As copyright-enforcement is breaking down around us, the witch-hunt continues. A few thousand unsuspecting file-sharing fathers, mothers and children have already been financially ruined in the US. With as the last victim - Jammie Thomas-Rasset - who, on the 18th of June 2009 was fined with 1.9 million dollars for the downloading of just 24 songs. Now while slinging huge fines around surely is a slightly more civilized and profitable way of doing things than the burning of witches at the stake, it is not likely to be any more effective at putting an end to the publishers' misfortunes, than the latter was for preventing medieval natural disasters. They are up against the magical properties of the internet, progress, and a paradise of plenty, not dark magic: so far convicted 4,280 - decent, hard working - people, and more than a hundred million to go. One wonders what they have in mind.
As argued, from a global, historic perspective, current IP-laws are no longer justified. IP first of all is fundamentally different from physical property and it even crosses it, and invades it. While IP made sense as business-to-business regulation in the past, when presses were expensive and large, and were owned and operated by a few easily identifyable companies, it no longer does. With the rise of the internet and the ubiquitous availability of computers, copying has become something everyone can do in the private sphere of their home. Thus copying can no longer be policed without abolishing privacy. Add to this the ever growing global deadweight loss caused by the tragedy of the Lost Paradise, the promise of the crossing of global divides in a free Information Society, and an undisturbed rebirth of community-produced culture, and it is clear that current copyright laws have become an anachronism, and need to be replaced.
It is to be hoped that we will soon enter a free Information Society driven by not just one, but two free markets. So that once the current copyright-system finally crumbles, and the record-companies, movie-houses and publishers have given up their roles as distributors and manufactorers of physical data-carriers (such as CD's and blue-ray disks), they will be able and willing to continue with their new core-businesses as music-recording studio's, movie-studio's, -producers, and editors, so they, and the artists, actors and authors they employ - or that hire them instead -, can make a living again, and receive the fair profits they deserve.
The Isle of Man is already planning to introduce a levy-based system, and as a recent article in Wired suggests, the music industry is turning their ears to the opportunities that a levy-system - what we here call a two-markets system - can offer them. Though it remains to be seen to what extent global interests will be really represented by the system they might come up with. It is important that everyone's interests are heard and taken into account and that there will be as much freedom as possible for the public to recombine popular works; to speak in the language of culture. Previously nations were at least somewhat inclined to support society and cultural commons. Even if this happened for reasons that might not always be noble, such as competition with other nations for cultural prestige, it still had positive results. While now, with the weakening of states, things may look bleak for the interests of our increasingly globalized civil society.
We live in times that ask for vigilance. As technology changes our world, our language, and our reality, latent ambiguities in laws are emerging, and changing the latter's reach and the way in which they apply. This happens not just to laws - the fossiles of ethics, hardened out for practical use and a stable grip. Ethics, or the living thought about good and bad, justice and injustice, is also facing the rapid emergence of numerous ambiguities. For now they are mostly related to cases which involve information-technology, such as the issue under discussion. But sooner or later they will involve questions related to nano-technology, genetic engineering, and what newborn humans should be like. As progress and science make our world more malleable, and more diverse alternatives become practically realizable, human decisions will eventually be about the shape of reality itself. And if that happens, then ethics will be the only limit we have left.
Hence the importance of questions of justification, and changes in justifiability brought about by historical developments, for historians, but also for society as a whole.