The Digital Dark Age: Technology, Copyright, DRM, and the Loss of Human Knowledge from 1965 to 2005

by Mike Shea on 25 September 2005

Do we sit on the chasm of a dark age? Has it already begun? In 1000 years will history look back to this period and see nothingof who we are, what we wrote, what we listened to, and what we watched?

I discussed the article "The Digital Dark Age" in my last entry but I forgot one key point. There are many factors that could all add up to a true loss of the knowledge of our time. Let's take a look.

Over the past quarter century there has been a push for the "paperless office". More and more of our information is stored digitally. Digital storage does wonders for things like data transfer, manipulation, size, and convenience. I can listen to a song and email it to my friend in Georgia if I want (if it was legal but we will get to that in a moment). However digital data doesn't last. Bits can switch from 0 to 1 very easily. Popular mediums change every five years and often make the previous obsolete. Consider punchcards, reel-to-reel tape, cassette tape, 8.5" floppies, 5.25" floppies, 3.5" floppies, WORM drives, CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, and now Flash drives. Data written on a 3.5" disc ten years ago is probably not recoverable now.

We narrowed down the problem of digital storage to three major considerations:

So there are a lot of issues to consider just keeping data alive. We even came up with some good rules for keeping data alive:

However, there is a much larger and darker issue with our information this day. Copyright and Digital Rights Management.

Copyright is a huge topic right now and copyright laws continue to grow more and more controlling. Megacorporations and alliances like the RIAA and MPAA now enforce copyright at the system level - pushing very severe copyright protection to the user. They call this Digital Rights Management, DRM. We hear and see DRM all around us. Tivos record their shows in a proprietary DRM format. Music purchased from iTunes is in Apple's proprietary DRM. DVDs are encrypted and it is illegal for you to decrypt them according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998.

DRM is particularly destructive to the goals of digital preservation. For example, encodes audio books in their own format with their own built-in license agreement. You are unable to listen to these books except on one of five or six devices registered to the website. What happens if goes out of business? What if you want to listen to a sixth or seventh machine 20 years from now? I have books on my shelf that are 70 years old and I can still read them no matter what lamp I use to light it. Why should audio books be so much more restrictive?

Music is the same way. Those iTunes files you listen to play great on your ipod today, but what if you want to listen to them on the new 2010 Dell Digital Jukebox of the Future? Apple's files don't play on Dell's devices. You're out of luck. Imagine if Sony music CDs only played Sony CD players?

Recently we heard about the author's guild suing Google in an attempt to stop the search engine company from scanning and making searchable every text in most libraries. Google was within their free-use rights and the idea would benefit all of us, but copyright hounds became threatened. This isn't information, this is THEIR information!

New extensions to copyright law now make it up to 95 years from the creation of a work until it falls under the public domain. Giant restrictive companies like Disney (the company that wanted to sell you a proprietary box called "Moviebeam", charge you a monthly fee, and then sell you DRM encrypted movies for $4) push congress to extend copyright law every time their material begins to inch closer to the public domain. Congress, fat from the juicy meats of Disney lobbyists, forgets the original intent of copyright law: to protect the owner of the work without hindering future innovation.

More frustrating is the gray areas of copyright, free use, and ownership. Any company with the money to do something really useful with older material (for example, Peter Jackson making "The Hobbit") are unable to do so even though the original writer of the story wrote it in 1937.

Stories like Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are not about to get lost, but what of less well known stories? Many thousands of stories, songs, and even movies are lost into the gray areas of copyright on the death of their creators. They slip off to cousins and second-cousins who know nothing of the work and care nothing for its safe-keeping.

These works become lost forever. Anyone who may take an interest in their preservation is unable to preserve it without the permission of the now-lost copyright owner. Thousands of works are lost forever because of the copyright protection of Mickey Mouse.

Mix the fragile short-lived nature of digital data with overly restrictive legal copyright issues and the destructive digital rights management software they create and you can begin to see how much of our information is lost.

Imagine every piece of information you have that is stored digitally. Your music, your e-books, your DVDs, your TV shows, your blog entries, your email to your friends and loved ones. Imagine all of that has disappeared. What will you have left? That is what historians 1000 years from now will find of your life.

What can we do to prevent this? How can we let our knowledge live on?

Maybe one day our technology will catch up to our requirements for historical safe keeping. Right now, however, with corporate-centric lawmakers and media companies who prefer that digital data die rather than survive, we are in great danger of standing in the center of what will become the digital dark age.

Of course, with movies like Dukes of Hazard, perhaps that is for the best.