The Politics of Copyright

I’ve been wanting to write this all week.  Last Friday, the Republican Study Committee released a phenomenal white paper pushing for some pretty broad reforms in the copyright law. While I myself am not a terribly conservative person, this paper blew me away.  It’s amazing how progressive a statement you can make within the framework of conservative principles, and that’s exactly what they did.  While the RSC rescinded that report within about 24 hours due to “proper review” concerns,* the Electronic Frontier Foundation has the document in full preserved on their website. And you should definitely read it.

I don’t normally write about politics here, but I want to bullet point some of the necessary methods just to illustrate how this document worked.

Strict Constructionism: The first point that they address has to do with the myth of compensating the creator.  Instead the author turns to the language directly in the constitution that copyright is to “promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  They use that exact language to highlight the fact that the purpose of copyright not solely to compensate the author, but to provide the author a limited time to profit from his creation, so that we, as a nation could promote progress in Science and useful Arts.  Further in the document they talk about how the perpetual extension of copyright hinders innovation.

Laissez Faire Capitalism: The second point has to do with the breadth of the market.  Because copyright is for all intents and purposes indefinite, this creates state sanctioned monopolies on content.  What we see when works go into the public domain is a vast proliferation on that content.  We don’t have to look very far to see that in action.  From The Wizard of Oz we get Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” (and the subsequent musical) the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Tin Man” and innumerable costumes and toys.  From Alice in Wonderland we have dozens of movies, cartoons, miniseries, songs, toys, and reprint after reprint with critical editions and leather bindings and all sorts of things.  If you need a visual then you should look at this chart of new books in the Amazon warehouse by decade from the Laissez Faire Blog.  That 1920 line is where Copyright reforms swept in due to Disney trying to protect Steamboat Willey, and it never came back.

Number of new books in the Amazon warehouse by decade

From the Laissez Faire blog. We have a huge blindspot, and it’s copyright’s fault.


Tort Reform: On Page 7 when the author starts into the potential policy solutions one of the first things that he looked at was statutory damages reform.  Right now damage for copyright violations and infringement are orders of magnitude beyond the value of the original work.  This disconnect between penalty and reality is what gives us the ludicrous world of the 8 Billion Dollar iPod.  From the paper:

Further, this system creates a serious clogging of the ourts, because copyright holders now recognize that they can accuse anyone of infringemen, and include the threat of $150,000 awards per violation. But in reality, most people then settle for less than that sum, say $3,000.  Scaring a large number of potentially innocent people into settling should not be an effect of copyright law.

Limited Government: As stated above,the perpetual extension of copyright secures the rights of one individual or one company to be the sole entity to profit from a work.  This means that the government is determining who is allowed to profit, and who not, and the resources of government (i.e. the court system) can be used to enforce this regime.  By limiting copyright we limit the government’s role in enforcing copyright.

While the arguments that lead to these conclusions and proposals are definitely conservative base targets, the conclusions and solutions were really the best part.  And Libraries were not left out. Though they reference Project Gutenberg as a digital library initiative, and it is, with the expansion of the public domain there are entire universes of activities that could spring up among public libraries both on their own, through vendors like Overdrive, or coordinated efforts like the Hathi Trust or the Digital Public Library of America.  Expanding the potential for eBook development on a grand coordinated scale can lead the entire world into a new era of research, development, and entertainment.

As we start to look at the future, we’re going to see more disruption in content, and how people engage with it.  It started with music, moved to video, and surprisingly text has been slow to crack.  But with the growing ubiquity of eReading devices, and some fairly well settled ePub standards based on HTML5 this is going to be blowing up, and fast.  And copyright law will either adapt, or be thrown to the wolves on the internet.  Adaptation, and innovation in the sources of funding for limited times will do everyone a service.  The music industry is finally starting to find out how to make this work and it’s taken some pretty bold experimentation among established musicians to do this.  But today the Future of Music group released a pretty amazing checklist of 42 ways you can gain revenue from your work.  This is the kind of exploratory thinking that needs to be happening in the Big Content world, because maintaining perpetual copyright is only going to last so long as you can’t rip the content from a book the way you can rip a CD.  Oh wait, you can now.


*Secretly in my heart of hearts I’m kind of hoping that Derek Khanna, the RSC Staff Contact and Paul Teller posted the document for just long enough, and rescinded it fast enough for the Streisand Effect to take hold and drive the conversation forward. A little too Machiavellian?  Maybe.  But it has certainly been the topic of conversation across the entirety of the tech sector.


What You Say Online – Minors Edition

Dude, why did you say that?

Over at my LJ I spent some time recounting this story of post-election bursts of racism, and talking about my own experiences growing up in one of these similar types of towns where it’s 99.999% white people and racism continues to rear its ugly head.  The quick version: Barack Obama wins the national election.  A bunch of racist people take to the internet to voice their racist opinions.  Some of these people saying these racist things were teens.

And that’s where things got interesting.

The folks over at Jezebel recognized that a bunch of these tweets were coming from teenagers, who posted a ton of their personal information online.  Their full legal name.  Their school.  Pictures of themselves in their school uniforms, or team uniforms. Details about potential recruiting for colleges, etc.  So, they started calling up the schools, and pointing out that these students were in pretty much every case violating the code of behavior for their student body, and not serving as a positive role model or representative of the school.  And then they wrote an article about it.  They named their names, their schools, and more.

Today, Read Write Web called out Jezebel for violating journalistic ethics by engaging in public harassment of minors. The argument from RWW is that traditional journalism respects that minors who commit criminal actions or who engage in inappropriate behavior would not normally be named in an article or on a news broadcast.  Juvenile court records can be sealed, and often are, to allow for the mistakes of a young person to not tarnish the potential for a normal adult life.  The salient component from the RWW article:

When a minor commits a crime in the real world, the cops know who the kid is, as do the neighbors and everyone in the community. The journalist covering the crime knows the kid’s name, and if anyone wanted to, they could find out the minor’s name just by pulling up the public police report.

And this is where the internet is different, and it’s a point that I addressed in my personal blog.  Writing something on the internet doesn’t stay in your little town.  It is something that is PUBLISHED.  By putting your name, your location, and your words out there for anyone in the public to see, you are inviting the criticism of the world, and engaging in the very same game that publishers and journalists have been playing in for years.  The internet pierces the bubble of the local domain and expands your influence to the entire world.

This is why a viral video can spark an embassy attack.

What you do online means something, and it has consequences.  Some people are being visited by the Secret Service because they made threats against the President on Twitter.  It’s gravely serious.

So, the question is, should this news outlet publicly state the names of these teens who posted racist tweets?  I am standing by Jezebel on this one.  These teens already put themselves out there.  They may not have realized what they were doing would have such a profound impact, or even be picked up as national news.  And that is a failure of educating kids about how the internet works.  These kids probably thought that nobody read their stuff, and that they were just writing for their friends.  When in reality, what they are saying, however inane it might be, is viewable by anyone.  And that is the wake up call that they all just received.

This is core information literacy stuff right here.  Developing an online reputation, managing your personal information, exercising care and caution in what you say and how you say it to people.  All of these things are important, and kids don’t get it.  And with caching, and archiving, they will be subjected to the words they put out when they were at their most vulnerable.

I recall reading an article about a high school that developed an internal social network for their students.  The purpose of this social network was to give the students a kind of internet training-wheels so that they could experiment in a controlled environment before they went and swam in the deep end of the pool (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)  The student would spend the year in that environment, play around in it, get comfortable with it, and then slowly they would start to slip up, and then have a consultation with one of the faculty members or the principal.  The purpose of this exercise was to develop an understanding of what you say online, and how this can negatively affect you.  This absolutely needs to be incorporated into early education, and I’m talking like children 10 years old or less.  This is not intended to scare the kids, but to teach the kids about the lasting impact they will leave on the world, and the trail of information that may be used against them, even from when they are very, very young.

At the library we see kids on the internet pretty much all day long.  Some of these very young kids are on facebook and they are sharing pictures with each other. I will guarantee you that probably not a single one of them understands the privacy settings.  Hell, most adults don’t understand them.  And beyond that, they’re not thinking about what these pictures may say 10, 20, 30 years down the road.  And they absolutely need to learn that.  Being online isn’t a game.  It’s real.  And the consequences can haunt you forever.

Why is There No Liberal “Canon” of Literature?

The Sierpinski Triangle is an example of a nested fractal.

Beverly Gage over at Slate asks a great question, and answers it without actually saying so.  In “Why is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” she lays out the fact that conservative candidates always return to the same philosophical, literary roots.

But one of the movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage. Any self-respecting young conservative knows the names you’re supposed to spout: Hayek, Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock. There are some older thinkers too—Edmund Burke, for instance—but for the most part the favored thinkers come out of the movement’s mid-20th century origins in opposition to Soviet communism and the New Deal.

But then she makes  a leap in the very next sentence.

Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools.

I think in this instance she’s absolutely wrong.  Primarily because of what she says shortly thereafter.

Here’s the key point right here.

The New Left reinvented that heritage in the 1960s. Instead of (or in addition to) Marx and Lenin, activists began to read Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and Saul Alinsky. As new, more particular movements developed, the reading list grew to include feminists, African-Americans, and other traditionally excluded groups. This vastly enhanced the range of voices in the public sphere—one of the truly great revolutions in American intellectual politics. But it did little to create a single coherent language through which to maintain common cause. Instead, the left ended up with multiple “movement cultures,” most of them more focused on issue-oriented activism than on a common set of ideas.

This is where I feel she loses perspective.  Contemporary liberalism differs so markedly from contemporary conservatism, because of the former’s focus on the value of of the individual.  Liberalism has redefined itself as a politics that recognizes the complexity of society, the complexity of life, and thus cannot, and should not, pit one group against the other.  Your cause is our cause, your rights are universal rights, and the plight of the smallest is the plight of the whole.  It is utterly inclusive, often to the point of being somewhat ridiculous.

A complaint I have levied against liberal politics is that we can barely articulate a stance at a rally to give a unified voice.  If you’ve been to a political protest in the last ten years you’d know that it’s not just about ending war, it’s about the plight of minorities, about Palestine, about Hurricane Katrina victims, about rape culture, about pot legalization.  It’s a crazy quilt of issues, and everyone wanting their voice to be heard.  But we liberals believe that our voices, no matter how small, should be heard, because all voices have value.

XKCD Comic

This is the reality of liberal politics.

So, how can we ever begin to develop a corpus of literature, to develop a “consistent message?”  We can’t.  It’s impossible.  As Randall Munroe, very effectively, said yesterday “Human subcultures are nested fractally.  There is no bottom.”  There are further minority politics embedded deeper into every group.  There are fringes on the fringe of the fringe.  We just continue to dig deeper, excavate new layers of complexity, and say, “yes, you too are a part of us.”  Once we’ve read through a vast body of feminist literature, we then look at different waves of feminism, and how that’s changed over time, and then look at challenges to each subsequent iteration, and then and then and then.  The same is true of black studies, queer theory, any other ethnic, religious, and minority group that has ever, or may ever cross through here, and then the deal with the incredible new layers of reality that people are adding to their identities on a daily basis, otherkin, furries, polyamorists, cyberpeople, transhumanists, virtual people, who knows what else may come…

The homogeneity of thought that comes from a canon of literature is great for people who don’t want to have to think about the harsh, and complex realities associated with anyone’s lives other than their own.  It allows them to develop a rigid sense of morality, a definite set of what is in and what is out, and allows for the crafting of legislative agendas that move through like clockwork, because they’re not bound up in the morass of having to explore how their ideology impacts anyone, and if it does, well, the fact that they “don’t get it” is reason enough to just let them go.

There is no liberal canon, because we can’t stop saying “Yes, we care.  Your life is valid, and I want to understand you better.”   The liberal canon is the library, and studying it is the work of a lifetime.

The All Spin Zone

twisted face

Objects in mirror are less twisted than they appear

I spent the better part of last night having a “conversation” with two of the people on my Facebook list who hold diverging political viewpoints from myself.  I use conversation in quotes, because this wasn’t really a conversation.  It was rather an ideologue shouting up an incendiary piece of rhetoric and my calmly explaining to that person how the information that they’re looking at is biased.  I should have taken the advice of everyone in the universe and “don’t feed the trolls.”  Often I can’t help but attempt to challenge someone who holds an opinion based on misinformation.  Because that’s where this is coming from, misinformation and a lack of intellectual curiosity to explore the veracity of the claims being presented.

OWS & Crime

The majority of this conversation I had last night focused around the belief that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are a band of criminal thugs who are out to destroy America.  This is a pretty standard talking point of conservative media outlets, and pretty much only conservative media outlets.  On October 11th the New York Times ran a story about the complexity of dealing with criminal activity among the encampment in Zucotti Park, following in the wake of a female camper who was raped.  They discuss the competing narratives within the police reports about activity surrounding the event and talk about the steps that the OWS protesters had taken to provide on site security for the encampment.  In the wake of this article, conservative media outlets began characterizing the Occupy Wall Street protest as being nothing but “crime all the time,” exacerbating the image of the group as a lawless mob.  And there is no doubt that growing security risks were a problem within the encampment.  It was a large event that ran for months with only volunteers who had varying degrees of security training, an inconsistent approach to dealing with conflict, and a very confusing relationship with police.  But this doesn’t mean that they are, as a whole, a group of criminal thugs.  Just that security at the event was difficult to maintain, and that is true in a lot of large public venues where people are emotionally engaged.

And then there is the story of Nkrumah Tinsley who was captured on video stating that they were going to burn New York City to the ground.  Again, this story was picked up by conservative news outlets, ran like the wind, and painted the entirety of the protesters as violent, firebombing anarchists.  My conservative friend said “why didn’t they shout him down? Why didn’t they say, that’s not us?!”  The implication is that the protestors support that message.  So, I went looking for the video, and here it is.

As you can see, Nkrumah Tinsley, the person who goes on this screed, is at first being supported by the human microphone.  This is a technique whereby the people surrounding a speaker repeat what the speaker says to increase the volume of the comment for other people to hear.  After the human mic repeats “On November 17th…” Tinsley launches into his firebombing idea.  But the human mic stops.  They don’t spread that message, they don’t amplify his words.  And the people around him look awkward and walk away.  There are only two people who are supporting this message in the video, one is the person who Tinsley is high fiving at the end of his first tirade, and the second is the casual supporter who’s standing next to him at the end of the video.  Tinsley, is one person, with maybe two supporters, at a protest of thousands of people.  And his own mother, in court, said that he has always had mental problems.  These protests are public events and people who are emotionally disturbed are drawn to these places, especially if he or she believes that s/he has a message to impart to the world.  Managing that is a challenge for anyone who operates in a public environment.

Not to mention that public events are also subject to the work of agents provocateurs.  Early on in the Occupation happening in Washington DC a similar protest was being formed to make a statement about unmanned aerial drones. Patrick Howley, a journalist working for the American Prospect, a conservative publication, intentionally infiltrated the protest going to march on the Air and Space Museum.  His instigation of the crowd at the Air and Space museum led to him and other protesters being maced by security staff at the museum and forcing the museum to close two hours early.

My concern in this part of the conversation was that biased media sources and their proponents are using a broad brush to characterize the entirety of the protesters as a lawless band of thugs. This is both oversimplifying the problems and practicing guilt by association.  The overwhelming majority of the people involved in occupy protests are peaceful people who are there to support a message.  The criminal acts of individuals, and the rants of delusional people are the exception and not the rule.  By this crazy train of logic everyone involved in college sports supports pedophilia, just because of the rape scandal at Penn State.

Wherein I Explain “Blood Libel” with a Song

While I know the expiration date on talking about Sarah Palin’s abhorrent comment after the Tucson Shooting has long since passed, I ran across what is probably the best didactic resource on the topic the other day and just had to share.

Quck recap for those living under a rock: Sarah Palin used the phrase “Blood Libel” a) in a context where it made no sense (go figure) and b) betrayed her ignorance of the topic entirely (again, big surprise).

So, what is “Blood Libel” anyway?  Let’s break it down.  Libel is when you start a malicious lie about someone, in the context of this phrase it was about the Jewish people.  The Blood part specifically refers to the blood of gentiles, and specifically gentile children.  Blood Libel refers to a medieval urban legend where it was believed that Jews would kidnap gentile children and sacrifice them to their bloodthirsty God. Never mind the fact that the God of the Christians and the God of the Jews is one and the same.  This legend persisted and spawned all kinds of pogroms against Jews repeatedly over the course of the middle ages and early modern period.

And as all things medieval and early modern is was also captured in song.

While I was researching the Child Ballads, a set of historical English balladry, and listening to Pandora stations of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span I ran across this song Little Sir Hugh.  At first I thought it was just another murder ballad about some horrible woman who kills a child, but no, this was explicitly a song about Blood Libel.  So, let me share the salient story line points and verses with some explanations so that we can all have a perfectly clear picture of what is entailed when someone uses this phrase.  The lyrics I will use here are the whitewashed version by Steeleye Span. Though the horrifying racist versions are all available on Wikisource.

The song opens up on a scene of boys playing kickball.  This is a common image of childhood innocence.  Little Sir Hugh joins in the fray and starts kicking the ball.

He kicked the ball very high
He kicked the ball so long
He kicked it over a castle wall
Where no one dared to go

The “castle wall” here is probably the common Shtetl wall you would find in medieval cities that separated the Jewish district from the rest of the city. Though that’s speculation on my part.

Out came a lady gay
She was dressed in green
“Come in, Come in Little Sir Hugh
Fetch your ball again.”

“I can’t come in, I won’t come in
Without my playmates all.
For if I should, I know you would
Cause my blood to flow.”

Again, because this is the publicly safe version to sing no mention is made of her ethnicity though in the Child Ballads she is sometimes explicitly referred to as the “Jew’s Daughter.”  More importantly here’s where we have to explain that “little sir Hugh” was one of those miraculous Christian children who supposedly had some kind of precognition. That or he’d heard the urban legend and was repeating it child-like back to her face.  But let’s get to the killing already.

She took him by the milk white hand
Led him through the hall
‘Til they came to a stone table
Where no one could hear him call

She sat him on a golden chair
She gave him sugar sweet
She laid him on a dressing board
And stabbed him like a sheep

He called it.  But again, there was something saintly about him.  He was stabbed like a sheep, the lamb of God.  Part of the thing about blood libel is that it has a sort of fucked up biblical origin.  Certain Christians have never gotten over the crucifixion.  Hell, look at Mel Gibson’s Passon of the Christ and you can see just how much he hates the Jews for killing Jesus.  Again, nevermind the fact that there’s supposedly a reason for the sacrifice of Christ, and that it was God’s plan all along.  The simple fact that the Jews turned  him over to be crucified and that they “screamed for his blood” means that Jews are supposedly this bloodthirsty vengeful people.  On a slight tangent I would also like to point out that there’s something in this line that reminds me of the White Witch of Narnia giving young Edward Turkish Delights, and the witch in the woods with her Gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel.  Onto the rest.

Out came the thick thick blood
Out came the thin
Out came the bonny heart’s blood
‘Til there was none within

She took him by the yellow hair
And also by the feet
She threw him in at the old North Well
Fifty fathoms deep

So she drained the child dry.  No explanation as to why, she just did.  Then she throws him in a well.  This is another one of those common medieval urban legends: the well poisoner.  Because well water was commonly shared among multiple households in medieval villages the threat of someone poisoning the water supply was very serious.  Any outbreak of sickness or plague often resulted in accusations of well poisoning and the brunt of those accusations fell on people who didn’t fit into the common village society, i.e., Jews, foreigners, “witches,” etc. Xenophobia leads to accusations and hate crimes.

Finally the chorus.

Mother, Mother, Make my bed
Make for me a winding sheet
Wrap me up in a cloak of gold
To see if I can sleep

Part of the rest of the story is that the spirit of Sir Hugh appears to his mother.  His ghost is in a little cherubic form (as cherubs are the spirits of dead children), and he explains to her that he is dead.  The cloak of gold is a burial shroud.  In some of the variant texts the ghost child actually leads the mother to the well and the body of the boy is retrieved.

It’s never really said what happened to the Jews in the song.  All we see are the actions.  I think it would be safe to assume that if this song was sung in a Christian town that it could lead to inciting anger and violence against Jewish people.  The fact that the Jews were driven out of England in about the same time as this song was originally written and that they weren’t allowed back into the country until the 17th century says something.

For more on blood libel check out The Prioresses Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

When A Secret Is Not A Secret

No, I’m not writing about The Secret, as I have been for days now.  No, I’m finally writing about Wikileaks.

Like much of the world I have been obsessed with reading about the Wikileaks cables.  Julian Assange cutting his creepy albino Bond villain poses has weaseled his way into my brain and will not let go.  But beyond the revelations that are getting great coverage as analysis of the cables starts to flow from nearly every news media outlet in the world, is the other story of the ridiculous attempts to suppress knowledge of the cables from government employees, contractors and even prospective government employees.

First there was the news that the Library of Congress was blocking Wikileaks itself because government employees without clearance aren’t supposed to read them.  Then there were the Columbia University students who were warned that their prospects for government jobs would be hindered if they were to read the cables, especially if God Forbid! they discussed it on Facebook or Twitter.  And then came the even more mind numbing move of the U.S. Air Force blocking entire news websites where the cables might be discussed, like the New York Times, the Guardian UK, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, El Pais, and dozens of others.

Let me explain why this is utterly stupid, by referencing a recent episode of Glee.

Rachel confronting Finn about sleeping with SantanaRight before the Glee club go to perform at sectionals, the word gets out that Finn slept with Santana before he and Rachel started dating again.  But Finn had lied to Rachel saying that he was still a virgin, because he knew how much the truth would hurt her.  So Finn was forced to tell her the truth and they were working through it with the school counselor.  But then when Rachel and Kurt were having a little reunion dish at the sectionals competition she lets slip that she discovered that Finn slept with Santana and she was upset about it. Kurt says “You didn’t know about that?”  And then had to bolt to be on stage.  So Rachel gets pissed!  She confronts Finn and says, “You told Kurt?”  Finn says he didn’t.  Mercedes says that she thinks she told Kurt, and then Quinn says that she told Mercedes and that Britney told her and that Santana told Puck…  Rachel throws her hands up in the air and says “Everybody knew about this but me?!”

Yeah, everyone does.

This, my friends is what American diplomacy is turning into.

You can’t hide this shit from people, no matter how hard you try.  Everyone and their grandmother is out there reading about Wikileaks and they have every right to.  It is now a matter of public record, whether the U.S. Government likes it or not.  To try, and try poorly, to keep government employees in the dark about what is being made public is like lying to your girlfriend to try to protect her from the truth.  Eventually she’s going to find out anyway, so you might as well come clean about it now.  Seriously, what sense does it make to try and block everything that could ever possibly have anything to do with Wikileaks when there are dozens of mirror sites and articles in every major newspaper and television news service.   You wind up pulling shit like the Air Force did and overblocking legitimate news sites and thus keeping your troops intentionally under-informed.

Here’s a newsflash: When everyone around you is in on the secret, it’s not a fucking secret any more.