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Web 2.0 and Ownership

My dear friend Anne sent me a note today asking my opinion of web 2.0. My brief reply was simply, “defined as?” For a lot of people, that’s pretty much the problem. I considered sharing some thoughts on the epic lack of clarity that is web 2.0, but I figured I would pick an accepted definition (consulting none other than the Internet’s gold standard – Wikipedia) and put together some thoughts instead.

I think I’m going to end up doing this in several parts because my effort to wrap my brain around it led me in too many different directions. I’ll start with some of the issues created with intellectual property.

Assuming we want to look at this through the framework of the “principles” cited in the Wikipedia article, they would include:

* the Web as a platform
* data as the driving force
* network effects created by an architecture of participation
* innovation in assembly of systems and sites composed by pulling together features from distributed, independent developers (a kind of “open source” development)
* lightweight business models enabled by content and service syndication
* the end of the software adoption cycle (“the perpetual beta”)
* software above the level of a single device, leveraging the power of The Long Tail.

I’ll try to keep this out of the technology weeds, so if you’re more interested in the intellectual property aspects, keep reading. I’m going to, by hopefully a few degrees, draw some conclusions about 2.0 based on the application of such technologies to ownership and the constitutional protections afforded to artists and scientists.

Many of the principles outlined above are self-explanatory, and some may even seem self-evident. Some of this will likely be elementary, but bear with me.

I’ll try to process the characteristics into a thick soup.

If you have spent any time at all with (what used to commonly be called) Application Service Providers, you understand the concept of the web as a platform. In the past, applications were written to run on one platform or another – Mac or Windows, for instance. By leveraging the power of the web, you can write for one platform, and everyone can share the application.

Sharing the application with anyone on any platform and allowing them to actively participate in the information that flows in and out of the application creates the “network effects”, or, in other words, encourages interaction between users of the application. It’s an egg-head way of saying multiple people creating and sharing content (the data) that becomes the heart of the application. Exchanging that information with other sites becomes easy. Because of the constantly changing user demands created by their interaction, there is never really a finished “product” so much as an ever changing environment in which they are immersed. I’ll ignore, for now at least, the open source characteristic because I don’t believe it must always be present. I’m also going to skip the long tail discussion for now, though I may dive into that later.)

Put all of that together, and you end up with something beyond a simple application that becomes more of a collaborative effort to work with information. As an example, that could mean something as simple as YouTube. People can add their content, interact with one another, interact with the content (enough people rating it highly or viewing it makes it more likely to be seen by others so it becomes self-referential) share it on their own sites, etc.

All of this relies on something that is inherently causing friction with the web 1.0 or non-web world. The question of ownership. In a communal world, there would be no problem with web 2.o. We would all give and take for the sake of being creative and growing our intellect. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. The world we live in is generally driven by things like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, the US Patent and Trademark Office, and the US Constitution.

In the real world, people own things. In many cases, those things have financial value and the people that own them want to protect them. The constitution has guaranteed them that right, sort of. Article I, Section 8 reads:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

So the government appears to agree that the creators of these works have rights to them, and often times web 2.0 applications like YouTube, MySpace, and other run afoul of these. It creates two interesting debates.

First, does the placement of an audio or video clip on a site adversely impact the sales of that same item at retail? The movie and music industry says yes. They argue that someone posting an episode of the Simpsons on YouTube will lead to people watching it, which leads to a decline in the audience for that show on TV which leads to a loss of revenue from syndication.

Others argue that exposure to one episode through something like YouTube might lead that same viewer in a different direction. Maybe they become a big fan, choose to watch on TV for the bigger screen, increase syndication revenue, or better yet by the seasons on DVD for $50 bucks a pop and increase revenue from other sources.

Honestly, I suspect there is probably more of the former than the latter if there is more than one episode available online. If you can get everything online for free, you’re probably not likely to go pay for it elsewhere. Maybe you would, but I doubt it.

The second interesting debate, I think, is whether the advancement of technology may have actually surpassed the intellectual property clause of Article I, Section 8.

If the purpose of the clause was to promote science and useful arts, and the science of technology is now making it cheaper and easier to create both, and it is, arguably, the intellectual property rights that are now inhibiting their progress, is there even a need for that clause? Is an amendment to strike intellectual property protection from the Constitution now overdue?

I can make an argument, as many who are avid consumers of technology could as well, that intellectual property, especially in art, is inherently disingenuous. If I sample a three second riff in a track by Queen, add my own beats, my own lyrics, and even my own chords to complement the riff, am I really interfering with intellectual property? Or does the law afford too much protection to the record company that owns the original?

Nobody would confuse my version with the original. If I were doing a cover of the original, I can understand a degree of protection. I’m not creating anything new, I am just performing their song. With much of the guerilla video that is being produced, there is no pretense that this is the original. Do our IP laws actually stifle otherwise completely new and original works? If so, our constitutional protection is actually having a detrimental effect on the very thing it seeks to promote.

Does anyone believe the trailer for “Brokeback to the Future” was an actual movie? Should the original producers have the ability to stop its distribution? Or does that prevent the advancement of “useful arts”?

Honestly, I am better at finding questions than I am at providing answers. I just wanted to throw this out there. I’m going to keep thinking about it, but next I want to dive into the question of web 2.0 and control/risk mitigation issues (not related to ownership). I’d also like to spend some time thinking about web 2.0 in politics (as a function of the other two topics) and the concept of web 2.0 in general.

I definitely think this is the future of applications, and have spent much of the last year building a number of applications that depend on it. I’m just not sure if I can see a clear path forward, and I always like to know where I am going.

Written by Michael Turk