Copyright reform: a way out of pandora’s box?

16 July 2014

Big Data combined with nudge theory can make quite accurate predictions about (consumer) choices. This threatens personal autonomy in our society. A more open infrastructure with a flourishing public domain can help to turn the tide. To achieve this, we do not have to wait for the market to fix problems (it won’t!), or for the government to implement reform. As individuals, we have to be aware of the changes we can make ourselves.

At the Information Influx conference, organised by the IViR, keynote speaker Yochai Benkler discussed the notion of freedom in our society. Constructing a rather simple sum, he clarified why freedom in our current society is heavily restricted, and can only be achieved when a real open infrastructure with a flourishing public domain is developed. 

The first component of Benkler’s sum is ubiquitous computing. As a result of modern technology, an immense bulk of data is collected: Big Data. At the moment, the main parties invested in the monitoring, analysis and interpretation of Big Data are governments and private companies. This, combined with the ‘behavioural turn’ – an increasing body of knowledge about human behaviour and choices – leads to accurate predictions of choice making processes and consumer choice. The field of nudge theory designed a choice architecture that makes claims about the predictability of people’s behavioural choices. 

ubiquitous computing + behavioural turn = restriction of freedom

Evidently, the type of freedom Benkler has in mind is, in line with liberal American thinking, market freedom. Consumer choice gives the illusion of freedom: you buy what you want. But in line with Benkler’s analysis, “choice” is not as free as the word suggests. Benkler compares the current situation to pandora’s box, indicating the far-reaching consequences leading to a potential loss of control in the current situation. Big Data analysis and nudge theory combined can lead to the emergence of unprecedented centralised power.

Strong public domain with an adjusted copyright system

It sounds quite disillusioned to state that a choice is not really a choice. Given the complexity of our societies, there is no one uniform way to go about changing the status quo. It is vital to work towards a more open infrastructure.

To achieve this the current copyright system needs to be reformed. Copyright as we know it is a dated system, designed over more than a century ago and never made fit to face today’s digital challenges. At the moment the copyright system is too restricted, and forms an obstacle for innovation. Flexibility of the system would allow for creativity and innovation to thrive and support decentralised initiatives.

One way to achieve change could be by relying on the strength of the market. Neelie Kroes argues for this approach. Personally, I would not want to rely on a system that so far has never benefitted individual freedom. Another way is reform through (lobbying in) the political arena. This would work well to reform the copyright system.

To create a truly open infrastructure with a strong public domain, individuals can make a difference, without having to rely on the market or politics. First by getting yourself well-informed. And then by simply taking actions and starting initiatives. Let the open source software and hardware movements be guiding examples. A lively and resilient public domain stimulates participation, and creativity in dealing with problems. It is not always necessary to wait for the government to catch up and create the framework that allows you to do what you want to do.

Read Paul's reaction to Kroes’ plea to get reform through a single European market here

Tessa Askamp

Deze tekst heeft een Creative Commons Naamsvermelding-licentie (CC BY) en is gekopieerd van de Kennisland-website. Ga voor de volledige versie met afbeeldingen, streamers en noten naar

This text has a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) and has been copied from the Kennisland website. For a full version with images, streamers and notes go to