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[FYI] Can technology tame the net?


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16 June 2000  

Can technology tame the net?  

The internet is throwing up all sorts of challenges to intellectual 
property owners. In an exclusive interview, James Nurton and Ralph 
Cunningham ask MCI WorldComís Vinton Cerf, one of the netís founders, 
if technology can help solve the legal problems  


What challenges does the Internet present for IP owners?  

The Internet presents both an opportunity and a challenge. We need to 
try to establish IP norms with compatible legislation. The present 
regime does not cater well to existing laws. There are lots of 
potential abuses - such as where one country chooses not to go along 
with the standard. For example the tax rules might be different in 
one country; it would then be attractive to go there and that would 
distort the marketplace.  

I am regularly asked questions such as: can you do this technically, 
for example with trademarks and domain names? And, in constructing 
pieces of the Internet, there are export control questions. When you 
move content from one place to another, from a hosting centre, what 
are the intellectual property implications? How do you guide 
customers using trademarks? How do you deal with web hosting and 
caching (which causes trouble) and mirroring (which causes even more 

If you have a database filled with information, you probably have to 
be aware at least of the American and European privacy laws. There 
has to be a balance between personal privacy and convenience: 
individual choice is important in the US, while Europe is more top-

One of the problems is that the Internet is carrying so much 
intellectual property, it carries information which people donít see 
as someoneís IP. The owner might forget, or not know that they have a 
copyright on it, or simply not know about the law. Take a piece of 
music which you can have in digital form, or as sheet music or in a 
performance, or in a combination of means. It is the same object but 
manifested in different ways. The same thing can morph itself into 
any of these things. The internet is doing this to other media - 
radio, TV, cable.  

How can the IP and Internet communities cooperate?  

Itís an educational process. There has to be a mutual education 
programme. For me, there is a need to educate the IP community on 
what we can and canít do with the technology. For example, Jack 
Valenti of the Motion Picture Association has suggested that we need 
a system that rings a bell every time there is a copyright violation. 
But that simply canít be done with the technology.  

And we need to ask questions of the IP community about issues such as 
digital electronic copyright management: can I copy, redistribute, 
translate or perform something? For example, Bob Kahn has developed 
an IP digital copyright management system for the Library of Congress 
called the Handle system. It contains information that helps you find 
IP, and find out who owns it and so on.  

We also have to help the IP community understand the limits of 
regulation. It is like the new photocopying machines of the past: we 
may have to realize that some things canít be stopped. MP3 may be 
like this. It may be that the IP community says, with regard to MP3: 
I canít stop that, so how do I change my business models to adapt?  

There is so much competition on the Internet you donít even have to 
pretend to regulate it. If youíre in the Federal Communications 
Commission in the US, for example, you must be very confused. You 
might ask: MCI WorldCom - what are they? Are they a telephone, cable 
or Internet company or are they doing all those things? How do you 
regulate them? Well, with the Internet, you donít have to. The 
bottlenecks are the cables. What is needed is to regulate the means 
of delivery not the TV programme itself. You need to regulate the guy 
who owns the cable, and open it up to get competition.  

What is the way forward?  

There are two things to remember: the Internet has a libertarian 
component, so there are knee-jerk reactions from users to the IP 
community. You need to approach them with a rational point of view. 
The libertarian, rational point of view is that usersí rights are 
best served by IP protection. Some people will say you have to change 
the way the rules work, but you need to talk about it: what are the 
business implications? How do we encourage the creation of 
intellectual property?  

For example, do we need to look again at fair use concepts? We may 
have to say that it is fine to download a CD on your computer, but if 
you make 10 million copies then we have a problem. Digital watermarks 
may help but that is only a start. There has to be more willingness 
to explore alternatives among all communities. Only then will new 
business models emerge.  

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