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Wednesday, April 23 2014 @ 07:21 AM PDT

Those who cannot read historical information are doomed to repeat history

Digital RightsArcheologists have decoded the hieroglyphics of Egypt and the cave drawings of France. They've deciphered the writings of even the scribes of Mesopotamia; the first known writings of any substance.

Recordings of Caruso made by his singing into a megaphone carving wax on a 78RPM disk before his death in 1920 are available today. The question now is whether we will be able to listen to a recording of tomorrow's pop music stars sometime in the next century, or even know that they existed; and it all hinges on DRM.
One of the major problems I and others see in the large-scale use of DRM is the potential loss of public access to the copyright materials at the end of the copyright period. You might think that the loss of (for example) all the images of Mickey Mouse, to future generations would be not all that significant, but you would be wrong. You must take the problem to its logical conclusion; that of every aspect of humanity's history for the period starting now, potentially not being available to coming generations for some technical reason. The impact would be literally devastating.

As man has progressed from prehistoric times to today, the fact of historic documentation has determined implicitly our sense of history and advancement. Prehistoric times were by definition prior to man's ability to record in any way what went on so that future generations could learn from the experiences and mistakes of the prior generations. Advancement went slowly because what little knowledge was generated was passed on verbally or in ways that obviously did not survive for very long.

Only with the development of the ability to record facts and thoughts (thought to be best noted by the cuneiform writings of scribes tracking goods in early Mesopotamia if my history teacher's work serves me correctly) did information survive easily from generation to generation.

What we are talking about is blandly called "bit rot" in the digital world. This describes the loss of data due to any one of a number of phenomena but is typified by the inability of today's generation of computer systems to read the product of yesterday's and the extension of this to anything digital, including recordings of audio and video.

There are all sorts of reasons why today's systems might not be able to read yesterday's data:

  • incompatible media types - try finding something that will read a DEC-Tape today (or a 3200BPI 1/2" tape recorded in EBCDC)
  • incompatible data formats
  • impermanence of "permanent" media (if it isn't carved into rock or bronze, it won't last centuries)
  • loss of some key knowledge of how the recording was made originally (i.e. the DRM key)
  • Some other technical reason (i.e. the DRM algorithm not allowing access after a particular date, regardless of the fact the viewer might have a valid key and have in fact paid for the right to view, or the fact that the copyright has expired and the work is in the public domain in any case.)

    So what happens when all of the history of a period is recorded digitally in a form that is subject to bit rot of some sort, and the form cannot for some reason be "re-cast" in newer media or recovered with any reasonable effort from original media at some far point in the future? The answer is that we fall back to "pre-historic" times and lose our hard-won heritage of experience and expertise. We are left with only that which can be passed on from generation to generation by means of (fallible) human memory. Woe is us!

    The National library tried to impose its will upon us back in the days of Wimsey - requesting a copy of every page we hosted or created for our new World Wide Web sites - some of the first in Canada. At the time I believed that their request was mildly insane given the changeable nature of the typical web page even then.

    I had to teach them that the web is not a printing press and that if they were to put up web servers that any significant numbers of viewers went to (and you know that government wouldn't put up small servers - only the best) then the budding industry that was just beginning would be skewed in favour of government publishing in somewhat similar manner to what would have happened in the past if the "Queen's Printer" had published books without regard to contractual relationships with printers/publishers.

    The fact was (and is) that unlike printed materials, each page view was counted and could in fact have completely different advertising and/or sponsorship - and if they (the government) were going to offer the same pages but neither include the advertising (since it was "glued" on at viewing) nor pass back page counts (for those static pages that did include advertising but for which only logged page hits "counted") then they would do irreparable harm to the new business model we were inventing.

    Today I'm not so sure. I expect that their role may in fact become of critical importance in the face of DRM schemes which may deprive the country of its cultural and historic heritage due to inability to recover media protected at source from copying. What happens when the copyright period expires? What happens as the technologies necessary to decode the locked media fall into disuse?

    These questions should concern citizens of all countries, not just Canada. We're in the throws of a revolution in the arena of Copyright. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has established a treaty (1996) that signatory governments are implementing or have implemented. The biggest problem with it is that it was conceived and passed in an era before the current Digital and Communications revolution - and many of it's precepts are just plain wrong in today's technological environment.

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