The idea behind a copyright is simple. It’s in the word: “copy” and “right.” It’s one of those neatly packaged concepts, like fireplace and monkey brains.

Aha! But we all know what happens when we add electronics to something simple: we get a powerful, agonizing and terrifying version of something simple.

For the last few years there have been many arguments over online music sharing. If you have teenagers and at least one computer, there’s a high probability that some innocent law breaking is going on in your house. Strictly speaking, current copyright law frowns on the transference of an unauthorized copy of anything from anyone to anyone else over any medium, period.

Authority is key. Someone, by law, owns that thing you’re sharing. When you pay for a CD, you’re only buying the right to listen to it. Invent a way to pull the music off that CD and share it, not with a few friends in the basement, but with thousands of people you may never meet, and the whole thing gets turned upside down. File sharing’s unanticipated attack on an old, simple authority has some powerful people reaching for the lawyer button.

I’m not here to argue about music sharing, but it is a handy example of what can happen when technology suddenly makes rules unenforceable.

Some will tell you the Internet is its own nation, beyond the reach of national law; that the nation of thought transcends physical boundaries, and laws regarding property are obsolete in this new world.

To which I must reply that someone owns that server and this bandwidth. “Really?” “What’s this plug here?” I ask. “Oops, it fell out of the wall. What’s that? You’ve got a planet missing? It was here a second ago.” This brings the discussion down to earth pretty quickly. What goes on online has real effect out here, where it snows.

Industry, invention and culture are always on the move. But lately, things are noticeably crazier. Our new technology connects people so quickly that we can invent whole new cultures and abilities before we’ve finished the last ones, which are so six seconds ago. And who owns those?

It’s not a simple question. I think the reason we can’t answer it is that this isn’t about ownership. It’s about organizing.

You see people, as individuals, can be reasonable, but they have limitations. Put them together as a group, and great things can happen. In fact it’s fair to say that great things can hardly ever happen without a group. The Internet, being an interconnecting network, fosters group participation. Find a writer you like? Share it. Find a band you like? Share it. Have a revolutionary idea? Share it.

But historically, if you keep a group together long enough, that group begins to protect itself in predictable ways — it becomes an institution. A bureaucracy derives its power from withholding its services from those it deems unworthy. Soon its major function is to find more people who are unworthy. No one likes that unless they’re employed by the bureaucracy, and even then it’s not much fun.

So are we seeing a revolution in how we organize ourselves? And can any of this last? And do we care?

Plenty of technologies hit the Internet every day, but only a few make it to mainstream use. Why is that? Maybe file sharing, instant messaging, blogging and podcasting are symptoms of what people really want: to freely share themselves with a group, for better or worse.

I don’t think this will eliminate the cloying big thought of global business or giant government. Nor will copyright law suddenly fall from grace. But people might get ideas. Those ideas might even be simple.