I am working in Europe this week with a large technology company, and of course everyone is talking about the filing of a $1 billion copyright infringement case against Google by Viacom. "We have rights management products that would solve the problem," one of my clients noted. "I don't understand why it isn't selling."
Maybe it's because Google doesn't think it has a problem. Maybe it's because what my client is offering isn't a solution, it's the raw material of weaponry in an escalating information war.
The industrial revolution created tremendous new wealth and remade the feudal economy of much of the world, but we don't call it a revolution for nothing. The new wealth was initially concentrated in the hands of a few holders, who used an archaic legal system to resist efforts to redistribute that wealth (and ultimately multiply its scale). Slavery in the U.S. was dying out when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which ironicaly increased the need for low-cost labor and in turn made the Civil War inevitable. The Communist Revolution (radical) and the Progressive Movement (incremental) were both rejections of a legal system that no longer functioned, and which could not adapt to changing realities. Theodore Roosevelt embraced antitrust not because he was a liberal (he was a conservative), but because he believed it was a necessary safety valve to avoid social revolution.
Resistance to industrial technology began as scattered, disorganized social unrest (think of the original luddites, pictured above, smashing the machines of industrialized textile manufacturing), but over time disparate threads came together and coalesced into armed resistance. Then, as now, war made for some strange bedfellows. In the U.S.pragmatists like Roosevelt kept company with radicals like Jane Addams. Karl Marx was not a Marxist.
The Information Revolution began in 1955 with the sale of the first commercial computer, the Univac I. Its basic law of physics is Moore's Law, and Moore's Law and the post-industrial law of property are clashing at an accelerating rate (the rate doubles every 12-18 months, just like Moore's Law). The early signs of a social, political and economic revolution are increasingly visible--copyleft, net neutrality, Web 2.0, the "privacy debate," Barlow's Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, neo-luddism against RFID and the increasingly desperate and increasingly blunt force responses of the vested interests--the DMCA, the Convention on Cybercrime, business process patents, Grokster.
In the information revolution, the means of production are not industrial, they are bits. The bloody fights are not over natural resources and access to emerging markets but over use and ownership of ideas. But the battles of the information revolution will be fought with just as much violence as their 19th century predecessors, because the economic stakes are just as high.
And in the end, whenever and however the end comes, the result will be a new legal infrastructure better suited to the new economic realities of information and the technology that spreads it. Better, not perfect. And the creation of that new legal system will not be an academic exercise, it will be war. 200 million Americans can't be felons.
Exactly 100 years ago, economist, lawyer, and historian Brooks Adams, great-grandson of revolutionary John Adams and a close advisor to Roosevelt, was in pitched battle against the U.S. railroads, who were charging extortionary rates for shippers to and from points between Chicago and the West Coast, where they held monopoly power. Adams wrote:
"There is no ancient and abstract principle of right and wrong, which can safely be deduced as a guide to regulate the relations of railways and monopolies among our people, because railways and monopolies are products of forces unknown in former times. The character of competition has changed, and the law must change to meet it, or collapse. Such is my general theory."
At 4 AM local time and suffering the delirium of jet lag, it's my general theory as well.