Interview with Bill Thompson – Part III – Copyright Law

8 Mar

This is part III of a four part interview with Mr. Bill Thompson, noted technology columnist with the BBC.

part 1, part 2

“Copyright is not a Lockean “natural right” but is a limited right granted to authors in order to further the public interest. This principle is explicitly expressed in the U.S. Constitution, which grants the power to create a system of copyright to Congress in order to further the public interest in “promoting progress in science and the useful arts.” (Miller and Feigenbaum, Yale) UK’s copyright law dates back to Statute of Anne from 1709, which states – “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” Both seem to see copyright as something tailored towards public good. The modern understanding of it has sort of disintegrated into a sort of “right to make as much money as one can”. Am I correct in saying that? Please elaborate your views on the subject.

Copyright started out as an attempt to restrict the ability of publishers of books to control absolutely what they did under contract law and to establish limitations on the period in which a work of fiction or indeed any written work could be exploited by one group of people, and to ensure that after certain amount of time it was available as part of the public domain to serve the public good. So copyright has always been about taking away any absolute right so that the creator of a work of art, fiction, literature or non-fiction has so that everyone can benefit; take away the absolute right and give away in return monopoly over certain forms of exploitation during which period they are expected to make enough money or gain enough benefit to encourage them to carry on creating.

So the idea is that it is a balance – give the creator enough so that they can create more and encourage them to do that because it is good but make sure that the products of their creative output fall into the public domain so they can be used by everyone for the wider good on the grounds that you can never know in advance who will make the best use of someone else’s creative output and therefore it should be available. So, the fact that the early years of the last century a cartoonist in the United States called Walt Disney drew a mouse based on other people’s ideas is great and Disney and his family have had a lot of time to exploit the value in the mouse but there are other people now who could do a better job with it and they should be allowed to get their hands on the mouse and do cool stuff with it. That’s the idea and that is the principle that is being broken by large corporations who see economic advantage to themselves in extending the term of copyright, in limiting the freedoms that other people have because they don’t care about the public good, they care about their own good. And legislatures, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, have been bought off, corruptly or not, and have not been true to the original principles, which is that in the end it should all go into the public domain so that anybody who wants can make use of it and exploit it in creative ways that we cannot yet imagine. In a sense it’s an expression of humility – its saying that we cannot know for sure who will be able to do the best with its work and therefore it is the interest of everybody that it should be available to everybody. That was the breakthrough – the insight – of copyright law 300 years ago. We are coming up to the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first codified copyright law and I think we should big party for it.

The point is that – the point is most eloquently made not by Larry Lessig, who is good, but by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation and his point is just that copyright is broken and it needs to be rebalanced and we need new and different approach to copyright and in a sense it is the one area of law where we actually do need to start again. I am advocate always of trying to make old laws work with new technologies. I think that we should be very cautious about making new laws because looking back historically it does like that today’s politicians are more stupid and more corrupt than those of older days and therefore are less likely to make good laws – that just seems to be the case. Correct me if I am wrong. And therefore we should avoid giving them the ability to screw things up. But with copyright we are forced to. So we have to engage with the political system, we have to make sure that the people who have political power understand the issues and we have to force them to do the right thing. In other areas for example libel laws and all sorts of other aspects of what we do online, in fact the existing legal framework has proven remarkably robust. There have been problems over jurisdiction and problems over enforcement but the laws themselves have applied pretty well in the networked world and we haven’t needed that many new laws and that is a good thing. Copyright is the one area where we clearly do.

Copyright, if minimally construed, is the right to produce copies. This particular understanding is fabulously unsuited for the Internet era where technology companies like Google have a business model based on making daily copies of content and making it searchable. Book publishers, along with some other content producers, have cried afoul. It seems to me that they don’t understand the Internet model, which in a way has changed the whole dynamic of ‘copying’.

I don’t think it has changed the whole dynamic as much as it as exposed another reading of the word copy and made it the dominant reading and so undermined part of ball. Parliamentary draughtsmen, the people who wrote those laws, were perfectly right in using the word like they did; it is just that we have promoted one particular facet of copy. The fact that we use the word copy to refer to the version that is made in sort of viewing a webpage on a browser – the version that is held in the display memory and all those sorts of things – we could have avoided a lot of this fuss by redefining what the word copy means thirty years ago or fifty years ago or just not using the word copy. It wouldn’t have actually helped the larger issue because the real problem with copyright is not that too many incidental acts on our computer systems, on our network are in principle in breach of copyright, it’s the fact that the existence of the network makes it possible to breach copyright deliberately, almost maliciously.

As we talk I am waiting for the Episode 13 of Series 3 of Battlestar Galactica to download onto my PC via Bittorrent from the United States so I could watch it. Ok! Now that is a complete infringement of copyright.
[I reply jokingly – so I am going to the MPAA.] Feel free, I would welcome their letter. I would delete it once I have watched it and I would buy the DVD once it comes out. But Sky here hasn’t started showing it four months after it was on the Science Fiction channel. Well I am not going to wait four months to watch something when it is available. I mean that’s just foolish. That exposes holes in copyright law. It also exposes holes in the economic strategy of multinational corporations who run the broadcast industry in the UK and the US because they just don’t understand the market or what people are doing. There are times when you have to stretch the system to demonstrate the absurdity of the old model and that’s what I see myself as doing.

The US and EU copyright regimes differ in some marked ways. Similarly Australian copyright law is different in its statute for limitations that is much smaller than US. Post Internet, we do really need a common international framework for copyright.

But we do. We have that. We have the World Trade Organization, we have WIPO – the World Intellectual Property Organization, we have the Berne (convention signatories). There is an international framework for copyright. It’s as broken as anything else. We need a new Berne, we need to go back to Switzerland and renegotiate what copyright means on a global level but there is that framework but it’s been caught out by technology.

Databases are given legal protection in EU via its database directive while similar privileges haven’t been granted in US. What do you make of this effort to give copyright to databases?

That’s just a European absurdity which we will realize was a mistake and eventually change. You have a database copyright in European Union and in some other countries though not in United States and it is clearly a mistake. There is growing awareness that something needs to be done about it because it’s not necessary to offer such protection. The idea that you get automatic protection for taking other people’s data and structuring it in a certain way has limited economic flexibility and has damaged competitiveness.

There is always a problem you see that as new technologies emerge to suggest new rights to go with them and this was the case where [we drafted something into] a law before wiser counsels could prevail.

Gowers report recently received a fair bit of attention. The report, I believe, had this wonderful recommendation for handling patent applications. It talked about putting up patent applications online and having an open commenting period. You in fact wrote about the report in your recent column. Can you talk a little more about the report?

Gowers report was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who is a senior government minister, basically second only to Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown hopes to be Prime Minister within the next few months. Because of the way British politics works he can probably manage that without ever getting elected because he would just become party leader and therefore automatically the Prime Minister because the Labor Party is the dominant party in the government.

Brown commissioned a man called Andrew Gowers, who had at that point just been fired from being the editor of the Financial Times, to carry out this report. Andrew is a nice man but many of us doubted his ability to resist the Copyright lobby, to resist the pressures, to write something which would make industry happy, but he surprised us all, partly thanks to the excellent team of people he had working for him at the Treasury in the UK. He came up with a report that wasn’t radical but was sensible and what we do best in British politics is sensible because people can behind sensible. He said some things which were well argued, didn’t give in to the vested interests, and didn’t give the music industry what they wanted.

Unfortunately the Gowers Report is just that – it is a report, it is a series of recommendations which then goes into the government machine and has then to be acted on. It doesn’t do anything itself. We have a political issue here which is that when Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned the report, he believed that by the time it was published he would be Prime Minister, he believed by then Tony Blair would have gone and he would then be in a position to take this report and say I commissioned this report when I was Chancellor and it is absolutely fantastic, now I am Prime Minister and I am going to make it happen. Unfortunately Tony Blair has refused to go and so Gordon Brown has received the report as a Chancellor and has no real power to deliver on it. And so the question is when Gordon does become Prime Minister – will it be his priorities – probably not, will the world have changed- probably, will he have been leaned on so effectively by the very wealthy music and movie industry so that he will actually dilute some of its recommendations –well tragically probably yes. So the timing is all wrong. The opportunity that Gowers presented was for Gordon Brown to say – this is great let’s just do it. Now we are going to have to wait – eight months – and [in that time] things would have changed and there will be a lot else for Gordon Brown to do. So for those of us who think that the recommendations are good are trying to keep the pressure on and keep track of what is happening, have the right conversations and make sure that when Gordon does become Prime Minister, because it looks fairly likely that he will, that he is reminded of his at the right time in the right way so that it can then turn into real change.

The other thing to remember is that a lot of changes that are proposed, a lot of recommendations are proposed, are actually international recommendations. So there are things that will have to happen at a European level or at a global level and so to some extent it is a call for British ministers, for British representatives, for British commissioners at Europe, for British delegates at WIPO to behave in a different way but it will take some time before we know that’s being successful. The report advocates engagement at a global level. It then needs to happen.

Interview with Bill Thompson – part II -Political Economy of Internet

6 Mar

This is part 2 of the interview with Bill Thompson, technology columnist with the BBC. part 1

When I look at Internet there is this wonderful sense of volunteerism. It is incredible to see the kind of things that have come out of recent technology like the open source movement, and Wikipedia. There is palpable sense of volunteerism that pervades the medium. Even Internet companies seem to have, regardless of what they actually do, adopted sort of socially nurturing missions. How did these norms of volunteerism get created? Has technology created merely enabled these norms, as in made it easier for people to volunteer or are we witnessing something entirely new here?

If you look at common space peer production, as Yochai Benkler calls it, – what motivates people -that is exactly the same question as what motivates altruism – it sits on it perfectly. Because what we have with contributions to open source projects like Linux or positive contributions to Wikipedia, is what would be seem to be on surface just pure altruistic behavior. So we can ask the same questions – what do people get in return? And do they have to get something in return?

Pekka Himanen in the Hacker Ethic, I think, nailed what people get in return – the social value you get from that, the sense of self-worth, the rewards that you are looking for – all of that makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think we need to ask any more questions about that. You get stuff back from contributing to the Linux kernel or putting something up on SourceForge. The stuff you get back is the same sort of stuff you get back from being a good active citizen. It is the same stuff as you get back from say recycling your trash.

The question as to whether something new is emerging, whether what’s happening online , because it allows for distributed participation – because the product of the online activity is say, certainly in the case of open source, a tool which can then itself be used elsewhere, or in the case of Wikipedia, a new approach to collating knowledge. Whether something completely new or radical is coming out of there still remains to be seen. I am quite skeptical about that. I am quite skeptical of brand new emergent properties of network behavior because we remain still the same physical and psychological human beings. I am not one of those people who believes that singularity is coming, that they are about to transcend the limitations of the corporeal body and that some magical breakthrough in humanity is going to happen thanks to the Internet and new biomedical procedures. I don’t think we are on the verge of that change.

I think that Internet as a collaborative environment might emphasize what it is to work together and change what it means to be a good citizen but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the debate.

But the kind of interactions that we are seeing today wouldn’t have happened if it were not for the Internet. For example, the fact that I am talking to you today is, I believe, sufficiently radical.

But has it changed anything fundamentally? Ok, it has allowed us to find each other but there was in the 13th century medieval Europe a very rich and complicated network of traveling scholars, who would travel from university or monastery to share each others ideas, they would exchange text. It was at a smaller scale, it was much slower, and it was at a lower level but was it fundamentally different to what we are doing in the blogosphere or with communications like this? Just because there is more of it doesn’t mean it is automatically different.

Let me move on here to a related but different topic. I imagine that the techniques which have been developed around this distributed model be applied to a variety of different places. For example, lessons from open source movement can be applied to how we do research. Can lessons of the Internet be applied elsewhere? Certainly alternative forms of decision making are emerging within companies. Is Internet creating entirely new decision models and economies?

That’s quite a big question. There’s a sort of boring answer to it which is just that more and more organizations and more and more areas of human activity are reaching that third stage in their adoption of information and communication technologies. First stage is where you just computerize your existing practices and the second stage is where you tinker with things and perhaps redefine certain structures but the third stage is where you think ok these technologies are here so lets design our organizational processes, structures and functions around the affordances of the technology, which is a very hard thing to do but something which more and more places are doing. So just as in the 1830s and 1840s, organizations built themselves around the capabilities of steam systems and technologies and in the 1920s they built themselves around the new availability of the telephone, so now, in the West certainly, it is reasonable to assume that the network is there, and the things it makes possible it will continue to make possible. So you start to build structures, workflow and practices, businesses and indeed whole sectors of the economy around what the net does. In that sense it is changing lots of things. As I said, I think that’s a boring insight. That’s what happens! We develop new technologies and we come to rely on them. It’s happened for the past five thousand years. So while it may be a new one but it’s the same pattern. Joseph Schumpeter got it right in the 1930s talking about waves of ‘Creative Destruction’ and everybody is now talking about that in the media but fundamentally there is nothing different going on there.

There is a more interesting aspect of that which is – are some of the outputs of the more technological areas – the open source movement and things like that -creating wholly new possibilities for human creative and economic expression? And, they might be. I don’t think we know yet. I think it’s too early to tell. We have seen the basis of the Western economy and hence of the global economy move online (become digital) over the past twenty years. As Marx would put it the economic base has shifted. We are seeing the superstructures move now to reflect that. The idea of economic determinism is not right at every point in history but certainly the world we live in now is a post-capitalist world. We still use the word Capitalism to describe it but in fact the economy works in slightly different way and we are going to need a new word for it. In that world – we have a new economic base – we will find new ways of being. And we will start to see impact in art and culture, in forms of religious expression. You know we haven’t yet seen a technologically based region and it is about time we saw something emerge where the core presets rely on the technology.

Are we really post-Capitalist as you put it? I would still argue that Capitalism still trumps. The usage patterns of websites etc. still largely reflect the ‘old economy’. More importantly, I would argue that the promise of Information Age has long been swallowed by the quicksand of Capital.

When I say post-Capitalist, I don’t mean it’s not capitalist. If you look at the move from the feudal economy to Capitalism, the accumulation of capital became important. It still remains very important. It is still what drives things. The rich get more, the powerful remain more powerful and indeed those who have good creative ideas get appropriated by the system. We are seeing it happen already with the online video world where now if you create a cool 30 second video, your goal is to monetize that asset and basically you put it on Youtube and try to advertise it – you become part of the system and that this continues to happen. Just in parenthesis, the idea is that we are post-Capitalist not in that we are replacing Capitalism but it’s a different form of Capitalism – its Uber Capitalism, its Networked Capitalism. We need a new word for what we can do now. It doesn’t mean that those with capital don’t dominate because they do and they will continue for some time, I imagine.

In that sense that the network had some sort of democratizing influence is misguided. It hasn’t. It has enabled much greater participation. It may well make it possible for more people to benefit from their creativity in a modest way but I don’t think it will do anything to challenge the fundamental split between the owners of capital, those who invest their money and that counts as their work, and the wage slaves, the proletariat, those who have to do stuff every day in order to carry on and earn enough money to live. I don’t think it will change that at all.

I think your comments are just spot on. It is great to hear comments that show an astute understanding of the political economy of the net especially at a time when one constantly hears of the wondrous impact of the Internet to revolutionize everything from Democracy to Economy.

Yeah. The network is a product of an advanced Capitalist economy largely driven by the economic and political interests of the United States although that balance is starting to shift. We see what is happening – particularly India and China are starting to have some influence, not very strong at the moment but growing, on the evolution of the network. But again India and China are trying to find their own ways of be industrial capitalist economies. They are not really trying to find their ways to be something completely different.

The digital economy, as you pointed out, still largely reflects the ‘real’ world underneath it. Things will change and are changing in some crucial fundamental ways but the virtual world is anchored to the real world. One facet of that real world is the acute gender imbalance in the IT industry. What are your thoughts on the issue?

There have been massive advances, particularly in Europe and United States, [which] are I think two [places] in which over the past 100 years we have accepted and indeed believe that differences [in treatment] between men and women, which existed in many other societies, were just wrong. The differences which are currently enforced on billions of women around the world by their religions should be overcome. This was a historical era. There is no real difference [between genders]; the gender differential is unjust. Social justice requires equality. But it’s [gender equality] a very recent idea, it’s a very recent innovation and one of the last places where it has made an impact is within the education system so that fifty years ago the education system would push the men towards science and technology and women towards art and domestic skills. I think we are just living through the consequences of that in that sort of adults that we have today, in the people of my age now. When I was in school the girls would be glided away from the sciences and as a result technology and engineering were to a large extent male preserves and we are still correcting that historical injustice.

Now, what’s interesting though is that whilst we see that difference between those who build and create the machines, and at the engineering level, we are seeing it much less and less at the user level. So now the demographics of Internet use, computer use, laptop use, mobile phone use and all those sorts of things, certainly within the West, reflect the general population. Over the last ten years I have watched Internet use equalize, certainly here in the UK between men and women, and indeed what research has been done about how computers are used in the household makes it very clear that the computer has now become another household device that is as likely to be used by or controlled by the women or girls in the house as by the boys. So I think at the user level where the technology pushes through in to our daily life that distinction isn’t there anymore. It’s at the programmer level where we see fewer women programmers and fewer women web designers. There are still a lot of them out there, friends of mine, male and female who are just as equally good and astute and capable at coding and developing and all those things but we still do see fewer. And I think it’s just a general societal imbalance that has yet to be corrected.

Interview with Bill Thompson, technology columnist for the BBC – Part I

5 Mar

While technology has become an important part of our social, economic and political life, most analysis about technology remains woefully inadequate, limited to singing paeans about Apple and Google, and occasional rote articles about security and privacy issues. It is to this news market full of haberdasher opionating that Mr. Bill Thompson brings his considerable intellect and analytical skills every week for his column on technology for the BBC.

To those unfamiliar with his articles, Mr. Bill Thompson is a respected technology guru and a distinguished commentator on technology and copyright issues for the BBC. Mr. Thompson’s calm moderated erudition of technology comes from his extensive experience in the IT industry at varying capacities and a childhood that he spent without computers. “I was born in 1960 so I grew up before there were computers – around. Indeed, I never touched one at school.” It was not until his third year at Cambridge University, while he was running experiments in Psychology, that he first touched a computer. He says that in many ways his first experiences with the computer formed his mindset about computers, something that has stayed with him for over 25 years that computers are there to perform a useful function.

Mr. Thompson went on to get a Master’s level diploma in Computer Science from Cambridge University in 1983. After graduating from Cambridge, he joined a small computer firm and then quit it to join Acorn Computers Limited, creators of the successful BBC Micro., as a database consultant. He left the enterprise because “they wanted to promote me” and joined as a courseware developer with Instruction Set. After a stint with PIPEX, he found himself running Guardian’s New Media division a decade or so ago when Internet was still in its infancy. After working for a few years managing Guardian’s online site, Mr. Thompson left to pursue writing and commenting full time. It is there in the field writing and providing astute analysis on technology related issues that Mr. Thompson finds himself today.

I interviewed Mr. Thompson via Skype about a month ago. The interview covered a wide range of issues and given the diversity of issues covered I have chosen to put an edited transcript of the interview rather than an essay styled thematic story. Here’s an edited (both style and content) transcript of the interview.

The technology opinion market place seems to be split between technology evangelists and Luddites. Your writing, on the other hand, manifests a broad range of experience; it reflects moderated enthusiasm about what computers can do. I find it an astute and yet optimistic account.

I am fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities of this technology that we have invented to both make the world a better place and to help us recover from some of the mistakes of the past and make better decisions as a species, not just as a society, in the future. It informs my writing. It informs as well the things that I am interested in, and the areas that I want to explore.

Our relationship with machines was once fraught with incomprehension and fear. Machines epitomized the large mechanized state and its dominance over the natural world. There was a spate of movies somewhere in the 70s when refrigerators and microwaves ‘rose up’ to attack us. Over the past decade or so, our relationship has transformed to such a degree that we not only rely on fairly sophisticated machines to do our daily chores, we look at machines as a way to achieve utopian ideals. Dr. Fred Turner, professor of Communication at Stanford, in “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism” traces this rise of digital utopianism to American counterculture. How do you think the relationship evolved?

The way you phrase the question leads me to think that perhaps it was the exaggerated claims of Artificial Intelligence community that led people to worry that computers would reach the point at which they would take over. And the complete failure of AI to deliver on any its promises has led us to a more phlegmatic and accepting attitude, which is that these are just machines – we don’t know how to make them clever enough to threaten us and therefore we can just get on with using them.

The fact is know that Skynet is not going to launch nuclear weapons at us in a Terminator world and so we can then focus on the fact that the essential humanity of the Terminator itself, certainly in the second and third movies, is a source of redemption. We can actually feel positive about the machines instead of negative about them.

When you have a computer that is around, that crashes constantly, that is infected by viruses and malware, that doesn’t do what is supposed to do and stuff like that, you are not afraid of it – you are irritated by it and you treat it as you would a recalcitrant child that you might love and care for and that has some value but is certainly not something that is going to threaten you. And then we can use the machines. That then actually allows us to focus on what you call the Utopian or altruistic aspects. It allows us to focus on machines in a much broader context, which is recognize that human agency is behind it.

The dystopian stories rely on machines getting out of control but in fact we live in a world in which the machines are being used negatively by people, by governments, by corporations, and by individuals. The failure to have AI allows us to accept that – to reject the systems they have built without rejecting the machines themselves.

And for those who actually believe that information and communication technologies are quite positive – (it allows us) to focus on what could be done for good instead of just dismissing all of the technology as being bad. It allows us to take a much more complex and nuanced point of view.

I think you make an excellent point. I think I see where you are coming from.

In a sense it is where I am coming from which is – I am a liberal humanist atheist. I believe we make this world and we have the potential to make it better and the technologies we invent should be part of that process.

Just as I am politically socialist – I believe in equality of opportunity and social justice and all those things [similarly] I have a humanist approach to technology which is that what we have made – we can make ‘do good’ for us.

End of information hierarchy

11 Nov

Today, people have a variety of ways to explore a collection via Internet as opposed to carefully orchestrated explorations in a brick and mortar museum with a curated exhibition (Tang XXXX).

A curator comes up with a story along with other contextual information about the exhibit and arranges the exhibition so that the person exploring it has only a few chosen entry points and few ways of exploring the collection. Some of the impediments are put in deliberately while others are a result of hosting an exhibition in the real world where the design of building etc. still matter.

Cut to the online world and the user is untethered from most of curated connivances. This in turn maybe a result of the fact that people haven’t really understood how best to present a virtual museum but that is not the point I want to get into. The result of the untethered experience is that these cultural objects are seen in a twice removed setting -e.g. a pot taken from an archaeological site and then photographed and put on the Internet. So what is the result of all this? It is hard to give an objective listing but one can see that some of the “meaning” is lost in this journey of an artifact from the ground to the Internet.

What happens when information that was once tethered in a context or a story is made available virtually free of context over say Google. Is storing information in hierarchical networks or associations obsolete? How do you maintain integrity of information when context-free snippets of information are freely available?

Say of example – once upon a time people learned about history via a scholar who chose carefully the specific issues about history. Today, a teen gets his/her history by searching on the web often encountering a lot of miscellaneous information. I would argue that the person then can come away, from such a scattered exploration, with a bunch of miscellaneous trivia and no real understanding of the major issue at hand. The key idea here is that for transmission of “knowledge” – the integrity of information is of prime value.