Half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan wrote: “The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”
Fifty years before the fact, he could have been describing the world wide web. The web is radically changing the ways we perceive and react to the social forces that shape and are shaped by the world in which we live. Before the invention of the printing press and the upheavals of the industrial revolution, society depended almost exclusively on oral communication. Books were the preserve of elites, monks and scribes, who were invested with a shamanistic power over the knowledge and power contained in the written word.
The renaissance and the invention of the printing press transformed the possibilities. Books became available to a wider audience, and led to a blossoming of the arts and sciences which were no longer restricted to the interests of religious minorities. Copyright grew out of this revolution, not to protect the work of writers, but to censor publishers. In 1557, The worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers was given a monopoly of publishing and copyright (and duty of censorship) across the publishing industry. authors had no rights to ownership of their own work, which was owned by the publishers who were members of the Stationers’ Company.
This power wasn’t rescinded until the Statute of anne in 1710, which established a formal copyright term of 14 years. The Statute of anne was the rst recognition in law of the rights of the author to the ownership of work, but also established the rights of the publisher to exclusive reproduction and distribution, which made sense given the relative costs. Before this, authors had to rely on patronage or other private means of income.
Similarly, the invention of the phonograph transformed the music industry. It is easy to forget how recent and transformative such technologies were. one hundred and twenty years ago our forefathers didn’t have access to the technologies we take for granted. Photography was a new and rare technology, and the facilities we see as necessities – central heating, hot and cold running water, ushing toilets, fridges, cars, radio and TV – had yet to be invented, or were out of the reach of the average citizen.
As McLuhan observed, the technologies we use transform every facet of our lives, yet everything remains the same. “The telephone: speech without walls”, he wrote. “The phonograph: music hall without walls. The photograph: museum without walls. The electric light: space without walls. The movie, radio and TV: classroom without walls.” But in this new environment: “man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information-gatherer.
“In this role, electronic man is no less a nomad than his Palaeolithic ancestors,” he wrote. The technologies of the web are redefining the possibilities for information exchange and the dissemination of ideas and how we respond to them, but the laws that govern our rights as artists or writers or consumers are out of step with the realities. Too many industries are structured so that the ‘intellectual property rights’ are owned and sold on by the distributor, or middle man, rather than by the original creator. Look at the music industry; in most cases the record companies own the rights to the recorded work, and the publishers own the rights to the song.
Copyright law followed the invention of the printing press. The music industry followed the invention of the phonograph and the shellac record. as long as the publishers of printed works, and of music, control the outlets and the distribution, the artist has very little power. The power is in the ownership of the distribution media. It is no accident that most record labels are in control of a handful of companies, and that those same companies manufacture the majority of the music players and recording machines on the market, but such is the current pace of technological change that there is no guarantee of the continuity of either ownership of the music, or of the means to record and play the music. Change is inevitable.
Ever prescient, McLuhan predicted that “as technology advances, it reverses the characteristics of every situation again and again. The age of automation is going to be the age of ‘do it yourself.’” Such is the spirit of Linux and free software.