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Whose Net Is It, Anyway?

Whether your e-business sells products, services, or information, the infomediary component of your company will—and must—grow if you're to stay competitive in the future. Information is the stock-in-trade of the new digital economy, whether you produce it, provide it, or package it. But how do you protect those who create the information without controlling the technology that sells it?

Stewart Brand once said, "Information just wants to be free." If so, making a buck in the information economy will be harder than ever. So some kind of compromise has to be made between those who create information in the digital marketplace and those who use it. A host of new court cases is hoping to decide that issue. First brought to court by software companies wanting to protect their intellectual property, non–software-producing companies are using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 against several new Internet companies.

One of these was Napster. Another was DeCSS. DeCSS is a software application that cracks the Content Scrambling System (CSS) by reading media files directly from a DVD disc without a decryption key. Supporters of DeCSS said they were just building a Linux DVD player and had to crack the DVD encryption to make one.

But despite the court battles won by the copyright holders, they might have lost the war. Information just wants to be free on the Net, so millions of consumers have downloaded the DeCSS code-breaking software. In spite of the copyright holders' efforts, son-of-Napster sites have sprung up across the Web, making the downloading of free music as popular as ever. It's just a matter of time before applications such as these show up for movies and any other tightly controlled industries. The disintermediation of the old economy is moving into full swing.

At issue here is the debate between the protection of intellectual property and free speech. And the solution will not be quick in coming. Do search engines, bots, and screen scrapers have the right to cruise around the Net plucking content from the vast database we call the Internet, created by information producers and providers, and repackage it with no regard for its source? Does the copyright holder of the information have a right to control how their intellectual property is used?

Old economy businesses see the Net as another money-making platform and want ownership over what "content" it produces. Consumers, including new infomediaries such as Napster and BiddersEdge, see the Net as a giant information bazaar in which ownership claims of "content" should be kept to a minimum. The problem is that digital information is seen most often as copied information. But digital information is the stock-in-trade of the new economy. By its nature, you can't access or use digital information without making copies.

So what does this all mean to your e-business? If you decide to position your company in the new digital marketplace as an infomediary, or if you plan on creating an infomediary component of your e-business, business on the Net will not mean business as usual for you. Do you see your company positioned as a "content guardian" or "content harvester"? Prepare to be both.

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Other Collection and Use of Information


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Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents


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Sharing and Disclosure


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Changes to this Privacy Notice


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Last Update: November 17, 2020