The Speed of Knowledge versus Copyright

No one yet knows the real impact of the Internet on human society.  If it wasn’t for copyright laws, the Internet could be the ultimate library. A dazzling library that it would surpass all existing world libraries and all libraries in history.  Even now, most people get more information from the Internet than they ever gotten from a library, or for that matter, from books, magazines, journals and newspapers.  Yet, the Internet is severely hobbled by copyright.

Writers need to make a living, and publishers need to make a profit, so it’s understandable that copyrights should protect intellectual property.  I don’t resent the need for writers and publishers to make money.  I do resent that making money impedes the flow of knowledge.  It’s a shame that the current distribution systems are so inefficient at spreading commercial knowledge.


Take for instance the article I just read in The New Yorker, “The Gene Factory” by Michael Spector.  If you follow the link you’ll reach a teaser section of the article and information about how to subscribe.  This does not let you quickly read the article, which means you probably won’t.  If you’re already a subscriber and have set up your digital access, or can just grab your latest copy of the magazine, then reading is a little faster, but not quite as convenient as following a link.  Please make the effort, the article is worth it.

Many journals and magazines do offer to let readers buy an immediate reprint, usually for several dollars.  This is step in the right direction, but their pricing structure usually causes web users to skip the article.  Now I would prefer that the content of all magazines, journals and newspaper be free, but I’m no old hippie, and can understand the need to charge.  What I suggest is to make selling articles easier and price them at impulse buying fees.  What we need is a good micropayment system so publishers can charge 10-99 cents an article.

“The Gene Factory” by Michael Spector is an article that most people should read, but especially people worried about America’s future and science fiction writers.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Gattica then you’ll know what this article is about.  Then again, if you’ve ever been fascinated by the decline of the British Empire and wondered when and how the American Empire would start declining, then again, this article is for you.


“The Gene Factory” is specifically about  Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), but also about the impact of gene sequencing on human society.  The New Yorker article is very long and full of wonderful details and speculation, far more than I want to paraphrase here.  Which is why our society would be so much different if I could just provide you a link and you could go read the article.  Then if the article also included links to all the research that Michael Spector put into writing the article, we could all study what he has to say in depth.

Now, wouldn’t that increase the speed of knowledge?  And if you don’t feel the need for such speed, then again, I recommend you read the article.

Some magazines like The Atlantic and The Smithsonian put much of their content online for free.  I wonder if ideas in their content is spread faster and further throughout the world’s population than paywall controlled content?  That has to be the case, but I’d love to see the numbers.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to see public hit statistics for every article on the web?  Wouldn’t it be very cool to have a place on the web to see what people are reading, the Top 100,000 for the last hour, day, week, month, year and decade?  Think about the data mining possibilities!

Even cooler would be a raw hit score, plus a weighted score from people voting reading value.  So much more could be done for the Internet.  I feel like I’m thinking about television technology in 1939 and wondering what its real potential will be.

By the way, I use the Internet service Next Issue to subscribe to over 125 magazines for $15 a month.  It’s a quick way to get access to The New Yorker and many other magazines.  Next Issue might be worth trying just to read “The Gene Factory.”

JWH – 1/2/13

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