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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

The easy knock on Tarleton Gillespie's Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture is that it seems dated. In walking the reader through the many issues and arguments of digital copyright, Gillespie focuses on three seminal attempts at Digital Rights Management -- the Recording Industry Association of America's failed Secure Digital Music Initiative, moviemakers' somewhat more successful efforts to lock down DVDs, and the major television networks' push to require "broadcast flags" on digital television signals.

All three battles, while important, were waged years ago; more recent, equally relevant examples are touched on briefly or not at all. So while Napster gets plenty of attention, the BitTorrent explosion is never discussed. And Apple -- which has been perhaps the most influential player in this decade's DRM debates -- appears only fleetingly. Wired Shut was released in June 2007, yet often reads as though is was written in 2003 an impression that's only exacerbated by the news made repeatedly by YouTube, Radiohead, Amazon and others in the months since publication.

Such criticism, however, is both facile and misguided. It's inevitable that a study like Gillespie's would lag behind the latest developments in such a fast-moving space. More importantly, though, the specifics of these case studies -- or more recent ones, for that matter -- are not the point. Wired Shut aims to show how copyright and DRM are about far more than particular technologies and specific media sectors -- what's truly important is the social contract these efforts are altering, and the implications for our culture and environment of information.

Gillespie, an assistant professor in Cornell University's Department of Communication, covers a great deal of ground in working toward that goal. Wired Shut first introduces the history and premises of copyright law, explaining how these have changed as the media being protected has migrated from paper to celluloid to digital bits. Readers are reminded that protecting authors' rights to their creations was a secondary concern for the founders -- copyright doctrine is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution -- it was a means to the more important end of promoting innovation and social progress. (There's also the historical irony, not stressed in Wired Shut but frequently mentioned by Gillespie elsewhere, that U.S. copyright law originally protected only U.S. authors. Much as today's China turns a blind eye to pirated Hollywood blockbusters, 18th-century American authorities took the view that copying and commercializing works from the continent was perfectly legal.) The groundwork for later DRM discussions is laid early as well, including a brief history of the politics and piracy concerns that led to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act -- a law Gillespie suggests "represents the most dramatic change in the history of U.S. copyright law" (177), and one for which he seems to have particular disdain.

Gillespie then surveys the relevant academic research in the fields of communication, information studies and intellectual property -- the book's bibliography alone is a tremendously valuable resource -- and explains why narrative and framing are at least as important to DRM as the technologies used to implement it. In particular, the accounts of the late Motion Picture Association of American head Jack Valenti and his masterful efforts to shape the digital copyright debate are an unexpected gem.

Valenti, who for decades was among the most powerful and charismatic lobbyists in Washington, crafted a compelling narrative of piracy, digital potential, and noble artists when the MPAA was pushing for the DMCA and other copyright protections. It's not that Valenti's arguments were flat-out wrong, only that the issues had more shades of grey that he would ever acknowledge. And because Valenti was so good at framing the debate, his narrative became the narrative -- which was invaluable in getting the MPAA's priorities written into law. As Gillespie writes elsewhere in the book, technology is required for DRM, but a much larger alignment is required: "This alignment is sometimes achieved forcibly, sometimes induced along shared commercial interests; always it is warmed by the embrace of a persuasive world view: the tale of Internet piracy and its consequences that the content industries have championed" (193). The Valenti anecdotes drive home this point far more effectively than any theoretical argument possibly could.

With the broader context properly set, Wired Shut then shifts to specific case studies. The aforementioned examples -- SDMI, the combination of encryption and the DMCA used to secure DVDs, and digital broadcast flags -- each get a chapter of their own. These mini-histories occasionally drift into more minutia than many readers might need, but more often than not these details pay dividends as Gillespie uses them to illustrate important but not-always-obvious implications. This is especially true with the DVD example -- which, as noted above, is where fairly strident fair-use advocacy supplants the academic even-handedness that reins elsewhere in the book.

Gillespie's stance here is not without justification, of course. As he explains repeatedly, the DMCA, with its prohibitions on circumventing digital encryption schemes and other content restrictions, effectively outlawed the tools needed to exercise perfectly legal fair use of copyrighted material. It's the perfect illustration of one of the book's main arguments: "The success of DRM will not be a technological feat, but a political project in which the content industries try to bring together allies that can collude to enforce their rules on users" (139). It's an attempt to solve social problems with technology -- to supplant legal code with computer code, and to effectively privatize and pre-empt the debate over what uses and restrictions best serve society's interests.

Moreover, he notes, this extremely robust "trusted system," with its web of technical, mechanical, and legal limitations, also disregards other legitimate end-user needs that have nothing to do with copyright. As Gillespie observes, "one example already in place is the restriction on skipping trailers, ads, and copyright messages at the start of a DVD" (182). And contractual restrictions limit even the sort of "diagnostic information" that DVD-player manufacturers may provide to end users -- limiting their customer's ability to repair a malfunctioning machine for fear of divulging the encryption secrets.

"The sleight of hand here is that the call for the protection of copyright, the heightened fears of piracy, and the careful characterization of the Internet as a fundamentally unsafe place for cultural expression, have all helped usher in a legally sanctioned, technologically enforced collusion of corporate content providers and hardware and software manufactures," Gillespie writes. "Together they can dictate not only the range of possible uses of cultural expression, but also how, when, and to what extent we will be charged for them" (188).

And that, ultimately, is the central warning of Wired Shut. In the final chapter, Gillespie steps back to consider the cultural implications of these technology-driven developments. Acknowledging the legitimacy of content owners' desire to control and profit from their creations, and the ease with which content lends itself to aggressive price discrimination, he asks: "But should culture work like airline tickets?" (273).

It's clear what his answer to that question is. Culture is not a commodity, Gillespie stresses, and we as citizens are not merely consumers. And "if cultural goods are widely and easily available to all, then viewers feel like part of a community -- perhaps just an audience, at first, but potentially something greater" (273).

So really, when the focus is the future of our culture, it doesn't much matter whether the illustrative examples are Jack Valenti and the RIAA in 1993, or Trent Reznor and iTunes in 2008. (And to Gillespie's credit, he regularly deconstructs the latest developments in his blog Scrutiny). Wired Shut brings a perspective and depth of analysis to the digital copyright debate that is all too often absent in the media or in Washington, and Gillespie poses provocative questions that anyone interested in this field would be wise to consider.

Troy K. Schneider:
Troy K. Schneider is the New Media Editor at the New America Foundation, and the former Managing Director of Electronic Publishing for the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the trailblazing political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, National Journal Governing, Tikkun, Regardie's Power, and the Almanac of American Politics.  <troy.schneider@gmail.com>

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