The first battle over copyright on record was an actual physical battle. Around 560, Columba, an Irish monk, copied out a book of psalms, intending to keep it for himself. This was disputed by St. Finnian, owner of the original volume who had lent it to him to read. The saint was supported by the court which said that the reproduction rightfully belonged to him as sure as a calf does to its mother. It being the Dark Ages, there was nothing for it then but to fight it out.

Columba’s side won the melee; in grief over the ensuing deaths, however, the monk left Ireland forever. During his lifelong exile, he founded the great monastery of Iona where the magnificent Book of Kells was later made, was the first known witness of the Loch Ness Monster, and ultimately became a saint, too, so it all worked out pretty well for him in the long run.

A millennium and a half later, however, copyright conflicts are still being fought almost as viciously in the courts. But while modern media could not even be imagined by the scribes of old, the issues would be quite familiar. Now, as then, the greatest disagreements are often caused by the use of new technologies to do things previously impossible — be it with a goose-quill pen and parchment back then, or mouse and keyboard now.

No rational person would disagree that artists should receive some just payment for their creations, nor that those enabling such production and distribution should likewise be fairly compensated. In most cases, the investment of time, talent, and above all, money, is quite substantial. But the problem is that these new devices of ours make it so very easy and inexpensive to reproduce (or alter) books, music, and movies that no one knows what their true value may be anymore.

In fact, our digital technology is just as magical as that of Star Trek, albeit it’s only information that can be transported and replicated effortlessly and not solid objects. But the problems posed are identical. Would a diamond be so precious if you could make as many as you want, wherever you like, at the mere touch of a button? What about a Harry Potter film, then?

So it is that the old cultural agreements hewn out of ideas of material scarcity and the added value of labor must be argued out all over again. But the Internet, by its very nature, makes the situation even worse. Because, ironically, the way electronic files are transferred across the Net is entirely dependent on copying.

Any time you download anything, it is not transmitted directly point-to-point to your laptop or iPhone, or delivered like a book. Even if the information is encased in a discrete unit like an ebook for your Kindle, it’s copied every step of the way.

All that data reached its destination by being replicated time and again across the Internet in the form of small information packets. All those copies generated enroute are quickly written over — or should be — but the fact is that the Internet is fundamentally based on copying files, all kinds of files, back and forth.

The inherent uncertainty involved in this is one reason why email is so insecure, but also partly why the entertainment industry is so deeply concerned about people sharing files. They are desperately holding onto an obsolete economic model of control because nobody’s yet come up with a new one that works any better. Thus the music and publishing industries obsess over Digital Rights Management and Hollywood plots to cut illegal downloaders off from the Internet forever.

The Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect-IP Act (PIPA) that recently stalled in Congress due to a widespread, if not widely understood, Internet outcry represent this desperation on the part of content producers and distributors. But even though they have been halted in their tracks, other proposals and certain laws already on the books are almost as bad.

The federal government, for example, has already seized hundreds of domains for Internet piracy on behalf of content owners in equally high-handed fashion as anything under SOPA would be under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Almost at the same time as the halting of the new legislation was announced, the FBI busted a large file-sharing site called Megaupload and its owners for copyright violation, as if to send a message.

What message was received is not clear: within a day the site was reported back up and running, and meanwhile the Anonymous hacker activist group temporarily blocked FBI, Universal Music Group and other parties.

But ownership of data and who has the right to control it is not the only issue. Ownership of the cables and servers the data travels over and who controls them is also hotly contested. Generally, the amount of data online to be moved across the system far exceeds its capability. In other words, the pipes are just too small for all those packets to go at once. Some scheme to regulate traffic flow is essential.

The issue of prioritizing data on the move is called “Net neutrality”, and is as hotly debated as copyright, for much the same reason: it’s all about having power over the Internet. The implications are also huge, and as much political and historical as economic.

The postal model

Historically, the Internet has always been neutral, relying on the simple principle of “first come, first served”. Information reaching a server is queued up to be sent on in the order of its arrival, much like physical packages at the Post Office. What kind of data the packets contain, origin or purpose, is technically irrelevant.

However, out in the “real” world, such factors are significant indeed. Physical mail is all highly prioritized. Larger packages and greater distances cost more. Extra-value services like express or priority delivery move items to the head of the line, and they may require special handling or tracking. Foreign and suspicious packages can be intercepted, inspected, and held up.

Such practices are slowly appearing on the Internet.  Content providers, especially those marketing on-demand video, desire to speed their data packets across their systems with as few interruptions as possible. Moreover, they are naturally unhappy about allowing packets from rival services — especially peer-to-peer networks who may be distributing an identical product without charge — to use their systems just as freely. For service providers, whether the content is illegal or from a rival service is not important: bandwidth is.

Cable companies have already gotten into trouble for slowing such traffic down. They claim that allowing bandwidth-hogging file-sharing impairs connections for their other customers. And they may be right – a few users do take up most of the bandwidth, studies show. But larger issues are also involved, including privacy and ownership of information.

Fair use” for parody or social commentary is under serious legal attack, often by big media corporations.  Individuals have also been sued outrageous amounts for downloading pirated music and movies. Privacy rights online in general are in great peril, too.

What with copyright issues, the meaning of intellectual property and fair trade, combining with other closely-related issues like net neutrality, the future of who owns the Internet and its content and resources is far from certain. It could determine the entire future economics of the planet in ways that we cannot yet foresee.

While the issues may seem sometime esoteric and ethereal, the real possibility of consumers being arrested for downloading content they thought was free and legal means these remain important, real life issues. SWCP will continue to follow and report on them and what it means to you, our customers and neighbors.

The fight for the Net is not over yet. In fact, it’s hardly begun. Stay tuned.