Broadband and copyright

The idea that overcoming the digital copyright mess is crucial to broadband adoption seems to have become conventional wisdom. I first saw this argument in a piece by Larry Lessig in the Industry Standard. He was using it to point the finger of blame at the content owners. As the article linked above shows, though, the content owners use the same argument to blame the greedy technology industry for balking at the digital rights management technologies that will user in movies on demand.

I think both sides are mistaken. Digital entertainment will be a big part of the broadband market, but we should be skeptical any time someone tells us they can foresee a “killer app”. Video on demand is actually a hoary example of an app that didn’t kill, despite lavish funding and high expectations. It was the centerpiece of the failed video dialtone networks of the 1990s, remember?

Real killer apps tend to surprise people. No one in the early 1990s thought that interoperable email would be the driver of the Internet boom. And who would have predicted that the most successful of the countless Internet startups was the one that made it easy for people to swap Pez dispensers? eBay looks obvious only in hindsight.

Broadband isn’t an application; it’s a platform. No one magic bullet will suddently convince everyone to adopt it. That’s also the fallacy of legislation such as the Tauzin-Dingell bill that thinks one regulatory change, whether deregulating the incumbent phone companies or regulating them more, will transform the market overnight. We can do things that will speed up or slow down broadband. The difference matters to investors and to companies seeking to capitalize on the broadband opportunity. It’s dangerous, though to set up a straw-man broadband nirvana and fight an all-or-nothing battle about it.

There will be killer apps on the broadband platform. However, I suspect online multiplayer gaming, personal videoblogging, and on-demand do-it-yourself and personal-improvement videos will rank far above downloadable movies on the list.

Don’t get me wrong. By insisting on extreme restrictions on content, the copyright holders, especially in the movie industry, have done a disservice to their customers and to the economy. There’s an attainable middle ground that addresses realistic concerns about piracy, while no throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I personally think the content owners’ intransigence is the primary reason we haven’t gotten there. Yet both sides are guilty of ratcheting up the doomsday rhetoric instead of negotiating. And that’s why the “killer app” question matters.

If you think your opponents are the only thing standing in the way of immediate ubiquitous broadband adoption, you’re going to fight tooth-and-nail for your point of view. If you have a healthy humility about your ability to foresee killer apps, you’ll do what the founding Internet technologists did. They built a network on the principle of end-to-end, meaning that the network didn’t pre-suppose the applications. Now, more than ever, we should adhere to this approach.