Intellectual Property’s Conundrum

There has been a great deal of conversation about intellectual property on the internet, with a recent uptick with regard to the IsoHunt incidents and other torrent sites.  In this post I intend to address the root ethical and economic issue imposed by intellectual property in, I hope, an objectve and reasonable perspective.

In order to do so thoroughly, I’m going to start with my own opinion and then the valid arguments of the opposition.  I believe that the modern take on intellectual property is, not to put too fine a point on it, insane.  There are so many gray areas introduced by the current legislation in everything from the right to patent genes that actually exist in people for commercial benefit by those who discovered them, software patent lunacy, etc. etc.  Now, I come pretty close to out and out declaring that intellectual property is foolish because you can’t own information sequences.  But there are certain facts that make this just an unreasonable expectation.

Firstly, there are a large number of very legitimate issues with a truly free information marketplace.  Firstly, there exists information that loses its value if it’s made public.  That said, this doesn’t mean that would-be patent owners should have their rights voided if the patent information is divulged before they apply for a patent.  This represents an impinging of the legal realm onto clear-cut ethics. Also, if we were unable to pay the creators of intellectual property, nobody would do it.  So we would be left without our most important industrial sector- the idea-people.  Artists would have to get “real jobs” instead of being full-time creators, and there would be all these other issues or “brain drain.”  Trade secrets are necessary because they can’t be protected any other way.  If Coca-Cola released their recipe, you could go to the grocery store and pick up enough ingredients to make it yourself.  Without their secret recipe, they have a lot of hardware and workers but nothing to do with them.  Also, copyrights are necessary so the creators are actually the ones who make money off of their inventions.  If anyone at all could steal their knowledge and clone their work, the original creator earns nothing for their efforts.

After all that, I still believe that information should be freer than it is.  There are a lot of people who want to convince you that intellectual property is confusing, has lots of gray areas, and that it’s a difficult problem.  It’s really not, unless you look at it through legal goggles which only let you see the current situation’s madness.  The underlying principles are very simple.  First and foremost, you can’t apply the same conception of physical property to intellectual property as we’ve been trying to do.  It’s trying to creatively fit a square peg into a round hole.  Can’t be done without damaging something, either the peg or the frame.  Just so, you can’t give more rights to the people or to the rights-holders without damaging the other.  At least to me, this indicates that we have erred somewhere, perhaps seriously.  Regarding the above paragraph, all those problems refer to information or processes related to physical products, not information-based products.  Different rules apply.

What can I posibly mean, you say?  Let’s take a look at the preeminent information product: software.  Software is generally treated as though it was a physical product, even to the point that you can go to a store and buy it off the shelf.  This is no longer as true as it once was, but in large part physical media are still the main distribution method.  However, software can be copied without limit.  Anyone can share their software with anyone else, even if you’ve never met or even seen them, using the internet.  So how do software developers react to this dilemma?  They try to lock down their software into a physical form.  They create DRM, use product keys, registration, encrypted channels, etc. etc.

I have a better idea.  How about taking advantage of all the power that this medium has to offer?  Distribute your product at the fastest possible rate you can by giving it away, for free.  Give away your best material, and let everyone who cares pay for the rest.  Software developers have an especially cushy position in this matter, since software requires updates.  Shareware has tried a type of marketing like this using free trials.  But what I’m saying is that the software doesn’t have to be the money-making vector of software developers.  Give away the software, and if enough people start to use it, then you can make money from them in a huge variety of ways.  The easiest way is to simply ask for donations, and this has worked well in the past.  However as a successful large business model, donations limit growth severely.  They also limit the capital available for getting more resources.  As such, donationware works for small businesses, but large companies need a more formal structure.  They could still ask, but maybe they’re too grown-up for that.  OK, how about a subscription model?  If you subscribe to a particular software firm, they give you all their software (which is free anyway), support, updates, additional resources, and even physical products.  This can work, especially for well-established small-medium businesses which have a lineup of software to offer.

All these models share two features.  One, the vendor has to demonstrate value before the customer has to pay for it.  There is absolutely no reason that I would ever pay for a song without having heard it, software without having used it (except on recommendation), and so on.  Movies use previews to give an impression of familiarity and value without actually spoiling the movie.  iTunes shows you a teaser clip of a song to make you feel that you know it enough to buy it.  In this respect, piracy is necessarily a part of information exchange.  In order to sell information, I have to tell you enough to make you willing to pay for it.  Of course, oftentimes that means I’ve told you enough that you don’t even have to pay for it anyway.  This is the conundrum of intellectual property that everyone is trying to wrestle with.  How do you force someone to pay for something they don’t know, or make sure that the vendor gets payment for something they have provided, without infringing on either party.

The bottom line?  You can’t.  It’s a contradiction in terms.  The common approach is to give the information and payment in multiple installments to confirm compliance.  I show you a trailer for free, you pay for it, and I give you the movie/song/game.  In situations like these, the property model is fundamentally broken.  The only reaction is that you can’t “own” it because in order to distribute it, you have to violate your own ownership.  Copyright’s solution is to give people different rights.  This person whom we shall legally deem the Creator, has the rights to duplicate, distribute, and profit from specific works, while the rest of the world doesn’t.  So, we have transformed an information set into a meta-information identity which we attach to its creator and there can be only one of by definition.

The solution is to flatten out the information space.  The information is not an object, and encapsulating it with abstractions and legal jibberjabber won’t change that.  Pirates know it full well.  So the old model of the “product” as the monymaking vector is broken with intellectual property.  So what?  Make the act of producing intellectual property the profit vector.  If you want software from a certain company which needs money to do it, you had damn well better give them the money they say they’ll need from you.  Otherwise, you can’t expect that they’ll produce it.  That’s just hypocritical.  You’re not entitled to the fruit of their labors implicitly.  You can’t expect that they will work for you anyway.  The objective of intellectual property, the intelligence industry, if you will, is to constantly produce new things, not the production of property.  So why not reward that pursuit, instead of treating it as property?  It’s the job of factories to produce stuff, and to the degree they produce stuff, they should be rewarded.  It’s the job of a thinker to think of new, useful things.  To the degree that they think of new, useful things, they should be rewarded.  Not to the degree that the product of their labor is produced.  As a metric of usefulness, that’s just going to need a committee or a court or other legal nonsense to decide if it’s useful, novel, non-obvious, etc. etc.  The ultimate judge of the value of the thinker should be the degree to which people wish them to continue working.  SImple

Net Neutrality

An issue near and dear to my heart, indeed.  It’s a foolhardy name- we need to call it “net freedom” or something.  However, that’s not what this post is about.  I’m going to cover the issue as objectively as possible.

First, the entrenched enemy.  Companies like Comcast, who own the internet’s basic data transmission infrastructure, are completely justified in their claims that they have the right to use their infrastructure however they please.  The people who respond to the net neutrality issue with the knee-jerk “we’ll get the government to make it illegal!” are foolish children having their candy taken from them.  Bringing the government to bear on the management of the internet is an incredibly bad idea, firstly because the internet is international.  However let’s not ignore the fact that the government will mismanage a medium such as the internet, and how centralized control will not be helpful to the internet anyway.  I believe that Comcast is free to do whatever it wants with its own hardware.  The rub comes from how Comcast probably has sufficient power to enforce such controls over other companies, possibly from an agreement.  This breach of market equilibrium means that Comcast has limited rein to just screw us over.  Without that assurance, blatantly screwing your customers is a ticket to bankruptcy.  But if those customers have no choice…  The problem isn’t Comcast’s right to use its infrastructure, it’s Comcast’s power to oligopolize the industry.  Still, there are people who would claim, “alright, then let’s get the government to nail them for anti-trust violations!”  While better than trying to directly control Comcast’s business model, it’s still a bad answer.

To give Comcast et al. a little credit which they seem oblivious to, it may well be that metered internet is the best path for the future.  With our unlimited model, there is no real penalty for colossal data inefficiency.  Sure, the awful file type will take longer to download and eat your hard drive space, and scripts, protocols, or instructions might be horrifyingly inefficient, but there’s no actual fiscal cost.  If the internet were metered, then as a web client you are going to expect a certain degree of respect for your bandwidth.  Websites arrogantly squandering your bandwidth for ads had better have the services to back it up.  Currently we assume that a metered internet will look just like the current internet, just more expensive and charged by the byte.  Not necessarily.  For most users it will probably be cheaper.  And, there may be new systems built in to improve the user experience.  For example, you might have a browser master control panel which gives you control every byte you download, and allows you to easily lock out unwanted sites’ data.  There would be a strong incentive to create double-layer security and user facility protocols, a default deny data acquisition model, streamlined packet handling, and so on.  On a grander scale, older and obsolete file types or programming languages and paradigms will be upgraded and phased out more quickly, giving you more bang for your hardware dollar (and software too).

Much of my audience is probably ready to throw up by now.  Just to make this clear- I DO NOT support Comcast and their cohorts in their efforts to strangle the internet.  However, I disagree with the alarmists who think that a metered internet is a dead internet.  It will be a very different internet, to be sure, but we can be resourceful.  Firstly, who says we have to do business with people who are screwing us?  And if they oligopolize the industry and give us no choice, then we can do it ourselves.  Buy your own fiber optics lines and connect your neighborhood together, then add lines to other places, etc. etc.  Comcast isn’t doing anything that is somehow impossible for your average Joe, although they would like you to think so.  If you, not Comcast, own your line that connects to a hub which can go anywhere, you can choose to use Comcast’s services or you can contact lines that also choose unlimited service, etc.  It might even be totally free.  Why not?  Open source hardware is not that big a leap.  We have options- but if we go and tell Comcast that they don’t actually own their own infrastructure, we’re no better than the people chopping our media with DRM.

Of course it’s more likely to be practical to use wireless connections and navigate by hubs alone rather than having wires running everywhere- and stashing them underground is expensive.  Comcast can offer us fast, high-capacity data services while we get our own free internet in other ways, such as each house running its own wifi.  You get a hub, other people can tap your bandwidth and you can tap theirs.  You can disallow anyone you like, or everyone, wherever or whenever you like.  But then don’t expect them to permit you to use theirs.  A decentralized internet is an ideal perhaps greater than that of an unlimited data model from a vendor like Comcast.  I don’t know what’s going to happen- this is just speculation, although it seems reasonable to me that people want internet, and if they can’t get it for free from companies like Comcast we’ll start seeing inventive solutions to make it happen.  If signals can leapfrog wirelessly from house to house to commercial building to house, then that seems like a good possible solution to me.  Hey, it might even be an improvement for us not to be dependent on data services or wires.  And we may be reaping the data efficiency benefits of limited pipelines between disparate areas.  I doubt wireless technology will get powerful enough to broadcast over, say, the Pacific Ocean in the next couple years.  So fiber optics lines will probably be the best way to get lots of data around the world, fast.  If you don’t need to pay for speed, maybe a circuitous route through many low-signal areas to get to you is good enough.  I am optimistic about the outcome, either way.  If net neutrality fails, so what?  The environment changes, and we bend our intelligences to working out the problems in front of us.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for what we want, since what I’ve been talking about are basically after-the-fact tactics we might employ to the same effect: getting what we want.

More Simulated Realities

Before I get into this post I have an announcement. Although this site lacks any donation mechanism, if you like what I write and want to reward me as its author I have created an account with istuff- if that’s what they’re called. Basically it’s a pyramid scheme, I’m not going to lie. However, because there’s no money involved I don’t see any problem with it. I’m supposed to obtain referrals in order to get my free iPod. Signing up takes about 5 minutes, and then doing one of their offers takes 5 to 10 more. Please use my promo link here so I’ll get credit towards my iPod. Thanks!

Now, more in-depth on your brain, simulations, and the computability of the universe. Asking if the universe is computable is basically asking if all aspects of the universe’s functioning are a) universal, b) consistent, c) predictable, and d) functionally limited in scope to our own universe. If the laws of physics are not universal then one part of the universe might follow different laws of physics than another. If they are not consistent then they may be subject to change over time. If they are not predictable then mathematics cannot duplicate them- although randomness and like phenomena are duplicable in a probabilistic fashion. Lastly, if the universe is not limited in scope, then we’re just sunk. Basically what I’m saying by the scope of the universe is that there cannot be some other non-observable otherworld that affects our own universe. Although that outside influence may itself be subject to universal, consistent, and predictable laws, if we can’t discern its workings from within our own universe then we cannot simulate our own universe because we can’t simulate its effect. Although the most complicated of our 4 contingencies, it’s probably the one we have least to worry about. Most physicists or scientists would agree that all four of these are well established to be true of our universe.

If the universe is computable, and there are those who say it isn’t although they are completely wrong, then it is physically possible to create a simulation matching our own universe in complexity, size, or resolution, but never all three at the same time or our entire universe must necessarily have been subsumed into creating such a simulation. We can shave off a massive amount of unnecessary computing power by limiting our simulation to salient details only. For example, we can use macroscopic heuristics to make objects behave like objects without needing to simulate the position, energy disposition, etc. of every atom within said object. Unless someone within the simulation is actively perusing each atom of that object, nobody will notice the difference. And if anyone should examine those atoms, why our simulation can just render those atoms for them like the light turning on in the refrigerator. So in a conceptual sense, it wouldn’t be very hard to make a simulation that was extremely believable to someone within it. There are several different models of simulation we might have, and each has its advantages.  A brain interface simulation like the Matrix means that you get to keep your body, and don’t face any of the weird issues associated with copying your mind from one place to another.  However, you also don’t get to play the simulation at whatever speed you would like because it can only operate at the same speed that your extra-simulation brain can handle.  If you still want to keep your body, maybe you can go for a half-and-halfer arrangement, where you plug in your brain and a temporary copy of it is loaded up into the simulation as a virtual self, strongly typed back to your original brain which must be temporarily disabled so the “real” you doesn’t walk off.  This is weird because there must necessarily be two copies of you existing at the same time, one in reality (unconscious?) and one in the simulation.  But this method gets you the in-simulation advantages of scaling with the simulation’s speed, etc. etc.  Of course the best way in my opinion is to just be a virtual self completely.  This means you are governed by the simulation’s physics, and so on and so forth.  Probably the most effective way to manage this situation is for your virtual self to exist in a meta-simulation connected computer that you own.  So you still have a body- it’s just a computer connected to the Internet, basically.  If you want to create a simulation for yourself, you can do it within your computer, like imagination with a sensory supercomputer.  You might even opt to purchase/rent additional processing power into your property if you so desired.  Or, you can place your processor into another simulation governed by someone else, somewhat like interfacing with a game over the internet.  Your mind would of course be kept discrete and secure from all the other workings, but functioning within the simulation.

Now things get interesting. Once we had a simulation that was indistinguishable from reality, why would you want to live in actual reality? There’s no reason whatsoever why there should arbitrarily be only one- that’s absurd. But your body as you know it could be exactly created as a sequence of virtual atoms within the simulation. If that was all you did then there would be no effective difference between being in a simulation and being in “real life.” But why stop there? Carefully crafted algorithms to alter the content of the simulation would effectively give you magic powers. Absolute control over material reality, mind reading perhaps, whatever floats your boat. If you owned your own private simulation you would be as a god among NPCs. While you could play one hell of a game of Sims or Civilization or whatever you wanted, I imagine playing with only bots would get tiresome very quickly. What you need are some real intelligences to sink your teeth into. Of course in such an advanced simulation, you have lots of options. Option A is to simply arrange some virtual atoms into intelligent agents. There’s nothing stopping you from having a legitimate human opponent whenever you wanted. Or even a super genius opponent. Hell, you could hand-craft a genius expert at anything you wanted by setting up a smart person in a situation where they just practice practice practice at whatever you want to challenge them at. You then set the simulation on maximum speed and step back for a millisecond. When you return your opponent will have perhaps thousands of years of experience, and will destroy you. You could simulate the Matrix universe which contains within it another simulation, or perhaps the Firefly ‘verse, or whatever other fiction world you pleased. Full Metal Alchemist anyone?

Option B is probably even more fun: other simulation gods. PVP takes on a whole new meaning. Highlander is just the beginning. World of Warcraft is the tip of the iceberg. Try KAOS in a simulated real-world environment, with each player being assigned some other player to kill, somewhere in the world.  I for one would particularly look forward to some genius coding up some Halo-like universe where a player commands armies in RPG/RTS format where each of your characters is essentially a real person. You start off solo and may eventually build up armies of millions if you so desire, and if you can. Each side would be headed up by one Player. Maybe they can respawn, but that’s kinda pathetic. If you die, you should be dead. In a game like that any hardware you may have obtained could be easily gotten back in a new character if you were so inclined. Randomly generated authentic characters, on the other hand, would be priceless.

Which raises an interesting and vital question- if you’ve created a real person in a virtual world, do they have rights? Are they entitled to better than a gameworld of eternal war? We have no problem blowing away humanoid models in modern shooters, but when those models are atom-for-atom replicas of real people with fully functioning brains and the works, then what? I’m not really sure of this point, to be honest. While I do believe that they would be people in every sense, and that in truth their reality is just as “real” as ours despite the fact that they live in a simulation stemming from ours. However, I am disinclined to believe that it is unethical to create such a world. It is unethical to kill people within that world, but the creation of a world with the intent of waging bloody mayhem within it is not unethical. The distinction here is that by the act of creating the world, you have not killed anyone. In fact you have given life to everyone created within that world. The fact that you did so in order for other people to wage war within it is irrelevant. Intent is never significant: only action matters. However, even if you were to go inside that world and kill everyone within it, have you really taken anything from them? After creating your world, are you morally obligated to keep it running on behalf of those within it? No, you can cancel your simulation whenever you like and you have given those within it life for a certain period. Is it better than never having existed at all? Of course. In fact, I would go so far as to say that any existence whatsoever is superior to nonexistence. Yet, while some people will continue to enjoy war games with perfectly realistic human beings, I’m not sure I would find it enjoyable for long. The people running the simulation would obviously sanitize the battlefield to make it enjoyable because nobody would pay to participate in the hell of war as we know it. Perhaps some of the more hardcore people would want a somewhat realistic experience, but I’m not one of them.

I suspect that we would see many more peaceful video games with much improved realism.  Current games are trying to capitalize on the visceral immersion factor they can acquire through violence.  If they’re indistinguishable from reality, that gut reaction is no longer necessary.  Simulating a poker room, open ocean, or even a farm (where you only decide what gets done- it fast-forwards through the actual farm labor, if you’re even the one doing it) makes a lot more sense.  Interestingly though, anything you learned to do in such a simulation would be fully applicable in real life.  If you learned to swordfight in your pirate game world then if you picked up a sword in real life, the skills would be the same.  This is ignoring the fact that if we have developed sufficient technology to interface your brain with a computer to that degree, you could probably just download whatever knowledge you desired and it would be available to you in both cases.  The possibilities of creating simulations for ourselves are just endless.  I want to be a cyborg.

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Random Numbers

The power of utter randomness. Given time, any and all processes and information can be duplicated exactly. However, the larger and more precise the process, the less probably the duplication will be. However, what if you consider a sequence where it isn’t random? What if you consider a sequence designed to efficiently produce a specific sequence in random fashion? Does this have broader implications for encryption, compression, or encoding? Does this mean that intellectual property is contradictory and unethical? Do random numbers have some critical functional significance for human intelligence, or the workings of the universe?

Randomness is perfect noise; chaos. Infinite randomness therefore includes all possible strings of information. All possible strings of information therefore includes all specific strings of information- movies, books, classified documents, you know whatever. As the categorical example goes: pi is normal. Therefore, everyone who converts pi to decimal or binary form has just infringed on every copyright that exists, has existed, and ever will exist simultaneously. You just pirated every state secret, every bit of juicy, dripping tabloid scum, and every grand work of art that will ever exist. True, we don’t know pi is normal but if the logic holds then any noise-generating algorithm will work just as well. Any process that is normal, or generates perfect noise, or can in any other fashion be used to reproduce copyrighted works, must be banned.

Of course this is bullshit. If you banned the creation of random numbers… I don’t even want to think about it. “Seven.”

“Why did you say seven?”

“I don’t know”

“Alright sonny, you’re coming with us. We’re going downtown.”

Theoretically, the more unlikely someone else is to duplicate a specific string of information then the more right the “creator” has to it. It’s extremely unlikely that a noise algorithm will reproduce, let’s say the movie I Am Legend, in a *timely* manner. However, a noise algorithm would reasonably quickly produce the ASCII code for the word “orange” or perhaps a short sentence. So you can’t copyright the word “orange” or the number 7, but you can copyright I Am Legend. Theoretically.

However, this model is fraught with issues. Firstly, does that mean that I have more right to my 1000-page book than I do to my 100-page book? A random number generator is exponentially less likely to produce a longer or more information-dense work. Does this mean that any work less than X bits in size is open source, but greater than X is closed-source?

Next let’s try the argument from economics. There exists a commodity that can be reproduced for no charge. What is the cost of this commodity? That’s a good question, yes indeed. If you’re the one selling it, obviously you’re looking for a reason to charge for it. Much of the time, even the most basic commodities have costs associated with them: the sale of water involves a physical commodity that had to either be pumped to your house, or bottled in a plant. A piece of paper had to be created from lumber, etc. etc. However, information can be duplicated for absolutely no charge. We’ve been doing this since the dawn of civilization. How do you teach a baby a language? You can hire a tutor, but then you’re not paying for the information, you’re paying for the tutor’s time. Now this is where things seem to get a little grey; what happens if you buy a book. You’re buying a bunch of paper with a cover, and some ink in interesting shapes on the pages. The book cost money to produce, undoubtedly. Here’s the crunch: some books, let’s say book A and book B are of equivalent page length, equivalent cost of physical production, and have the same quantity of information. This is not to say they have the same content; only that if you converted them into binary they could each be represented by the same amount of data. But somehow, one book sells better than the other. The people selling the book will clearly say, “look, look, everyone wants book A because the information in it is more valuable!” And then because book A sells more, the vendors will charge more for it; supply and demand. Seems logical, right?

The fact that A sells better than B does not indicate that information contained within A is intrinsically more valuable than B’s. It does not logically follow that information has fiscal value in consumer terms. What if B is written by a genius philosopher who will remain undiscovered until three hundred years after his death, and his book will be widely hailed as one of the greatest works of all time for enlightening humanity. As a case, that situation in no way conflicts with A selling better than B. As a matter of fact, I’d say the true geniuses are the ones so far ahead of their time that nobody in their time will buy their stuff. Works of quality are generally superseded by what is “popular”- this is an obvious, and also common sentiment.

The fact of the matter is that there is quite a lot less money to be made selling things like books and movies than the industry has been predicated upon. Another fact of the matter is that virtually all of that little money to be made, in a naturalistic system, would end up in the hands of the creator(s). Such industries are disgustingly contorted and inflated to maximize revenue. They have no qualms about hyping, sensationalizing, and swamping anything that they need to to maximize income.

For books, all the publisher is providing is the paper and printing services- but somehow they make all the money. The Book Industry Study Group says the book industry encompassed a net revenue of $34.59 billion in 2005, and will reach $40.4 billion by 2010. Para Publishing disagrees, saying the industry’s net revenue is $34.63 billion, and goes on to claim 2.3 billion books are sold each year. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but 2.3 billion books goes into $34.5 billion 15 times, so the average book cost $15. The printing cost for said book, shall we say, is not $15. It is, unsurprisingly, remarkably difficult to find good data on the cost of physically printing a commercially distributed book. But culling from a dozen independent print companies’ websites I’ve concluded it probably costs about $4 to $5 to print a $15 book. Printed in bulk, the price per unit must drop, hence the profitability of being a publisher. But the insane 3x to 4x price increase is justified only by conceptual wrangling.

For movies, the discrepancy is even worse. A modern movie is a multimillion dollar undertaking, funded by an elite core of wealthy, professional publishers. It just doesn’t cost that much to make a movie. What happened? The nature of a movie is that once created, it becomes profitable for each theater seat sold afterward, and for each disc sale. A theater seat is a fairly simple commercial exchange: you are paying for the use of the screen, and your seat. They can charge based on the number of people interested, at a slight but steady profit. Because of the nature of theater sales, a movie that goes box-office is going to get millions of viewers, and there are huge revenues to be made. This caused moviemakers to anticipate, enabling them to increase the cost of their movies thinking to make them better and win a bigger slice of that enormous theater-seat pie. Advertising is devastatingly effective at promoting movies in such an environment, and huge advertising budgets are a no-brainer. Pretty soon you see bad movies wasting millions, and people watching them anyway because they’re so heavily advertised and there are few truly great movies created anymore. A disc, too, is fairly simple. They made something that you want to own. However, in both cases “the movie” is adding some imaginary value. A DVD costs only cents to make, plus a few more cents of some disc burner’s activity. That’s all you’re paying for. Plus the box, the package, and the profit of the seller. However the enormous cost of producing the movie left a huge burden on the producer, on anyone the producer sells the rights to, and ultimately that price falls on the consumer. In order to justify their overcharging- which they can no longer stop by their own volition- they start pushing legislation around. At the end of the day, they’re selling you information. Information which they have to protect as an industry through legislative artifice to maintain their profit margins.

I could go on about the music industry, but that horse is dead. The RIAA was purporting an unstable market model from the beginning, and it was only a matter of time before someone figured that out and cut them out of the picture. Change is painful, both to individuals and to industries. Uncertainty clouds our judgment more than it should. With the advent of TiVo, companies started with that knee-jerk response of “how can we protect our ads?” before realizing that, you know, the old ad model was just dead. New systems with new possibilities opened up. Viral advertising over the internet, for example. Making ads entertaining to watch, so that consumers would actively seek them out. With the music industry, they just need to figure out that music costs nothing to distribute. In Rainbows demonstrated the new model, and that’s just how it’s got to be. In the music industry’s case, we’re proposing to the T-Rex that they should just lay down and die because the new, superior species is here, so of course they’re not going to. They’re going to fight to the last breath to keep that money rolling. But they’ll lose eventually. Whoever’s running the US government needs to figure that out and hasten their demise instead of making it a protracted and difficult death. I can conceive of few legislative insanities quite as insidious as using American taxpayers to burden American consumers. The problem with government is that impossible, insane things can be decreed, and cause countless cascading fantastic effects. Take a lesson from Mao Zedong and don’t decree that “steel production shall be tripled in five years”- it’ll be done in the technical sense, but every conceivable aspect of every facet of every nook and cranny of your country’s people, economy, and society will be destroyed to meet an imaginary technicality. Millions starved, technology was shot, and all the money evaporated.

Government can easily, in a breath, do that. It is critically important that we avoid that type of policy, and follow a rational, sensible, and flexible mode of thinking, particularly about such matters of import. We need to be a force for change, pressuring companies to continue to work for us, to press them to change with the times. It’s a war; they want to take advantage of us, and we want to take advantage of them. If all goes well, we’ll be evenly matched and meet in the middle, each getting a fair deal.

Intellectual Property and The Original Scam

It’s been a while.  I’m busy.  And more importantly, I only post when I feel I have something significant to bring to the table.  It may not be fully formed- it usually isn’t- but it is a thought of consequence.  And now I have one.

The idea of intellectual property is fairly fundamental; if you have an idea, then it’s yours and nobody else is entitled to the use of it for their direct monetary gain. If you invent a machine that will juice lemons then you are able to make and sell lemon juicers. If you write a book, nobody else can claim that they wrote it and start selling copies under their name.

Here’s the problem, and the reason why all intellectual property policies and DRM schemes are simply an attempt to rip you off. By creating exclusivity, you instantaneously create an intellectual monopoly. And for some reason this is considered the natural state of affairs. I know I’m going to receive emails claiming that obviously you’ll see monopolies since nobody else can write exactly the same thing and sell it. But that’s not the point. Consider the fundamental difference between selling an invention and selling the contents of a book or movie. In the former, you are using your knowledge to produce something which has value, and in the latter it is supposedly the information itself that has value. Its value is derived from improbability- it is exceedingly improbable that a random generation of ones and zeros will produce the contents of a book, much less a movie. This is why a book has more value than, say, the number 7. However, the criteria of judging the value of a book is purely mental- the way it’s written, the subject it is written about, etc. etc. There is an arbitrary preference process similar to the selection of apples vs oranges in a free market situation where supply and demand take the wheel from the basic price of production. Now, here’s the difficulty. Information costs absolutely nothing to reproduce. Nothing. Once the movie has been filmed it can be duplicated de nada. If you want it on disc, you have to pay for the disc and the laser writer’s time, but that’s it. For books, the actual text costs nothing to distribute. The physical book needs paper and printers to create, and as such has some cost associated with it. So why is it possible to make billions of dollars selling rights to play a movie to a movie theater?

To answer that, we must go back to prehistoric times. Yes, before they had movies. Back when humans were still trying to eke out a living in various tribes. Here we have the invention of The Original Scam. How do you get something for nothing? Simple, you convince your victim that it is in their interest to give you something for free. A tribal elder decrying that the rest of the tribe must bring him food because he is busy obtaining the favor of the gods to bring them good fortune is a good example. Power is an indirect and abstracted manifestation of this situation, where people will give you utility in exchange for “favor” which is an attempt to get you to use your power to collect utility from others in the donator’s favor. From time to time the ones in power do dish out “free” utility, but only because it allows the stream to keep on coming. Imagine the X-Prize. The prize might be $100 million, but the competition might cost $70 million to compete effectively, and maybe $90 million to ensure victory. There can be only one winner, but as long as more than one team plays then the people hosting the competition get free money. This is a brilliant tactic that should be employed by NASA or other agencies more often because everyone “wins” in a sense since it is a direct capital venture and the losers knew they were taking that risk when they entered. However, it is used negatively with the application of power because the nature of power itself compels those under its influence to participate. What do I mean by this? Consider the government. The power of the government lies in the widely-held belief that its edicts hold power. It’s exactly like the belief in money, and exactly like a belief in any other form of utility. Now, due to the nature of power, you cannot simply choose not to believe in money because then you wouldn’t have any power and you would be utterly screwed. If you were to arbitrarily stop believing in power, you would do something illegal and everyone else’s belief in the power would see you screwed. It’s the application of the Prisoner’s Dilemma to power. If you haven’t read about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, I suggest you check it out here under “You Are Not Alone” (May 21, 2007).

Now regarding intellectual property. Once we have reached the stage where utility is as countable as cash, we are presented with the difficulty of counting that which cannot be counted. For example, books. How do you calculate the value of a book? The answer is simple: how much does it cost to print it? The information inside cannot be considered to have value since it can be freely duplicated, and no money was required to create it in the first place. The book itself, on the other hand, requires publishing apparatus, etc. So when you buy the book, the person selling it to you has you completely convinced that you are buying something beyond what you are actually paying for, and therefore you are prepared to spend much more than you would normally. But here’s the issue; do ideas have a value in and of themselves, or is the value of the idea only relative to the effect the idea can produce through its application, requiring a brain? So, does the idea of how to create a battery have intrinsic and real value, or is it the fact that the idea can be used by a person possessing a brain to produce a battery result in the value? The person trying to sell you the knowledge of how to produce a battery obviously wants you to believe the idea has intrinsic value, but it really doesn’t. If the idea turned out to be wrong, its value is quickly nullified because in reality it cannot be used to produce a battery, whereas if the idea had intrinsic value it would still be possible to sell it for value, despite being wrong. If this is true for technical knowledge, why is the rule different for cultural knowledge? The string of characters we commonly regard as a book has no value in and of itself, despite the publisher’s desire to turn a profit. It is the fact that you can read it that produces the value. Though this seems like a pointless distinction, it means that what the industry castigates as “piracy” is actually ethical. The reason being that the owners of the idea have purchased it and are entitled to sell it at whatever price they wish with the book itself logically carries over with the information the book contains. The issue is that such a system kills the demand for purchasing books from the publisher. For example, according to stringent anti-piracy laws, reading books aloud would be illegal because it is the spontaneous creation, by duplication, of information they wish to sell to each of the children. What they want is to limit the impact of each book they sell so that others are required to purchase more of them.

And now we arrive at the crux of the issue; the value of intellectual property. Protection of information inflates its value by instituting scarcity by the same method as a government setting prices. But since the information has no value, a price cannot be set upon it directly. So, instead of setting the price, they set the quantity. So when you purchase a book they say that instead of buying the information inside, you are buying a license for one set of that information. You are prohibited from giving it away unless by doing so you lose yours. This means that you and your neighbor must buy two copies instead of sharing one, doubling sales from the two of you. But the effect is far greater, because there are millions of people who are required to buy their books individually, turning the sale of books into a massive superindustry. Changing the laws so you are allowed to sell the physical book, but the information within is free, would destroy the industry because you couldn’t charge $20 for 250 sheets of paper. Instead, you are returned to the natural free market setting where you are allowed to charge whatever you can for the product, unprotected and therefore uninflated by regulation. Selling books would still be profitable, but not nearly to the insane extent that it is now. Movies would be the same way; spending billions to produce a movie would be completely insane. Many will say, “but wait, if they don’t spend as much then the product won’t be as good!” You couldn’t be more wrong. The reason why modern movie producers are so risk-averse is because they stand to lose so much if the movie bombs. New movie ideas are few and far between in an industry where sequels, remakes and conversions (usually from popular novels) is the norm, and new ideas are economically punished overall, with repetition. This same “crap factor” applies to book writers, and even more so to publishers. The sheer volume of crap that gets written by those hoping to make a buck for free is astonishing. And the amount of money the publishers make compared to the pittance the authors are tossed is disgusting.

To take a slightly different tack- let’s use the perspective of information and memory.  Preserving copyrighted information in your memory is obviously legal.  If you watch a movie, you have the right to remember what’s in it. Similar to the rights of property deriving from the right to consume resource- i.e. eat, you have the right to control information you have experienced. Now let’s imagine that someone is gifted with a perfect memory. They remember everything they see or hear with perfect accuracy, and can even choose to replay it to themselves at will. Is this a violation of copyright? To broaden this idea a little bit, the contents of your head and the contents of your desktop computer are not really that fundamentally different- they’re both information. Pretty soon, we’ll probably understand the significance of neural networks enough to even interface the two. What happens then? When you watch a movie and then record your memories of it in the computer, how is that different from downloading the movie illegally and then watching it? There is a fundamental contradiction here- that you have the right to some information, but not to other information because some of it is accessible and some of it is not. Currently, we can’t access or share the contents of our brains directly, and therefore no sane copyright lawyer would argue you don’t have the rights to it. But when you buy a movie online you don’t have the rights to share it because you actually could share it if you wanted to. So the commonly held stance is that you are prohibited from sharing anything that you can share, but that you are allowed to share anything that you are unable to share. Ridiculous.

Here’s the superior model. Open source everything. Producers and publishers and video game manufacturers and who knows who else will yell and scream and kick in frustration as their little economic inflatable arm-floaties are ripped from them. But do you imagine that car manufacturers get the same level of preferential treatment? Sure they have their car designs, but what good are those to the owner of the physical car? They can’t summon another from just the plans. Competing companies might be interested, and they should be able to see them. That doesn’t mean they can just steal, wholesale, everything in them, because such things are protected by patents, not intellectual property. Patents are the superior system. Recently they have been corrupted, especially so in software, but the idea holds. Trade secrets are the mortal enemy of progress, so let everything into the open but prohibit free use. Transferring these ideas back to the book and movie industry. Just because you have the right to read the book and view the movie does NOT mean you have the right to put it on a DVD and then sell it. That right is reserved for the author of the book, and those rights she may sell to a publisher.

To resolve the contradiction from earlier, let’s say that I write a book, and then want to make some money for my efforts. I have a choice, I can keep it private or I can share it. I can send the book to a publisher, which will print copies of the book and then sell them for whatever it cost to print, plus some quantity to get them a profit.  They can’t make money from the content of the book- they’re only selling the physical printing of it. There is simply not as much money in publishing books as so many people would like you to believe. Not naturally, anyway.

Second issue- the author’s profit, and how it conflicts with mass distribution. Under the current model, the author makes a small royalty with each book sold. This is a very publisher-friendly strategy. I would propose a fundamental shift. When a book is made public, it is available to everyone for free. But there is no reason why the author should be pressed to automatically publicize everything. Circles of fans might link up and fundraise in order to pay for the release of an author’s next book. They will pay the author, in one shot, to open-source their work. They might also support the author after the fact by donations. As an interesting possibility, these rings may eventually become large networked companies which act like mutual funds for open-source material. They might collect donations from a wide base and then use their funds to open-source as much material as possible, taking credit for their hits. The ones that open-source the highest volume or the highest quality will attract more donators. The authors get pretty much all the money, and the will of the powerful is to open-source as much as possible, as quickly as possible.  It works.

Questioning the Internet

I love the internet. In fact, other than women, it is the closest I get to violating the dictate: “Allow nothing to cleave to you that is not your own, allow nothing to grow upon you that will give you agony when it is torn away.” Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just I will inevitably suffer from being too dependent on the Internet.

Anyway, despite my mild obsession, I frequently question the wisdom that went into its design. For example, why must all sites end in .com, .org, etc., etc.? Why can’t the suffix be used to derive further information about the nature of the site? For example, .p for a personal page, .b for a blog- this one might be zenstoic.b, .g for group, .c for community, .s for service, the list goes on. One major issue with this is that there are a colossal number of, let’s say four letter suffixes possible, and this would make web real estate comparatively valueless compared to the current system. Anybody who wanted one could claim a domain, and web tycoons would be unable to landgrab countless domains in an frenzied effort to make instant fortunes. Plus, it would make bundling related sites a great deal easier, and navigation between them would be far simpler as well. It makes sense that would be linked to zenstoic.comments and zenstoic.discussion. All that would be necessary is a conversion from the age-old method of how ISP’s resolve text URL’s into IP addresses.

Next thought; why not organize webspace? Currently, pretty much all websites have more or less the same “access universality.” That is to say, the web is flat. Nevertheless, some sites are more viewed than others as authorities, and there are leading figures such as Google. A more sensible web topography might be to group the academic sites together into a tightly knit web circle, and then the product sites, the service sites, the free community sites, open source software sites, etc. etc. If you want to explore one given sector of the web, you can do that. Then the mainstream corporate sites are lumped together into a “central” webspace based on the number of pageviews. This makes is possible to navigate among only the backwaters and find the real web as a network of individuals. For example, wikipedia qualifies as backwaters by this measure, but the Apple homepage does not. There’s the corporate sector, then there’s the community sector if you get my drift.