending the copy around the world has diminished to near zero. The rate of technological change is such that software products are obsolete in much less than the original copyright term of 7 years, let alone the current 92. The temporary monopoly might as well be a permanent one.

Isaac Newton wrote something to the effect that he was able to increase the knowledge of mankind only because he "stood on the shoulders of giants", in other words, he used their ideas and improved upon them. In the 21st century, this is impossible - at least, not without paying license fees for software or patents. And this is a situation in which the owners of that software or those patents, i.e. the rich, get richer, and the poor don't get to compete.

My belief is that the current term of monopoly rights is far too long, and that a 1-year term is more appropriate. The argument that this will stifle creativity is nonsense - in fact the more likely outcome is that people will do as Isaac Newton did, and extend recent developments. The pace of technological improvement will accelerate, even as certain entrenched monopolies lose their cash cow.

I read an interesting essay on IP today. Here's a link to it: Intellectual Property affects my life.