Peer-to-Peer without Peer


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I have no shortage of opinions. Name an issue and I'll plant my feet firmly on one side of it, and take great pleasure in arguing my side ad infinitum. Copyright used to be such an issue for me. Things were clear: creators should have control, period. Nothing, I thought, was more sacred than the individual's right to protect his or her singular creation. My mind hasn't changed, but the concept of "singularity" has. Once, creator and publisher struck a simple bargain and the two worked together to ensure the success of the creative work. The work then had decades to bestow well-earned profit on its creators and backers. And if it stood the test of time, it transcended profit and property and entered the public domain, where everyone had the privilege—and right—to enjoy it.

Creative waters are much harder to navigate now. The power to produce and reproduce has been wrested from the hands of creative talents and even the infinitely tighter grip of their publishers and producers. Once a thing exists, it almost instantly finds its way online. In many cases, contracts and copyright are being called in to question. In other cases, writers and musicians are attempting to battle the Internet content propagation beast themselves—a beast that, in the music world at least, had a face: Napster.

Where Napster once embodied all that was exciting about the new Internet publishing world (by extending the free exchange of music once confined to home taping), its fate is now controlled by Bertelsmann, a 166-year-old media giant. And the service that media moguls set out to destroy has now been embraced in a bevy of instant messenger products and the promise of peer-to-peer-enabled business communication and exchange of ideas.

Napster has made peer-to-peer, basically decentralized distribution networks, practically a household word. P2P solutions are already hard at work in Europe, where collaboration--rather than competition--prevails. European research institutes, particularly those in France, Switzerland, and Germany have been using a form of Internet-based P2P for years in order to harness massive amounts of computing power for research computations. Distributed computing lends itself strongly to certain vertical segments, including financial services and trading, high-tech design, biotech, and pharmaceuticals. In these areas, innovators benefit greatly from exposure to each other's work, even in cases where they are ostensibly "competing" to find the "winning solution."

So, out of the ashes of renegade Napster's rebirth as Bertelsmann's legitimized stepchild, arose another way to tame the Internet and allow it to work for the creative process. The question of copyright has also re-entered the public debate, and with it, the concept of public domain. Now, rather than entering the public domain after 50 years, works have 70 years as "singular" property before they can be freely traded online or otherwise.

In response to this, another digital voice has chimed in: Creative Commons (www.creativecommons.org). As put forth in their mission, "Creativity and innovation rely on a rich heritage of prior intellectual endeavor. We stand on the shoulders of giants by revisiting, reusing, and transforming the ideas and works of our peers and predecessors." The digital age, they propose, provides an even greater promise of this type of collaborative, creative activity. They suggest that, rather than extending copyright willy-nilly to every "creative work" regardless of the creators' intentions and assigning fewer creative works to the public domain, that creators should choose how their works will be used.

First, Creative Commons is developing a Web application, which employs a database of metadata, to help people dedicate their creative works to the public domain or license them on terms more generous than copyright. These licenses will not be designed for software, but rather for other kinds of creative works: Web sites, scholarship, music, film, photography, literature, courseware, etc. Creative Commons also plans to build an "intellectual property conservancy" to protect works of special public value from exclusionary private ownership.

So, while Napster may have been used, and perhaps even created, to allow for illegal distribution of music, it has spawned transformations in collaboration, copyright, and even the creative process that embody all that is exciting and infuriatingly unclear about the digital content age.