Rights and Privileges

July 28, 2008

One thing that I find fascinating about “copyright” is what it actually means to have this “right to copy”.

Though we tend not to think of it like this, really, it does not give the owner of the copyright the right to duplicate and publish this work; it gives the owner of the copyright the “right” to prevent other people from duplicating and publishing this work. It is a “right” that gives the owner the ability to control the actions of other people, to prevent them from having access to information.

And really, in the American understanding, it is not a “right” in the same way that there are rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Constution establishes copyright by saying that Congress shall have the power

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries

Copyright is, according to the Constitution, not a natural right; it is created by the government, a privilege really, which limits the rights of everyone besides the owner of each copyright. It is created because it is thought that, by limiting everyone’s rights, “authors and inventors” can be encouraged to produce more so that the “progress of science and useful arts” can be promoted.

But the goal of copyright is not to guarantee the prosperity of authors or inventors – it is to promote the progress of science and useful arts. If we could promote the arts and sciences without limiting the rights of everyone besides the individual authors and inventors (and, really, since more than one person owns an exclusive copyright, everyone’s rights are limited by copyright), we ought to do so. And Congress does not even have the power, let alone a mandate, to make copyright any more powerful than necessary to “promote the sciences and useful arts”.

In fact, it seems to me that the way copyright is implemented currently is somewhat unconstitutional. Not only because it is in effect not “limited”, as the clause says it must be (though Lawrence Lessig lost the Supreme Court case in which he made that argument), but because it isn’t doing what it is supposed to do – copyright as it is now stifles, not encourages, innovation.

Of course it would be pretty much impossible to make that argument in a court, since one could always say that how copyright currently is implemented does in fact promote the arts and sciences, but that doesn’t make it not true.

Major Colvin

July 25, 2008

Last night, I finished watching season 3 of The Wire. The Wire, which portrays various aspects of life in Baltimore, Maryland, is definitely one of the best television shows I’ve ever watched, possibly the best; it has an unfortunate number of sex scenes and general vulgarity, but it’s also extremely well written, well acted, and manages to pretty much completely immerse the viewer.

One element of the season I just watched, which focused on city politics (while also, as in previous seasons, including the drug trade, police work, and general mayhem). There is one character, a police officer, Major “Bunny” Colvin, who decides to essentially legalize drugs in certain sections of the city. Without informing his superior officers, he tells his subordinates to crack down on all drug trafficking everywhere except the free zones, nicknamed “Hamsterdam”, where they will ignore everything except violence (so, drugs, prostitution, etc, are all OK there).

This doesn’t go over well when people find out about it, as you might imagine. But, should it have? What exactly is wrong with legalizing drugs, anyway?

Consider – if it was somehow proven that, by making murder legal, we would actually reduce the murder rate, would we even consider legalizing murder? I don’t think so. But that’s because we see murder as inherently wrong – it deprives another human being of their right to life. Nothing can justify legalizing it – even a reduction in death. Because as it is now, we see the victims of murder and try to seek justice for them, but if murder were legal, we would just be giving up on those who were chosen to die.

But drugs are not the same thing. Whether or not doing drugs is immoral, it doesn’t harm anyone else for the drug addict to use them. That means we don’t have to make this great stand against drug use regardless of the costs. If legalizing drugs reduces drug use or makes it less dangerous or reduce the power of drug traffickers (since if it’s legal, it can be legally imported), we should go ahead and do it. It’s a prudential decision, really. Not like illegalizing murder – which every society has to do if it wants to at all resemble a just one.

Jennings & Rall

April 12, 2008

I just finished watching the (seven episode long) second season of Jericho. Unfortunately, the show, which was canceled after its first season and brought back after a massive show of fan support, was canceled again, and it will only come back if e.g. the Sci-Fi channel picks up the show. So the final episode of this season was probably the series finale, and I’m going to treat it as such in my comments here.

First off,, I’d like to note that I think it’s pretty cool that CBS made all the episodes available on their website, without advertisements in the actual video – the page might have some, I don’t know, I have AdBlock – and the ability to watch it fullscreen.

Now – what do I think of season two of Jericho? Well, it’s radically different from season one. Season one was basically straight-up post-apocalyptic speculative fiction a la Alas, Babylon – a small town tries to survive the lawlessness and lack of a central government that result from a nuclear attack. In season two, the government begins putting itself back together (the season begins with the army arriving and stopping a border skirmish between Jericho and New Bern). It’s actually a rather interesting premise that I don’t think has ever been explored before. Alas, Babylon ended with the arrival of the Air Force plane and the revelation that the government had put itself back together after a fashion – so season two of Jericho could be seen as a television adaption of a non-existent sequel to that book.

But how well executed was it? In many ways, extremely well. The interactions between Jericho, New Bern, the army, and Ravenwood (Jennings & Rall’s mercenary army) was really interesting – the army is such an overwhelming presence, you would think it could just bring law and order immediately, but that’s not the case – mostly because the reconstructed government was almost, well, fascist, in the economic sense. The governmental corporation Jennings & Rall starts taking everything over, getting everyone in debt to them, etc, and the Jerichoans are not particularly happy about that. (That’s all I’ll say to avoid spoilers.)

So the show was really good when it focused on the town. The problem is, sometimes it didn’t. The entire storyline with Robert Hawkins, the undercover CIA/FBI/black-ops/something agent who tried to stop the nuclear attacks but failed and then starts trying to expose the governmental cover-up, seemed kind of silly to me. Amusing at times, but mostly unbelievable. I think the show would have been better keeping the focus on the town of Jericho.

That’s not to say they shouldn’t have had the political stuff with the various countries arising from the ashes of the USA – the Allied States of America based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and encompassing all states west of the Mississippi save Texas; the Independent Republic of Texas; and the United States of America based in Columbus, Ohio governing all states east of the Mississippi. That stuff was pretty fun – reminded me of the Laredo Nation, the Texark Empire, the Denver Nation, etc, from A Canticle for Leibowitz. But I thought Jake and Hawkins’ excursion to Cheyenne to recover a nuclear bomb, in particular, was just over-the-top – though I’m not sure how else they could have gone about resolving that plotline. I think part of the problem is that that part of the plot advanced unrealistically fast, an unfortunate result of having the season be only seven episodes long.

And how about the ending? It was technically a cliff-hanger, but didn’t have any cliff-hanger feeling to it – it felt like Jericho’s job was done, they had done what they could to start the overthrow of the corrupt Cheyenne government, and now it was in the hands of the eastern USA. A fairly good end for the series, I think. Apparently there was an alternative, more cliffhanger-y ending shot that you can see on the DVD, but I’m content with the current ending.

And I am very happy that I am able to be content with the current ending. I may have mentioned this before, but if not – I much prefer TV shows that actually have an advancing plot that leads to a definite conclusion, rather than just story arc after story arc after story arc with the show never ending. So in a way, I’m not that upset that Jericho was canceled after season two. I think the show works as a story arc as it currently stands, and doesn’t really need much more – you could tack on another season, but it isn’t really necessary.

So all in all – I still think Jericho is a pretty good show. I do think the first season is in many ways better than the second – or, at least, some of the episodes were better, though it had several episodes that were essentially filler, which they couldn’t afford to do this season. But season two is definitely worth watching.
And even though the show was canceled unfortunately early, don’t be afraid of unresolved cliffhangers – I think the series ending works fairly well (much better than if they had ended with the last episode of season one and never filmed season two).

On Homework

October 9, 2007

Here’s another thing I’ve noticed about college. In high school, everybody complained about the workload all the time. “Too much math homework! So much reading! Augh!”. Well… so far, it’s exactly the same in college.

This doesn’t surprise me, but it seems like it should. After all, college is voluntary. You don’t have to go. And even if you do feel like you have to go, you have a great variety of choice in where to go. If you don’t want to read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and Gawaine and the Green Knight in your first semester, why the heck would you come to UD? The distinguishing characteristic of our school is that everyone takes the “core courses”: you have to take four semesters of “literary traditions”, starting with Lit Trad 1; you have to take three semesters of philosophy, and which philosophy classes you’ll take are set; and so on.

I can understand people complaining about, for example, the one math class they have to take – they came here in spite of the fact that they have to take a math class, not because of it. But if you were going to come to UD in spite of the fact that you have to take the core classes, not because of it, why wouldn’t you go somewhere else?

I suspect part of it is that the people I talk to are mostly freshmen, and they’re used to high school where you complain about having to do work all the time. But then again, it doesn’t seem like the upper-classmen complain any less…

Credit but not Control

August 6, 2007

I’ve said before that I don’t believe in intellectual property. Here’s an elaboration on what I mean by that, since often when people hear that they say, “wtf?!?!”

I do think that inventors, writers, programmers, etc, should be rewarded for the work they put into their discoveries. I use “discoveries” not “creations” for a reason. It is often said that an inventor discovers a new way of doing something, not that he creates that way of doing it. The same, I say, applies to writers and the stories they tell, or programmers and the way they design their programs. Computer programs are not created, they are discovered. Anyway, these authors (of methods, books, programs, whatever) should be rewarded. They should receive credit for what they’ve done. People shouldn’t be able to steal credit for other people’s discoveries. As far as that goes, I have few disagreements with anybody.

But I don’t think that the authors should have control over their work. An inventor who discovers a new way of, say, making ice cream shouldn’t have the right to stop anybody from in turn improving on his design, or incorporating his discovery into a larger work, or selling a similar product at a lower price so long as it is made clear that the original inventor was the discoverer of the method. And the same with literary works. The fact that an author wrote a book about a given subject should not stop anybody from writing an extremely similar book, or from improving the author’s original book and changing it to fit their own view of how it should have went, or from republishing it and selling it or distributing it for free, without paying royalties.  As long as credit is given where credit is due.

The question arises of course, of why anybody invent or write or program if all they got was credit. Well, just because ‘all they get is credit’ not absolute control over their discoveries doesn’t mean they can’t get paid for it. How would they be paid? The same way authors, inventors, and suchlike were paid before the (relatively recent) genesis of copyright law. Wealthy people commissioning pieces, people auctioning their services as inventor, author, etc, not selling specific works, and so on.

You think it wouldn’t work? I think it would, though of course it would change every single intellectual-property based industry.

With invention, I don’t think it would allow people to stop innovating. If anything, it would force companies to be more innovative, since the advantage they get from a new discovery would no longer be 20+ years from a patent, but only until the competition figured out what exactly was going on. (They wouldn’t be required to publish the internal documentation or plans for their products, after all.) And after the competition figured out what was up they would still be at a disadvantage, since the original company’s name would be attached to the discovery for all eternity.

It would indeed reduce the number of published authors (and musicians and filmmakers and…). Would that be so bad, considering that so much of what is currently published is, well, worthless? And this would, among other things, make authors of artistic merit more likely to be published, since the criteria for who got well-known and who didn’t would change from who could sell the most copies of a book to who could bring the most prestige to his patron. It would change things, definitely. But, I think, not for the worse.

This system is, really, already in place for many programmers, voluntarily. Hence the GPL.

Note that the only change this would institute is having the government no longer have patent or copyright laws – or, rather, have no copyright laws and have patent laws that were much different from current patent law. It would not change what agreements could be made between individuals or companies; there would be no requirements to publish or anything like that. It’s very possible that it would lead to huge “clubs” aka corporations that functioned much as the current government does with regards to these things and used contract law to enforce it. The main point of this is to get the goverment away from enforcing these things.

Anway, the main point is – credit, but not control. People shouldn’t be in charge of how their discoveries are used once they publish them.

Free as in Freedom

July 26, 2007

When RMS (Richard M Stallman) announced GPLv3, he talked a lot about the purpose of Free software. He says there are four freedoms the GPL is designed to protect:

Freedom 0. The freedom to run the program as you wish.

Freedom 1. The freedom to study the source code and change it so it does what you wish.

Freedom 2. The freedom to help your neighbor, which is the freedom to distribute exact copies up to and including republication when you wish, and . . .

Freedom 3, which is the freedom to contribute to your community, the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions up to and including publication, when you wish.

I completely agree with these four points where software is concerned. My question is, should these same Freedoms apply to things other than programs, and if not, why not.

Take a piece of literature. Substitute “program” wherever it appears in the 4 Freedoms with “book”.

Obviously Freedom 0 should apply to it. If you have the book, you should be allowed to read it and interpret it however you want. To say otherwise doesn’t make much sense.

It’s the same with Freedom 1. I see no reason the reader shouldn’t be allowed to change the story in their mind, or even rewrite the book so they like it better. Many people, for example, might want to do this with Harry Potter.

Freedom 2 is clearly more controversial. It sounds absurd to say you should be allowed to distribute copies of the book to whoever you want. And perhaps it is. But why is it so absurd? It’s perfectly legal to lend a book to someone for them to read. Republication is a bit more extreme than that, but it’s the same concept, I think. Perhaps the problem is that making copies of the book (as opposed to just lending the book itself) creates wealth. You’ve created two copies of the book when you had one, which is somehow wrong and evil.

Freedom 3 actually seems less controversial to me than Freedom 2. If I write a fan-fiction based on Harry Potter, why shouldn’t I be allowed to publish it and let other people who are interested in fan-fictions of Harry Potter read it? The issue would be that if the modifications are too slight then you’re essentially using Freedom 2, not Freedom 3. So everything comes down to Freedom 2, which we don’t allow because… because of the economics of it?

That seems to be the case. You can’t let people steal an author’s work (even though you’re not taking anything away from them) by copying it and giving it out for free! If you do, how is he supposed to make money?!

Well, it seems to be working all right for the Free Software peoples… lots of free software is being created under this regime of freedom. The difference between software and literature is what, exactly? Philosophically I support software being free because it’s just math. If you discover a mathematical formula you shouldn’t be able to keep other people from using it. But I don’t really see why literature is different; all you’ve done is discover a combination of words that have a certain significance, why can’t other people use those same words? And what about music, which is just a given combination of notes, and art, and…?

As you can see, I’m drifting towards the view that there should be no intellectual property. I think there’s a lot to be said for that position. Intellectual property never did make much sense to me…what makes a story mine after I write it, exactly?

The main objection to this seems to be that people won’t have an incentive to create if they don’t get something back from their investment of time and energy. I don’t like this argument because it seems to say that artists are in it only for the money. I realize that some are; and if our economy was such that they no longer churned out pot-boilers to support themselves, would we be that much worse off? I think not.

The stronger objection would be that even if they did want to create and wanted to put energy into it regardless of money, they wouldn’t be able to support themselves while doing so. Indeed, I’m not sure how such an economy could work. I’m not an economist. To find out, I would say, look at how the Free software people support themselves and, if possible, emulate that system for all these other systems.

R Rating for Lighting Up

May 12, 2007

Here it is:
An article in the Boston Globe.

I would be incensed (pun intended), but I’ve come to expect it.

The MPAA has passed guidelines saying that smoking will now affect the ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R) that it gives movies. (It doesn’t say how it will affect it, just that it will.)

I don’t smoke (the primary reason being that I have no particular desire to and I’m under the legal age). But I always get irritated when I see people moving to curtail smoking – laws saying you can’t smoke in public places, that you can’t smoke in private restaurants, and now that smoking can’t be portrayed in movies without it somehow making it inappropriate for younger viewers. This is for the same reason that I don’t like laws requiring seatbelts to be worn, or the laws that alcohol can’t be bought until you’re 21 – if you’re a legal adult, you should be able to buy what you want unless the product itself is illegal (btw, I don’t drink either). It’s simply none of the government’s business – or, in this case, the MPAA’s.

If people want to take risky behavior, it must be because they think the tradeoff is worth it – and, if that decision isn’t hurting anybody else, the government should respect that decision. And the MPAA shouldn’t interfere with the art of film making by decreeing that showing people smoking in movies is somehow bad, or that people under a certain age are somehow unable to handle seeing someone smoke on-screen.

In fact, I’m probably going to start smoking just to spite all of these anti-smoking nuts. That’ll show them. Yeah! Uh… yeah.

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