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Culture

Joi Ito a man of many hats

newsmaker The man-about-the-Internet offers his wisdom on copyright, content sharing, Second Life, World of Warcraft and more.

At the recent Web 2.0 conference, Japanese-born and American-educated businessman Joi Ito's name badge identified his company affiliation as "We Know Guild."

The badge referred to the , which is composed of several venture capitalists, CEOs and other influential members of the Internet economy. An inside joke, perhaps, but it was a reflection of a man whose professional role is hard to define.

That's because he wears many, many hats. , among other things, general manager of international operations for Technorati, chairman of Six Apart Japan, founder and chief executive of venture capital firm Neoteny, and a board member of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Creative Commons and the Open Source Initiative.

Perhaps that's why Ito is almost certainly one of the most frequent and far-flung travelers in the world. It may be impossible to go where he goes, but if he's on your IM buddy list, he often gives hints of where he is. And it can be exhausting just keeping up with that.

Recently, Ito stopped by for a discussion about, among other things, the sharing economy, copyright and World of Warcraft.

Q: What do you do for a living?
Ito: I'm sort of part-time entrepreneur, VC and nonprofit board member. I do some writing, blogging, speaking and government policy work on the side.

What is it that ties everything you do together?
Ito: Well, there is a great disturbance in the way things should be that is caused by monopolies. Telcos for networking, Hollywood for content copyright, and Microsoft and others for software. These monopolies cause inefficiencies, which are also business opportunities. I fight against these monopolies by writing about them, participating in nonprofits and betting against them in venture businesses.

There are certain people who probably see me as an enemy, but actually, many of these monopolies, on a personal basis, are supportive of change.

How do you work with these companies?
Ito: Well, there are certain people who probably see me as an enemy, but actually, many of these monopolies, on a personal basis, are supportive of change. It's often the inertia of the machine that causes them to be the way they are.

These monopolies behave differently in developing nations. Often, it is a few people in these monopolies that are causing the "holdup" of opening up. I try to take a fairly moderate stance. But I still end up getting called a communist by some and a "money-oriented businessman" by others.

What kind of positive change can Creative Commons make?
Ito: Creative Commons is focused mostly on trying to build a set of licenses with legal and technical robustness that will allow people to choose to make certain rights available to others. And Creative Commons represents a spectrum of rights, all the way from fully open to just allowing samples, for instance.

One of the keys for me, personally, is that Creative Commons is able to integrate into technology. For instance, Flickr, Google and Yahoo all recognize Creative Commons markup. And by getting it embedded into services and technology, we can allow the market to help spread the ability for people to choose to share rather than have to fight it all out in courtrooms and protests.

If we don't do anything, we may lose the ability to innovate, share, etc., and the Internet might look more like cable TV married to a phone system again in the future.

With the proliferation of CopyBot, copyright has become a big issue in Second Life recently. What do you think the role of copyright here can and/or should be?
Ito: I think it's great that Second Life allows people to use Creative Commons licenses and has a terms-of-service (agreement) that grants ownership of content to the citizens. I think it's a huge first step.

Right now, to get a screenshot cleared from Blizzard--which publishes World of Warcraft--for instance, I have to go through their legal department and sign an agreement that I would need a lawyer to review. But copyright is really complex, and we need to develop processes and practices that we'll only figure out by doing. And Second Life is a perfect place.

You like to talk about the "sharing economy." Can you explain that and why you think it's important?
Ito: I think that a lot of sharing is being and will be hampered by laws and technology, and things like DRM (digital rights management). Part of it is about the business of helping people share.

Like Flickr, Google and Second Life. It can be shown that many times in the past, services like Minitel or Delphi thought people wanted to consume produced content. But when they rolled out their services, it was the communication and sharing parts that people used the most.

The idea of the "sharing economy" is to show that "sharing" isn't about being a communist or taking value from the economy and giving it away. But it's important to think about how sharing can help the economy and how hurting sharing can hurt it.

Having a market-driven component of a socially important position is always good. When electric vehicles were first introduced, all of the car companies tried to discredit it and stop it. But when the first EV1 trials in California showed that people liked them, the car companies started developing full-speed and we didn't have to argue with them anymore.

Harpo Geiger (CNET News.com reporter Stephen Shankland) asks: You're on the board of the Open Source Initiative. How big a problem is the profusion of open-source licenses?
Ito: Some say that there are over 500 open-source licenses. There is a group working on the issue of license proliferation, which is a bad thing. Various companies and groups are now buying into this idea, and Intel, for instance, has deprecated their license. We still need to do a lot of work. But as you can imagine, there is a lot of emotion and ego involved in the licenses, and getting people to give up their vanity licenses and stuff is quite difficult.

I think copyright is outdated. Basically, copyright in the physical world is a very limited thing.

lIHd Sellery (from the audience) asks: I would like to ask if Joi thinks traditional copyright as articulated in much Western legislation is outdated?
Ito: I think copyright is outdated. Basically, copyright in the physical world is a very limited thing. It doesn't affect you showing someone a book, how you read a book or how you sell a book you own because it involves only making copies which used to be expensive and cumbersome.

On the Net, every time you view a Web page, you are making a copy, and every activity that involves content involves a lot of copying and mixing of stuff. This screws up copyright but also allows copyright to significantly screw us up by extending the ability of copyright to influence and control a significant portion of our online activities just because every step we take, we are "copying" something.

Creative Commons is trying to work inside of the current copyright regime to provide choice and show people the value of sharing and do what we can.

Spin Martin (from the audience) asks: What do you think of the recent comment by the head of Sony Worldwide (Studios) saying that the strategy for the PlayStation 3 is inspired by Second Life: user-generated content?
Ito: I think there is a recognition of "consumer-generated content" as a phenomenon. But it's sort of fake sharing--fishbowl sharing--that is happening. People will start trying to make products that appear to allow you to share and create, but within boundaries that are created to protect the content makers. Like rides in Disneyland.

And while they may be better than before, I'm not sure whether big content companies will really "get" user-generated media and stuff. The good thing about Linden Lab is that some of the people there definitely understand and support user control, the basic idea that you can hold demonstrations here and force Linden Lab to change rules and stuff. This is the sort of stuff that scares companies but shows people who "get it" that the users are involved.

Rik Riel (from the audience) asks: Is the game industry consolidating like the movie, TV and radio industries? What can be done to ensure a diversity of gaming companies and developers?
Ito: Well, while I love WoW and think that Blizzard has a great thing going, they really don't understand or seem to care that much about the rest of the Internet. There is no API (application programming interface), nor any integration of lots of things that could make WoW explode to another level. And I'm not sure they could control it enough to retain the asset that they have if they did that.

WoW can only evolve so fast. There is a great opportunity for Net-savvy game companies and start-ups, I think. The game developer world has been isolated and separated from the Net community and is sort of a parallel universe. And I think EA and Blizzard still don't really "grok" the Internet. On the other hand, I think most Internet entrepreneurs underestimate the difficulty of making a good game.