Grateful Dead lyricist and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow has denounced the Digital Millenium Copyright Act as likely to turn the Internet into an information desert. Speaking at the RSA Security Conference 2002, in a session entitled "Copyright or Copy Wrong: Digital Millennium Copyright Act Examined," Barlow used the example of the Dead's approach to copyright to illustrate how the free flow of content did not necessarily choke off content availability.
Or indeed lead to anarchy, communism, the end of the world and very poor record companies (although he might agree that last one could be a good thing). One of the weird things about the Dead was that they positively encouraged fans to tape their concerts and share the tapes around, so in that sense they provided an early blueprint for some of the more radical ideas that are kicking around today. And in some other senses, if Barlow were not an EFF founder, aspects of the EFF would still be kind of 'based on an idea by...'
The Register however has no recollection of being positively encouraged to share tapes of Dead records around, and indeed remembers having to save up what at the time a king's ransom for the vinyl of Europe 72 live. Barlow's point that you can share without stifling its availability may or may not be supported by this, depnding on your point of view. You could argue that we're now in a different world, where the relatively clear-cut difference between live and studio (or packaged) material doesn't exist as it did in the Dead's time. Or you could argue that Linux distributors are actually doing something similar by building on something that's freely-available. If nothing else, the argument that you can still make money out of it will cheer them up.
Barlow argues that it's a matter of ethics, that Dead fans didn't sell the bootleg tapes the Dead encouraged because they were encouraged. But maybe it was because they were free, and therefore there wasn't a market price, or maybe it was just because they were hippy weirdos. In any event, there were the beginnings of a revolutionary idea in there, and it's one that becomes more revolutionary when it comes to new media. You can find out more about Barlow, his career and his thinking here. But if you want Dead lyrics jokes, as only two people noticed last time we did it, this time we're not going to even draw. Shucks... ®