Michael Lynton wants guardrails for the internet in the name of preserving creativity. At least, that's what he says he wants. If you read his recent piece in the Huffington Post, you quickly understand that what he really wants is to preserve his company's ability to profit from the creativity of others.
Lynton went viral after making the following assertion: "I'm a guy who sees nothing good having come from the Internet. Period." And in the HuffPost piece, he explains that he welcomes the "Sturm und Drang" that resulted from that statement, because it allows him to make the following point:
the major content businesses of the world and the most talented creators of that content -- music, newspapers, movies and books -- have all been seriously harmed by the Internet.
He's right, of course. But any attempt to roll back the appropriation, remix, and--sometimes--piracy practices enabled by new media will fail, and one big reason for this is that people like Lynton can't see that the internet simply cannot be regulated the way we've traditionally approached culturally transformative inventions.
Lynton compares the Internet to the national highway system developed under the Eisenhower administration. He explains the comparison thus:
Contrast the expansion of the Internet with what happened a half century ago. In the 1950's, the Eisenhower Administration undertook one of the most massive infrastructure projects in our nation's history -- the creation of the Interstate Highway System. It completely transformed how we did business, traveled, and conducted our daily lives. But unlike the Internet, the highways were built and operated with a set of rational guidelines. Guard rails went along dangerous sections of the road. Speed and weight limits saved lives and maintenance costs. And officers of the law made sure that these rules were obeyed. As a result, as interstates flourished, so did the economy. According to one study, over the course of its first four decades of existence, the Interstate Highway System was responsible for fully one-quarter of America's productivity growth.
We can replicate that kind of success with the Internet more easily if we do more to encourage the productivity of the creative engines of our society -- the artists, actors, writers, directors, singers and other holders of intellectual property rights -- yes, including the movie studios, which help produce and distribute entertainment to billions of people worldwide.
It makes sense for someone like Lynton to compare the internet to a literal highway--he, and many of his ilk, continue to think of the internet as an "information superhighway" that can be maintained and paid for via a simple system of tolls, speed limits, and regulations on what kinds of vehicles will be allowed to operate, and when, and by whom. This is precisely why the information superhighway metaphor has fallen into disuse by the majority of internet users: It simply does not apply to a system that is far more complex, and far less regulated and regulatable, than the metaphor suggests.
Mind-bogglingly, Lynton believes that "without standards of commerce and more action against piracy, the intellectual property of humankind will be subject to infinite exploitation on the Internet." He wonders:
How many people will be as motivated to write a book or a song, or make a movie if they know it is going to be immediately stolen from them and offered to the world with no compensation whatsoever? And how many people whose work is connected with those creative industries -- the carpenters, drivers, food service workers, and thousands of others -- will lose their jobs as piracy robs their business of resources?
Seriously? The head of one of the most new media-reliant entertainment companies in the world is so oblivious to the creativity that is enabled by social media that he really, honestly believes that the social practices that are emerging around these technologies are going to destroy humanity's creative impulse?
On the other hand, this is perhaps an apt approach for the head of a company that makes its bones on defining creativity as "stuff that can make money for whoever owns the rights to it (e.g., Sony Entertainment)."
Lynton would have us believe that he's in this fight for the good of mankind, that he and others like him are humanitarians along the lines of this cartoon I pirated from the internet:
Alternately, we might view his motives as more closely aligned with this cartoon I pirated from the internet:
Lynton wants us to know that he is not a Luddite, not "an analogue guy living in a digital world." I am fully convinced of that. I also believe that his impulse to set up internet guardrails is not quite as humanitarian as even he himself might think. He seems to be confusing the notions of "creative impulse" with "the drive to make money off of creativity." As anybody who's been paying attention for the last couple of decades knows, in the internet era, these aren't the same thing. They aren't even in the same category. If that makes it harder for behemoths like Sony to survive by standing on the shoulders of the creative types it exploits, then so be it.