The Internet has been hailed as the most revolutionary social development since the printing press. In many ways its astonishing growth has outstripped any historical analogy we can unearth. What has fueled much of that growth has been the explosion of new possibilities for connections--among people, among different formerly discrete packages of information, among ideas. Digital media and network connections, it is said, are the most democratic of media, promoting free expression and access to information wherever a computer can be hooked up to a telephone line.
In this celebration of new possibilities, we tend to emphasize the many things that become feasible when people have ready access to information sources and to other people not practicably available before. The scope and the speed of interconnected digital networks make conversations easy that before were unimaginable. But the technological marvel that makes this interconnection possible has other potential as well. Digital technology makes it possible to monitor, record and restrict what people look at, listen to, read and hear. Why, in the United States, would one want to do such a thing? To get paid. If someone, let's call him Fred, keeps track of what we see and hear, that enables Fred to ensure that we pay for our sights and sounds. Once information is valuable, an overwhelming temptation arises to appropriate that value, to turn it in to cash.
Now that technology permits the dissemination of information on a pay-per-view basis, we've seen the emergence of new way of thinking about copyright: Copyright is now seen as a tool for copyright owners to use to extract all the potential commercial value from works of authorship, even if that means that uses that have long been deemed legal are now brought within the copyright owner's control. In 1998, copyright owners persuaded Congress to enhance their rights with a sheaf of new legal and technological controls. Armed with those copyright improvements, copyright lawyers began a concerted campaign to remodel cyberspace into a digital multiplex and shopping mall for copyright-protected material. The outcome of that effort is still uncertain. If current trends continue unabated, however, we are likely to experience a violent collision between our expectations of freedom of expression and the enhanced copyright law.