A Moron In A Hurry

August 15, 2006

Making Digital Backups of Our Culture

Filed under: copyright, internet — nick @ 1:25 am

One of the problems with locking up major cultural moments behind the walled garden of IP law is that it’s up to those who “own” them to preserve and maintain them for future generations. For all the talk that piracy and unauthorized copying hurt the short term financial prospects of such things, it’s also equally true that having millions of people with their own copies of such things will help ensure that they are always around. Strength in numbers and all. That’s why it’s so alarming to here that NASA can’t find the original recording of Neil Armstrong’s epic statement of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In all, NASA reports that “some 700 boxes of transmissions from the Apollo lunar missions are missing.”

Not to say that NASA doesn’t care about preserving such things, but it’s not their top priority, especially when faced with increasing budget cuts while at the same time being asked to plan for more ambitious missions (like to Mars). If it’s possible to lose that recording – possibly the greatest moment of mankind since maybe harnessing fire – shouldn’t we be thinking harder about not letting such things disappear?

The Internet, and digital technology in general, allows us the opportunity to never even have to worry about such things ever again. When such a defining moment happens these days it ought to be recorded digitally and sent out so that people will see it, be amazed, realize it’s important, and download it to their computers. Fortunately, something similar has happened with NASA, as it appears the only copies available now are those that were sent to television stations for broadcast. Again, strength in numbers.

In a way that gets little attention, this is what Google is trying to do with Book Search. There are millions of books whose “owners” are not properly motivated enough to ensure that they will be read in the future. Rather then allow for such a valuable project to proceed, the “owners” think it better to sue under the thinking they might get a few extra nickels out of the deal. Though Google is only one, it is better than no digital backups, which was the problem NASA had with the original recordings.

The larger point to remember is that when control of important works is entrusted to a select few, the odds of losing a significant moment that defines a culture, a species even, is more likely to be lost than if it were widely distributed. Preservation seems to get little attention these days when it comes to IP issues and the Internet, unless you take the position that locking things up produces more, because if it gets lost, then the only choice is to create more to fill the void in the market.

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