It is beyond argument that the Internet is the most transformative development in information technology in, let’s say, the last 100 years. You could make the case to change “the last 100 years” to “in history,” but let’s not quibble. The Internet gives everyone in the world with a network connection access to an unprecedented quantity of information–and some of it is even worthwhile–and the ability to communicate to a global audience. The Internet achieved this status because of its design, because of the way in which it transmits information, and because of protocols like HTTP that enable information to be linked in a seamless web. Why, then, do smart people talk about screwing it up, about changing its fundamental nature? Federal judge Richard Posner proposed recently that the declining fortunes of the newspaper industry could be addressed in this manner:
Expanding copyright law to bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, or to bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, might be necessary to keep free riding on content financed by online newspapers from so impairing the incentive to create costly news-gathering operations that news services like Reuters and the Associated Press would become the only professional, nongovernmental sources of news and opinion. (Emphasis added)
This is a horrible idea. I care a great deal about newspapers–my parents met while working at The Hartford Courant and the Courant’s comic section was my first reading primer–but shackling the ability to access and link to copyrighted material would not save newspapers and would transform the Internet. I will subscribe to print until its demise, but I am not representative of the younger generation(s) (there are many behind me, unfortunately) of Internet users. If their chosen online news sources stops carrying links to articles in The New York Times they will not start paying for a print edition; they will obtain their news from other sources. “Aha!” you say. “There will not be other sources if these users don’t pay to finance news-gathering operations!” Wrong. Blogging, Twitter (as much as I bemoan it), RSS feeds, Citizen Media, and other things I’ve not thought to name or that are as-yet uninvented are transforming the nature of news-gathering. Don’t try to reverse technological development. Acknowledge what is being left behind and figure out how to embrace what’s in front of you..