25 June 2003

Unauthorized Copying is Not Stealing!

I swear I could fill these online pages exposing the disinformation and misinformation disseminated by the KFYI AM talk show hosts. Morning host Barry Young's comments over the past few days on music file sharing and his equating the act to "stealing intellectual property" is the latest example of egregious malarkey.

Stealing presupposes the presence of physical property. If I forget to bring my bicycle inside and somebody strolls by, hops on it and rides it away, that is theft. They have taken my bicycle away from me and I will be without my means of trusty transportation. I would incur a loss on the transaction. However, if somebody shares with me a digitally compressed copy of their legally purchased U2 CD - there is no tangible physical loss - there is no way to ascertain whether I purposefully refrained from buying a copy because my friend wished to share his CD with me. In fact, if I like the CD, I'll probably purchase it myself on my next visit to Best Buy. But corporate powers and scions like Mr. Young would term this act theft with a definitive loss for the recording industry association and the artist. Never mind that if I could play the CD and record it to a cassette tape (or another CD and it would fall under "fair use" and be perfectly legal). But since, instead of physically handing over the CD, I used a file sharing program (or even more simply, received it from him via any of the popular PC chat utilities), I've committed a great evil such that the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee would wish to destroy my PC. Never mind that there is no true "loss" - no physical property has been displaced, just an imperfect copy of bits has been added.

To equate the two acts is to committ a grave error. The loyal minions and PR flacks representing the corporate barons are well versed in the debate however, and they strive at every junction to set the default argument language to suit their bias. Music sharing, they proclaim, is piracy, as if the act of sharing a song was akin to a deed of barbarous treachery by savory buccaneers on the high seas. They indirectly invoke an image of savage slaughter of defenseless innocents. And indeed, the statues for this loathsome crime have been adjusted to lay down sentences worse than murder in some states, and in nearly all 50 states, this crime of unethical copying is dealt with more harshly than first degree assault. Unsatisfied with that campaign, the RIAA has taken to aggressively targeting the life savings of internet users who "share illegal files" via hundreds of filed lawsuits.

Does unauthorized copying harm entertainment and/or infotainment producers? Empirical results suggest otherwise. In fact, two of the biggest revenue netting digital goods of the past decade have been Microsoft Windows and the Sony Playstation. Both were heavily "pirated", er prone to unauthorized copying, yet the widescale propagation the unlicensed software merely made the brands stronger, and I find it hard to make a case that such copyright infringement actually hurt Microsoft or Sony. On the contrary, it transformed their brands into ubiquitous, familiar namesakes that led to massive sales numbers. Any loss incurred by an instance whereby somebody forewent a purchase in lieu of a bootleg copy was offset by an exponential factor of new customers who, exposed to the product, sought out to secure a "legitimate" version. Anybody who worked with PCs in the late 1980s is well aware of the proliferation of unlicensed Windows software. In the case of the Sony Playstation, it was the Asian markets that made bootleg games readily available for gamers all over the globe.

Richard Stallman, free software champion and computer genius who's created compilers, tools and editors that enabled Linux operating system, succinctly summarizes why the term "intellectual property" is a misnomer:

The term intellectual property carries a hidden assumption---that the way to think about all these disparate issues is based on an analogy with physical objects, and our ideas of physical property.

When it comes to copying, this analogy disregards the crucial difference between material objects and information: information can be copied and shared almost effortlessly, while material objects can't be. Basing your thinking on this analogy is tantamount to ignoring that difference. (Even the US legal system does not entirely accept the analogy, since it does not treat copyrights or patents like physical object property rights.)

I don't believe these draconian measures reflect the intent of the founding fathers who considered copyright an "embarrassing monopoly" for the sake of the American citizenry, useful only for the sole purpose of promoting science and the arts. It seems that the MPAA, RIAA, and their compliant Congress critters are the true pirates, stealing from the public commons and then enforcing that theft with armed thugs. Hired legislators, with full campaign coffers, eagerly do the bidding for the entertainment industry at the cost of our freedom. But I guess this is small potatoes, considering the suspension of habeas corpus indefinitely and secret arrests, and secret trials. Perversion of copyright is low on the list of constitutional truths.
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21 June 2003

American Sovereignty, Free Trade, and Jobs

Many Americans shepherd their ire on the United Nations as a evil force of tyranny intent on destroying the sovereignty of U.S. government. Meanwhile, a more sinister entity and its offshoots have already encroached on U.S. laws and superceded the legislative acts passed democratically elected representatives. Special trade tribunals, who meet behind closed doors and unbeholden to citizens, are empowered to solve "trade disputes" and their rulings can force governments to amend domestic legislation or face heavy fines.

Thus far, many cases presented to these "free trade" tribunals are pending. Last August, in one of the more notorious cases, Methanex Corp vs. California, the NAFTA tribunal ruled against the Canadian chemical company's lawsuit for $1 billion. Methanex claimed a California ban of the gasoline additive MTBE, which was polluting drinking water, hurt their sales of Methanol. Of course, there's no such thing as "precedent" to effect future tribunal rulings, since it's not an open judicial system based on codified law. As per standard modus operandi of the Bush administration to embrace hypocrisy at every turn, while embarking on a campaign to curtail lawsuits from injured citizens aka Tort Reform, they are championing the expansion of the "corporate lawsuit" mechanism, via FTAA and "fast track" trade promotion authority.

As jobs continue to be exported offshore, cries from the impacted American workers grow louder to implore government measures to address the problem. While these pleas are greeted mostly by indifference from American legislators, some states have begun to pay heed to their constituents. But they are being met by preparatory PR strikes from developing countries resorting to edicts of free trade law to support their stance. The Indian press is full of articles on the rising sentiment in the U.S. against outsourcing:

"There is a need to put together a cogent case outlining how the American states considering the bill against outsourcing to India stand to lose in a net lose-lose proposition," said the Assocham survey.

"The business case needs to be put together on how much will the states lose in additional costs per call that are taken in the U.S. or Britain versus taken in an off-shore destination like India."

The industry lobby group urged the government to make case under the World Trade Organisation agreements that the bills against outsourcing would act as trade barriers and not allow a fair movement of services.

8 June 2003

Poindexter's nutty scheme

Science fiction author, Bruce Sterling, shares his thoughts about Total Information Awareness (or as it has been renamed - Terrorist Information Awareness) with CNET reporter Declan McCullaugh. Sterling believes that Americans, now unable to flee their "data shadow", and will be "decapitated and lobotomized".

I'll tell you what will happen if it were an effective TIA. There would immediately be a series of coups inside the Republican Party as the people who owned the KGB survival mechanism were systemically outed and "Trent Lotted"...It would be profoundly destabilizing. Their sexual affairs would be public. They'd be "Lewinskied." They'd be "Whitewatered."

The common population would stand aghast as these people did one another in. It would not stop once the surveillance mechanism was there. It would eat generation after generation of KGB members until it decapitated and lobotomized the entire population.

There are plenty of Republican senators now who know what happened to Trent Lott--how can they not? They have street smarts. They're aware that he was nailed because people happened to record something that was at the practical funeral of a centenarian.