Saturday, November 26, 2005

Let's Free Everything

The phrase intellectual property does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, and for very good reason. The phrase is a lie. It turns ideas into land, and allows corporations who own the vast majority of patents and copyrights to control anyone who doesn't serve them. - Dana Blankenhorn
Recently the big content companies have been pushing harder than ever to strengthen Intellectual Property laws. They've already won 95-year copyright terms, the ability to get trivial patents on software and business methods (in the U.S.), multiple distressing provisions in the DMCA, and a worldwide IP regime thanks to the tireless efforts of WIPO. But they still aren't satisfied, of course. Broadcasters want copy protection on TV and radio, and the U.S. Attorney General wants stiffer penalties for copyright infringement. If Open Source is socialism, then we could call IP law fascism.

But as I've said, copyright infringement isn't stealing: the only reason stealing is wrong is that the victim loses something, but a person whose stuff is copied loses nothing. The fact that the theif gains something is irrelevant. Perhaps a more appropriate word would be "cheating": you're cheating the law, and more importantly, you're cheating the copyright holder out of money (s)he would've received otherwise.

However, we should ask ourselves whether this is necessary. Why is it, if I copy something, that the copyright holder is cheated out of his income? What if there were a way for the author, singer, songwriter, programmer, or cast to get paid, without obsessively trying to deter, obstruct or prosecute every citizen who wants to make a copy?

And what is the fundamental purpose of copyright law, anyway? According to the US Constitution, it is "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts". I would further submit that the reason we want to promote science and the arts is to optimize the health of society and happiness of everyone, to the extent that such a thing is possible.

But how can constricting the otherwise free flow of information, as copyright does in the Internet Age, promote Progress? How does it benefit society? Who would disagree with me when I say that it doesn't?

Practically speaking, the way we promote the sciences and the arts is by paying money to scientists and artists. And programmers like me, by the way. Right now, the same copyright law that inhibits information flow, encourages secret source code, and encourages the RIAA to sue teenagers, also provides a way for artists and programmers to make money. At least some of the time. It also pays for
  • Enormous amounts of marketing and advertising, which is economic deadweight;
  • Lawyers to write EULAs, DRM, and other forms of copy protection--more economic deadweight;
  • Lots of litigation;
  • Duplication of effort by software developers, medical researchers, educators, and others; and
  • Lobbyists and campaign funding to help make IP laws stronger.
Meanwhile, it does a fairly poor job of
  • Paying programmers: if you worked on Microsoft Windows, Bill Gates probably got a bigger share of the profits than you did. If you write open-source software, then you probably get paid almost nothing. There are some people who are paid to make free software, but copyright law doesn't deserve the credit for that.
  • Distributing the wealth: am I the only one that thinks there's something wrong with a few people making millions or billions with the help of copyright law, while so many authors make very little money? I suppose that this is considered acceptable due to a "lottery effect"--a tendency people have to glorify winners and not worry about losers, even if they themselves are among them. If it were only the authors of crappy junk that faced difficulty, I wouldn't mind, but I'm sure that my dear readers can think of some examples where quality work went unrewarded.
  • Producing works efficiently: for most books, movies and music, it only takes a few people to produce a work, and once it is made, there is no need to make modifications. However, in more intellectual fields, such as software and medical science, new works are virtually always based on work that has already been done. Copyrights and patents put walls between researchers and between closed-source software developers, so that the work of one person is often not available to others. Sometimes, as when a programmer switches to a different company, even the work he did himself is off-limits to re-use. This results in pointless duplication of effort on an immesurable (but certainly big) scale. (To be fair, it should be noted that a lot of duplication would happen anyway: comparable open-source projects often fail to share code. Heck, I often fail to re-use my own old code, having forgotten about it. I know, this should be a footnote, but blogspot doesn't have 'em.)
  • Your bullet point here.
Until very recently, I supported copyright law in general, because I didn't see an obvious alternative.

But what if we could pay authors, yet allow free copying, as well as the freedom to create derivative works? I saw a proposal recently for such a system. It seemed to me that the provisions of the proposal were too arbitrary, but it got me thinking about the problem.

The proposal suggests creating a kind of "public domain bubble" for open-source software development. I call it a bubble because it would be largely separated from the regular IP system; it would be tax-funded, and "it would probably be necessary to require that anyone receiving funding through this system be ineligible for IPR protection for any of their work for a substantial period of time." I'm not sure this is necessary or a good idea, although I haven't dreamt up an alternative yet. The proposal also includes
  • a group of experts in the software field who would make funding decisions related to the more esoteric software in computer system;
  • a $100 million prize fund to reward important software breakthroughs; and
  • an "Artistic Freedom Voucher", a coupon with a certain dollar value that would allow individuals to direct tax money to any specific artists or groups they desire.
I plan to update this article soon with some ideas of my own. Until then, :P.

After reading the proposal, I realized that there's no need to limit ourselves to software. I realized for the first time that all information could be free: movies, TV shows, music, books, articles, academic papers, computer software, video games, medicinal formulas, the whole shebang. I also realized that the economy could be efficient at IP production, provided that important characteristics of capitalism (such as mass decision making) are preserved.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Digg's blurbs need improvement., like Slashdot before it, is known for cool tech news items and crappy descriptions of them.

Whenever there's an interesting story with an incorrect, unhelpful, or otherwise sucky description, it would sure sooth my nerves if I could click on "Problem?" and select "Bad blurb! Bad!!"

But here's another idea. Diggers should be able to submit alternative descriptions (optionally, with a new headline), and then other users should be able to digg the new description, in much the same way as they digg the story itself (although you shouldn't have to actually digg the story in order to digg a new description).

These blurb proposals could appear in the comments section, inline with regular comments, except with a "vote for this blurb" button. Once a certain number of votes is obtained, the blurb would be promoted to replace the original blurb, and the original blurb would be demoted to become the first comment of the story (where users could vote for it to be reinstated, if they want). The number of votes required for promotion is something the administrators would have to play with, I suppose. If multiple suggestions have passed the threshold, then the one with the most votes at any given instant should be the main blurb. Users should be able to vote for more than one description, if they wish, or cancel a vote if they decide that another blurb is more worthy.

Also, sometimes the link is not very good. For example, sometimes you'll see a story about a specific blog post, but it links to the blog itself, instead of to that particular story. Or, you might see a story about a cool new program, but instead of linking to the home page of the program, there is a link to the download page. Perhaps there should be a way to propose better links.

If you have other ideas, feel free to leave a comment.

P.S. Might Digg benefit from a moderation system?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

UDMA just made my day a little brighter!

The average consumer doesn't know this, but the biggest factor in your computer's performance is the speed of the hard drive. My laptop is an Averatec 3150H, a very likeable machine except for its abysmal hard drive performance. I was amused and annoyed recently to see a review of my laptop that said its "slow processor" was a disadvantage of the machine, but said notihing about the hard drive.

Folks, this laptop has an AMD Mobile Athlon 1600+ running at over 1 GHz, but I also have a 800Mhz desktop computer. When it comes to video encoding (a processor-intensive process), my laptop does indeed run almost twice as fast as the desktop computer. But for just about any other task, the 800MHz machine is always much faster.

For example, consider the time it takes for a program to start for the first time (the delay between when you click on a program icon, and when the program appears.) The time required depends almost entirely on your hard drive. Whether your processor is 300 Mhz or 3 GHz makes almost no difference in that delay.

As I began to use my laptop one day more than a year ago, I had the distinct feeling it had become slower. It was slow to begin with, but it had become slower still. Using my geek intuition, I could tell that something was wrong with the hard drive, but I'm a coder geek, not a hardware geek, so I couldn't figure out what was the matter.

After putting up with it for hundreds of hours, I discovered that the hard drive was in "PIO mode", a slow access mode left over from the 80's, instead of using "DMA", the fast and modern way of doing things. but I couldn't fix it because Windows provided no means to do so. People on some online forums said that it could be caused by a loose connection between the hard drive and the motherboard, a poor-quality cable, or a bad BIOS setting. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out any way to physically reach the hard drive, and there none of the settings in the BIOS screen were related to the problem.

Eventually I decided to search for info again, and this time I hit paydirt. Apparently there's a design flaw in Windows, which causes it to revert to PIO mode permanently after 6 disk errors of a certain type occur. If there is one error per month, for example, Windows will switch to PIO mode after six months. This article explains how to fix the problem. (in one sentence: delete the attribute MasterIdDataChecksum and/or SlaveIdDataChecksum in the key 0001 and/or 0002 in the registry under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Class\{4D36E96A-E325-11CE-BFC1-08002BE10318}, and then restart your computer.)

Now I only have to wait 50 seconds for OpenOffice to start, instead of 75. Splendid!

Update: also, see here.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Ownership of Ideas is Wrong

After reading a certain article a little while ago, I realized something that I never saw clearly before: that all creative content should be available free of charge. Videos, music, books, articles, academic papers, computer software, video games, medicinal formulas--you name it: the world would be a better place if all of this were free. I might have known that intuitively before, but I didn't see the solution to the problem of putting food in the mouths of people who write software, write books, direct movies or compose music.

Now I do, and I plan to write about it if I can find the time and the energy.

In the meantime, The Guardian has an article about the trouble with intellectual property, especially with patents. It's a good overview.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Hollywood's most ambitious bill yet?

For the most part, TV & movie bigwigs have been concentrating on acquiring copy-protection laws that apply to digital equipment, but now they're getting really bold with this new 13-page bill that proposes draconian restrictions on analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog technology. Basically, they want to ensure that copy-protection and the broadcast flag are detected, translated (to digital equivalents) and respected by all conversion equipment. I didn't know this, but there is already an analog broadcast flag standard called CGMS-A and a watermarking system called VEIL (I haven't found much information on the latter), and these are the copy-denial systems that the bill requires equipment manufacturers to respect.

The bill is a bit hard to understand on its own (I might not have described it perfectly myself), so busy people will want to read the EFF's article.