Saturday, June 28, 2003
Slate is running a terrific article defending unauthorized derivative works, such as a Russian series of J.K. Rowling knockoffs about Tanya Grotter and her magic flying double bass. Go read.
I'm immensely happy to see this issue being discussed. The fact that a copyright holder can prevent others from producing "derivative works" is, I think, the one aspect of copyright law that bothers me more than any other (except for its duration, of course, which by the way I urge you to sign a petition about, but I digress). I don't think any other feature of the law produces quite such bizarre distortions of the whole idea of free expression.
Here's one smallish example: Dungeons and Dragons, as I'm sure most readers are already aware, is a game in which players sit at a table and interactively improvise fantasy stories, imagining themselves to be characters. Now, can it possibly be any more obvious than it already is that these stories aren't intended for commercial use, and are rarely, if ever, published? The only aspects of the game which are published are the books of rules, ideas, and statistics that help smooth out game play, and booklets with detailed descriptions of settings in which stories may be placed.
Now imagine you're an imaginative boy or girl, playing D&D for the first time, and passionately in love with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. You decide you'd like to play the game as a hobbit. Get a copy of the rulebook, and look up character types. You can play a human, an elf, a dwarf, no problem... but seek for a hobbit, and there is none to be found. All you'll find is a halfling. Why? Because the Tolkein estate refused to allow TSR Games to use a six-letter word that Tolkein had coined decades earlier and with which millions of people had become familiar. And the law in its infinite wisdom gave them the power to enforce that absurd decree.
Because if groups of teenagers playing role-playing-games were allowed to use the word hobbit with impunity, why, that might... um... reduce the market for the books? Somehow or other?
Oh, come on. While it's certainly true that Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games owe a considerable portion of their popularity to The Lord of the Rings, it is undeniable that the reverse is also true. And in fact, I can't recall ever even hearing the word halfling at any D&D game I played in my geeky youth; we always called 'em hobbits... So the legal requirement to put a different name in the rule book was not just economically ridiculous, but actually entirely ineffective.
This kind of silliness is the default behavior of copyright law. An author actually has to go out of his or her way to permit people to make derivative uses of his or her work (as I have done with regard to this blog, using a Creative Commons license).
There may be situations in which I'd agree that a tribute, pastiche, parody, or outright knockoff really does harm an author or artist, and that it should be forbidden. I can't think of one at the moment, but I acknowledge the remote possibility. But it sure as heck isn't the usual case.
This wasn't how the law worked a century back, and authors weren't seriously hurt by that; in fact, they were arguably better off. Some literary historians claim, for example, that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland became so popular and successful in part because a number of other writers--early adopters of the "Wonderland" meme, as it were--had been inspired by it to write lighthearted stories (often politically topical, I gather) using the same style, characters and settings, and these had the effect of providing free advertising and expanding the market for the original. If fanfic had been a word in 1865, it wouldn't have been a dirty one.
Our national fergodsake anthem is an unauthorized song parody. No kidding, you can look it up--the original is called "To Anacreon in Heaven" and has a completely different lyric. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was originally published as a broadside--a set of lyrics to a familiar tune. There were thousands of these things; it was a thriving genre. If today's laws had been in place in 1814, we'd be singing something else at baseball games.
Nobody owns ideas. When people read a book or watch a movie, and are so enthralled and inspired by it as to write a fanfic and post it on the web, society benefits. Maybe only in a tiny way, but it adds up. Their knockoffs may be dreadful, but they are creating something, which is better than creating nothing, and they're building their skills, growing their confidence, developing their voices, and some of them will go on to produce better original work later.
And hypothetically, what if they produce knockoffs that aren't dreadful? What if they produce something just as good as the original, or hey, better? Do we want to suppress something that's genuinely good because it might eat into the profit margins of an already-successful author or filmmaker somewhere? Yikes.
J.K. Rowling is not being injured by the publication of Russian stories about magical preppies whose names end in "otter", any more than J.R.R Tolkein's estate would have been by pimply kids looking up the word hobbit in the D&D Player's Handbook. Sure, there's something to be said for making sure creative people get paid, so fine, we can establish a mandatory license: Ms. Rowling can have a nickel on the dollar every time someone sells a book set at Hogwarts. But don't, for heavens sake, give her the power to decide that other people can't whisper aloud the daydreams she inspired until 70 years after she's dead.
Friday, June 27, 2003
For some reason I've been hesitating for over a week now to post this. I'm really not sure why... I think I may have unknowingly internalized a feeling, back in the days of my childhood, that it's permissible to join a conversation about partisan politics, and to be as fiery and impassioned as you like once you're there... but it's not okay to start one. It's a natural response to growing up in a family where peace is a fragile thing, I suppose: We're all having such a nice time talking about the weather, dear, so let's not spoil it by talking about that stuff, hmm?
Plus, it touches on the whole strangers-on-an-airplane scenario--those taboo subjects that send cold shivers of terror down your spine as soon as your seatmate mentions them: politics, religion, multilevel marketing schemes... If I start talking a little too enthusiastically about a candidate on my blog, will my readers all shrink away from me in their seats and bury their noses in their John Grisham novels? Such an uncomfortable thought.
But screw it.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am supporting Governor Howard Dean for president. I'm even volunteering for his local campaign organization in Santa Cruz, which is a first for me, and I'm donating money to the national campaign as well. And what's more, I'm hoping you will, too! Dammit, I don't care who I alienate!
I hasten to add that I have nothing against any of the other democratic candidates. (Well, okay, I'd cringe a bit if I had to vote for Joe Lieberman, but I would vote for him if he took the nomination.) But with the others, the full extent of my support is that they'd be light years better than another four years of President Codpiece... whereas I'm actually deeply enthusiastic about voting for Dean, and I can't remember any other presidential race in my life when that was so true, so early on. I'm excited about the guy. How cool is that?
The other day my friend Larissa, a Kucinich supporter, asked me to explain my ideas for why she should get behind Dean instead, and I gave her a longwinded inside-politics sort of answer--that while Dean is liberal enough to suit me on most of the issues I care about, and outspokenly partisan in a way that energizes the liberal base of the party, he has a mix of moderate positions that could play well among swing voters and make inroads in Bush's centrist support... and furthermore, that while in other years these things might not matter to me so much (indeed, in other years I would probably be supporting Kucinich just to make sure the party's progressive wing is well represented when convention time comes), it's so critically important to the very future of the republic that we beat Bush in 2004, practical considerations have to dominate my decision-making process. So I'm going to pick the candidate I think has the best chance in a general election against Bush, and push as hard as I can to get that candidate nominated, and if that means I have to compromise a bit, so be it.
All of that is true, but on reflection I've realized that it wasn't the right answer--or rather, it was only part of the answer: I had explained why someone might want to, y'know, ahem, <mumble>vote for Howard Dean</mumble>, but not why I personally am planning to vote for Howard Dean, if you see the distinction.
The truth is, Dean isn't a compromise candidate for me. His opinions, attitudes and approaches to policymaking aren't a 100% perfect match with mine, but they resonate more than any other candidate I can remember.
I am, by emotional inclination, an idealistic progressive lefty liberal, but by intellectual bent I am a skeptic and pragmatist (hence the pragmaticrat label I was talking about in my previous post), so when discussing politics with serious progressive/green types, I often find myself in respectful disagreement with them. I'm nearly always in sympathy with them--I wholeheartedly agree with their reasons for taking the positions they do--but still, I often have the uncomfortable sense that those positions haven't been thought all the way through, and so I hesitate to support them fully, even though I share their ideals.
(Continued in next post to work around obnoxious blogger bug.)
For example: I can see that the WTO and NAFTA are anti-environmental and anti-labor nightmares that undermine the sovereignty of national citizens in favor of international corporations, but I can also see real economic benefits to enhanced trade, and an already-stressed economy that would no doubt be hurt worse by major upheavals in the way business is done, so I don't want us to abolish those treaties overnight; I'd rather see us renegotiate them with an eye toward fairness.
For example: I recognize that single-payer is the fairest way to approach universal health care; I also recognize that it hasn't got a chance, for political reasons that are not all bad. When every hospital and clinic in America is taking money directly from the federal government, what's to stop the next republican president from applying the global gag rule to every single one of them? When it comes to politics, Occam's Razor is wrong; the simplest answer should automatically be suspect.
Ding ding ding, I just agreed with Howard Dean, straight down the board.
I like Howard Dean because I sense in him a kindred political spirit. I don't think the guy's a phony. I don't think he takes centrist positions to pander to the right at the expense of the left, or to fuzz the distinction between the two parties (in a misguided effort to do for the democrats what New Coke was supposed to do for Coke), or to get big corporate campaign donations, or even because he's afraid of being smeared as a "liberal" and losing the next election. I think he takes them, when he does, because there really are times when centrist--or even conservative!--policies are actually a better practical way to achieve liberal goals than the standard-issue liberal policies would have been.
I really, really like that about him.
I don't agree with him on every single issue; for example, he says he'd rather not legalize medical marijuana at this time (though he would support a real FDA study), which I can understand, since he's a doctor--but it suggests he's probably not eager to legalize recreational marijuana either, and that's a pity. (On the other hand, in today's political environment, where are we going to find someone who does want to legalize pot who can get elected?) And there are issues that are very important to me--such as the DMCA and the Public Domain Protection Act--that I don't know his positions on yet.
But close enough. I agree with Dean's positions on foreign policy, fiscal policy, civil liberties, reproductive rights, gay rights (well, gay marriage would be even better than civil unions, but let's be practical), affirmative action, energy policy, environmental protection, education, and I wish he were more firmly against the death penalty but I'll take what I can get.
I'm satisfied. He's a really good candidate. I want him nominated, and I want him to be president.
Oh, and have you heard the good news about Jesus and/or Amway?
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Between apathy and ignorance?
I don't know
And I don't care
Years ago in a more cynical phase of my political evolution, I had an idle fantasy of starting a new party. I thought of it as the Apathetic Party (that didn't quite convey what I had in mind, but I figured I could always think of something better later on). The main thing was, our slogan would be: Who the hell cares!?
I imagined myself pounding a podium as I exhorted a vast crowd in a call-and-response chant:
"And they got condoms from their school!"
"And somewhere else, a man is paying a woman to have sex with him!"
"And someone is looking at porn on the Internet!"
"... While smoking a joint!!"
And so on. But I dropped that fantasy when I realized that it was really no different from the smug self-satisfied dismissiveness of so many people on the right, who airily wave off the things I care about as so much "political correctness". I can easily imagine them using the same rhetorical tactic, in fact ("Little Jimmy doesn't want to pray at school!!" "Who the hell cares!?").
But today it occurs to me that perhaps a milder, more thoughtful and mature version of this principle might actually be a useful thing to foment. Call it the Pragmaticratic Party. The slogan would be the decidedly less chantable, but calmer, and more intelligent, Please tell us why this issue is important.
All of which leads me up to the subject of today's rant: the recent brouhaha in Florida about the Muslim woman who was denied a driver's license unless she took off her veil to have her picture taken.
Now really... why was that important enough to make a fuss about? The state of Florida went to considerable effort and expense to make sure this woman wouldn't be driving a car without carrying a picture of herself with a bare face. What did they get out of it?
I understand why it was important to her, of course. Religion arouses great passions. Imagine the outrage if a Christian woman were told that she couldn't get a driver's license unless she took off her crucifix pendant? Or that she had to pose topless? These aren't exact analogies, obviously, but they do convey the kinds feelings that might be aroused in a devout Muslim who was arbitrarily required to take off her niqab.
The Pragmaticratic Party would ask: What purpose is served by driver's license pictures? And to what extent is that purpose hampered by an applicant wearing a niqab? And is the inconvenience to the government greater or less than the cost of going to court and fighting about it?
What is the purpose of a driver's license picture? It helps ensure that the license really does belong to the person holding it. It's nowhere near 100% effictive, though; as a teenager, I used to sneak into bars using my older brother's driver's license (not to drink, I just wanted to hear the live music), and the picture only looked like me in the vaguest way.
Right now my driver's license picture is a pretty good resemblance. However, if I cut or colored my hair, shaved my beard, wore colored contact lenses, lost or gained a lot of weight, wore makeup, got a nose job, or started taking hormones and living as a woman, it wouldn't resemble me at all--yet it would still be eight years before the state asked me to get a new license picture taken. Why? Because the state implicitly recognizes that a current and accurate picture of me isn't really all that important.
So let's say this woman gets a driver's license with her veil on. How does that hurt anyone? How often does she have to show her license to people in the first place? Say she tries to cash a check with it, or rent a car or something--the cashier's going to see a woman in a niqab and a picture of a woman in a niqab. The eyes will match. The height will match. The signature will match. Maybe the cashier accepts it as valid ID, or maybe not; either way, it's not really the state's problem, is it?
Now suppose she gets the license picture taken without the veil, as Florida requires her to do. Okay, so now she's walking around in a niqab, but carrying an ID picture of herself with a bare face. How does that make it easier for anyone to identify her? Does she have to take the damn thing off again every time she writes a check?
Is there any crime that is easier to commit if your driver's license picture has your face covered? I'm stretching my brain, and I can't think of one. So why, why, why should we care?
I think the only honest answer is, Because people who dress like Arabs and Muslims are creepy and scary and remind us of 9/11, and that's not a good enough reason.
Monday, June 16, 2003
So you're looking at a book on Amazon or BN or Powell's, decide you're interested in it, and then with a single click on a bookmark, up pops a window to tell you whether your library has the book you're looking at, and ask you whether you'd like to request it.
For the benefit of my Santa Cruz County readers, here's the bookmarklet for
our library. Bookmark that link and you're set.
Update: I've been asked how you bookmark a link when clicking on it doesn't take you anywhere. The answer is, in Netscape/Mozilla, you right-click on the link above and select "Bookmark this Link", or else just drag the link to your bookmarks toolbar. In Explorer, you right-click and select "Add to Favorites"; I'm not sure if the drag-and-drop trick works.
Saturday, June 14, 2003
It was just about a year ago that I overheard my friend Heather saying to my wife, "I just blew a whole morning doing nothing but making comments on other people's blogs."
I was, at the time, only paying the barest fragment of attention to blogs, but something about the sentence caught my ear. It's kinda lopsided, I thought. After all, we're dealing with a subculture so frenetic and fastpaced that weblog, fergodsake, takes too long to say, and only blog will do. And yet there's no tight little monosyllable to take the place of the phrase "making comments."
I mentioned this to the group, and people immediately began nominating candidate neologisms. My wife, Wendy, made a suggestion, and her coinage won the instant approval of everyone present. It has since entered the everyday vocabulary of my circle of friends, as both noun and verb, and in hopes that it will spread farther through the online world, I commend the term to your attention now.
I think it works because it clearly conveys the bidirectional, give-and-take nature of these things. Input/output. Flipflop. Ping pong. GnipGnop. Blogs, and...
Friday, June 13, 2003
There's a lovely scene in Neal Stephenson's Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller (gratuitous affiliate link), which I'd quote in full, but it appears my copy has been toddlered, so I'll just have to summarize:
Protagonist Sangamon Taylor is a chemist and environmental activist; he works for GEE, an organization that resembles Greenpeace. He meets up with a co-worker who has been driving a GEE-owned car; when they stop at a gas station, he discovers that the dipstick is dry. When she shrugs off the matter as uninteresting, he flies into a rage, lecturing her about the cost, both environmental and financial, of replacing a car, and then he reminds her of The Tragedy of the Commons and the tendency of people to undervalue that for which they do not have to pay directly.
"Checking the oil in the Omni," he finishes, "is another kind of environmentalism."
That phrase has stuck with me for years, and come in handy in many a situation. Because what's environmentalism all about, really? Protecting the commons. It's misunderstood by some as being about the hugging of trees and the cuddling of fuzzy baby owls, but what it's about is making sure that in the future, you won't have to be rich to breathe fresh air and drink clean water and eat nontoxic food and look at a pretty landscape now and then. Those things are our common heritage... and the people who want to take them away, destroy them, and then sell inferior substitutes back to us for a profit, must be fought.
And, of course, it's not the only kind of commons.
Why is it wrong to shoplift? I'll pick a favorite example: You know those stupid little plastic packets of condiments and envelopes of salt and sugar that you get at cheap restaurants? Those sure do suck, don't they? You know why we have to put up with those? Because the salt and pepper shakers kept getting stolen. Oftentimes--probably more often than not--by people who could easily have afforded to buy salt and pepper shakers, who thought the the item was so cheap that no one could possibly miss it. This is just the tiniest, most trivial way our shared world has gotten uglier, more annoying, and less congenial--especially in places frequented by those who aren't rich--because our trust in each other has been eroded away by petty theft. Not stealing is another kind of environmentalism.
Why was Eldred vs. Ashcroft such a horrible blow? Because our generation and those that came before us were lucky enough to have a rich public domain to draw from in creating new artistic work, and our descendents will be stuck with no more than what we had--after we've already thoroughly mined it--and anything else, they'll have to pay for. Disgusting. Protecting the public domain is another kind of environmentalism.
Why are free and open-source software such good things? Because they balance the tendency of commerce to put fences up around the commons, with an opposite process--the creation of whole new commons, by people who understand that shared effort leads to shared benefit. Linux is another kind of environmentalism.
And--at last, we come to the point--it's not a coincidence that when I posted the other day about removing brands and banner ads, I used an environmental metaphor, "walking out of a vast cloud of poison".
Perhaps the very least appreciated commons is precisely the one that we'd most need the use of if we wanted to appreciate it: clarity of thought. Our lives are short, dammit; we deserve to have our brains operating at peak efficiency so we can make the best use of the time we have. And instead, we have created a half-trillion-dollar industry entirely devoted to filling our brains with mahooha.
The amazing thing is how little it bothers me, most of the time. I rarely think about it. I wouldn't be thinking about it now if Mike hadn't brought the subject up the other day. But just read his rant for a taste of how ubiquitous this crap is. And I know from my own experience how much of a burden it is--simply freeing myself from the relatively benign and unobtrusive banner ads that litter the web was a nearly religious experience. Installing SpamAssassin recently was perhaps even more of a relief (though not as dramatically eye-opening, of course, because the one thing no one will ever say about spam is Huh, I never noticed before how annoying that stuff is).
If you haven't tried turning down the volume, you just can't imagine how noisy the world is, how much it knots your muscles, how distracted you are. (And there aren't any technological tools for eliminating billboards and brand names and "swoosh"-logo t-shirts.) And yet, mostly... we don't notice. We're the proverbial boiled frogs.
And I haven't even mentioned the content of the noise. Yesterday, as it happens, my wife read me a passage from the book Affluenza (another gratuitous affiliate link, but please don't buy it if your library has it, or this ever-lengthening screed will be rendered somewhat hypocritical); it was a description of a marketing conference called "Kid Power" that was held at Disney World in 1996, with a keynote address called "Softening the Parental Veto":
Hoo ha. I can't wait til my kid starts marinating in that crap.
(There's a discursive point to be made here about the ironic fact that those politicians who make worshipful obeisance to and disdain the least interference with the almighty Free Market!, and grant privelege after privelege to the ones who so eagerly send exactly these messages, are exactly the same politicians most inclined to kvetch about family discipline and the lack thereof. But I don't feel like going there just now, so let's take the thought as the deed, 'kay? Thanks.)
It boils down to this: The ability to string two thoughts together without being shouted at is another commons. And they're stealing our commons. For money. Again.
That you don't know what you've got til it's gone?
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
But Joni got it wrong; sometimes you don't know what you've got even after it's gone.
And shutting off the ads is another kind of environmentalism.
Thursday, June 12, 2003
No no no.
No... no, no no. No!
Big fat no.
Monday, June 09, 2003
Just a quick link to a brilliant rant from my friend Michael Taht about his efforts to eliminate brands from his life.
Michael used to work for one of the bigger banner-advertising firms on the web; at the same time, he was running an ad-filtering proxy server from his home. When I started reading the web via that proxy, it was flippin' amazing how much of a psychic burden the absence of banner ads lifted from my mind. It was like I'd been living in a vast cloud of poison, and never noticed it until I walked out of it one day, and breathed fresh air for the first time in years.
Reading via a proxy made a number of web pages work less well or not at all, and eventually I took one last deep breath, and willingly walked back into the poison--glad, at least, to know that it was a choice.
But I remember the feeling of peace... and I'm sure that if the brands and logos on all the objects in my home and office were to disappear tomorrow, that same feeling would be there again.
I've been getting complaints. Turns out there are people actually checking this blog periodically, almost as if they were expecting me to post to it. Like that was what it was for or something. Weirdos.
Okay, my excessively optimistic readers, I'm sorry. It's been over a month. My last post was long and it was hard to write, a big commitment of time and effort and a trip through an emotional mangle, and finishing it kept me up late and irritated my wife, and I just found it hard to motivate myself to do it again. Plus, a number of people were kind enough to link to it, and I really did want it to be read, and the permalink was bloggered, so I hesitated to post a followup in the interest of keeping it up near the top of the blog.
But most importantly: I started this blog thinking it was mostly going to be for the telling of a particular ongoing story--to wit, my layoff, after fifteen years, from SCO. Well, I've been laid back on. They extended my job for two months, then finally cancelled the layoff altogether. I have concluded that "ability to remain employed at SCO" is my superpower. One of these days I'm sure I'll figure out how to fight crime with that.
And though I don't feel anywhere near as secure here as I once did, I'm happy about the turn of events. My life doesn't revolve around work as much as it used to, and what I want more than anything is time with my family and friends. SCO gives me a short commute, a 32-hour-a-week working schedule, co-workers I adore, and a skimpy but nevertheless adequate salary. A part of me thinks that in clinging to this job I'm turning down an invitation from life; maybe I should have let the currents of reality float me to another, maybe better career; maybe this was an opportunity to reexamine my life and priorities and do something truly new. But a bigger part is just glad to be spared the hassle for a while; this is what I care about today.
I do want to say something about SCO, though. Look: I really, honest-to-god, have no opinion at all on the merits of SCO's claims in the lawsuit they're currently pursuing against IBM. I don't have any knowledge of the code in dispute, and I wouldn't be allowed to discuss it even if I did. But I want to make a few general ethical statements, because it's an important issue to me, and to some very dear friends (including one who has linked to this blog).
Ethical statement 1: Taking someone's code and re-releasing it contrary to his or her wishes is wrong. If someone did that, then it would be right for the injured party to get some redress. Whether it happened or not is for the court to figure out, but if it did happen, that's not okay.
Ethical statement 2: I believe passionately in open source (as well as the subtly-distinct category of free) software. I really do. This world is a far better place for the existence of Linux and *BSD, and if they eventually take over the market to extent that I can no longer make a living working on proprietary UNIX, I will accept that outcome with equanimity and even happiness. I want the gift economy to thrive. I want to prove that such a radical idea can be made to work--because I think it might well be the first step that leads us into a much better future.
So I have a certain amount of cognitive dissonance here... because the leaders of the free and open source software movements, people I deeply respect and admire, apparently think my company's lawsuit is a threat. And I don't know that they're wrong. I hope they are. But I'm just caught in the middle, like a child of divorce, hoping against hope that everyone will win.