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Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture

Author: Tarleton Gillespie
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: May 2008

 REVIEW 1: Benjamin J. Bates
 REVIEW 2: Troy K. Schneider
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Tarleton Gillespie

In Wired Shut, Tarleton Gillespie seeks to examine the forces behind the evolution of copyright over the last few decades as it has sought to cope with the rise of digital media systems. The rise of digital technologies has clearly and certainly facilitated the ability to copy and disseminate intellectual property. The reaction of content industries was swift and strong: it would not be enough to make copying illegal; it would need to be made difficult, if not impossible. Gillespie frames this as a policy shift from the regulation of copying, to the regulation of technology. If technology made copying easy, technology could also be forced to include mechanisms that limit it.

The story, Gillespie suggests, doesn't stop there. Shifting the focus to the design and implementation of technology depended on the development of new alliances of content owners with the consumer electronics industry, with building consensus among legislators and regulators, and with convincing courts of their arguments. Shifting focus from the actual act of illegal copying, to a mandate imposing technological limits on emerging digital media required transforming political and cultural arrangements, and reframing economic arguments.

Gillespie provides the foundations for his arguments in the first few chapters of Wired Shut. Chapter 1 offers a short discussion of the rise of digital technology and the dilemma it posed for copyright. Chapter 2 lays a foundation for copyright law and policy. Gillespie considers not only the state of the law, but also philosophical, economic, political, and cultural premises upon which copyright law was built. He looks at how these have changed to meet the issues raised by a digital network economy, focusing on the early shifts in legal arguments in dealing with Napster and DRM (digital rights management), a shift from punishing illegal copying to preventing it. The next chapter focuses on technology as a designed structure. Gillespie summarizes some of the scholarship on the interaction of technology and society, building the foundation for using technical regulation to achieve policy goals. It's in this chapter where Gillespie's style begins to wear. His arguments are derivative (in the copyright sense), based on an assimilation and integration of other people's work. If you're a scholar in this field, you've read it all before, often in better prose. If you're new to the issue, Wired Shut can serve as an adequate, if sometimes unwieldy, overview.

Where Gillespie can add to the debate is in his case studies. In Chapter 4, he looks at the effort to reframe digital copying as theft. He makes the point that it took more than a minor shift in the language of the law to kill Napster and related file-sharing systems. Copyright owners, under the leadership of Jack Valenti, needed to also win the public relations battle, at least among legislators, regulators, and the courts. Copying had to become not an issue of fair use, but one of "piracy," an evil which needed to not merely be punished, but something that needed to be prevented for the good of society. By reframing the debate, the focus could then shift to technological protection mechanisms. Chapter 5 looks at an early effort, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI). Gillespie examines the history of that effort, finding that it collapsed in large part because the content and consumer electronics industries had differing concerns and interests at play. The SDMI was an example of the problems of attempting to impose a technical solution without first assuring that the interests of major players were in alignment.

Chapter 6 examines what can happen when you achieve an alignment of interests first, particularly if you can do so before a market emerges. The Content Scrambling System (CSS) was developed in advance of Hollywood licensing their product for DVDs. By tightly controlling content availability, the movie industry found that it could mandate licensing of technological control of copying, at least in digital forms. Still, any technological control mechanism can also be undone by other technology, and it took collaboration with legislators in the form of the DMCA to enforce the standard.

Chapter 7 addresses a system in development, the "broadcast flag." While the capacity for technological control has been widely adopted within industry standards for interconnection of digital devices (i.e. HDMI), the political and social debate over the use of controls continues. The FCC, as primary regulators, expressed doubts as to whether aspects of the proposal were within their mandate, or even in the general public interest they are charged with protecting. The consumer electronics industry, while accepting the interconnection standard, also had doubts about the application of controls, which would limit the desirability of many of the features consumers wanted and expected. With interests arguably at odds here, the future of the system remains in doubt.

The final chapters return to general issues. In Chapter 8, Gillespie looks at the concept of DRM (Digital Rights Management) as a system for regulating copying. In chapter 9, he looks at encryption technologies. He briefly reviews some of the limits and difficulties inherent in each approach. Further, he argues that both conflict with traditional values of openness and use of information. This is one argument in support of the notion that content owners need to reframe the political, economic, and cultural debate. But there are cultural, political, and economic implications of doing so, and it may not be in the wider public interest to accept such a realignment of fundamental values.

Overall, there is evidence of serious and worthy scholarship in Wired Shut. Gillespie is well-read, and the chapters are thoroughly annotated. The overall work, however, disappoints. It serves as an adequate overview of the shift in copyright to a reliance on using technology to prevent copying, rather than using legal mechanisms to punish illegal copying. Still, it does not bring much new insight into the arguments and perspectives it examines. This weakness is most apparent in the last chapters, where Gillespie just recognizes some complications arising from the transition to "regulation of technology," suggesting a need to get the public to accept the new frame, rather than providing a more serious consideration of the significant cultural, political, and economic implications of doing so.

Benjamin J. Bates:
Benjamin J. Bates is a Professor in the School of Electronic Media, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Information Sciences, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His research focuses on the social forces shaping the evolution of communication systems, and the issues confronting the development of media markets and intellectual policy in a digital age. He's published widely in the areas of new media and society, and media, telecommunications, and information policy and economics. Bates reviewed Who Owns Information? and Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet for RCCS.  <bjbates@utk.edu>

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