Has Copyright Law Ever Worked?

August 20, 2010

Thanks to the Arts & Letters Daily news feed, I came across this interesting article, which suggests that even back in the 18th and 19th centuries, copyright law both stifled innovation and did little to help authors make money from their writing. Even back then, it mainly benefited the publishers. I don’t know whether or not its claims are actually true, but I find most of them plausible, given what I know of copyright in the modern day.



August 12, 2010

This is a word I’ve come across recently. “Power-disking” refers to the practice of quickly watching every episode of a show over a short period of time, usually by powering through the DVDs, watching, say, an entire disk in one sitting.

I’ve done this somewhat often over the last few years. I’ve compiled a list of all the shows of which I’ve seen every episode; here it is, in roughly chronological order:

There are a few interesting things about this list.

  • The majority of these shows I watched on the collected series DVD set after the series was canceled.
  • Two (The Wire, 24) I watched on a per-series basis, watching all episodes of a season after it ended, but not waiting between seasons.
  • Only one (Jericho) did I ever watch “in real time,” so to speak, by which I mean “as it were originally shown on TV.” And ever there, I saw the first several episodes online before deciding to watch the show as it progressed, and watched the second season entirely online.

This is clearly significantly different from my television habits, say, six years ago. Mostly this is because what I now do was not technologically feasible back then. Yet the change reflects also a change in ways of thinking about television. I never watch TV regularly any more. Instead, the default is to watch no television, and occasionally to watch entire series over the course of a few weeks, just as one would a read a book over the course of a few weeks.

There is a significant difference between television and novels, however. The quantity of quality television is severely limited, compared to the quantity of quality novels. This has to do both with the economics of it — it costs more to make a TV show than to write a book — and with the fact that television is a fairly recent medium. When I discover a new author I like, say, Cormac McCarthy, I can read and have read) every book he’s written over the last twenty-five years. And then do that again for every author I find I like. The same is not true of television. I suspect I will run out of shows to watch fairly soon —  and then what? Watch nothing, or, rather, continue in the current habit of watching nothing except watching a lot at random intervals and have the size of the intervals increase? I have little interest in going back to watching shows as they air. I don’t think the medium works as well with the narrative broken up like that. It’s like reading a novel but only one chapter per week.

The number of good shows available isn’t zero, of course. Given the shows I’ve listed above, it’s clear my interest is in shows with strong narrative arcs running across seasons, and for the most part in shows with strong sci-fi or fantasy elements, such that the mythopoeic elements of the show loom large. This leaves me with a few interesting options to explore. This is what’s on my mind right now:

  • Stargate: Atlantis — I already have the DVDs, and am halfway through the first season. So this I will definitely watch.
  • Babylon 5 – I began watching this a year ago or so, but never really go into it. So I don’t know if I’ll ever end up watching it.
  • The Prisoner – This is considered one of the greatest series of all time, and I’m interested in seeing it. Of course it’s really old and I might never get around to it.

Any suggestions for other shows worth watching?

Realistic World-Building

July 26, 2009

This is a fun website, for a certain definition of fun: Medieval Demographics Made Easy.

Sites like that make me wonder how  much I ought to worry about such things when writing my own speculative fiction. I guess it is important, for believability, to make sure the numbers roughly work out (so that it’s believable that everyone won’t starve, for example) – but the page itself encourages you to fudge the numbers however much you want to get the desired result.

I also wonder how much thought the greats of speculative fiction put into things like this. When he was drawing his maps, Tolkien must have thought about roughly how much land they’d need to support the populations of the different countries of Middle-Earth, but then again he rarely if ever gave exact population accounts, so he didn’t have to worry about it too much.

Or take Gene Wolfe; how did he decide how many cities there were inside The Whorl (c.f. Book of the Long Sun)? The only way I can see would be by calculating the surface area in the hollowed-out part of the asteroid, deciding how much cultivated land there would be, then using something like the page linked to (though presumably requiring more research) to find out how many cities there could be. (Incidentally, I also sometimes wonder how the city of Nessus, in the Book of the New Sun, fed itself, since it didn’t appear to grow its own food and it was so big that shipping the food in seemed impractical.)

Then I consider that most of the short stories I write take place in completely unbelievable worlds – in one of them there is no food, people live on light, and in another there is actually more land in the city itself than in the rural areas – and I stop worrying about it, at least until I write a story that set in a world whose rules are remotely similar to our own.


May 14, 2009

Firstly, an amusing website: http://www.thepirategoogle.com/

Secondly, regarding the recent increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia; the one good thing to come of it, in my opinion, is that people are reminded of what actual piracy is. It involves armed robbery, hostage-taking, and death. Whether making unauthorized copies of a movie or song is immoral or not, it is nothing like actual piracy in its severity. No internet pirate ever killed someone.

Now, on to the Pirate Bay trial. So, the legal debate itself – whether or not providing links to copyrighted material is illegal when you are not providing the material itself – is interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant. I tend to think the Pirate Bay should have won the trial on legal grounds, but I can understand the case against, given current copyright law. Really none of that matters, though; what everyone really cares about is whether or not piracy itself is wrong. Is it even possible to ‘steal’ information?


Turin’s Manifesto on So-Called Intellectual Property

I like to look at this historically. It used to be that data was intimately bound up with physical property. Before the printing press, copies of books were made by hand; the book was valuable for its content, yes, but primarily because it was rare, difficult to produce, requiring hours and hours of painstaking manual labor. If someone wanted to make a copy of a book they had in their possession, they were free to do so; it would require a lot of work, and the new copy would certainly be theirs, since they created the physical artifact.

Then the printing press came along, and it became easy to make many copies of something – if you owned a large and expensive piece of machinery and could put in enough manual labor to produce a single copy of it. Making one copy and making a thousand copies required the same amount of initial effort, with little extra effort added for each copy. This made it so that, if someone wrote a book, they could publish it and make many copies of it, selling each of them for a slight profit – but that the few other people who had printing presses (not just anyone, since almost no one had such presses) could make their own copies of the book and sell them.

There seems something unfair about this; person A wrote the book, but person B profits from selling it because he just takes the text and prints it, giving nothing to person A. It was because of situations like this that copyright law was invented – giving a limited monopoly on the rights to print copies to the person who wrote the book. Anyone would still be allowed to make their own copies by hand, if they wanted to, but it would require so much effort they would be better off just buying a copy; copyright law’s purpose was to make sure that, when the common man bought a copy of a book, he bought one from the person who actually wrote it.

And copyright was for a limited period of time, because eventually the work would become public knowledge of sorts, and it wouldn’t make sense at that point to restrict access to it. That, or it would be forgotten, and it wouldn’t make sense to stop people from making copies of a book that would otherwise never be read. It’s better not to have laws that destroy knowledge.

In the last few decades there has been a radical shift in how easy it is to make a copy of something. Making an electronic copy of an electronic document takes seconds, and costs next to nothing, and almost any form of data – movie, book, song, whatever – can be made into a digital file. So when someone “pirates” something, breaking copyright law, they’re not anything like the people who set up printing presses to make money from books they did not write; they aren’t making money, the people getting copies of the books and movies and songs aren’t being tricked into paying the wrong person for the content; rather, data has been divorced from physical property, and people are beginning to act accordingly. When books had to be physical objects, it made sense to say that those objects could only be sold by the people who actually wrote the books; now, when books can be costlessly transferred online, it makes little sense to say they still must be paid for, and that it is stealing to create a digital copy of something and give it away for free. Again: Copyright law is a cumbersome legacy from a time when there was no way to transfer information except through physical property.

The basic point I’d like to make is that advances in technology require us to come up with different ways of encouraging the arts. Yes, the existence of internet piracy may cause a problem for the current music and film industries; that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of internet piracy, which is a natural result of the current state of technology. Rather, it means we have to find new ways of making sure artists can make a living from their work.

Before the printing press artists functioned under a patronage system; the poet Vergil, for example, was under the employ of the emperor Augustus. When the printing press came along books could be sold directly to the public for profit, and so capitalism and the arts became bedfellows. Now, with internet piracy making any profit from selling something along the lines of the current system dubious, a new system is needed. What it will be, I don’t know. But something has to change, and getting rid of internet piracy isn’t the answer.

Crime and Punishment

February 18, 2008

A simple question – what is the purpose of punishing criminals?

A common answer is that you want to deter future criminals by showing what will happen when they commit a crime. Punishment as deterrent. Makes sense, right? Well…

The obvious problem with this is that you’re not showing what will happen when they commit a crime – you’re showing what will happen when they commit a crime and are caught. In a sense, this turns it all into a game of odds. As a potential criminal, you just evaluate what you will gain from committing the crime, what you will lose from being caught, and what your chances of getting caught are. If it ends up being an average gain for you, commit the crime; otherwise, don’t.

Following this reasoning, “an eye for an eye” is only effective if your chances of catching the criminal are greater than 50%. Otherwise, he gains an eye if he succeeds, the changes of which are >50%, and he loses an eye if he fails, the chances of which are <50% – the estimated result is a gain of a fraction of an eye.

Of course, most people don’t actually consider taking an eye from an enemy to be exactly equal to losing one of their own eyes. They’d rather have the eye themselves even if it leaves the enemy with the eye. But consider theft – there, you actually do gain something from the crime. Let’s say I’m planning on stealing $10,000. If I get caught, I’ll have to give it back, and I’ll go to jail for, say, 10 years. Let’s throw in that I’ll pay a $10,000 fine. So if I get caught – if I lose the crime game – I lose $10,000 and 10 years of my life. If I win, I gain $10,000.

Sure, that looks like a bad deal, but only if my chances of getting caught are fairly high. Let’s say I value a year in prison at $50,000 per year (in other words, that’s how much I’d be willing to pay to avoid that punishment). So, in defeat, my total losses would be $510,000, and in victory, my total winnings would be $10,000. That means that if my chances of success are over approximately 98%, I should commit the crime – it averages out to a benefit, not a loss. It all depends on how much risk I’m willing to take on, of course, but to reduce risk just ensure that your chances of success are higher. 99%? 99.5%?…

The point is that some people will have those chances at success – or at least they will think they do – and so people will still commit crimes. Even with a literal eye for an eye – at some point, if I want to harm the other person badly enough and I think my chances of success are high enough – I will take his eye even if there’s a chance of it costing me mine. It’s actually an even better deal than the theft because they can’t make me give the eye back.

And, as Saint Thomas More pointed out, you can’t just increase all punishments to be extremely harsh because then people have no incentive to commit lesser crimes not greater. If I’ll get hanged for stealing, why not kill the witnesses so there’s less of a chance of getting caught? If I get caught, I die either way. Might as well decrease the chances of that happening. So you need punishments that are fairly reasonable. But then people only have to have good, not even great, chances of success before it’s worth it for them to commit crimes – 70%? 60%?

So how exactly is punishment a deterrent? It deters criminals who were likely to get caught. It doesn’t deter the ones who will probably succeed. But that’s really what we need to do. They’re probably the more dangerous kind anyway. An executive at a large company who can steal $1,000,000,000 and probably get away with it is far more dangerous than someone who can rob a convenience story, get $100, and have a fairly good chance of getting caught for it. “Deterrence” might stop the latter, but it won’t stop the former.

Anyway, that’s why I’m wary of the idea that punishing criminals is useful as a deterrent. So what is it good for? Education? Retribution? The former sounds absurd (the criminals who get caught aren’t the ones who need to be convinced that crime is wrong) and the latter potentially blasphemous (who are we to decide who is guilty and deserves punishment?). It might well be that deterrence is really all that punishing criminals is good for – the idea being that you don’t have to deter all the criminals, just enough to have some semblance of order in your society. Anarchy tends to be unpleasant.

But I suspect that so long as we have to punish criminals at all, there’s no hope of creating some sort of crime-less society… that would, after all, be a Utopia, a no-place. And any claim that a change in how criminals are punished will somehow drastically reduce crime should be examined very, very carefully. The only way to reduce crime is to reduce the criminals’ chances of success.

Afaron (February)

February 4, 2008

It’s strange – this month, I am, well, not overworked, but actually worked. I actually have stuff I have to do for school, and some stuff I’m trying to get done on my own (not for Orbivm), and I really don’t have a whole lot of free time to continue writing FFF like I wanted to or work on FE art.

And some of my time, of course, is spent writing this blog. Whatever.

The situation reminds me of my Econ class, the main lesson of which so far seems to be “people have limited resources”. Um, that’s obvious. Mine right now is time, usually it’s energy to actually do anything.

Though, I find that usually I alternate between thinking I have too much to do and not enough to do – right before I do my homework I’ll think to myself, this is way too much, I won’t have any free time tonight, and then I’ll be done half an hour later and think, what am I supposed to do with all of this time? And because I didn’t expect to have it, I usually waste it. But I can’t do outside work before homework because I’ll be thinking about my homework and how I have to go do it. I think that’s probably why I usually don’t get stuff done except during holidays.

Anyway, last month I was Jugarthus Massaesylus, comrade of Caius Regilius last Tribune of Silvium. This month… who? Since I haven’t written my Inferno essay yet, I feel pressed for time – I’d better decide soon.

Well, I noticed today another (accidental?) literary reference in Orbivm –  the cosmological set-up is actually rather similar to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with the Garden of Eden located on an island across the ocean from the main continent. And in Canto XXVI Ulysses is revealed to have journeyed across the ocean to Mount Purgatory (location of the Garden of Eden) and there been destroyed. That’s similar in many ways to Tolkien’s story of Ar-Pharazon the Golden, who sailed from Numenor to Valinor and punished for it (I suspect Tolkien read Dante – probably some influence there; really, every work of literature is so interconnected it’s quite hard to discern what idea comes from where). And like I’ve said before, the story of Ar-Pharazon inspired my own story of Afaron, last king of Evrosia, who tries to do what Ar-Pharazon did but with somewhat different results.

So for that reason, if no other, I’ll be Afaron. Seems fitting somehow.


December 18, 2007

Now, I don’t like copyright. But I really do need to sit down and read Free Culture eventually to clarify my arguments against it. It’s free to download; I’ll probably read it over break and post back when I’ve done so.

But this post itself has a more practical purpose. So far, I haven’t said anything about the license all of the stuff I’ve posted here is under. I think that means, by default, that I retain all rights to it. I wouldn’t really care if anyone borrowed my stuff, but currently they aren’t really allowed to.

My question is – should I explicitly place everything/anything here (the blog posts, the various stuff under “writings”, etc) under a specific license? If so, which one – perhaps the GNU General Public License, or one of the Creative Commons licenses? Does anyone have any expertise/experience in this?

Since no one is likely to want to borrow anything from this blog, it doesn’t particularly matter, but it can’t hurt to make it possible for them to do so.

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