You buy a DVD, and then loan it to your neighbor. You shoot a video of your new baby and make copies to send to everyone in the family. Your college professor shows a short clip of a classic film in class. You’re on vacation so you record three weeks of “Desperate Housewives.” These are all rights we take for granted — but in fact everything you know about owning music and movies is up in the air right now, and where it will come down is anyone’s guess.
That’s the message of J.D. Lasica’s excellent new book, “Darknet: Hollywood’s War against the Digital Generation,” a comprehensive look at the current battle over how record and movie companies will protect their digital property from piracy — and what media consumers may lose in the process. “Darknet” refers to parts of the Web unseen by the public and specifically to the world of illegal underground file-sharing — the only option, in Lasica’s view, that consumers may have if content owners are overzealous in locking up their intellectual property.
It’s hard to deny, however, that big media companies have real reasons for concern: Thanks to file-sharing, millions of young people — the Digital Generation of Lasica’s title — have been taught that digital music is free, and they’re well on their way to deciding the same thing about movies and video. The record and film industries may be coldly calculating corporate behemoths, but they are also protecting the rights of artists. In the end it’s up to the musicians or film-makers to decide if they want to work for free.
(It’s worth noting that “Darknet” is a book rather than a documentary film. Writers tend to be less concerned about digital piracy than other content creators because, while e-books have some devotees, most readers still prefer to buy the paper version. Once good digital reading devices are available and writers make most of their money through e-books, they may also grow more concerned about rights protection.)
In short, an enormous struggle over the protection of intellectual property is underway between the media industry and a loose confederation of digital freedom fighters. Lasica details every aspect of how overly strict control on media could hurt consumers: The new generation of media users, who sample existing works to create new ones, would be locked out by copy protection. Restrictions on commercial content may impact how individuals can use self-created media — some new video cameras, for example, create files that can’t easily be distributed to others. Educators might not be able to take “fair use” snippets of films to illustrate classroom lectures, the way they currently quote from books. Lasica even shows how upcoming efforts to make computers safer from online scams could also give media companies more control over the content we buy.
By Michael Rogers