Aug 072014

I finished the Asimov story, “The Bicentennial Man”, recently.  If you haven’t read it, do try and find time to do so.  As with most of Asimov’s shorter works, the narrative creeps up on you quite slowly – though the read itself is never boring.  In a sense, they’re like Ibsen plays: so much happening in the clockwork of the story, it sometimes feels like a vice is tightening.

The payoff is always interesting, mind.  I grew up with Asimov’s ideas; their absolute playfulness a wonderful reward for the exploring adolescent I was at the time.

The plot runs as follows: a robot, called Andrew, wishes to be taken to be a human being.  Over his “life” he spends time blurring the lines between the flesh-and-blood citizens who have all the rights in the world and the positronic-brained servants (slaves, perhaps, would be more accurate) which he is an example of.  He achieves many things in this period, though not without considerable difficulty: the right to wear clothes; the right to have money; the right to be made free of his owners.  In fact, the right, as a result, to own stuff like any human does.

It seems to me that although Asimov leaves us with the ultimately necessary “suicide” of this Bicentennial Man as the essence of what it is to be flesh-and-blood, the element of ownership also touched on in the story – and already described above – defines our humanity much more than the former.  Certainly today:

The first scene of the story is explained as Andrew seeks out a robotic surgeon to perform an ultimately fatal operation: altering his positronic brain so that it will decay with time. He has the operation arranged so that he will live to be 200. When he goes before the World Legislature, he reveals his sacrifice, moving them to declare him a man. The World President signs the law on Andrew’s two-hundredth birthday, declaring him a bicentennial man. As Andrew lies on his deathbed, he tries to hold onto the thought of his humanity, but as his consciousness fades his last thought is of Little Miss.[2]

For in the face of terrible violence, if Western society is inscribed by anything right now, it is the total antipathy to anything bordering self-sacrifice.  From cruise missiles to drones, everything we seem to do these days appears to be aimed at limiting our exposure to the risk of death.  Quite the opposite of the instincts of our positronic friend.

All well and good, I’m sure we could all agree.

But, even so, I’d push the idea further.  Emily has a lovely overview of a curious question of “selfie” copyright, where a monkey took some pictures of itself, and apparently by so doing limited the right of the owner of the camera in question to exert their own copyright over the product:

[…] It is difficult to say whether the arguments would go in favour of the photographer being the author; this is certainly the verdict in a blog post by our US friends across the pond, who argue that as there was no official creator of the photograph other than the monkey, and the monkey does not qualify as an author, there is therefore no copyright in the photograph. It does however seem a bit unfair to the photographer, who should probably be recognised as a contributor at the very least. Perhaps we should ask the monkey? ;-)

That we should even be going round in circles with this situation leads me to come to two conclusions:

  1. Animals are not only de-sexed as a rule by humans (notice that sneaky “itself” I slipped in earlier) (and even as they demonstrate all the right biological impulses), they are also de-ownershipped too.  Whilst the argument here is couched in legal terms of animals not being able to be authors and thus not own, in truth what we are actually saying is since authorship is determined by the ability to own, denying the right to own to animals thankfully denies the right to authorship.  (The circle can just as easily be gone around in the opposite direction.)
  2. The separation between the state of being an animal and the state of being a human, an analogous separation which is the subject of Asimov’s robot tale too, was never more clearly an imperative for our species.  By establishing ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as something quite distinct, we assign to ourselves considerable freedoms that allow us to do and undo with the rest of the planet just as we bloody well wish.  (And you thought copyright was a distant, dry and academic subject!)

It’s possible, then, that whilst we condemn all manner of neoliberalisms for our current miseries, our concept of freedom was always defined thus: not the freedom to write; not the freedom to express; not the freedom to be free of penury.  No.  Simply the freedom to own ideas, stuff and creatures.  And those societies which allow more of such ownership are those we now perceive as being the freest of all.

Aug 112013

Stupidest story of the digital week has to be this one on how the British Library’s wifi filters banned Hamlet for violent content.  You can read up on the whole miserable experience here.  It just goes to show that the real virtual opportunity out there is for those who would like to track and control every emission of artistic and sociocultural content, in order to better monetise/repress those who would still dare/care to communicate.  As I tweeted yesterday:

The #NSA uses algorithms and computers to read our communications – a big bad. Advertising does the same – let’s go with it. #amconfusedhere

And now to the content of this post.  Peruse, if you will, the photo below.

The UK revised by my wife

What have we got here?  My wife, suddenly converted into savage and unremitting Scottish Nationalist via a bit of apposite sewing?

Not quite.  Firstly, I’m not sure she’s suited to such opinions, especially as she’s firmly Spanish in her upbringing – and might have a thing or two to say about her own country before venturing any similar opinions about anywhere else.

But more importantly, what she did with what used to be a £3.75 tea-towel bought in a sale at Debenham’s would almost certainly be illegal if it had involved software, computers and the web.

So what did she do?  Essentially, see a beautifully designed pair of cushions which together would have cost £20 – and then on the shelf next to them, with the same design, stumble across the aforementioned tea-towel.  Cut cleverly in half and combined with an appropriate piece of cloth she already had, we have the DIY brilliance of my clever spouse saving us at least £15.

Now imagine what might have happened, had she done any of this manipulation with other kinds of content.  Imagine, for example, she had a dearly beloved old VHS video-tape – properly and legally purchased – and wanted to remake the content for personal use.  Imagine, even, she dared to put such content online, on her own account and for viewing by friends, family and other interested parties.

All of this and more, that one might instinctively care to engage in, is fast becoming criminalised by the digital ownership of everything virtual.  From advertisers to security services, everyone and everything is looking to monetise our every act.  And by encouraging us over time to drive all our activities, exchanges and relationships via the frame of online nexuses, simple impulses such as the desire to copy and share – primal behaviours in all human beings – become vetoed by evermore invasive business and security sectors.

My wife’s no copyright infringer but, offline, she’s done something – the shifting of media and purpose, if you like, from prosaic tea-towel to gorgeous cushions – which online I’m pretty sure would be judged illegal.

And that, really, is not right.  That copying and sharing and reworking intelligently, humongous reasons for why the human species is now where it is, should be prohibited by so many corporations, business infrastructures and government organisations everywhere is surely something which should make us think twice.

And if we made the above image of a detached Scotland a viral success, would we quickly find the original creators of the design on our heels to take it down?

Well.  I have to say that nothing would surprise me any more.

Even as I continue to hope that a very human sense and sensibility might yet reign over our future.

Feb 112013

Our blessed government seems to still be selling us the donkey (many apologies to any donkey-lovers – and, indeed, donkeys – reading this post) that those ladies and gentleman responsible for the horsemeat scandal are a group of murky underworld elements quite different from anyone in respectable public or private office.

Of interest, then, to my naturally suspicious self is the following quote from the Telegraph article in question:

Mr Paterson [the British Environment Secretary] yesterday said: “As we speak this morning this is an issue of fraud and a conspiracy against the public I think probably by criminal elements to substitute a cheap material for that which was marked on the label.

As he goes on to point out, in language all politicians are prone to understand (the bold is mine):

It is a labelling issue. Now we may find out as the week progresses and the tests begin to come in, we may find out there is a substance which is injurious to human health. We have no evidence of that at all at the moment.”

Once again, we see that branding (probably literally in this case) raises its ugly and foolish head.  For politicians do love to define every problem in terms of how it’s being communicated – and never in terms of how objectively grave it might be.  To say that the issue is simply one of labels is – really – to argue the empty-headed toss about one of the most significant concepts in 21st century business: just think of all the money and effort massive corporatesprivacy groups and other interested observers are expending in justifying their different approaches to issues such as the integrity of intellectual property, its differentiation and its intrinsic right to earn an exclusive income from its authenticity.

So it is utter bollocks for anyone these days to argue that anything is ever just a matter of labels.  If it were absolutely nothing else, it would be more than massively a matter of great preoccupation.  If such arguments are good enough to justify oppressive Internet intrusion in order to protect film content and DVD sales, surely a little more hands-on attachment to the integrity of our food chain is also fairly going to be warranted.

But back to my first quote tonight, and this phrase in particular (again, the bold is mine):

“As we speak this morning this is an issue of fraud and a conspiracy against the public I think probably by criminal elements to substitute a cheap material for that which was marked on the label.

Criminal elements – or standard business practice?  Isn’t the drive that is continuous improvement – which perpetually looks for ways to substitute a more expensive “material” with a functionally similar but far cheaper equivalent in every single process, procedure, product and service – exactly what 21st century business is exactly about?

In reality, these “criminal elements” are only doing what every good businessperson, CEO and team leader does every single day of their working week.  The objective of their respective marketing actions is to match perceived customer needs to such processes, procedures, products and services – and deliver the outcomes in question at both the lowest possible cost and highest possible price.  So perhaps, as the Telegraph does indeed suggest today, the behaviours which are coming to light at the moment are rather more distributed, widespread and “endemic” than the furious distancing techniques of recent government statements would tend to give lie to.

As I have already noted on these pages, both the banking and food sectors’ regulatory bodies share the same abbreviation: the FSA in each case.  This is, of course, a total coincidence – but not an irrelevant or specious one.  That such crises of propriety, probity, confidence and honour should assail banking in recent times has led many of us to assume the problem is sectoral.  But that similar patterns should now repeat themselves in our food chains should, surely, make us begin to think more than twice.

In each case, we have perhaps necessarily top-down institutions with about as heavy a governance as one could expect, failing lumberingly to inspire the sort of trust one would hope for in their respective consumers and users.  In each case, it would also seem that through the habit corporate organisations always exhibit of building, little by little, every element of their precious practice on the assumption that preceding and successive practice is coherent, correct and contained, the tenuous connections thus finally constructed lead them almost inevitably to criminal downfall.  Part of the problem, of course, is that companies are made up of people, and people cement their understanding of whether other people are behaving themselves on the basis of what these other people manage to do to appear trustworthy.

You can never entirely remove from any process or procedure the need to trust that another is doing what they are supposed to do.  And when you add to the mix the Chinese walls that are designed to ensure we all behave ourselves – but which, in the event, seem to be leading more and more of us to misunderstand the acts of other specialisations to the terrible detriment not only of the companies we work for but also of the societies we operate within – it would seem the mix is becoming dangerously explosive.

Don’t get me wrong.  Corporate organisations are potentially magnificent tools to organise a globalising century of many billions of human beings.  But when they become as fragile as they have of late, we might rue the day we decided to construct our societies around them.

They have, I fear, become corrupting in what many of us saw as precisely their greatest virtues: those very paused and structured mannerisms we assumed would guarantee – at the very least – some kind of enduring sense and sensibility.


When businesspeople and criminals both use the same structures to such an extent that it becomes practically impossible – from the outside looking in at least – to tell clearly enough who is who, maybe it’s time we decided on a different set of approaches.

For maybe the day business and criminal practices first began to use the same tools is the day we should have decided – in some way – to shut up this stable for good.

Before all these bloody horses had their chance to bolt our systems and – in that process – perhaps ended up criminalising us all.

Sep 252012

I’ve come across the idea behind the title to this post many times in the last decade.  I started out on this journey when I did a Spanish Publishing Master; was then exposed to the rough and tumble of one open source community; exchanged thoughts and emails with fascinating thinkers in the field; and remained, quite generally, an interested – though inexpert – amateur in the subject.

Yesterday, I posted a well-received article on the subject of the Guardian‘s proposal that traditional newspaper publishing’s business model should be sustained through a blanket broadband levy on all British Internet users.  Lots of people have said far more complex and convincing things, though, about why such a move wouldn’t save newspapers or journalism.

I think, to be honest, unless – for some shady reason – government gets hooked on this idea, nothing further will be done.

I have thought for a long time, mind – not the the only soul to do so – that copyright is now the problem not the solution.  But I’ve never really been able to put it into words (well, I have, but not widely broadcast words …).  I’ve also kind of lost a friendship (not exactly, but you know what I mean – there now exists a certain distance) as the result of disagreements entertained on these pages and elsewhere, and in relation to the subject of the Internet and copyright abuse.

As always is the case, however, nothing is new.  This was my idea from 2011 as to how to resolve the problem of creators needing a piece of the action, after subscribing to the Guardian‘s Kindle version.  First, on the need to sustain plurality:

[…] we should want to make the Kindle experience conducive to plurality.  For that is exactly what the Internet has provided us with over the past decade.  If anything good has come out of the free-content era, it’s the broad access to multiple opinions that such a structure has provided.  Unfortunately, all I can see on the horizon – if the subscription costs are to remain so relatively high – is that inevitable return to those silos of prejudice that traditional newspaper publishing used to imply.

If we truly want a plural press, we need a public which is truly exposed to a wide variety of opinion.  If, in the future, I am only to blog on what the Guardian publishes, my blogging will be far the poorer for that.  Yes, of course I can make a conscious effort to restrict my contact to social-media and non-mainstream content – but do I really want to do such a thing?  After all, if any lesson has been learned since the News International scandal, it’s that social media needs a good mainstream media if it is to function at all well.  Without the resources of a properly funded and properly plural professional journalism, blogging, tweeting and other social media activities will never reach the truths that need to be exposed.  As an echo chamber, social media is absolutely perfect – as a revealer of dirty deeds, it lacks the money, the lawyers and the visibility to kickstart any serious investigation into the ills of the rich.

Then, to a possible solution:

Social media needs the mainstream media like never before.  But not at £10 a month.  Rather, £10 a month should buy a package of media which allows us to read as broadly and widely as before – yet this time contributing a little of our ill-gotten gains to ensuring the plurality we all must desire.

I’d suggest that such packages would not be based around the product from existing content manufacturers (deriving an access to everything from the News International stable for example) but instead be created around interest groups which cut across the walls media empires want to sustain: everything for political wonks would include the publications I mentioned above; science and technology fans could include anything from Top Gear to MIT’s bi-monthly publication; religious interests could be covered by access to a widerange of cross-faith publications …

Finally, to clarify the objective:

The list is clearly endless but the objective would be essentially didactic – a deliberate intent to socially engineer our thought by allowing the plurality of the press to be hardwired into our subscription systems.

But all of the above suggestions were still operating within the broad schemes of current copyright structures.  And as such structures will predictably lead to the criminalisation of more and more people in the future, especially whilst copyright proponents continue to refuse to change their business models in line with already widespread behaviours, we’re obviously getting into a position where the state must equally invade privacy and citizen space more and more in order to apply the laws so many of them are clearly evading.

Where not avoiding.

Funny how the difference is allowed to operate only for the one percent – but not for your regular teen file-sharer.

Anyhow.  In a comment to my broadband post yesterday, a fascinating link has been added.  And listen to this: it apparently dates from 2003 – eight years before my own thoughts.  The executive summary at the head of the .pdf in question can be found below:

Executive Summary

The institution of copyrights has its origins in the feudal guild system. Copyrights provide an incentive for creative or artistic work by providing a state-enforced monopoly. Like any other monopoly, this system leads to enormous inefficiencies, and creates substantial enforcement problems. The size of these inefficiencies and the extent of the enforcement problems have increased dramatically in the Internet Age, as digital technology allows for the costless reproduction of written material, and recorded music and video material.

The artistic freedom voucher (AFV) is an alternative mechanism for supporting creative and artistic work. It is designed to maximize the extent of individual choice, while taking full advantage of the potential created by new technology.

The AFV would allow each individual to contribute a refundable tax credit of approximately $100 to a creative worker of their choice, or to an intermediary who passes funds along to creative workers. Recipients of the AFV (creative workers and intermediaries) would be required to register with the government in the same way that religious or charitable organizations must now register for tax-exempt status. This registration is only for the purpose of preventing fraud – it does not involve any evaluation of the quality of the work being produced.

In exchange for receiving AFV support, creative workers would be ineligible for copyright protection for a significant period of time (e.g. five years). Copyrights and the AFV are alternative ways in which the government supports creative workers. Creative workers are entitled to be compensated once for their work, not twice. The AFV would not affect a creative workers ability to receive money for concerts or other live performances.

The AFV would create a vast amount of uncopyrighted material. A $100 per adult voucher would be sufficient to pay 500,000 writers, musicians, singers, actors, or other creative workers $40,000 a year. All of the material produced by these workers would be placed in the public domain where it could be freely reproduced.

Under plausible assumptions, the savings from reduced expenditures on copyrighted material would vastly exceed the cost of the AFV. Much of this savings would be the direct result of individuals’ decisions to use AFV supported music, movies, writings and other creative work in place of copyright-protected work. A second source of savings would be the result of lower advertising costs, since much of the material used in advertising supported media would be in the public domain.

In contrast to copyright protection, which requires restrictions on the use of digital technology, the AFV would allow for the full potential of this technology to be realized. Creative workers would benefit most when their material was as widely distributed as possible. They would therefore have incentives to promote technologies that allow for recorded music, video, and written material to be transferred as easily as possible. By contrast, copyright enforcement is demanding ever greater levels of repression (e.g. restriction on publishing software codes, tracking computer use, and getting records from Internet service providers) in order to prevent the unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted material. The police crackdowns on unauthorized copying by college students, and even elementary school kids, would be completely unnecessary for work supported by the AFV.

A question of choice, then.  A copyright killer which allowed normal copyright to continue.  A choice in a world where choice has become mandatory.  Re-engineering copyright without telling existing copyright holders “The game’s up!”.

What, if anything, could go wrong?

The arguments are – at face value – pretty convincing.  So those of you who have a far better grasp of the implications – what are your opinions on this?


Footnote to this post: a tangential thought, but one that is coming to my mind more often recently.  We are always being told – I say it myself – that overall the quality of journalism on the web and in society is expanding, multiplying and generally improving our lot.  As citizen journalism begins to take up the communication reins and “professionalise” its own instincts, many feel the future will lie in a hyper-localisation of information gathering – perhaps aggregated, sorted and filtered automatically by tools such as Poblish.

But I do wonder if this perception isn’t an example whereby we look to a societal benefit and ignore an individual need.  Yes.  When burnout takes place, and an excellent blogger gives up the ghost, there will always be another excellent blogger waiting in the wings in order to spread his or her own.

And yet there is this question: what happened to our understanding that people – discrete and specific individuals, that is – matter just as much as societies?  Why can’t an excellent blogger propose blogging to the end of his or her days?

Why, in reality, are we so very happy to accept what we might term the “wave of ants” approach to earning a living out of generating content?

That is to say, to put it crudely, that there’ll be plenty more fresh meat out there prepared to produce great stuff and work for nowt, in order that we might sustain what – individually – is unsustainable.

Society’s benefit isn’t the only criteria here.  An individual’s need to earn an individual living surely should also count for something … shouldn’t it?

Jun 292012

This tweet makes me wonder:

So. Focus on Ireland. Here in Dublin I can open Brings it home what’s happened in the UK.

Meanwhile, a piece I did recently on a parody of British media coverage of the Queen’s Jubilee – as well as another on NHS reporting and possible super-injunctions – did rather make me think whether unflagged and unofficial online censorship wasn’t already becoming pretty widespread.  Perhaps it is indeed time to invent an error code which tells us when something has been removed from online access through government edict.  Alternatively, you might want to:

  1. Sign this petition from Jimmy Wales.  It’s a deserving example of worldwide activism.  Click to find out more.
  2. Be amazed at this story of online incompetence from a government which claims to want to protect us from our wilder selves.
  3. Consider whether it’s time to give up on defending this Internet – and invent a new one instead.

Number 3?  Think about it.  Our rights to hassle-free communication appear little by little to be disappearing and degrading through the – perhaps – legitimate instincts of copyright owners everywhere.  They produce content; they deserve a living; we cannot, I accept, survive on bread and water alone.

Even bread and water has its price.

I am a little puzzled, of course, by some of the things that are happening: for example, whilst image sharing on the open web seems to have its own copyright Gestapo operating at full tilt, no one seems to care that a fundamental element of Facebook – maybe what most occupies us these days – is the sharing of copyrighted images.  That it happens within a walled garden where advertiser activities and rights are heavily controlled and foregrounded may possibly, of course, be playing a part in the collusion we seem to be getting from owners and sellers of such content.  But, at the very least, it doesn’t seem intellectually coherent to allow copyright infringement within Zuckerberg’s four blue walls – and pursue it so obsessively without.

Not that anyone could ever accuse the more extreme edge of the copyright lobby of intellectual coherence.

But I do begin to think that perhaps it’s time we regrouped our forces.  Louise Mensch’s website – whose lamentable hierarchy I lambasted here – does, on reflection, have one thing going for it: the desire to create a new space with new rules.  Her rules are typical Tory top-down agenda-setting control-freakism – but she is right in one sense: the worldwide web which we are now getting is becoming rather unfit for purpose.

In much the same way as our political parties, elected representatives, banking fraternity – and corporate makers and shakers in general …

Perhaps it’s not only time to give up on this Internet; perhaps it’s also time we gave up on our whole civilisation.  Time, with the best tools we have to hand, to invent a new one.  A new one not based on the philosophies of a Magna Carta world – a world which millionaire leaders are corrupting and dismantling faster than anyone would’ve predicted.

No.  A new one based on the philosophies of a rational, thoughtful, cooperating, collegiate and conversational network of equals.

Of sophisticated individuals who are far cleverer than society – with its strict hierarchies – currently allows for.

A revolution of the virtual.

A brand new Internet for a brand new and uncorrupted age.

Jun 012012

There’s a fascinating debate going on behind Facebook’s walled garden at the moment on the alleged link between those who find copyright as it stands a resistible idea and the far political right, especially that which might be found in Europe.

It’s been kicked off by a reference to a post which argues that the dynamics of the anti-copyright lobby, in particular the Pirate Bay, in many cases feed off the same impulses as such right-wing movements – and may, indeed, even be funded by related players.  I have no means of verifying whether these assertions are true – and I am open, as always, to publishing any clarifications or corrections by the parties involved.

Neither can I reveal too much of what is being conducted in that irritatingly semi-private universe of Zuckerberg’s, as this would impact on the privacy of those participating.  But here’s my – to date – only contribution to the debate in question, as I try and express my unhappiness with the tone of the conversation – as well as whither all this might be leading us:

“The Pirate Party UK was founded on similar angry-bloke disaffection, and feelings of victimisation and powerlessness, which far right parties have traditionally exploited.” You start with this […], it seems to me, in order to type a whole range of serious and considered thinkers as practically National Front members. I think this is massively unfair to the thoughtful people in this debate and would simply ask you again to answer the question you didn’t answer the other day: why does modern copyright need to extend to seventy- and hundred-year periods instead of the original 14 years I believe the American Constitution initially established? In a world where thought develops and flies like no other time in history, surely – in order to balance the needs of innovation against return on creative investment – we need *shorter* periods of copyright and not longer ones. (Especially when digital technologies allow us to hit a much larger market much more quickly.) When I see you proposing 14 years or 20 years or even 30 years as a maximum for all publishers and owners of content, then I’m entirely with you on this matter. But whilst you insist the real problem is that the concept of copyright is not fully taken onboard in its entirety as it stands – and that the first battle must be to reimpose a broken version *before* repairing its functionality – I’m afraid your logic has utterly lost me. Re-engineer copyright for a digital age, by all means. But re-engineer it …

As far as the quote from the original post linked to above is concerned, the “angry-bloke disaffection” and sense of “victimisation and powerlessness” alluded to have been exploited just as much by the triangulatory instincts of parties like New Labour and the Conservatives of recent times as they have been by the real far right: this, then, hardly provides significant evidence for believing the serious thinkers I mention are acting out of a nationalistic “angry-bloke disaffection”.

Unless, of course, you believe corporate bodies are taking over the world with the avowed aim (or accidental side-effect) of making a laughing-stock of the very idea of representative democracy – as well as its power to protect the people from transnational abuses.

Which might, in the light of economic crises and other recent matters various, just be the case after all.

May 262012

Does search undermine property?  I don’t mean in the sense that some are arguing that Google subverts copyright to its own benefit.  Paul, for example, suggests that:

Google are looking down the barrel of a fantastic opportunity here: They could end up as the world’s default collecting society – collecting a fraction of the amount that national or regional players would (from Google!) for monetising unlicenced content. Creators will only have a monopoly to turn to.

I mean, rather, in the sense that search – the physiological process, impulse and reward which makes up and motivates that short-term desire to get an immediate answer – is actually destroying our ability to even care about where these gobbets of information come from.  If I’m right, it’s that not caring any more which is changing the rules – rather than Google’s latterly evil mission.

It’s not copyright infringement itself which is dismantling authors’ abilities to make a living out of their work but – at least in part – this “rising to the top” fallacy which search promotes that everything worth our attention can be found in a page of ten hyperlinks (often not even fully clicked upon) – and nothing worth our attention will be missed.  In the essence of this fallacy we have a massive psychological change in readers’ behaviours.  And it is that change which has prepared the ground and made it possible for the sadness of something for nothing.

There are those who would have us believe that the real enemies out there are those who promote a free and open web above all other considerations.  If it were only so easy to pin down.  If the enemy were as described it would be simple to excise them from the game.  The truth of the matter is that it is ourselves – those of us who consume, publish, write and exchange information – who are entirely to blame for allowing Google to foist the search fallacy on us.  Instead of writing for audiences of proper readers, we are shortening and slicing up our narratives to satisfy those who refuse to read more than three hundred words at a throw.

Or maybe just 140 characters.

We aren’t really pirates gratuitously searching to find something for nothing.  We are, instead, Pavlovian creatures looking for our next slavering short-term fix.  That is what search has turned us into.  Mental drug addicts who care only for what the intermediaries can bring them.

In a world which could’ve been one of liberated producer-consumers, we have fallen in love with our pushers.

In a sense, the 20th century mafias which built empires on the back of drug dependency have been mimicked in the 21st century by companies which give short shrift to content.  Whether search engines like Google, online media like Huffington Post or social websites like Facebook and Twitter, short and multi-authored is good whilst long and individually authored is bad.

Who’d have thought that the epitome of 21st century capitalism would be the very first destroyers of a true, coherent and properly woven individualism?  Who’d have thought that search would destroy authorship?

It’s not capitalism which has won the Cold War but a content Stalinism in its most evil unremunerated form.  And it’s not cocaine which is flooding our dreams any more – but words, stats and images which distract and headline our virtual streets.

May 152012

Paul C tells us that socialists are daft to suggest Greece is better out than in the euro.  Paul E suggests that copyleft activists don’t get copyright at all.  In the meantime, I am beginning to wonder if the world is getting too complex for anyone to understand.

Before, we had experts.  Specialised folk who could boil down from a vast understanding of the ins and outs of a subject the essence an audience in particular might require.  But as life became more complex, such specialisms began to acquire an encysted relationship to each other: crossover skills are now the exception, not the norm.  Niches are what everyone strives to establish.

For a magpie mind such as mine, there is no place in the modern world of business and social interaction.

So when Paul C, from his undoubted ability to understand the self-fulfilling, tells us that the rest of us are speaking bollocks, and when Paul E, from his undoubted ability to disentangle the self-interested, tells us that the rest of us simply do not get it, there is little left for the rest of us to do but shake our heads in confused shame.

Only the real problem is that the Paul C and Es of this world are few and far between.  And whilst with the latter I would find myself on slightly firmer ground if pursuing my instincts to disagree, and whilst with the former I could not react without emotional bloodshed, with most of those often self-proclaimed experts out there we are now gaining an absolute right to totally distrust their judgements.

As the Sunday Times list of the top UK thousand demonstrates, those who have a lot and get it utterly wrong are rewarded with further power and wealth:

Top 1,000 on ST RichList increased their wealth by £155bn in 3yrs: enough to pay off Nat Debt: Many of the 1,000 caused crash to begin with.

It’s only the poor sods at the bottom of the pile who will get the poor pickings they most definitely do not deserve.

There is nothing unusual in what I am saying, of course: you know all of this; we all do.

But I do wonder if what has afflicted us isn’t a question of personal and evil greed, after all.  Rather, it may have a lot more to do with the fact that no one, whether at the bottom or the top of the pile, really has those magpie-mind skills I mentioned earlier on: we only know how to do well what our apportioned role in life allows us to.  None of us can manage, however, for reasons of training, education and upbringing, to bring to a world careering out of simplicity a broad and comprehensive understanding of its weaknesses.

No one at the top, no one at the bottom, no one anywhere can comprehend any more this world we survive in.

We are lost because the relationships between our component parts have become too complicated to appreciate their extent.  A single glance, whilst still enough to lead us to love at first sight, is no longer enough to allow us to understand the socioeconomic implications of our civic and political acts.

Democracy is a simple idea whose time has come and gone.

The world has become a tangled ball of wool whose complexity can only continue to multiply.

Paul C and E, if only there were more of your type.  Unfortunately, there aren’t.  We are doomed.

May 132012

I wrote about the medieval mind recently and how it still exists.  I couldn’t have been closer to the truth it would seem.  Amongst other things, and quoting by-the-by from a Guardian article from 2010, I pointed out that:

[…] The medieval mind is now.  Take the example of London:

London is most unequal city in the developed world, with the richest tenth of the population amassing 273 times the wealth owned by the bottom tenth – which creates a “means chasm” not seen since the days of a “slave owning society”, according to a new book.

So, from medieval ratios of six to one in a society of absolute power, we come to latterday times in a supposed democracy of equals where the top ten percent is worth 273 times more than the bottom ten percent.

This is, of course, a shocking pair of statistics – an example of economic oppression; perhaps, even, in its passive-aggressive dynamic, little short of a socioeconomic bullying.

Shortly after my piece, then, we get another article on medieval mindsets – in this case by Helienne Lindvall, writing in the same newspaper.  And she writes powerfully on a number of issues attached to the matter of copyright.  This, for example, on where Google-style freedom and innovation might lead us:

[…] Their “solutions” would create either a corporate feudalism where I would have to go around hat in hand, or a communist state, where the state would decide how much or even if I should get paid when my music is used. And to think that these solutions come from people claiming to be forward thinking? If this is their version of freedom and innovation, I can live without it.

But the paragraph I’d most like to deal with is the following one, because in its apparently tiny scope it encompasses everything which is hurting us at the moment, and serving to turn those who would fight for freedom against those who would fight for due remuneration:

Around 90% of the UK music industry is made up of “small and medium enterprises” like me, employing fewer than five people, all relying on copyright – control of their work – to survive. Interestingly, the Swedish word for this control is not copyright, but “origin right” – and I’m not called a copyright owner, but an “originator” (upphovsman) – which is probably a better description.

And Helienne is right, though not in the sense she believes: “originator” is the problem and belief system we have to hand.  A part of the battles open source software philosophies are waging against traditional copyright models relates to the fact that a thought – or a wider creation – can never exist in entire isolation. When they argue that content should belong to a community and not an individual, they are proceeding from a perfectly sensible assessment of how human thought develops.

“Originator”, therefore, is a clear idea: deciding who has the right to take full advantage of one representation of such an idea is surely a different matter.


Whilst examples of the corporate feudalism she describes are currently legion, the tail-end of the 20th century provided its own clear and provocative leadership: Microsoft, the paradigmatic publisher of modern times (its books, in this case, being operating systems and office suites), was able to spend five years and $10 billion on developing an operating system without being sure of its potential market take-up, without getting it as right as it should, without meeting its own deadlines and without worrying about its future … all because of its copyrighted monopoly position in the marketplace.

If this, in a democracy, isn’t an example of corporate feudalism … well, I really don’t know what is.

And the reason I mention it in Helienne’s case?  At the tail-end of the article linked to above we have this:

When I think about how much Microsoft poured into Vista, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a longtime Microserf.

“I think about what it could have been,” he said.

Microserf, eh?

The truth of the matter is that the issue of feudalism – especially economic feudalism – is much broader than just copyright, and the matter of copyright abuse much broader than simply a question of technology companies ripping off otherwise fair-minded publishers and authors.

In my humble opinion, part of the principle reasons that open source software and philosophies exist so widely – essentially, that the content is owned by the community and not by the people who generate it – lies in Microsoft’s rank abuse of copyright law to maintain a dominant position in what should have quickly become an accessible utility.  As a result, open source software philosophies have become a simple mirror image of – perhaps I should better describe them as a counterpoint to – Microsoft’s abusive approach to consumer rights.

And from a properly licensed environment such as open source and the freedom to reuse and resell without restriction, it is but a small step to seeing all traditional copyright as evil control.  Especially when one sees how Microsoft has behaved.

Without Microsoft’s economic bullying, without such childhood abuse, we would not have a generation of content consumers which had grown up in an environment where it perceived all corporate and copyrighted production as an abuse of end-user rights.  That an entire sector – the software publishing industry – could be built around zero liability for its products is a significant example of abuse; that Microsoft – and others, let us not forget – allowed in the early days their software to be freely copied, in order to destroy competitors’ holds on the market (anyone remember WordStar or WordPerfect any more?), is, however, far more than significant – it is absolutely damning.  It wasn’t the ordinary people who started the cycle of piracy but the corporate feudalisms themselves which looked to wrest and achieve world domination by sneakily marketing their products through allowing manifestly illegal activities.

Abuse is a cycle, not a single act by a single party.  Both copyright abuse by content pirates, as well as corporate feudalism of the type Microsoft represents, tend to take place – just like bullying – because someone previous to the abuser under the microscope also, in turn, carried out abuse.  As I’ve mentioned before on these pages, the Internet and worldwide web is not really the problem here: the Internet and worldwide web simply reflect the oppression offline.  If offline abuse – from voracious capitalism to cash-cow media corporates – wasn’t so widespread and unjust, then the people we form a part of wouldn’t be so minded to take advantage of the current freedoms online exploration allow.

It’s not Google-style mindsets we have to sort here: it’s the whole package, history and baggage of offline and legally sanctioned abuse we must first deal with.  Only then will we have a moral right to set the online world on a course of sense and sensibility – a sense and sensibility which would allow Helienne’s small- and medium-sized enterprises to do the good they must surely be allowed to generate.

Without, that is, allowing the cash-cow media corporates, as well as their bosom pals in government, to control and marshal their legal forces against the need for a true spirit of free speech and expression.

May 012012

Yes indeed.  Whilst they tell us that “Sharing is caring” – something which I believe, as a natural and primary instinct and impulse of all human beings from birth, it most certainly must be considered – they also understand the need to maintain copyright for commercial purposes: to maintain it in such a way as to allow existing business models to continue on their constructively productive and creative ways.  So here we have a summary of the Pirate Party’s thoughts on the case for copyright reform, reproduced freely from this downloadable book:

Our proposal can be summarized in six points:

Moral Rights Unchanged
We propose no changes at all to the moral right of the author to be recognized as the author.

Nobody should be allowed to claim that they are ABBA, or have written all of Paul McCartney’s songs, unless they actually are or have. To the extent that this is a real world problem, it should still be illegal to do so. ”Give credit where credit is due” is a good maxim that everybody agrees with.

Free Non-Commercial Sharing
Until twenty years ago, copyright hardly concerned ordinary people. The rules about exclusivity of the production of copies were aimed at commercial actors, who had the means to, for example, print books or press records.

Private citizens who wanted to copy a poem and send to their loved one, or copy a record to cassette and give it to a friend, did not have to worry about being in breach of copyright. In practice, anything you had the technical means to do as a normal person, you could do without risk of any punishment.

But today, copyright has evolved to a position where it imposes serious restrictions on what ordinary citizens can do in their every-day lives. As technological progress has made it easier for ordinary people to enjoy and share culture, copyright legislation has moved in the opposite direction.

We want to restore copyright to its origins, and make absolutely clear that it only regulates copying for commercial purposes. To share copies, or otherwise spread or make use of use somebody else’s copyrighted work, should never be prohibited if it is done by private individuals without a profit motive. Peer-to-peer file sharing is an example of such an activity that should be legal.

20 Years Of Commercial Monopoly
Much of today’s entertainment industry is built on the commercial exclusivity of copyrighted works. This, we want to preserve. But today’s protection times – life plus 70 years – are absurd. No investor would even look at a business case where the time to pay-back was that long.

We want to shorten the protection time to something that is reasonable from both society’s and an investor’s point of view, and propose 20 years from publication.

Registration After 5 Years
Today, works that are still in copyright, but where it is impossible or difficult to locate the rights owner, are a major problem. The majority of these works have little or no commercial value, but since they are still covered by copyright, they cannot be reused or distributed because there is nobody to ask for permission.

Copyright protection should be given automatically like it is today to newly published works, but rights owners who want to continue to exercise their commercial exclusivity of a work beyond the first 5 years after publication should be required to register the right, in such a way that it can be found by a diligent search of public rights databases. This will solve the orphan works problem.

Free Sampling
Today’s ever more restrictive copyright legislation and practice is a major obstacle to musicians, film makers, and other artists who want to create new works by reusing parts of existing works. We want to change this by introducing clear exceptions and limitations to allow remixes and parodies, as well as quotation rights for sound and audiovisual material modeled after the quotation rights that already exist for text.

A Ban on DRM
DRM is an acronym for “Digital Rights Management”, or “Digital Restrictions Management”. The term is used to denote a number of different technologies that all aim to restrict consumers’ and citizens’ ability use and copy works, even when they have a legal right to do so.

It must always be legal to circumvent DRM restrictions, and we should consider introducing a ban in the consumer rights legislation on DRM technologies that restrict legal uses of a work. There is no point in having our parliaments introduce a balanced and reasonable copyright legislation, if at the same time we allow the big multinational corporations to write their own laws, and enforce them through technical means.

Some interesting initial thoughts there, in what – in .odt format – is a 64-page booklet I still have yet to read in full.

I suggest, at the very least, that you might take it onboard and try and incorporate some of its common sense into your world view of what needs to be done next.

(Via PXDigitalGov’s Twitter feed this morning.)

Apr 292012

I’d just like to lay before you a couple of ideas to be getting on with.  First, from Wikipedia, the following overview to Lawrence Lessig’s book “Free Culture”:

This book documents how copyright power has expanded substantially since 1974 in five critical dimensions:

  • duration (from 32 to 95 years),
  • scope (from publishers to virtually everyone),
  • reach (to every view on a computer),
  • control (including “derivative works” defined so broadly that virtually any new content could be sued by some copyright holder as a “derivative work” of something), and
  • concentration and integration of the media industry.

It also documents how this industry has successfully used the legal system to limit competition to the major media corporations through legal action against:

The result is a legal and economic environment that stifles “the Progress of Science and useful Arts”, exactly the opposite of the purpose cited in the US Constitution. It may not be possible today to produce another Mickey Mouse, because many of its early cartoon themes might be considered “derivative works” of some existing copyrighted material (as indicated in the subtitle to the hardback edition and in numerous examples in this book).

Second, the theories and practices surrounding the so-called remix culture, a concept Mr Lessig has also written about:

Remix culture is a term used to describe a society which allows and encourages derivative works. Remix is defined as combining or editing existing materials to produce a new product.[1] A Remix Culture would be, by default, permissive of efforts to improve upon, change, integrate, or otherwise remix the work of copyright holders. In his 2008 book, Remix, Lawrence Lessig presents this as a desirable ideal and argues, among other things, that the health, progress, and wealth creation of a culture is fundamentally tied to this participatory remix process.

Finally, a thought from myself.  In all the figures of speech and the written word that are simile, metaphor, cliché, quotation, mottoes, proverbs and sayings various, doesn’t writing show itself up to be the oldest remix culture in the world?  Precisely the world where copyright has sustained its most firm and vigorous defenders is the world that has also reused its building blocks of communication with great imagination and little apparent fear of reprisal.

Copyright and remix are therefore not incompatible: only those with hidden agendas are likely to want to convince the rest of us that this is so.

Apr 282012

As you might have realised over the past few days, perhaps to your irritation, I’ve been obsessing a little with the subject of the social web.  The relevant posts can be found here, here, here, here and here.  Yes.  Perhaps you’re right.  Too many.

Anyhow.  Just a short shortish final one to tidy up some of the loose ends.  There was a time, many years ago, when I was a kid growing up in what became the shadow of a “white hot technological revolution”, when a certain kind of wonderful future was being promised to us all.  But as the THE article suggests (the bold is mine):

Human nature being what it is, we may live in a new world but we react in ways shaped by an old one. New visions may inspire but getting there is hard. So found Harold Wilson 30 years ago as his vision of the white hot technological revolution dissipated before entrenched vested interests and economic rigidities. Opportunities were not fully grasped: Wilson’s penchant for manipulation led to fudges: rhetoric was not matched by a clear industrial strategy; failure deepened Britain’s cynical defeatism.

There was this – in hindsight – curious belief that the capitalism we best know (not the only one on the table) would allow a significant part of opportunities to scrape future technological profit to benefit their supposedly soon-to-become leisurely workforces.  And for a while it seemed there would be enough slack to make such progress possible.

These days, however, it is not the case.

There is a crisis of remuneration in the knowledge economy which no one seems able to deal with.

Those in favour of copyright believe in using it to crack down on infringements – infringements which sometimes border on the humongous, it is true.  Yet copyright, these days, would seem mainly to benefit the copyright holders – again, we come back to the corporate bodies that wish to rule both our leisure time as well as our work; both our commerce as well as our democracy.  The vast majority of creators, painters, authors and photographers who work under the control of such large organisations rarely get to see very much of the profit generated by their creations: either the overheads and waste of the industry models in question swallow up so very much of what could become creator income –  or, alternatively, as history has often shown us, life in the garret is bound to be the destiny of most of those who would live to be creative.

Yet whilst those who do favour copyright seem to despise technology companies such as Google and manufacturers such as Samsung even more than the end-users they claim pirate their product, there is another area of modern endeavour they seem to have ignored: the hijacking of the benefits of the knowledge society by those who have created the social web.

Let’s just rewind and see how it could’ve been: a society where brains, applied to ideas, developed and implemented technologies on a massive scale – technologies which became cheap enough for everyone to remove drudgery from their ordinary lives and so release the human mind for much better things.

What do we have instead?  Poorly paid – or even unpaid – worker bees (that’s you and me on Twitter and Facebook) inputting data for the software code of such a social web to generate outputs which fascinate companies and allow them to better identify their markets.

Yes.  We are now generating the data for corporations which not only make money out of us directly through advertising (Facebook and Twitter) but also sell our personal details to other organisations (food and consumer-durable manufacturers for example) in order that they may better sell their products to us.  We are now an outsourced part of this latter group of companies’ marketing departments.  Instead of costly opinion polls and focus groups, all they have to do is pay a modicum amount of money to examine Twitter’s firehose (its full complement of content to which the rest of us cannot have access beyond about a maximum of seven days of search) and thus use our freely inputted data to better sell us their products.

And in the above case, no one is suggesting (except perhaps yours truly) that anyone is really injuring the copyright of anyone else.

The problem, then, isn’t even principally one of copyright infringement.  The problem is that these software companies have worked out a way of attracting us to sit down for free in front of our monitors and screens, and input devices various, and create content which substitutes the stuff they promised us fifty years ago was going to release us from the drudgery of manual labour.

Essentially, it would seem the long-promised knowledge economy has been hijacked and dumbed-down by the requirements of the social web.  And, right now, I really cannot see our way around it.

The future?

In a previous post, David commented that direct remuneration might not work.  Are we condemned, then, to a life of generalised poverty, addicted as we have become to describing our lives which in their parts are pretty uninteresting but which when brought together with the lives of others by clever code (code which refuses to acquire liability but reserves the right to monetise all the same) ends up becoming an all-too-fascinating tapestry we cannot avoid following?

Is, in fact, social web the opium-eater’s dream of the 21st century?

And a slow and uncomfortable impoverishment our common fate?

Apr 242012

Paul Evans has been making a consistent case – which I don’t always agree with (though here and here from a couple of years ago I think I do) – for a proper, that is to say, rather less free-culture based, funding of the creative arts.

I asked my Twitter stream the other day if anyone had reliable stats on trends relating to user-generated content versus traditionally generated content over, say, the past century.  I got no reply but the thought was prompted by this other tweet, which if true is quite astonishing:

95% of the worlds information was created 2 years ago according to Michael batty. #casaconf

In the meantime, I read this morning that Facebook is looking to achieve its one billionth user in the very near future.  On the back of all this Web 2.0 energy, both Facebook and Twitter itself have clearly positioned their business models to deceive us into generating the content with which they hope to permanently profit in the future.

Now here we come to a couple of issues out there which even Anglo-Saxon clevernesses such as these cannot avoid.  In some countries such as Spain, and I believe France as well, there are certain “moral” rights which people as authors cannot sign away if they wanted to.  Whatever a contract says, whatever a set of terms and conditions outlines and insists, an individual is simply unable to deny their own right to authorship and its rewards.

So maybe Anglo-Saxon Twitter and Facebook have all the bases covered in the Anglo-Saxon world.  But what about in those countries where it would appear for legal and “cultural” reasons they are moving to regionalise content generation and its reception?  If there is now a French or Spanish Twitter, Facebook or Blogger environment defined precisely and locally by their respective software constitutions in order to comply with local sensitivities, doesn’t this also open the door for equally local legislations to be applied not only in the case of cultural mores but also in the context of copyright?

A legal conundrum which surely drives us down the path of requiring these behemoths of Web 2.0 content generation to begin to recognise and even pay minimally for authorship on a piecemeal and quantitative basis.

A minimum wage for Twitter and Facebook users perhaps?

Apr 232012

We have software which can build websites.  We have apps which can make new apps.  We have a multitude of video and audio tools which allow us to generate completely new works of art within the confines of our own sitting-rooms.

We are moving to a world of robot prostitutes.

We are moving to a world where reality out there does not need to be captured for a work of art to appear real.

In the same curious 20th century we moved see-sawingly between the most abstract of creativity – as Picasso and others created new ways of perceiving the world around us – and the most insistent attachment to the physical world that was the industry of movie-making.  So it was we conflated the unreal and real in one unique and sometimes horrific time.

But the implications of such real unrealities are only now being felt at a producer-consumer level.

In a world where what we make will be made up of templates which we can commercially take advantage of, a couple of fairly random but pertinent questions arise:

  1. whither, for example, online pornography – the driver of the last ten years of Internet technologies – when real actors will no longer be needed?
  2. and as a follow-up to the first, whither the horror of the state when oppressing real people through the requirements of the sex industry becomes more expensive than drawing a line on a computer?
  3. finally, most importantly, whither the need for copyright of any kind in a world where free-to-use building blocks rule the generation of content?

It’s clear that the first two issues will leave politicians with a huge vacuum around which repressive policies on the subject of Internet freedoms will not find their justification any more.  One day, not so very far away, anyone (or mostly anyone) will be able to generate their own content pretty much as they would like it.  Will the state choose to intervene in stuff we use apps and enabling software to generate for ourselves?  I do wonder if even our latterday society would be prepared to go so far.

The tendencies are clear, though: DIY is where it’s at.  Doing stuff for yourself is something that furniture manufacturers and bathroom installers have had to get used to in order that they might effectively adapt their business models.  Why not, then, in content generation too?

For it does seem to me that the ongoing battles of copyright on content have much more to do with a future world which has been perceived by those who truly think these things through – and who already know and even fear where traditional content generation will end up.

There will come a time, just as it did for wordsmiths many years ago, when legal Lego for adults becomes par for the content-generation course.  When anyone (or mostly anyone) can build up complex superstructures of meaning out of tools which help do the dirty work that used to lie behind creativity and imagination, what will really be the point of a complicated legal system of control for a world where sophistication will not need the massive investments of even today?

If I can have safe sex with a robot which looks and feels like a real live person, why should I have dangerous sex with a real live person?

Similarly, if I can use software to turn my ideas into really clever videos or audios or even traditional written texts (look at the kind of websites amateurs like myself were producing ten years ago – and compare them to what we can create for very little investment today), why should I bother with stuff that copyrights itself out of my reach?

In such a world of enthusiastic amateurs, it will be the market which will eventually drive the copyrighted stuff away from everyone but the most moneyed.  In much the same way as we now buy unbranded baked beans, we will eventually get used to the unbranded stuff that modern technologies make possible.  We will spend money on the content-generation tools and their image and building-block files – but what we generate will be shared by each of us with every other user for either a minimal fee or in exchange for other content.

The money’s in the DIY – there’s really no turning back.

A world without copyright?  Not because of the pirates.

Rather, because of the onward march of the templates that already serve to define us.


Further reading: Rick has a lovely measured piece in response to Chris’s also excellent piece on the supposed crisis in creativity.  More from the former here and the original post which started the discussion off here.  My initial response to the latter, and which I published a couple of days ago, can be found here.

Apr 112012

Whilst I did a piece recently on the real origins of content “piracy”, Paul currently has a lovely piece over at Never Trust a Hippy on the real origins of copyright.  Interestingly, a commenter responds thus:

Another example of ideas being far older than one thought

And here, in far fewer words than I could ever manage, is the prime justification for there existing a public domain into which all thought finally ends up residing.

This is what I recently had to say on the subject:

[…] I appreciate the need for reasonable periods of copyright, but before we support “original works” we have to understand the process that leads to their creation – and recognise what any creator owes to a previous generation of creators. There is now a massive hole in the public domain, absolutely unheard of in previous times, where nothing but nothing can legally be done to have a creative conversation with, for example, the film industry – an industry which has appropriated with every moral and legal right to do so public domain works from the 19th century for its own wonderful purposes but has refused to return its own property created thus back to the public domains of the 20th and 21st centuries.

And whilst those who are unhappy with related Google-like dynamics may indeed have a complex case to answer, we shouldn’t mix what are essentially issues of trademark and/or copyright law with matters that relate to the almost social contract that is the public domain.

I read an interesting piece in the Guardian yesterday whilst waiting for a train at Oxenholme in the Lake District.  It was arguing that the research of publicly-funded scientists should end up – as soon as practicable – in the public domain via the legal figure of open access.  As the scientific journals and their publishers added very little real value to the scientific process, and in the meantime through their paywalls made access to new ideas evermore expensive and distant (I remember a calculation made by Lawrence Lessig recently which had him hunting down online documents to allow him to understand a family member’s illness better – if he hadn’t have been a top scholar at a US university, it would have cost him over $400 to access the information), so the argument in terms of a societal benefit to automatically place in the public domain such publicly-funded data has become considerably stronger.

But I’d go even further – as you jolly well might expect.  I’d argue that such principles should not only be applied to publicly-funded scientists but also to all elected figures who reach positions of prominence or otherwise on the backs of the voters.  Without the voters and their desire to delegate responsibility, a prime minister or secretary of state would be absolutely nothing politically speaking.  When politicians give exclusive interviews to national newspapers and other media, such organisations hug very close to themselves the content thus generated.  But, in reality, they have no right to at all: arguably the words and thoughts and ideas of our politicians already belong, in very strict measure, to ourselves:

David Cameron wants to snoop into your emails, SMS text messages and telephone calls. He is bringing forward powers to enhance the big brother state in exactly the opposite way he said he would do when he was opposition leader. But guess what, I have news for Mr Cameron. In 3 days time, I discover whether or not I will be given the right to snoop into his SMS text messaging. […]

This does, of course, have implications for open government movements across the world.  But it is only the application of a very simple and fair principle: what you get out of the system, at some in the (near and reasonable) future you put back in.

As they say: what goes around, comes around.

So why should copyright, scientists, public figures and the public domain be any different?

Apr 082012

I’ve been surprised by how virulent some of the things I’ve heard and read recently have been on the subject of modern copyright.  In particular from a person who generally manages to see all sides of almost every argument under the sun.

I was in London recently at a book promotion by Bill Patry (a previous post on ideas provoked by this event can be read here), where amongst many other observations on the aforementioned subject he said the following interesting things (I’m quoting from hastily taken notes, of course; apologies if I capture the ideas thus expressed a little imprecisely):

  • “What’s the purpose of copyright?  No one can say with any precision.”
  • “Copyright is only needed when the market breaks down.”
  • “It’s a sign of failure that people have to talk about copyright.  If things worked, no one would.”

Modern ideas of copyright range from two wild extremes: a) that it should serve as a tool for cash-cow economics so that industrial behemoths can refuse to address serious issues with their out-of-date business models; and b) that we, as this brave new generation of virtual consumer-producers, should be able to remix and reuse almost any content which comes into our slippery hands.  Though I am rarely in favour of asserting that the truth is to be found between two so-called extremes, especially in political or media contexts, in this particular case I would be inclined to agree that it might be where we’d best start to look – if, that is, we are actually aiming to act with a modicum of good faith.

If truth be told, the real issue here is that modern copyright is being used by powerful players to batten down industrial hatches on what was once the business of real people and their performances.

Whilst literature was oral, its creators remixed and shared and built upon previous generations quite happily because their livelihoods depended on their performances and not their authorship of exclusively controlled content.  Such a relationship with content is, in fact, mirrored in the very 21st century open source movement, where the software code generated is visible, accessible and available for reshaping by anyone who cares to have a go.  The money to be made lies in the support services, installation and training – in much the same way as the oral narrators and their performances of old.

What’s happened, of course, is that the greatest new art forms of the 20th century have industrialised creativity in much the same way as the 19th century industrial revolution served to industrialise manual labour.  And the alienation, the distancing and the outright robbery committed by its capital-owning perpetrators have been both mirrored and hidden in our 21st century copyright battles to ensure content is “duly” paid for.

If we truly believe in a free exchange of ideas then it’s my strong belief we should not be concentrating on fighting copyright but, rather, battling as fiercely as we can against the wider separation between workforces and the value they add.  What’s missing from modern copyright is this very humane relationship between people and their performances – and surely not the unjust process whereby almost any organisation which wants to be anyone these days, having fortuitously happened upon a previous generation’s ideas and managed to play the game of refashioning them in their own generally unattributed image, looks for that lottery-winning and life-changing shout to the top of our content pile via the blunt and very anti-humanitarian instrument that is modern copyright law.

To summarise, then: modern copyright is no miserable battle about infringement of content but, essentially, part of a wider process where we legalise and inscribe worker alienation.  Copyright, where defined constructively and as originally intended over short periods of time, may indeed serve to engender innovation in such a way that a wider society benefits.  But even in such cases, the ripping away of moral rights from those who actually do the creating – real people and their physical acts of imagination – is going to lead to injustices on the scale of the worst robber barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Which, were you to care to think about it with an open mind, would sound just about right – if, that is, we were looking to accurately describe where we currently find ourselves mired.