Statutory damages and innovation

For the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Media Informatics program at Linnaeus University in Vaxjo Sweden. I have been a guest instructor in a course called Social Media Ecology. There’s lots I enjoy about this opportunity, including the chance to learn about what my innovative friend Marcelo Milrad is working on. But perhaps the most enriching for me both personally and intellectually, is working with students from across the world who represent many different disciplines–most of them technical, such as computer science or instructional technology design.

In this course, what I bring to the table is (not surprisingly) a perspective that teaches students how to put communication first when conceiving and designing a social media application. This is challenging for them (and I think challenging for most people) because it is the technology that stands out, and they want to change the way people do things. A Herculean or, perhaps, Sisyphean task. More on that in another post.

What brought this to mind just a few minutes ago was an article I finished reading in the July 2013 issue of Communications of the ACM, by Pamela Samuelson. She is explaining why statutory damages are so chilling for innovation in new media. The laws that govern how intermediaries (what I think of as those whose business models depend on using content generated elsewhere) can operate are not only strict, but also highly punitive. One adverse decision can bankrupt a startup instantly. As I work with students, I realize that I need to be mindful of this — yes, intellectually and hypothetically, we can think of lots of cool and interesting applications that repurpose data (content), but building one might cost you a fortune rather than making you one.

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