Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Value Sensitive Conceptual Examination of Tools to Transmit, Duplicate, and/or Alter Digital Creative Works

Sociotechnical Problem Space Overview

The advent of digital media has heralded sweeping changes society. Never before have a means of essentially perfect transmission, storage, or duplication been available to man(1). Modern digital media transmission and storage allows nearly instantaneous conveyance of information across vast distances and prevents the slow decay that non-digital media suffers over time---especially with repeated use.

However, numerous direct and indirect stakeholders are finding that this power has crystallized their respective values in direct conflict with one another's. This essay investigates the conceptual aspect of Value Sensitive Design with respect to tools which facilitate replication, transmission, alteration, or derivation of creative works(2) by persons other than the original creator.

This problem space, then, is the design of technology which either facilitates or hinders these operations upon creative works by people other than their originators. This includes everything from the obvious---Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), its counter-technologies, etc.---to a substantial portion of all devices capable of digital operations in general.

Implicated Value in This Space

When working with almost any digital product, designers should consider the value that creators be given broad control over their ideas so that they may benefit therefrom, against the counter-value that restriction of ideas is unethical and harmful.

The former position holds that by the act of generating creative works, the originator is bestowed rights over it. The mechanism for this is not widely agreed-upon. Jurisprudence commonly holds, as is formulated in the United States Constitution, that creator rights are simply a tool by which organize society encourages creative work. Followers of this school of thought sometimes liken
copyright law with a government-sanctioned monopoly on some idea. Others contend that protections such as copyright are natural rights, or that ideas are equivalent to tangible property to their originator and therefore should be governed by common property laws.

The opposing value to this is that ideas are not paralleled by any traditional type of property, and therefore cannot be governed by such laws. A subset of this group believes that the benefit to
second and third parties generally outweighs the harm to a creator when removing said creator's control over some idea.

Interestingly, within this value space neither group can make any gain in their respective values without a corresponding loss by the other.

The implication of these values in interaction with the technology space ``devices which facilitate or impede transmission, duplication, and/or alteration of digital representations of ideas'' is
inescapable. Digital technology has only one possible use---working with digital values (which in turn, are nothing more than one means of encoding information) to accomplish or facilitate a task.
Consequently, a digital device must either be usable to apply it utility at transmitting, duplicating, and/or altering the particular string of information that a creator wishes to restrict, or designers must have undertaken intentional efforts to impede this activity. In either case, the implication still occurs.

Direct Stakeholders

Naturally, the first direct stakeholder is the creator of the ideas, control of which is potentially impaired by digital tools. As has been seen in DRM, creators have attempted to regain or expand
control over the use of their work by making the digital source harder to work with. This is not the only direct interaction, though. Recently developed tools such as the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act have begun to limit the digital tools a person may have by criminalizing their use, and possibly even their possession.

These steps provide(3) protection for the value of a creator's right to control their intellectual work. That in itself, is rarely sufficient reason to warrant legal action. This control is itself merely a tool by which other interests/values are protected. Among them are: Attribution---which ensures that they are rightfully credited for their work instead of some plagiar. Personal profit---because unless someone pays royalties creating replacas, creators will not fiscally benefit from the distribution thereof. Control of their work's application---Once in the public domain, creative output can be used for causes distasteful to-, or even targeted at-, its creator.

The second direct stakeholder here is the group of people who wish to transmit, duplicate, or alter creative works outside the wishes of their creators. Some of them cannot or will not pay the
licencing/purchase fees associated with the work. Another closely related subset are those who buy/sell used materials---these transactions do not benefit the original creators. Some wish to create derivative works. Some reject the technical restrictions placed on certain works, like DRM.

Clearly, these direct stakeholders vary widely. They range from the casual used-CD buyer to experts employing sophisticated technology to gain the materials' use they desired.

Indirect Stakeholders

These two groups---creators and consumers of creative works---are by no means the only affected parties. The following groups are indirect stakeholders in this context.

Any person fiscally bound to the creation of copyrightable works---studio mixers, advertisers, and proofreaders are just a few examples---has an interest in maximizing the profitability of the
projects, which supports the value of maintaining fair employment for those who do their jobs well(4).

Another group of indirect stakeholders is the community of artists as a whole. If weakening creator control over their creations were to result in greater creative freedom(5) or a larger pool of material to work with, they would benefit. The likelihood of this scenario is suggested by the European Renaissance---which happened prior to the invention of copyright laws, in spite (or because) of the relatively unregulated creative environment.

The effect on the art community of a population would reach non-artists as well; art appreciators become more indirect stakeholders. Many people value increased artistic participation in their
community both for its aesthetic and also for the positive social health it implies.(6)

If the value of commercial art is harmed, a larger fraction of artists would probably be non-commercial. People who find such work more valid would judge the art community more moral, providing some offset to the commercial artists' harm by the market shift. Of course, a stronger commercial element would reverse the two groups' moral satisfaction.

As evidenced by countries with largely unenforced copyright law, a substantial shift in the strength of creator control would produce far-reaching economic effects. Black-market copies seem to generally reduce retail price for legitimate copies; this in itself touches nearly everyone. Whether someone buys commercial or black-market copies of their media, the can satisfy value of conserving money thanks to the lowered prices. On the other hand, people who have strong values for legal obedience would dislike that industry's growth. The shift in cash flow away from large cooperations towards individuals in the black market only increases the scope of the economic effects. People who value business independence are helped, while those who value cooperate structure are

Finally, weakening or strengthening copyright law or implementing technological means to shift the balance of the values of the direct stakeholders' values would have an somewhat unpredictable effect on the national economy as a whole depending on the economic productivity gains' and losses' balances. Of course, the economic strength of a country affects numerous further values: The changes in available funding for social programs calls up questions of their morality to some people. Similarly, changes in military funding would raise concerns for some, and so forth.

Clearly, consequences of changing creator's control over their works would be far-reaching if not comprehensive.

(1) Do not confuse the precise consistency that digital formats provide with the lossey compression that is often used therewith. Though the final product is not a perfect replica of the source data in this case, no further degradation occurs after final mix-down and compression.

(2) The term ``intellectual property'' is avoided in favor of ``creative works'' in this essay. The former is a very colored term which tends to incorrectly equate ideas and expression with tangible property. Obviously, fundamental differences between the two include the ability to replicate and distribute copies of ideas without diminishing the original, among others. For brevity and generality, the term ``idea'' is also used interchangeably with ``creative work.''

(3) At least, they are believed to provide.

(4) This is not to say that disregarding creators' wishes implies fiscal failure, simply that if it does these professionals become stakeholders.

Creative freedom is in itself an important value of many artists.

This assumes that some unexpected factor does not decrease the quality of artists' output.

No comments: