July 28, 2005 · Andy Scudder
I am Andy Scudder, a rising sophomore at the Unversity of Evansville, where I have been working to organize a FreeCulture.org chapter.
One of my friends at school got a shiny, brand-new Nikon D70 as a graduation gift and was, obviously, excited about the creative possibilities that it would provide. She already enjoyed browsing my photos on Flickr, so it was no surprise to me that she soon had an account of her own and started posting a few shots from her new camera.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the question she asked me a few days later.
“Can I make it so that people can’t print my pictures unless they have my permission?”
I tried to be helpful and tell her that she could keep people from seeing the original-sized images (and therefore only have access to images that wouldn’t be a suitable print resolution), but she persisted. To her, this was a legitimate question. Since she has no way of knowing who would view her pictures online and what they do with them, she felt that it would be in her best interest to “protect” her copyright by limiting what people could do with it. As she explained it, “I want people to look at my stuff. But I also want to know who has it. It is part of being an artist; you have to know who has your stuff.”
But to me, it was a dangerous question. If an artist wants to prevent someone from printing his or her work from their computer, then what other controls would we have to open our hardware, software, and very lives to if such technology existed and was widespread? This is all very reminiscent of the problems with Adobe’s e-book reader and its “permissions” system. The ability of software to arbitrarily determine what rights we should and should not have based on a few bits flipped in a file on the whim of the author or publisher reminds us that, as Lessig wrote:
On the Internet, however, there is no check on silly rules, because on the Internet, increasingly, rules are enforced not by a human but by a machine: Increasingly, the rules of copyright law, as interpreted by the copyright owner, get built into the technology that delivers copyrighted content. And the problem with code regulations is that, unlike law, code has no shame.
My concern from this encounter is not that my friend lost interest in Flickr, but that as an art student fresh out of college, she felt that control of what other people’s computers could and could not print was an essential feature of copyright. This is a dangerous idea for technology and the freedoms that it promotes, and if most artists hold the same concerns that my friend expressed, then DRM technologies would not only be common but the expected norm by artists.
How can we change this? It seems inevitable that if if we continue to educate our students about copyright with programs designed by the MPAA which do not reconcile for the changes to the creative landscape that digital technology and the Internet have enabled, then we will quickly lose our digital freedoms. Instead, we need to help artists understand the benefits of the digital world and why locking down their works in this landscape would not only hurt the patrons of their works, but the very creative freedoms that they enjoy.