Friday, 20 January 2012

Thoughts on SOPA and PIPA

As a newcomer to this discussion, I have been looking at some of the il-tempered arguments that are raging around the proposed SOPA and PIPA Bills currently being considered by the US Congress and Senate.

The essence of the problem is that the internet has made the sharing of spoken, written, sung and photographed material incredibly easy, and the bodies that exist to protect such material from being shared without payment to the copyright holder, like the Motion Picture Association of America, are being rendered obsolete - and in their death-throes are thrashing around without regard to the underlying issues and what should be done about them.

It's interesting to start from the fundamentals; and the thought that sharing itself not a zero-sum game. Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."

The same is true of physical works. While physical property rights are usually 'rivalrous', intellectual property rights are non-rivalrous. If you make a copy of something, the enjoyment of the copy does not does not prevent enjoyment of the original.

But the Motion Picture Association and others lined up alongside them use intemperate language that clearly shows that they believe intellectual property rights are akin to real property rights and illustrate  this confusion by frequent use of terms like 'criminal', 'piracy' and 'copyright theft'. The unauthorised use of copyright material is not a criminal but a civil matter, and the criminal law should not be used to deal with it except in the most egregious cases - such as those involving serious fraud. 

The problem is that the concepts are dominated by money and big business trying to protect the 'rents' that they derive from their patent and copyright monopolies. Although patent law is somewhat outside the scope of this debate and is far more defensible, most people scorn the pharmaceutical companies for concentrating on creating patents for 'first-world' drugs and at the same time refusing to release from patent drugs that could then be made much more cheaply. And the worrying notion that certain useful gene sequences can be patented has made big pharma's position even less acceptable.

These perceptions add to the righteous indignation of those who think that the whole concept of unilaterally setting high fees for unselected chunks of copyright material is inequitable. This has been shown dramatically true by the success of iTunes, where users are quite happy to pay for legitimate downloads since a reasonable sum is charged for the individual songs that the users actually want. 

The same is true of films and DVDs. As soon as DVDs come down in price to something reasonable, people buy them in handfuls. If the film companies don't want to sell them for those prices because their films cost too much to make, they should make cheaper, better films and pay the 'talent' much less. There is no universal law which says that Hollywood stars have to be paid $20m a picture, and the idea that we made much better films now than we used to when they cost so much less to make, is laughable.

Of course, Google and other aggregators of content have created a world in which most material is actually free to read and view, even if is originally copyright - as are millions of YouTube videos of professional performances. It's not impossible that one day we will have to pay for access to YouTube - and would probably willingly do so if the fee was reasonable. Similarly some newspapers have successfully found ways to charge small amounts for access, while others have built up sufficient advertising revenue to continue to offer their content for free.  

The general public will not now accept an agenda that both excessively criminalises copyright infringement and at the same time walls off of the internet just to protect the high profits of big business. Instead they want the major producers and publishers of content to amend their business models to allow the production of content at a cost that the public is willing to pay.

Click here for an Infographic as to how the bills were supposed to work

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Why We Spend Such a Lot of Time at Our Desks

I am sometimes gently chided for spending a lot of time at my desk. It's certainly true, but whereas the implication is that I should be doing something more worthwhile or undertaking some more social activity, the truth is that so much takes place on one's computer these days that it's very difficult to avoid being on it a great deal.

Take ordinary correspondence, for instance. That has almost entirely migrated to the computer, either on e-mail or as typed out letters or printing one's photographs to send as postcards. And it's easy to forget the amount of time our parents devoted to handwritten correspondence; their accumulated letters attest to this, and most of it was written at a writing desk. And of course, those letters required time to stamp and post as well, and a visit to the post office would count as a social activity.

Almost everything that once took time at post office and bank counters can now be done on one's computer. Our parents paid bills by writing cheques and posting them off. There were no standing orders or direct debits so they had to write a cheque for each bill. Of course they bought their tax discs at the counter and collected their pensions there too. All were potentially social activities - as I discovered when collecting my father's pension; the woman behind the counter clearly loved his visits! Now all are done on line and that social interaction is lost, as it certainly doesn't occur at one's desk!

Many hobbies too have moved to the computer. All desk-based hobbies certainly, except perhaps jigsaw puzzles (though even they can be replicated there). Of course tinkering with motorcycle engines in the garage or collecting stamps will always be un-computerised, but they were hardly social activities either. And for some people computer games have become a completely new and absorbing hobby. In fact, computer games are often quite social as they can be played against someone else. And some people play bridge and chess on line with others across the world with great enjoyment.

My hobby of photography, which I have pursued since the early 70s, used to result in many trips to Boots to get films developed, and much time spent pasting the better photographs into albums and writing captions. And both were at least partly a social activity as the choice of photos to be preserved was probably something to be discussed on the sofa, rather than alone in one's study looking at a computer screen while simultaneously editing the photos and uploading them to Flickr.

Keeping up with family and friends too, which once involved postcards, letters and expensive phone calls is now the preserve of Skype and Facebook.

Dealing with banking, insurance and investments is also now a largely on-line occupation, but they were usual solitary actives anyway. Catching up with the news and listening to music are also less social than they used to be with the TV and hi-fi, though the totally new pastime of watching videos on YouTube is often a shared activity.

So much of what we used to do that once involved at least some social interaction has moved onto one's desktop, and new ways of keeping in touch have developed to such an extent that the use of letters, postcards and the telephone have declined dramatically.

And one could probably say that social interaction at home has diminished, but by much less than is commonly thought given the number of activities that were always solitary. But we would do well to mind the chiding, nevertheless!