Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture
Author: Tarleton Gillespie
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: May 2008
It's with a sigh of relief that I read the thoughtful reviews from Professors Bates and Schneider -- it's reassuring to find that readers' reactions about the book's merits and its flaws are not far from my own. How unnerving it would be if someone found a glaring error I couldn't even recognize. I'm grateful that both found some value in the book, and I completely agree with the main concerns, that the book is somewhat dated, and does more to connect existing scholarship that to veer off into its own. Let me speak to each.
One of my goals in writing Wired Shut was to put three bodies of literature into conversation. Much of the legal scholarship on the digital copyright debates and the (at the time) emerging issue of technical content protection was astute and enlightening. But inside of the traditions of legal studies, this work did not feel the need to approach these questions in terms of the social dimensions of technologies or the cultural formations emerging around them. These were legal and economic questions, either of legally-managed efficiencies upset by technological change, or first principle rights constricted by corporate actors. Technology appeared in these arguments either as cause or context, but almost always as a thing apart from history, social contest, or cultural meaning. So it seemed important to introduce it to the sociology of technology being developed in Science & Technology Studies and the sociology of culture conducted by the more historically-oriented members of my own field of Communication. (I have by no means been the only one working to reconcile some of these literatures: the work of Siva Vaidhyanathan, Chris Kelty, Kieran Healy, Kembrew Mcleod, and Ted Striphas have also helped advance this conversation.) This did mean, I suspect, that my intervention was more about playing host a conversation than being a particularly loud voice in it.
I do hope that there's a contribution made by Wired Shut, in offering a vocabulary for parsing technocultural dilemmas like copyright. I'm glad Professor Schneider agreed. I still find my notion of the "regime of alignment" a useful insight -- that the regulation of a cultural practice depends not just on a forceful legal regime, or a guiding business model, or a moral assertion, but all of the above. Those who are invested in the future of copyright have utilized all of these mechanisms to pursue their particular agendas. Further, each piece helps obscure the others, and diffuse responsibility for the quite vigorous changes in the contours of cultural discourse they're attempting to generate. An industry lobbyist can downplay the new law they're asking for by assuring legislators that, in the end, the market will decide; in another venue, the same company can debut their new business plan, placating critics that copyright law will remain a vigilant limit on their reach. This jigsaw puzzle regulation obscures itself through its own fluid complexity, making it hard to pull all of its details into focus. These tactics are by no means exclusive to questions of copyright.
The second concern is that the work is dated, an issue that has haunted me as far back as the start of the dissertation that was the precursor to the book. Whether it was my own work pace or the inertia of the academic publication process, it became clear that I could not write the scholarly analysis I wanted to produce and also keep up with the issue itself. So I resigned myself to thinking of this as a (recent) historical analysis, one that of course has been superceded by events, but still hopefully provides insights with enduring value, insights that may even resonate with those events that have followed. I'm convinced that, at least today, the academic publication machine is structurally unable to handle this kind of analysis, and is in dire need of reform. And while I have been using my blog sporadically to make more timely comments, it has not quite suited me as a viable medium for scholarship, yet, even though others more deft with the format have put it to very good use.
The main question brought on by recent events is, is DRM dead? Apple partnered with EMI to sell DRM-free music, then Amazon partnered with all of the major labels to do the same; Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails conducted high-profile experiments to distribute their albums without music labels and without technical copy protection, while thousands of bands, signed and unsigned, are playing with MySpace, music blogs, and their own sites to offer some of their music free for promotional purposes; the DRM encryption system for the Blu-Ray high-def video format was cracked, causing a stir when the Digg recommendation site first took down user posts about the crack, then reinstated them when users swamped the site with re-posts; recently, Random House and Penguin publishers announced a move to mp3 format for their audiobooks, while more television networks are partnering to provide online streams of their shows, free with advertising. Just as some suggested that music was the canary in the coal mine, a portent of what was to come, it may be that we are witnessing a turn, once again led by the music industry, away from DRM.
Perhaps. In some ways, the reasoning for these apparent about-faces is pointed to in my book. The music labels are not leaving DRM behind because they believe it to be cultural or politically wrong, or even because it never proved to be particularly effective in curbing peer-to-peer downloading. They've begun to leave it behind because its costly -- not just financially, which it is, but politically. DRM has elevated the hardware makers to a new position of control over price and distribution. Apple, in part because of a technical system foisted upon them, is now the biggest music retailer in the world, and the keeper of the most popular music device in the world. DRM, along with some savvy marketing and quality design, put Apple in this position.
And while the music industry may be willing to swim without the DRM life vest, I suspect that the movie industry shows no such inclination, and is likely not to have to discard it. As I note in the book, Hollywood always been savvier than the music industry in this regard: leasing you access to a film rather than selling it outright, cascading releases across technical environment and price point, and instituting restrictions before their customers get comfortable with freedoms they're not willing to allow. So DRM has a life in the years to come. Moreover, in many ways we've already embraced both the underlying logic DRM depends on -- technologies we use that are not our own, content we lease rather than buy, interfaces that closely manage our commercial and experiential engagement with information -- and we're building computer platforms designed for them. There will always be those who hope to manage the circulation of information, whether for politics or profit; we have now encountered, and largely accepted, a new road map for that kind of information choreography, and the political, institutional, and discursive terrain has been reconfigured in ways that will allow, and promote, these kinds of restrictions.
Many thanks, again, for the thoughtful reviews. in the spirit of being timely and engaged, I've posted this on my blog, Scrutiny, and welcome your thoughts.
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