Saturday musings: Culture space and the deep future of copyright

Let’s think about our culture as a space (this notion is one I have picked up from Palle Dahlstedt, by the way, it is not mine). It is filled with works of different kinds, both real and potential. For a subset of culture space (we could talk about creative space too, I use the terms interchangeably) we apply a set of legal rules that we refer to as copyright. The objects in that subset cannot be freely manipulated or combined into other objects, they cannot be copied or performed without the proper legal arrangements.

The Composition of Culture Space

This state of affairs has been defended on the basis that it accelerates the growth of the set of actualized works we have access to in culture space. Copyright has been thought of as a way to ensure that we mine culture space properly. Without these intellectual mining rights, noone would engage in actualizing works in culture space, and we would have no or little cultural expansion.

But as the tools of culture creation have become radically cheaper, this seems no longer to hold true. A lot of amateurs – in the true meaning of that word (look it up) – are uncovering all kinds of objects in culture space at an amazing speed.

In fact, we may want to ask at this point what the composition of real culture space looks like. I recently listend to Eli Noam give a talk where he said that commercially produced DVDs number in the 10000s every year, and that there are around 300 000 DVDs worth of commercially produced content (I am assuming he means content created ,or if we want to -uncovered – within the established content industry). He then stated that every year roughly 100 million DVDs of user generated content is created. If we take the ratios here as a proxy for examining the composition of real culture space, it would seem that less than 0.3 percent of real culture space is produced in the established commercial content industry.

That does not mean that the remaining 99.7% is out of copyright, of course. Since copyright is default on, a large chunk of the real culture space that has not been produced commercially is also covered by copyright. Neither does it mean that the 99.7% would have been created without copyright — there may be new and interesting ways for peopel to use the default on copyright outside of the content industry practices, like Creative Commons, that enable new business models.

But it does seem to mean that the realization of culture space is something that largely happens outside of the established players often thought of as the main source of culture.

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This only tells half the story, however, right? If we allocate attention across realized culture space a different story seems to emerge. Is it not true that the 0.3% gets the lion’s part of the attention? Perhaps. And there are those that would happily argue that quality in culture space also is concentrated to that 0.3%. But does that mean that this is a stable situation? Let’s look at the deep future, like 150 years down the road. Will the description here of culture space then still hold? Or will the 0.3% be even less?

To answer that question we need to also need to look at the pace at which culture space has been realized. Up until the 1900s the pace of discovery in culture space was slow, and the tools available were few. We all know what happened after that. With the computer, the internet and the commercial availability of tools to create we are now going through a fantastic information explosion, much of which is realized culture space – photos, music, texts, illustrations, computer games, movies and more.

That explosion is still almost all in copyright. But fast forward 150 years and the shadow of the information explosion hits the public domain. Suddenly all of the works produced even within the 0.3% will be released into the unregulated part of culture space.

That echo of our information explosion in the public domain will mean that a new source of alternative culture consumption becomes available.

The choice will no longer be a choice between user-generated content scorned by some and the “professionally produced” content, but it will be a menu with three choices, an ever stronger public domain offering of “professionally produced works”, user-generated content and the probably shrinking 0.3%.

When we discuss the deep future of copyright this seems to be the environment in which it will unfold. Maybe we will then see completely different legal designs? Designs that encourage people to reach points in culture space that are very hard to reach? That are significantly different from the territory thus covered? You could imagine data-generated difference measures affording protection according to the level of originality of a work, et cetera, et cetera. There is so many interesting and intriguing questions to ask about the regulation of human creative space that it sometimes is sad that we get stuck in the discussion of piracy of the 0.3% of it that we have access to. The really big questions remain: how large is this space theoretically? Is it growing with technology as we can reach farther (as Palle seems to think in our conversations) and how come we seem to come with an ability to uncover things in this space that are far from random?

The real questions for the law in relation to the creative space may only have started to surface these last few years, and in a deep future we may well find ourselves discussing completely different legal challenges.

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