Nowadays, a lot of the intellectual property protected by copyright law is in digital form. This raises an obvious problem for enforcing copyright, since digital files are easy to copy and easy to distribute.
One possible solution is technological protection, distributing the content in some form that lets the user use it but not copy it. That solution has a problem, sometimes referred to as the analog hole.
I buy a song, embedded in software that requires me to pay ten cents online every time I play it. I pay ten cents, play it into a tape recorder, and now have it outside the protection, available to replayed for free or, if I redigitize it, emailed off to any of my friends who wants it. With a little more technological sophistication, I can cut out the middle man—play it once, route the output to disk instead of to speakers, and get my digitized version without the loss from playing and rerecording. Current law not only forbids me from doing that, it bans software designed to help me do it, but it is not clear how enforceable that ban will turn out to be in practice. It's possible that legal and technical efforts will make piracy sufficiently inconvenient so that most users will pay for what they use. Also that it won't.
The analog hole is a serious problem for any IP, such as a song, novel, or movie, that is fully revealed in one use. But it does not prevent protection of IP that is not so revealed. A database, for instance, can be kept securely on the owner's server, assuming a sufficiently competent owner, and only the responses to queries sent out to users. A word processor can be designed to run on a server rather than the user's machine—and the current shift towards cloud computing, driven by the increasing speed and extent of online access, is making that an increasingly attractive option.
Years ago, thinking about this issue, I tried to dream up a version of a movie that would not be fully revealed, perhaps one where the viewer could see it from different points of view each time he viewed it. It eventually occurred to me that something of that sort already existed, and I was spending a good deal of time watching it. World of Warcraft, as I pointed out in my previous post, is a story as well as a game. Because it is a story that is told by having the viewer participate in it as a character, walking through a mostly predetermined plot, it is not fully revealed in one use. What I want is the experience for myself, not a recording of someone else having it.
There are a lot of problems with WoW as a story; it is a new literary form still waiting for its first Homer. But it does provide something not that far from the experience of a movie and, unlike a movie, can be protected from copying without falling into the analog hole. That should make it possible to invest large amounts of money and talent in improving it and in developing later and better works. It might turn out to be the crucial advantage for that form over its older competitors.
Or might not. It should be an interesting century.