Will Computers Make Criminals of Us All?

Posted on May 8, 2007

Perhaps there was a time when capitalism did indeed drive progress and innovation. When the original copyright and patent systems were conceived and legislated, it must’ve been in sincere earnest to protect the interests of inventors and creators everywhere. And while business and progress remained honest and steadfast; it worked. The market had incentive to chase down new ideas and innovate, driving our economy and society forward.

Somewhere along the line, we reached a critical mass in our progress. A market with such size and wealth overcame the copyright and patent systems, inspired by the incentives which would lead the market to cannibalize itself and slow progress to nearly a halt. In other words, companies would emerge that make so much money with the way things are now that they would act against any change which would threaten those profits. Even at the behest of the progress of society.

For example, my Nintendo DS still requires me to plug in cartridges containing the game software I purchased. I’ve been doing that since the 80’s. The technology exists today for me to wirelessly purchase, download, and play any game in the Nintendo library — yet I am limited by availability and cost of physical product. Logically, there is no good reason why I should have to pay for packaging, distribution, and retail when all three costs can be cut and more profits be shared directly with the developers and even Nintendo itself.

Why is there still a cartridge?

Probably because it would kill a whole swath of businesses currently in operation, supporting the end product. Distributors, retailers, and manufacturers provide jobs and move money up and down the chain. Because they make enough money and employ enough people, we are holding back progress. Switching the business model from beneath them would kill a lot of jobs. It would mean fewer businesses in operation paying taxes. It would mean fewer retail stores collecting taxes. Suddenly progress doesn’t seem so good.

However, this effect doesn’t stop there. It’s killing the development of the Internet. It has been stifling the development of alternative vehicles and public transportation. It’s destroying copyright.

Regulation has become so thick that new criminal classifications appear to be created every year. The DMCA has made criminals of anyone who seeks to use their fair-use rights. It’s a criminal act to share a video with a friend online. It might not be too far off when it will be a criminal act to watch a video at a friends house or play a CD at a party without paying someone for the privilege.

This isn’t progress.

We know that the economy can cope with change. Even drastic ones such as personal computing and the Internet. We have to be thinking about ways to cope and that means reforming a lot of the laws we created in the past to be considerate of the new circumstances that change has brought to us. New technology should not make new criminals.