Archive for July, 2008

Does copyright incentivize creativity?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Andrew Dubber has a much linked-to post recently in which he declares that music copyright should last for five years, renewable on the condition of commercial availability. That would make a gigantic improvement over the current effectively perpetual (50-70 years depending on jurisdiction, retroactively extended as necessary). Not as gigantic, but much more tenable than the one year usufruct proposal I noted a few years ago.

It’s great to see someone who appears to be well respected in the recorded music industry providing such a radical and rational (in today’s context) proposal, but the key insight has nothing to do with the specifics of his proposal. Dubber writes (emphasis added):

Current blanket copyright terms ‘protect’ (I use that term in the sense of ‘racket’) copyright owners so that they can continue to be paid over and over again for work they did years ago. It prevents anyone else from making money out of works that have been shelved.

It does not, in any real sense, ‘incentivise creativity’.

So obvious, so completely ignored by policy.

Via Techdirt.

Copyright restriction

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

Ethan Zuckerman writes:

Under US law, pretty much anything you write down is copyrighted. Scrawl an original note on a napkin and it’s protected until 70 years after your death.

Note: None of this post should be taken as criticism of Zuckerman. I’m just using his sentence as a foil. He is a great blogger, the above is a great post of his, which furthermore talks about the great work of some of my colleagues…

In what sense is the hypothetical scrawl above “protected” by copyright? A scrawl might be protected by a glass case or digitization, or even (somewhat remotely) by secure property rights in napkins, glass cases, and computers.

No, copyright restricts the ability of others to use representations of the scrawl legally, without obtaining permission from the scrawler or a party the scrawler has transferred this right to censor to.

Which brings us to another inaccurate phrasing, which has many variations, all along the lines of “copyright is the right to … a copyrighted work” where the ellipsis are filled by words like “publish”, “distribute”, or “perform”. Not true! Copyright is not required to have the right to publish a work, or public domain works would be illegal to publish. Instead, copyright is the right to legally restrict others from publishing, distributing, performing works.

So use of the term ‘copyright protection’ (2,930,000 Google hits) instead of ‘copyright restriction’ (19,300 Google hits) is a peeve of mine and seeing copyright equated with censorship a small joy.

Free (and gratis) software vs. 25,000 cops

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

I’ve mentioned before that free software and its ilk decreases opportunity for taxation and regulation. Tim Lee wrote on the same topic a couple months ago. So I’m slightly pleased to see the argument endorsed by the Business Software Alliance, as told by Russell McOrmond (emphasis added to all quotes below):

The claims in the recent press release included the following:

Software piracy also has ripple effects in local communities.  The lost revenues to the wider group of software distributors and service providers ($11.4 billion) would have been enough to hire 54,000 high tech industry workers, while the lost state and local tax revenues ($1.7 billion) would have been enough to build 100 middle schools or 10,800 affordable housing units, or hire nearly 25,000 experienced police officers.

Of course the BSA’s concern for tax revenues is disingenuous, in a totally unsurprising fashion:

I guess any money not paid to BSA members just disappears and is not spent on other things in the economy that also involve jobs and taxes. In the real world we know that money not spent on software will more likely be spent on other things which are taxed the same — or even higher, given how BSA likes to also lobby to get software taxed at a lower rate than other products or services.

McOrmond also makes a slightly surprising claim about the BSA’s studies that I’d love to have verification of:

I know that people choosing legally lower cost software such as FLOSS are included as “piracy” in these studies. I guess my supporting FLOSS (both commercially and as an individual) could be blamed for their not being enough money to adequately equip the Canadian military in Afghanistan. I guess this makes me a terrorist sympathizer, by the BSA “logic”.

Regardless of whether FLOSS is counted as “piracy” in studies, the logic that it doesn’t directly facilitate the collection of taxes to fund military (or state schools, housing, or police) is pretty unassailable. Of course it could reduce costs and increase quality for each of these functions, as for anyone else.

Us Autonomo!

Monday, July 14th, 2008 and the Franklin Street Statement on Freedom and Network Services launched today.

I’ve written about the subject of this group and statement a number of times on this blog, starting with Constitutionally Open Services two years ago. I think that post holds up pretty well. Here were my tentative recommendations:

So what can be done to make the web application dominated future open source in spirit, for lack of a better term?

First, web applications should be super easy to manage (install, upgrade, customize, secure, backup) so that running your own is a real option. Applications like and have made large strides, especially in the installation department, but still require a lot of work and knowledge to run effectively.

There are some applications that centralizaton makes tractable or at least easier and better, e.g., web scale search, social aggregation — which basically come down to high bandwidth, low latency data transfer. Various P2P technologies (much to learn from, field wide open) can help somewhat, but the pull of centralization is very strong.

In cases were one accepts a centralized web application, should one demand that application be somehow constitutionally open? Some possible criteria:

  • All source code for the running service should be published under an open source license and developer source control available for public viewing.
  • All private data available for on-demand export in standard formats.
  • All collaboratively created data available under an open license (e.g., one from Creative Commons), again in standard formats.
  • In some cases, I am not sure how rare, the final mission of the organization running the service should be to provide the service rather than to make a financial profit, i.e., beholden to users and volunteers, not investors and employees. Maybe. Would I be less sanguine about the long term prospects of Wikipedia if it were for-profit? I don’t know of evidence for or against this feeling.

Consider all of this ignorant speculation. Yes, I’m just angling for more freedom lunches.

I was honored to participate in a summit called by the Free Software Foundation to discuss these issues March of this year, along with far greater thinkers and doers. and the Franklin Street Statement (named for the FSF’s office address) are the result of continued work among the summit participants, not yet endorsed by the FSF (nor by any other organization). Essentially everything I conjectured above made it into the statement (not due to me, they are fairly obvious points, at least as of 2008, and others made them long before) with the exception of making deployment easier, which is mundane, and service governance issues, which the group did discuss, but inconclusively.

There’s much more to say about this, but for now (and likely for some time, at the rate I write, though this activity did directly inspire me to propose speaking at an upcoming P2P industry summit, which I will early next month–I’m also speaking tomorrow at BALUG and will mention briefly–see info on both engagements) I wanted to address two immediate and fairly obvious critiques.

Brian Rowe wrote:

“Where it is possible, they should use Free Software equivalents that run on their own computer.” This is near Luddite talk… It is almost always possible to use an app on your own comp, but it is so inefficient. Networked online apps are not inherently evil, should you back up your work
offline, yes. Should you have alternative options and data portability, yes. You should fight to impove them. But you should not avoid them like the plauge.

The statement doesn’t advocate avoiding network services–see “Where it is possible”, and most of the statement concerns how network services can be free. However, it is easy to read the sentence Rowe quoted and see Luddism. I hope that to some it instead serves as a challenge, for:

  • Applications that run on your own computer can be networked, i.e., P2P.
  • Your own computer does not only include your laptop and home server, but any hardware you control, and I think that should often include virtual hardware.

Wes Felter wrote:

I see a lot about software licensing and not much about identity and privacy. I guess when all you have is the AGPL everything looks like a licensing problem.

True enough, but lots of people are working on identity and privacy. If the FSF doesn’t work on addressing the threats to freedom as in free software posed by network services, it isn’t clear who would. And I’d suggest that any success free software has in the network services world will have beneficial effects on identity and privacy for users–unless you think these are best served by identity silos and security through obscurity.

Finally, the FSF is an explicitly ideological organization (I believe mostly for the greater good), so the statement (although not yet endorsed by the FSF, I believe all participants are probably FSF members, staff, or directors) language reflect that. However, I suspect by far the most important work to be done to maintain software freedom is technical and pragmatic, for example writing P2P applications, making sharing modified source of network applications a natural part of deployment (greatly eased by the rise of distributed version control), and convincing users and service providers that it is in their interest to expect and provide free/open network services.

I suggest going on to read Evan Prodromou (the doer above) on and the Franklin Street Statement and Rufus Pollock on the Open Software Service Definition, which more or less says the same thing as the FSS in the language of a definition (and using the word open), coordinated to launch at the same time.

Control yourself, follow Evan

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

See Evan Prodromou’s post on launching, good background reading on open services.

I love the name of Prodromou’s company, Control Yourself. Presumably it is a reference to discussions of user autonomy as a better frame than freedom or openness … for discussions of concerns addressed by free/open source software and its ilk.

You can follow Evan’s microblogging at

I’ve only used Twitter for an ongoing joke that probably nobody gets, but for now I’ll be trying to honestly microblog at