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Rick Prelinger - Technology, Copyright and Access
San Francisco, April 2007 
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Here Prelinger underlines how innovative technology opens up new visions of the possible, but stresses that their ultimate effect is contingent on other factors. Many media platforms simply die and are not heard from again. Regarding copyright, Rick describes its emergence from an esoteric subject to a consumer issue, but emphasizes that from the point of view of cultural production, access to original materials will go on being more important than copyright issues in most cases. In closing he calls for a dialogue between users and producers of culture, to establish a new compact.

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00:00:00 Interview with Rick Prelinger
00:00:05 If you look at technology as a factor
00:00:09 in changing the way that we think about copyright and changing the way that the laws
00:00:14 are made and experienced, it has an influence but surprisingly I'd think it has less of an influence
00:00:20 than other people might think.
00:00:21 I'm not much of a technological determinist, I think technology has put it on the agenda
00:00:26 But I think really what's going to be more significant, at least with an a capitalist society,
00:00:31 is how these innovations effect the market
00:00:37 and then in a more sort of artistic and philosophical sense,
00:00:44 what people are actually doing. So for example, you have people like Negativeland
00:00:50 who've had an immense influence in terms of shifting the cultural perception of
00:00:56 rights and wrongs, so to speak, but they've had absolutely no effect on the broad market per se
00:01:03 they've removed a certain amount of pressure from artists.
00:01:06 My sense of technology is that it opens up a whole new palette of possibilities
00:01:12 But most of these possibilities don't ever have much effect in society
00:01:19 Look at Bruce Sterling and the list of hundreds of thousands of dead media plattforms
00:01:25 Much of what we're looking at today, as potentially revolutionary
00:01:29 and emancipating, is going to end up dead media
00:01:31 The bigger patterns, I remember when I was a voyager author and I was making CD-roms
00:01:38 you had all this serious discourse from artists and arts administrators with fancy haircuts
00:01:44 with a straight face talking about CD-ROM as a new artistic medium.
00:01:51 Just like in UK they used to talk about tele-text as a medium on to itself with it's own
00:01:59 way of massaging the content that it carried, and yes that's true,
00:02:04 but I think it's more that technology opens up a vision of possibilities
00:02:09 but people tend to be very, very choosy about what they pull off that menu.
00:02:16 I will say with regard that technological determinism that it exists
00:02:19 and we can't argue that the telephone changed the world,
00:02:22 we can't argue that the internet changed the world. I frankly think that the telephone
00:02:26 still casts a larger shadow on the world than the internet has to this point,
00:02:31 although internet's rapidly catching up, but these are very, very long cycles.
00:02:38 So I don't know what file-sharing tells us yet about the cultural economy.
00:02:44 I don't know what rip-mix-burn and all the things you that you can extrapolate
00:02:48 from that very simple menu of actions tells us about the way
00:02:53 that people are going to be expressing themselves in 2020, 2030.
00:02:57 It could be that we have another generation of people that just watch
00:03:01 movies and sit on their couch, except that there're fancier more immersive movies.
00:03:06 We don't know yet.
00:03:08 What I think we need to do is be a little bit more provisional about the kind of regimes we set up,
00:03:17 in other words that we don't build digital right management that lasts for decades.
00:03:22 that we don't set rules for emerging technology that tends to cut off its potential
00:03:29 from the very beginning, or if these rules exist that we don't accept them.
00:03:38 So with regard to copyright the first thing I'd say that there's been a number of historical periods
00:03:42 where copyright gets foregrounded.
00:03:44 You can talk about the french revolution and periods of time when
00:03:49 copyright is used to enforce social ends and social control but in my lifetime
00:03:56 copyright become a big topic of conversation in the 70s when we revised
00:04:02 the copyright act in the United States.
00:04:04 That's when you suddenly started seeing copyright notices all over the place.
00:04:07 In recent years there's been a few catalysts for a kind of a
00:04:12 hugely increased consciousness of what copyright is all about.
00:04:16 The Eldred case - where Eric Eldred sued to overturn `Term Extension in the United States
00:04:24 - and lost.
00:04:24 A lot of people got the sense that copyright was an issue to be concerned about.
00:04:28 File-sharing and the prosecution of little kids and grandparents and ordinary people.
00:04:35 - big issue. DRM is going to foreground copyright as a consumer issue
00:04:41 I think that's already started.
00:04:42 I think people are far too concerned about copyright actually
00:04:46 I think we need to be aware of it and I think we shouldn't be passive, but on the other hand
00:04:52 the problem is that we're all thinking about copyright to the point that it paralyses us.
00:04:59 Copyright used to be the province of lawyers, maybe a few geeks,
00:05:03 and in many, many ways I'd like to see us a little less concerned about copyright
00:05:08 and a little more concerned about culture and access.
00:05:14 Most of the decisions about the copyright regime under which we're going to live
00:05:20 have already been made by large copyright holders by the culture industry.
00:05:25 And it's their turf, we can't really play effectively on their turf, we have to be reactive.
00:05:32 And this is no way to run a culture, we can not continue to react to other peoples rules.
00:05:38 It leaves us no latitude to lay out what kind of a world we'd like to live in.
00:05:44 I think we need to have a broad conversation
00:05:46 that's probably going to be an international conversation where people who make things
00:05:50 and people who use things, I'm talking about cultural works, sit together
00:05:55 and think about what kinds of rules best serve these interests.
00:06:01 I don't know that we're going to agree, but I think we need to ask a little bit more about utopia.
00:06:08 We need to really figure out what kind of a world we'd like to live in,
00:06:13 and then try to craft regulations to match that. Being reactive doesn't cut it.
00:06:19 The big problem isn't going to be the copyright law,
00:06:22 for most people that make culture it's going to be access to the original work.
00:06:28 If you are trying to do something about music,
00:06:31 how do you get access to the performance that you need?
00:06:33 If you're doing a historical piece on the civil rights movement in the United States
00:06:38 how do you get access to stuff that's in the archive that hasn't already been aired?
00:06:42 That's going to be the issue. Copyright in many cases is going to be the secondary issue.
00:06:47 I think that a lot of the conflict, the so called copyright wars,
00:06:53 have resulted from these poorly articulated business models.
00:06:57 The publishing industries have been freaked out, recording industries have been freaked out,
00:07:02 the movie industry has been freaked out.
00:07:04 The suits don't know how to think about this but there's a generational shift -
00:07:08 there's a notion that some of these newer ways of marketing and exchanging
00:07:15 cultural objects actually turn out to be more profitable for their owners.
00:07:20 I think the kind of extremism is starting to fade a way a little bit,
00:07:27 and we have to think about what's a little more sustainable.
00:07:29 I think we need to figure out what the rules should be ourselves,
00:07:33 we can't let the Hollywood or lawyers of the US government figure it out for us.
00:07:39 We should do it ourselves.
00:07:44 A lot of people valorize the sixties and in the sixties there was hardly any independent media.
00:07:48 There were three television networks in the United States you had the BBC and the ITV.
00:07:54 There was hardly any underground press, there was of course no blogs, no websites,
00:08:00 a few obscure zines mostly in the literary and the political world that nobody saw.
00:08:06 This is a rich and existing time to be alive and it's precisely because of
00:08:11 cultural proliferation and the absence of rules, the absence of permission.
00:08:15 I don't think that's going to go away.
00:08:19 Even if it's a million black boards scratched with a rock, when the electricity goes off,
00:08:25 I don't think that's going to go away.