May 31, 2004
Fruit Baskets, Free Riders, and Fair Use

Dinner with Quinn fortuiously set me to reading her observations on the free rider problem:

We put a huge amount of resources into punishing and excluding free riders in many parts of society. But is it because they are actually problem, or is it because they piss us off so bad?


My local CSA's trade box was just another good idea: at the pickup site there is a cardboard box you can drop things you don't want (and would most likely waste) and pick out other people's goodies that they didn't want. It had to be a net positive. Then they decided to make it fair and try to exclude the free riders. There's a sign on the box now that says you can only take something out if you put something in. You know, to keep something in the trade box, i guess.

When you think about it, the problem becomes apparent. If you want everything you got that week you either have to exclude yourself from the tradebox, giving up something that possibly no one else want, or give up something which it may turn out no one wanted, and you would have happily eaten. Most painfully, if no one defects from the system, it guarantees that at least one item will go to waste every week. So the tradebox was a great way to reduce waste, until they decided to kick out the free riders, and it became the vector for waste. But at least it's "fair" now.

Food that rots in the box is the co-op's deadweight loss. At some point, guarding the commons to exclude free riders saps more value than it protects. What's more, today's free rider might be tomorrow's donor or innovator, though those who bridle at "free riders" might be more comfortable with "beneficiaries of consumer surplus." In their determination to stop copyright free riders, copyright holders are causing great social harm.

These problems aren't new to copyright. They just show up here more often because technology has driven the marginal cost of the next copy of a copyrighted work near zero, and peer-to-peer lets independent re-distributors shoulder those costs that remain. As a matter of hard costs, the free rider costs the copyright holder and publisher nothing. So long as we can get over the startup hump -- giving creators enough incentive to get the first copy of a work produced -- we should be able to give everybody access to it.

Copyright has long recognized this paradox. The Consitutional compromise is to give authors exclusive rights for limited times. But today, of course, the times have gotten longer (CTEA), the costs of exclusion (DRM or the PIRATE Act) have risen, and fewer and fewer members of the public get to benefit from the consumer surplus of a smoothly functioning market.

We may not have all the answers to a perfectly functioning copyright commons yet, but it can't be to assume, as the MPAA's copyright "education" does, that "If you haven't paid for it, you've stolen it." Only a broken system leaves orphan films to rot because the only ones willing to restore them don't hold (and can't find holders of) the necessary bundle of rights.

Posted by Wendy at 02:00 PM
May 28, 2004
When Network "Intelligence" Goes Bad

This morning, I found 1.6 Gigabytes of mail in my inbox. Before concluding that I'd need at least 2 GMail accounts, I looked more closely to find that the last 2000 or so messages were from my old friend Mailer-Daemon. The POP server to which I forward my mail for remote pickup had instituted a new anti-virus program that was bouncing some spam back to me, starting an endless loop of bounces and re-bounces that didn't stop until I changed my procmail rules to quarantine them.

Now I'll be the first to admit I have an idiosyncratic mail setup. I like to see (or be able to see) every single piece of mail sent to me, but I like to be able to read the good stuff on remote machines and devices like the Sidekick. I collect it all at my server, filter and munge it with procmail and spamassassin, and bounce it back out into a set of POP mailboxes. Which works great until my POP provider starts "adding value" to its services by filtering for viruses, and catches one that my home-grown filters haven't yet caught up with. It sends the message back to me with the message "you may have a virus." My filters see that message addressed to me and send it out for delivery to the POP box -- where those filters again bounce it back -- ad infinitum.

Of course a simple addition to my procmail rules fixed the problem, and a more cleverly designed set might have averted it altogether, but I'm still reminded of the value of truly basic service. "Enhanced" services will never account for all the idiosyncracies of their users. For some subset of users, the enhancements will require work-arounds that in turn require their own work-arounds, adding layers of complexity more than if the users could choose their own local enhancements to a basic service.

Network providers rarely know exactly how their users work. When they try to guess, they break things. The best network is one that does what it offers, and only that.

Posted by Wendy at 09:01 AM
May 25, 2004
From Japan, a Broadcast Flag Preview

The Japanese tend to get cool tech far before it reaches the U.S. This time, though, they're previewing un-cool regulation. The Japan Times Online reports on confusion caused by the Japanese version of the broadcast flag, "a special transmission signal that allows only a single copy of the program to be made."

Measures implemented by NHK and private TV broadcasting companies to control the copying of digital television programs have drawn a flood of complaints from TV users, with some saying they have been deprived of certain editing freedoms. ... Because programs that have been copied once cannot be duplicated or edited digitally, editing the programs via a personal computer has become impossible.
(via Slashdot)

Broadcasters and copyright holders claim they're concerned about copyright violation, but this "remedy" sweeps much too broadly. The elderly people confused by why their expensive equipment no longer works as expected weren't likely trying to infringe copyright. Neither would a child who wanted to edit a news clip in which she appeared to a size to send to her parents, or a parent recording a cartoon to save for his kids.

Japan's apparently voluntary system offers us a preview of what the U.S. is in for in July 2005, when the FCC's "broadcast flag" mandate takes effect here. Buy now to get your fully user-configurable technology, or prepare to be surprised by what you can no longer do.

Posted by Wendy at 02:40 PM
The Diffusion of Free Culture

I just caught up with Suw's terrific analysis of the spread of Free Culture: Something for Nothing: The Free Culture AudioBook Project. It's a great illustration of the power of openness: because Free Culture was released under a license that allowed follow-on creativity, its readers became joint creators and disseminators.

In these new models, the new collaborators can also be the distributors and the consumer. Sometimes there is no need for a facilitator and the writer can communicate directly with the collaborators. But most importantly, these models provide flexibility in terms of how the reader accesses the product.
In addition to providing access to the product, these models facilitate the building of a creative community around a publication which helps to promote it via word of mouth. The key to making these communities - be they 'flash' communities that come together for a given project and then disband, or more permanent - succeed is to utilise an enabling licence such as those provided by Creative Commons.

Openness, of course can be provided in many ways: open formats like HTML, .txt, RSS, and atom, enable the building of artistic and technological derivatives -- audio books, text search tools, aggregators; open licenses such as the GPL and Creative Commons empower users to create these derivatives with minimal lawyering. In combination, open tech and law create value. Works move from isolated objects to parts of the culture, as the creation of derivatives recruits readers and new creators.

Posted by Wendy at 08:59 AM
May 22, 2004
Whose Derivatives?

Matt Haughey riffs on Ernie Miller's report on Congressional hearings on ClearPlay. ClearPlay enables DVD viewers to create or select cut lists that omit words or scenes as they play a movie, just as the Jay Z Construction Set allows audiences to re-mix the Grey Album. Some Representatives appalud the clean-up technology; others are outraged by it:

[S]ince the motivation behind ClearPlay technology is largely religious, it turns the [derivative works] argument on its ear to many participants and observers. It's not hard to find folks that loved the Grey Album but see ClearPlay technology as something to be frowned upon, but the underlying technology and law is largely the same.
The speech that most needs defending is often the least popular. I may hate the modifications many make with ClearPlay, but I'll defend your right to bowdlerize (or to add gratuitous profanity and violence) in your own home.

For some non-gratuitous profanity, in criticism of the FCC's prudishness, listen to Eric Idle's FCC Song (not safe for modern radio).

Posted by Wendy at 10:38 AM
May 20, 2004
Technorati's Conversations

Technorati threw a Developer Salon earlier this week, an open house where about 50 Technorati developers and users came together to discuss what they'd like to see the company's search tools enable. The event, like the space Technorati's tools map, was about conversation, and I had some particularly good ones with Mary Hodder.

Technorati, for the those who haven't clicked the little blue bubbles Conversations about this post from Technorati appearing everywhere, is a blog search and connection tool. It lets you track who's talking about your posts, and what else they're talking about, weaving the scattered entries together through their hyperlinks. Because blog posts are often built around links, Technorati can build on the implicit meanings of those links.

As Dave Sifry said, people anywhere in the power-law curve hold conversations. An offshoot of the untyped nature of links is that anyone can contribute to a Technorati-mediated conversation. The cosmos approaches the elusive ideal of Cass Sunstein's, a space where those holding strong viewpoints and their critics appear side-by-side and the curious or undecided can see the full debate. (Consider copyright maximalists and minimalists both pointing to the DMCA, one as object of exaltation, the other as target of scorn.) Perhaps we don't want others' viewpoints forced upon us everywhere, but we also don't want to get such a highly filtered view of the world that we end up reading only what we already know. Tools like the Technorati cosmos can help us preserve the serendipity to discover different views that just might be persuasive.

Posted by Wendy at 11:06 PM
May 12, 2004
Vote Blog, in Santa Fe

Seen in downtown Santa Fe, signs encouraging citizens to Vote Blog. He's a candidate for county commissioner, and yes, he does have a blog. Let's hope his supporters can cast verifiable votes.

There are other reasons the Santa Fe area is cool, like the free wifi available in the ABQ airport -- that's free as in speech and as in beer, no charge and no nasty terms-of-service. I was happy to arrive early for my flight.

New Mexico is also home to the very cool Alliance for Innovation in Science and Technology Information, who invited me to speak to their meeting of scientific researchers and librarians.

Posted by Wendy at 03:00 PM
May 10, 2004
Behind the Redactions

The New York Times reports researchers in Europe used cryptography techniques to decipher redacted government documents. Illuminating blacked-out words (no-reg link via CNet)

By realigning the document, it was possible to use another program Whelan had written to determine that it had been formatted in the Arial font. Next, they found the number of pixels that had been blacked out in the sentence: "An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told an xxxxxxxx service at the same time that Bin Ladin was planning to exploit the operative's access to the U.S. to mount a terrorist strike." They then used a computer to determine the pixel length of words in the dictionary when written in the Arial font.
Unfortunately, we'll need this technique more and more against our close-lipped government. The ACLU had to wait weeks merely to release a heavily redacted complaint challenging use of National Security Letters to obtain unidentified data from an unidentified ISP. The Washington Post, channeling the Onion, headlined its coverage of the suit Patriot Act Suppresses News Of Challenge to Patriot Act.

Posted by Wendy at 02:31 PM
Not What I Wanted to See in HD

I've been building a MythTV box around the pcHDTV card for Linux. More details on that project as it comes together, but I stopped work tonight after seeing, in high definition, photos of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It's disturbing, but not surprising, that the Bush administration didn't take note of the abuses until photos appeared on 60 Minutes. The pictures don't look any better in high-res, but it's important that the public be able to see them and reach informed understanding of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Now let's put leaders in office with the resolution to clean up what these images reflect.

Update: Here's the report (PDF) (text) the Office of Senate Security doesn't want staffers to read. (Via Lawmeme).

Posted by Wendy at 01:17 AM
May 06, 2004
Record Labels Can't Find Artists, Can Find Grandma

The major record labels couldn't find some big-name artists to whom they owed royalties, but they could find another grandmother to sue.

Good work from NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer gets the record labels to track down such artists as Luciano Pavarotti and the estate of Elvis Presley, whom they couldn't seem to find in order to deliver royalty checks. Says Spitzer of the live performers, "It's not like it's hard to find them. You could go to a concert and throw the check at them onstage."

Maybe the failure to find artists comes from the record labels' other preoccupation, dragnetting John and Jane Does in the war against filesharers. Among the dolphins caught in the last round was a Fayetteville grandmother targetted for her grandson's music downloads. Let's get priorities straight here.

Posted by Wendy at 01:38 PM
Video Art or Copyright Crime?

The New York Times reviews Jon Rouston's movie theater videos, shots of the screen, audience, and ambience at various opening-day movie showings. Critic's Notebook: When One Man's Video Art Is Another's Copyright Crime . The problem is that this art has been outlawed in many states. That's a side effect of the broad anti-camcorder statutes the MPAA has been pushing on many states, including California, despite the fact that its own insiders leak most movies to the public pre-release (study PDF).

It used to be the critics who'd tell us whether art was good or bad, original or imitative. Now it's the lawyers. As the reviewer comments on art's impoverished field:

It does not matter whether you think that Mr. Routson's work is good or bad art; it is quite good enough, in my view. It does matter that the no-camcorder laws may not do much to stem pirating while making it increasingly difficult for artists to do one of the things they do best: comment on the world around them.

Posted by Wendy at 09:56 AM
May 03, 2004
Not in Our Name: Musicians tell Pew Study lawsuits aren't for them

In the mix of songwriters and musicians surveyed by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, most don't think the recording industry's lawsuits in their name actually benefit artists.

Some 60% of those in the sample say they do not think the Recording Industry Association of America’s suits against online music swappers will benefit musicians and songwriters. Those who earn the majority of their income from music are more inclined than “starving musicians” to back the RIAA, but even those very committed musicians do not believe the RIAA campaign will help them. Some 42% of those who earn most of their income from their music do not think the RIAA legal efforts will help them, while 35% think those legal challenges will ultimately benefit them.
Report (PDF)

Posted by Wendy at 08:54 AM