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Does current copyright law thwart the potential affordances of peer-to-peer social networks?

By its very nature, the Internet is meant to be democratized and uncontrolled. It offers a space in which information can be disseminated within the public domain and creates a communicative and accessible environment for expression and the free exchange of ideas to occur. Online social networks have become the norm, but with them come issues of privacy concerns and the question of who has access to what types of content.

Within traditional media forms there is a clear line drawn between who owns content (typically a large corporation or media outlet) and those who consume them. However,social media has brought individuals to come face to face and brings about a new systematic structure in which peer-to-peer communication has become the predominant way in which content gets distributed.

Is current copyright law working towards the public interest? The p2p landscape is a non-commercial system and exists in order for cultural objects to exist without the support of any large institution and outside of any commodity system. But the ease and accessibility of content sharing that the Internet has propelled and facilitated has led content owners to seek alternative forms of protection, such as through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Mike Seyfang

Under the DMCA, copying, distributing, uploading, and downloading copyright materials is a violation of federal law. This includes sharing files via p2p networks – even if you are sending an album file to a friend via Dropbox or Facebook. The DMCA tries to stifle illegal content exchange through technological controls like encryption – which involves incorporating a type of technological lock on distributed copies of content and eliminating a technology’s ability to reproduce a work unless it is properly authorized. Encryption circumvention methods are made illegal. Therefore, the DMCA prohibits technology itself.

But peer-to-peer file sharing technologies can be beneficial and show how the Internet brings about new forms of idea exchange. Social media has contributed to a system in which individual users communicate directly to one another, in a non-commercialized open, free, and democratized space.

Current copyright law treats p2p technologies as though it does exist within a commercial realm – as though downloading a file off a p2p system is equivalent to taking an album off of a store shelf without paying for it. Copyright law works largely towards the agenda of corporations which have long enjoyed control of cultural objects in the past, before the emergence of p2p networks. This inhibits many affordances that are offered by these types of p2p technologies to the public individual and ultimately works to stifle free expression and the flow of ideas within a public space.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Christine Schallhorn

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