Systems and Individuals–Whither the Thomas Case?

by on October 15, 2007 · 0 comments

Needing a critter fix, I hauled The Grub, now three, off to the National Wildlife Visitor’s Center this weekend for their festival. Actual wildlife was promised, and they had splendid owls and turtles, looking rather sleepy. On the whole, though, I find that the direction that such organizations has taken in their public presentations to be both uninteresting and depressing. I learned little about the behavior, habits, and lives of the critters being studied, and a great deal about their habitats and the destruction thereof.

There are good reasons for the focus on systems. Although the naturalists would not put it this way: The environment is a commons of sorts; as such, it is likely to be degraded, with no one properly internalizing the costs–it needs a fix at the systemic level. But I already knew this; I wanted to learn more about the critters. I like critters. Too much. I am an old school amateur naturalist of the sort that made such a disaster of federal forest management–putting out forest fires when they ought to be allowed to burn off the brush and bugs, because I am not willing to see a racoon’s toes be singed. But the result of decades of such a policy is a sick forest that ultimately burns so fiercely it cannot be controlled at all.

Copyright debates strike me as suffering from the opposite defect. We hear a great

deal about individuals–the single mom Ms. Thomas in Wisconsin being the most recent. But there is not a lot of thinking about the system as a whole, or how it relates to these individuals. As a result, we run the risk of judging policy and law solely by the standards of advocates for individuals. RIAA wears a black hat, the defendant a white one.

Is it very likely that the music industry as opposed to any other group is dominated by people who are as mean or silly as critics of the RIAA’s approach to lawsuits complain? Is it likely that the RIAA is happy about having to sue potential customers? That they think that bringing lawsuits is a new, profitable business model? It isn’t even remotely likely. But even if music execs were by some bizarre quirk of hiring policy systemically deluded…

Policy cannot be about personalities. It has to be about what works best at a systemic level. And at a systemic level, consumers and content producers and equipment makers and so on *all* have an interest in figuring out how to enforce copyright in a digital environment.Otherwise we are likely to shut down investment in content that we would rather have than not. The answer is not to bring a few token suits against sympathetic individuals–though that is the only thing that the RIAA has the power to do now. So what is the answer? How do we get to even-handed enforcement? Until we all start working together on what such a system looks like in a digital environment, there will be nothing but more name-calling. And unless the underlying principles that the advocates are putting forward make sense in the context of a larger system, their advocacy has less to do with justice and more to do with short-run convenience.

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