Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Solving the WikiLeaks Problem

If WikiLeaks had posted a bunch of Britney Spears songs, they would have been shut down by now.  But they’re just publishing secret government documents so they’re okay.
As the world searches for scandalous tidbits among the documents and debates whether Julian Assange is a savior or anti-Christ - and whether to loose the CIA hit squads - I began to think about the larger picture.  How this will eventually play out.
I think that WikiLeaks, ironically, will ultimately lead to more restrictions on speech, communication and information.
Despite Ecuador’s enthusiastic offer to harbor Mr. Assange, I sincerely doubt that the leaders of any nation are comfortable with a shadowy rogue organization eager to open their secrets up to the world.  They will come up with a way to work together to limit use of government information - Some sort of international convention.
Failing that however, a quick fix may be available to the U.S. congress;  Copyright.  Currently, in order to promote open government, documents of the Federal Government do not generally enjoy the protections of Copyright.
If the congress would simply amend the copyright law to confer copyright ownership of documents classified as secret to the federal government, WikiLeaks could be dealt with in the same manner as any other infringing site – with lawyers.  This makes perfect sense to me.  Just as an author has the legal right around the world to control how his works are distributed, the same should be true of the federal government’s secret documents.
Of course, if one were to get their hands on some secret data, one could publish it by claiming fair use.   However, this wouldn’t fly in the case of massive document dumps of the sort WikiLeaks is engaging in.  It would have to be used in the context of a story.  And if Mr. Assange wants to work as a journalist instead of simply being a distributor of purloined material, I think the situation would be so much more manageable.
I don’t know what effect this might have on future releases if congress were to act immediately.  And I don’t know if, internationally, the change would be automatically absorbed.  But it seems like an obvious step to take.

UPDATE - 12/3/10 11:47AM

It's being reported that Amazon used copyright violations as a justification for booting Wikileaks off of their servers.  They aren't necessarily saying that the government owns the rights, but that Wikileaks doesn't.

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