Samuelson and Hashimoto, ‘The Enigma of Digitized Property: A Tribute to John Perry Barlow’

John Perry Barlow (1947–2018) was a seer as well as a great songwriter. His provocative prose in The Economy of Ideas, published in WIRED magazine in 1994, imaginatively surveyed the burgeoning activity in the relatively early days of cyberspace, focusing on what he described as the ‘enigma’ of digitized property: ‘[H]ow can we protect it? How are we going to get paid for the work we do with our minds? And if we can’t get paid, what will assure the continued creation and distribution of such work?’ Twenty-five years later, Barlow’s poetically prescient essay still speaks to us today as though it was written yesterday. The enigma of digitized property remains a pressing concern for creators and follow-on creators, for users, for technologists and intermediaries – in short, for everyone.

Barlow predicted that copyright would not survive in the digital age. Certainly it has been under siege. Part I shows that legislatures in the US and EU have sought to address the enigma of digitized property by strengthening copyright rules and insisting that some previously unregulated uses must be licensed. Part I also discusses Barlow’s cry for Internet freedoms, some of which have been echoed by commentators in the EU and US in reaction to stricter copyright rules. Part II explores some ideas Barlow had about how the digitized property enigma might be addressed without tightening copyright rules. He had confidence that creative people would figure out ways to thrive in the economy of ideas. Part III offers evidence that the entertainment, book publishing, and other conventional copyright industries have indeed found ways to overcome the enigma of digitized property. New economies of creativity have emerged that Barlow would have celebrated.

Samuelson, Pamela and Hashimoto, Kathryn, The Enigma of Digitized Property: A Tribute to John Perry Barlow (August 7, 2019). Duke Law and Technology Review, volume 18, no 1, 2019.

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