Cerf Warns Of A 'Lost Century' Caused By Bit Rot; Patents And Copyright Largely To Blame
from the and-he-should-know dept
According to his online biography, Vint Cerf is:
Vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. He is responsible for identifying new enabling technologies and applications on the Internet and other platforms for the company.
That suggests someone whose main job is to look forward, rather than back, and with a certain optimism too. But an article in the Guardian reports on a speech he gave in which he is not only concerned with the past of online technologies, rather than their future, but is also issuing an important warning about their fatal flaws:
Humanity’s first steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians, Vint Cerf told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, warning that we faced a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” through what he called “bit rot”, where old computer files become useless junk.
Of course, he’s not the first person to raise that issue — Techdirt wrote about this recently — but Cerf’s important contributions to the creation of the Internet, and his current role at Google, lend particular weight to his warning. That said, the Guardian article seems to miss the central reason all this is happening. It’s not that it’s really hard to create emulators to run old programs or open old files. The real issue is tucked away right at the end of the article, which quotes Cerf as saying:
“the rights of preservation might need to be incorporated into our thinking about things like copyright and patents and licensing. We’re talking about preserving them for hundreds to thousands of years,” said Cerf.
The main obstacles to creating software that can run old programs, read old file formats, or preserve old webpages, are patents and copyright. Patents stop people creating emulators, because clean-room implementations that avoid legal problems are just too difficult and expensive to carry out for academic archives to contemplate. At least patents expire relatively quickly, freeing up obsolete technology for reimplementation. Copyright, by contrast, keeps getting extended around the world, which means that libraries would probably be unwilling to make backup copies of digital artefacts unless the law was quite clear that they could — and in many countries, it isn’t.
Once again, we see that far from promoting and preserving culture, intellectual monopolies like patents and copyright represent massive impediments that may, as Cerf warns, result in vast swathes of our digital culture simply being lost forever.