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Robbing the Future

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Dan Bricklin, co-inventor of Visicalc, discusses how copy protection could “break the chain” of archival techniques that has existed for thousands of years:


With ever changing technology, in order to preserve many works we will need to constantly move them ahead, copying them to each new media form before the previous one becomes obsolete. Also, as we create new media, we need to preserve the knowledge of the methods of converting from one media to another, so we can still access the old works that have not yet been moved ahead. This is crucial. Without this information, even preserved works could be unreadable. …

There are things happening that make me worry that the future may not be bright for preserving many of the works we create today. For example: Companies are preparing to produce music CDs that cannot be copied into many other formats (something allowed by law as “fair use”). Most new eBooks are copy protected. A new bill may be heading to Congress that will require all digital devices to enforce copy protection schemes for copyrightable material. An existing law makes it a crime to tell people how to make copies of protected works.

I believe that copy protection will break the chain necessary to preserve creative works. It will make them readable for a limited period of time and not be able to be moved ahead as media deteriorates or technologies change. Only those works that are thought to be profitable at any given time will be preserved by their “owners” (if they are still in business). We know from history that what’s popular at any given time is no certain indication of what will be valuable in the future. Without not-copy protected “originals”, archivists, collectors, and preservers will be unable to maintain them the way they would if they weren’t protected. (Many of these preservers ignore fashion as they do their job, because they see their role as preservers not filters.) We won’t even be able to read media in obsolete formats, because the specifications of those formats will not be available. To create a “Rosetta Stone” of today’s new formats will be asking to go to jail and having your work banned.

This is different than encryption or patent protection. With encryption, as long as the keys for reading survive, and a description of the method of decryption, you can recreate the unprotected original. It’s even better — you can prove authenticity. Patent protection just keeps you from creating and using your own unlicensed reader for a limited period of time. After that, the legal duty of the patent is to teach you how it works so you can make your own. For long-term preservation of works (as opposed to short-term quick advancement in some fields) patented techniques are good because they discourage secrets and eventually put things in the public domain.

(A version of this entry also appears on my blog Robbed by a Fountain Pen.)

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