The Copyright Hub is Launched in Britain

In this post from June of 2014, I argued that the Internet is a reason for the average person to care more about copyright, not less.  The premise of that piece was that just because it’s a right most people will never need or care to enforce, that’s not a reason to allow—let alone get fooled into evangelizing—a weakening of those rights for the sake of Internet industry profits.  And among the many dubious talking points oft-repeated by the tech sector and its network of faux-progressive organizations, are variations on the theme that copyrights are today exclusively a barrier to the “free flow of information.”

Not only do I find that premise philosophically offensive (akin to saying “civil rights are a barrier to the free flow of bigotry”), but I also think it is remarkably non-innovative, especially coming from the presumptive problem solvers of our future.  Rather than take the view that the ideal Internet requires that property interests in data (e.g. a photograph or a musical work) be removed as nuisance barriers, why not seek technological solutions that facilitate easy licensing and other methods of leveraging those property interests, so that more people share in the digital-age bounty other than just the Facebooks and Googles of the world?  Crazy, right? Maybe not.

As Andrew Orlowski reports in The Register, The Copyright Hub was unveiled this week in the U.K., and the principle is precisely based on—get this—harnessing the power of data to enable people to easily identify the owner of a work, the terms of the owner’s interest in that work, and to request a license to use that work according to those terms.  That might sound a little bit like Creative Commons, except it isn’t at all. Creative Commons functions much more as a PR tool evangelizing the vague ideology of the “sharing economy,” rather than providing any kind of transactional efficiency between the creator of a work and the proposed user of a work.  Orlowski writes about the prospect of the Hub …

So what previously took days or weeks to track down and negotiate is handled in the background in fractions of a second, because content has identifiers. By reducing the friction and the cost of licensing to almost zero, lots more licensing should be possible. One can envisage a whole new internet that supports functioning markets growing out of the rancid free-for-all of today’s clickbait-infested swamp.

When big corporations get away with practices like stripping metadata from images or pushing the boundaries of infringing an individual’s right of publicity to the extent that all data, all images, all “content” becomes one big grab-bag of decontextualized—free flowing thought it may be—stuff, this is not only bad for professional creators of works but is ultimately bad for the aspirations we have for the Internet itself.  An initiative like The Copyright Hub seems designed to fulfill one goal of the web, which is to connect people, in this case by fostering respectful relationships through content, rather than treating content like wildflowers meant to be picked at will. And in many cases, these transactions will involve no more than the exchange of a simple please and a thank you.   

Orlowski reports that the head of The Copyright Hub, Dominic Young, views this initiative as restoring the right of choice to the owner of a work, which is, of course, the backbone of copyright.  To quote Young from Orlowski’s article, “Copyright is actually the freedom to decide what happens to your work. Everyone has it. Should people be able to make their own choice about how it’s used? Most people would say ‘Yes’. Should they have a single choice thrust one them? Most people would say ’No’.”

Internet industry practices by the big boys have not only chipped away—if not utterly destroyed—that freedom of choice for rights holders, but they have so successfully planted the idea in a new generation of creators that copyright is a state-imposed, mandatory barrier to freedom, that many contemporary creators have been duped into advocating a weakening of rights that are completely optional in the first place.  The hope is that through efficient, technological applications like the Hub, creators who have, to some extent, given up on copyright may find a renewed faith in their ability to connect with users of their works through interactions based on the idea that permission can still be part of our digital future.

For more information about The Copyright Hub visit www.copyrightdoneright.org

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Donald Trump: A Candidate for Our Times

Years ago, I heard a great discussion among a group of veteran, political journalists; and they were talking about the cliché in which candidates say, “I don’t want to get into a character debate. Let’s talk about the issues.”  Although that particular sentiment was a byproduct of the “family values” rhetoric of the GOP, one of the journalists made a very sound argument that, in fact, character, in the true meaning of the word, is probably a more valid indicator as to how a candidate is likely to govern than anything he or she says about a particular issue during the campaign.  Candidates, he suggested, will campaign on agendas they want to achieve; but given the realities of governance, which is filled with obstacles and unpredictable events, the character of the individual is a pretty reliable indicator as to the kinds of moment-of-truth decisions a leader will have to make while in office.

How that insight is helpful is another matter, since Americans will be as divided on assessments of character as they are on any policy issue, which is one reason I think it’s a shame that we’ve demoted veteran political reporters—those people who traditionally live with candidates on the campaign trail—to the pejorative status of elitist in favor of the more populist platforms of social media.  And so, it strikes me as just a little too perfect that the GOP front-runner happens to be a guy vying to be Asshole-in-Chief of the United States? By “too perfect” I mean that Donald Trump’s present shooting-star status (soon to burn out, I imagine) is a predictable manifestation of what political discourse has become despite living in—or perhaps because we live in—the Information Age.  It’s no surprise Trump appeals to a lot of voters. After all, he sounds just like so many citizens on social media sites and comment threads, who like to make smug, uninformed, and even offensive statements.  Trump is basically a troll.

Okay. Nate Silver beat me to this particular accusation with his article aptly titled Donald Trump is the World’s Biggest Troll.  I had a similar thought a while back, but Silver did actual work, like research and stuff; and so, his article compares and contrasts some of the mechanics that seem to be driving the—presumably temporary—dominance of candidate Trump with populists of the recent past, who have rapidly risen and fallen during primary season.  Silver makes a number of interesting points, but I was particularly drawn to the questions posed in this paragraph:

“Social media allows candidates to make news without the filter of the press. It may also encourage groupthink among and between reporters and readers, however. And access to real-time traffic statistics can mean that everyone is writing the same “takes” and chasing the same eyeballs at once. Is the tyranny of the Twitter mob better or worse than the “Boys on the Bus” model of a group of (mostly white, male, upper-middle-class, left-of-center) reporters deigning to determine what’s news and what isn’t? I don’t know, but it’s certainly different. And it seems to be producing a higher velocity of movement in the polls and in the tenor of media coverage.”

No doubt American politics today is different, though there is an argument to be made that the contemporary tone reflects a regression to the volatility of the late 19th century rather than progress made since the more moderated late 20th.  So, although Silver is reluctant to say whether or not the “tyranny of Twitter” is better or worse than the traditional filter of the press, I’m less inclined to be so neutral on the matter.  If things are not worse, I have to ask why it is that literally every subject—I mean every subject—has become aggressively politicized to the extent that both liberals and conservatives seem willing to ignore any number of technically apolitical realities in order to stand firm in their often futile convictions?  Isn’t that the opposite result of what a “better informed electorate” was supposed to produce?  Every day on Facebook, I see declarations of both left and right-wing outrage based solely on a misleading headline from some dubious source that is predicated on a complete distortion of facts that should never have been political in the first place.

But every topic feeds the circus now, and I guess that’s good for the people who own the proverbial tents, rings, cotton candy concessions, and sideshows; but it should be no surprise, then, when the most outrageous clown in the act winds up becoming the main attraction. Because, of course, Trump is troll-like inasmuch as his obnoxious comments lead serious people to wonder whether he means what he says, or if he’s purposely using divisiveness as a tactic. But this is hardly a distinction worth making because there is arguably no presidential material behind the troll, even if it isn’t an act.  (I mean, you could almost hear the collective spit-take by the Joint Chiefs the day he casually suggested “bombing Iraq’s oil fields.”) But I think Trump is serious about his candidacy, which means he’s technically not a troll. To the contrary, he is a known quantity — a character who’s been part of our culture, for better or worse, for nearly 40 years. I’ve often thought of him as my generation’s Malcolm Forbes, but without being, y’know, interesting.

And this is perhaps the real reason Trump’s polling status is such a natural byproduct of our times:  because he is a pre-digital-age master of what we might today call YouTube entrepreneurism. Trump has been “cultivating his personal brand” since long before the people were born, who now evangelize that idea on the stages of TEDx. His ego has been front and center since his earliest days developing real estate in New York City, and he has nurtured his personal brand into an icon of the American Boss—a cult of personality bizarrely based on the kind of guy you’d think nobody would ever want to work for in real life. Trump’s brand is being one of America’s biggest assholes, a role he has thoroughly embraced and even monetized. He trademarked the declaration “You’re fired”™ for crying out loud.  Trump is to American politics as Kim Kardashian’s ass is to American culture, and maybe it’s working for now because we’ve migrated from the shallow waters of the sound-bite to the dry lake beds of click-bait.

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The Innovation Act is Anti-Innovation

Google remains the third largest corporate lobbyist in the country, spending a reported $4.62 million in the second quarter in Washington, with Amazon, Facebook, and Apple spending a combined $6.07 million in the same period.  Naturally, each company has its own interests—Facebook would like more skilled immigrants in the U.S. and Amazon wants to deliver goods by drone—but all of these tech giants, according to this story in Wired, have urged lawmakers to support a patent reform bill called the Innovation Act (HR 9).  Of course, the names of bills can be terribly misleading sometimes. Because, as far as I can tell, the Innovation Act is fundamentally anti-innovation.

At its core, HR 9 is meant to rid the patent system of the dreaded Patent Troll, who—like its cousin the Copyright Troll—will enforce a somewhat flimsy claim in some constituent patent it has no interest in developing, but pursues the case solely for the purpose of extracting money from an entity that is developing something new.  Even strong patent proponents will admit that bad actors exist—bad actors exist in every system—but that trolls are the exception not the rule, and more importantly, that the Innovation Act is based on a definition of “troll” so broad as to potentially disenfranchise many legitimate inventors.  In essence, the passage of HR 9 would be a rather sad comment on the fundamentally American rationale that established the intellectual property clause in the first place — the assumption that a great idea might come from anywhere.

The central problem with the way Silicon Valley interests are portraying the need for reform, according to Professor Adam Mossoff at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property at George Mason University School of Law, is that so many of the arguments are predicated on what he calls “junk science.”  Mossoff criticizes inaccurate studies of patent litigation, which have led to defining the term “patent troll” so broadly as to threaten a hugely inventive sector of the American market.  In legal lingo, the colloquial troll is generally referred to as a Non-Practicing Entity (NPE), but much of the data used to support reform proposals will define NPEs as “any entity that derives the majority of its revenue from patent licensing activities.”  As Mossoff—and former patent judge Paul Michel—will point out, this would include universities, start-ups, biotech firms—literally any entity that has the capacity and resources to invent but not the resources, structure, or expertise to develop, manufacture, distribute, and market. To quote Mossoff, “…the definition [of the NPE being applied] is so broad that it renders the results of its study completely uninteresting, unremarkable, and predictable – it’s like saying that 90% of people who sue over an auto accident own cars.”

If a doctor has a concept for new medical device, both she and the public are going to benefit faster, in most cases, if the device concept is sold or licensed to a company that already has the resources to bring that instrument to the market.  Perhaps this same doctor will create a business entity that goes on to invent or improve several other medical devices, but which only ever sells the licenses for those products because it doesn’t make sense to become manufacturers.  Why should this innovative company’s patent interests be weakened by the fact that it would be defined as a Non-Practicing Entity?

In fact, where proposals like HR9 appear to lead is to further exacerbate the central hazard in the U.S. market, which continues to favor the massive corporation over the entrepreneurial endeavors.  It puts giant corporations at an unfair advantage—as if they didn’t already have an advantage—when it comes to licensing or exploiting the intellectual property created by individuals, start-up entities, or R&D-based institutions like universities.  Not only does this seem as though it would accelerate the disastrous trend of wealth consolidation, but it also seems to undermine the central, democratic principle that genius may come from the humblest corners of society and should be rewarded when it does.

On this note, I have to also point out that the arguments for this proposed reform to patent law sound a little too app-centric for our own good.  In large part, the aims of reformers appear predicated on software, and other innovations that tend to have short lifespans in the market, transformations measured in months in contrast to patents that last years.  And while I understand how distracted we can be with all the shiny objects that dance around on our little screens—giving us new ways to spy on ourselves for data mining companies; to hook up for casual encounters; to order a car service; or to play games on the crosstown bus—we should remember that there’s a lot of lower-tech invention and development that needs doing around here, even in the computing world.  We still need a greener energy paradigm, still have aging infrastructure, healthcare needs, security issues, outdated transportation systems, and growing concerns over resource management.  The inventions inherent in addressing any of these and other long-term challenges may well be in the minds of people HR 9 would define as future “patent trolls.”  That doesn’t sound like progress to me.

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Orphan Works Rumor Not Helpful

Okay.  A bunch of my artists rights friends and colleagues need to take a breath, because some of you are doing exactly the kind of stuff we hate when the tech industry exaggerates or fabricates negative aspects of copyright.  In the last 24 hours, I’ve encountered a handful of artists rights proponents sharing links and comments proclaiming that the Copyright Act is about to be overhauled, that there is an Orphan Works proposal before Congress, and that visual artists in particular must immediately write to the Copyright Office by July 23rd to make their voices heard on these matters.

Stop.  Breathe.  None of this is true.

First of all, the Copyright Office is seeking input from photographers and other visual artists in order to gain insight as to how this class of creators might better monetize their works, enforce their rights, and more easily register works in the digital age.  The office is soliciting comments in the interest of better protecting creators’ interests, and this July 23rd request has nothing to do with Orphan Works, even if there were such a proposal on the Hill—which there is not.

As for Congress, the Judiciary Committee began holding hearings in April of 2013 as the first step in a comprehensive review of the Copyright Act, and the last of those hearings was held in April of this year.  Congress has thus far listened to 100 witnesses and, as stated by Chairman Goodlatte, “Over the next several months, the Committee will be reaching out to all stakeholders to invite them to share their views on the copyright issues we have examined over the course of our review so far, as well as any others.”  In case you’re unfamiliar with the sound, that’s the proverbial wheels of justice grinding slowly, which is what they’re supposed to do. (Okay, it’s a bit of a mixed metaphor for the legislature, but you get the idea.) It’s also worth noting that the last revision of the Copyright Act took several decades, and the outcome of this review process may not be a rewrite of the law. Hence, nothing is moving as rapidly as your Twitter and Facebook feeds.

The purpose of this review—hence the word review—is not to debate any specific changes to the law, but to assess the Copyright Act in a contemporary light and to hear testimony from experts and stakeholders with differing views as to the strengths and weaknesses of the law in our new technological times.  As such, there is neither an Orphan Works bill nor any other proposal before Congress to amend the Copyright Act. Not yet. Those days may come, and artists and creators should certainly remain involved when they do.

Artists and creators have typically been shouted down or bamboozled by heavily-funded corporate shills and the nouveau-savant within academia, who for various reasons have jumped on a bandwagon of hostility toward intellectual property.  They are the hysterics. They are the ones who cry SOPA every time anyone thinks to protect IP in the digital age. They are the ones who deflect any attempt to impose civil law upon Internet companies by manufacturing a backdoor conspiracy involving a pair of congressmen and a bag man from the MPAA.  Creators cannot afford to to play those games, not least because the antagonists to the interests of creators are masters at exploiting the hypocrisy of others while admitting no such errors in themselves.

Stay involved. Stay the course.  But stay informed.

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The Anti-Vaxxer: A Cautionary Tale for the Digital Age

About two weeks ago, movie star Jim Carrey, apparently in libertarian lather over California Governor Brown’s signing California’s new law mandating vaccinations for nearly all children, sent out an indignant tweet accompanied by a photograph of a young boy with autism that he used without permission.  I realize that not everyone understands the right of publicity as kind of  intellectual property, but I would think celebrities ought to be familiar with the concept. Regardless, Carrey did apologize for his misappropriation of this child’s picture, though not for his irresponsible declaration about vaccines.  Of course, this particular example is, to this particular curmudgeon, the digital age in spades.  I don’t mind that celebrities like Carrey have more Twitter followers than even celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson; I mind if people can’t tell the difference.

The first measles vaccinations were made available in the U.S. in 1963, which means that my generation was the first to be nearly 100% immunized against the disease.  As such, it is startling to realize that people from this same vanguard generation grew up to reject vaccinations for their own children in numbers sufficient enough  to incubate a new outbreak of a once-dead disease. Based on my own observations, this particular folly begins with social attitudes and economic forces that influenced us Gen-Xers as young adults, which then collided with the Internet to turn a minority attitude into a legitimate health hazard.

This blog is largely predicated on the thesis that information isn’t always information, that by expanding the populist idea that “everyone gets a voice” through technology, we have to accept the unfortunate side-effect that we cannot help but legitimize, brand, consolidate, and even monetize proposals so flawed that they can actually reintroduce a plague to the modern world. But as I say, I think the seeds that grew into the fully-formed anti-vaxxer were planted before we all got online. I also believe this is a middle-class or privileged-class phenomenon, so generalizations that follow apply accordingly.

For starters, we GenXers generally grew up to believe that our parents didn’t really know what the they were doing.  The Boomers were the first generation to divorce and remarry in large numbers, so straight away, their wisdom on relationships was questionable, especially the way those relationships affected us as kids. If I may presume to generalize, it seems that many of us saw our Boomer parents as either intellectually dismissible or emotionally dishonest.  And so we Xers entered parenthood distrustful of conventional wisdom, determined to lavish extraordinary attention on our children in ways that our parents had not.   And the market was there to meet us in this ambition with a frenzy of new theories, new knowledge, new products, and new services, the volume of which validated the underlying assumption that we were right about what previous generations didn’t know. There were some well-founded innovations, like the proper way to lay an infant down in order to avoid crib death or the need to use bike helmets and car seats; but there were plenty of unproven ideas, like training a fetus in-utero how to one day master calculus by playing just the right amount of Bach in the general direction of the mother’s pregnant tummy.  Either way, there was a lot of “new” information out there, and a lot of it contradicted the body of knowledge previously referred to as common sense.

Unfortunately, information overload can create an anxiety that one might miss the opportunity to make a wiser choice about something.  And although being a new parent is a special kind of madness under any conditions, our particular anxiety about making “wise” choices for our kids was, I believe, symptomatic of a larger, economic apprehension.  Whether we articulated it just this way or not, I think we instinctively wanted to make our kids competitive in the market, meaning intellectually competitive, but in an atmosphere in which we trusted very few of the foundations upon which we ourselves had been raised.  As such, I have to say something truly unkind now about many parents I have known—that one aspect of the narcissism within the privileged classes that produce anti-vaxxers is a sensibility which imagines the “perfect” child, most especially a child who does not have any kind of learning disability.  Thus, certain parents who had the financial freedom to indulge in the aforementioned deluge of contemporary wisdom on childcare were uniquely susceptible to the rumors that began to percolate in the early 1990s associating vaccines with autism.  Of course, the anti-vaxxer fallacy is a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc—confusing coincidence with causality—for instance that symptoms of autism tend to present at the same time children are given certain inoculations.  Add to this the fact that autism spectrum disorders in general had only begun to be more acutely recognized and studied among the millennial generation of children, and the number of cases can only go up in contrast to previous generations for whom no such studies existed.

Still, my wife and I certainly did ask our pediatrician in those days about the dangers of vaccines, and he responded by describing most emphatically the symptoms of mumps, pertussis, measles, etc. that often precede an early and entirely preventable death. We never openly doubted the decision again, but I won’t lie — being a first-time parent is plain terrifying. My first kid was a preemie and small and used to spike terrible fevers with some of his vaccinations, and it was all scary. But then I began to realize that whatever paranoia I might subject myself to regarding these shots was nothing compared to the incalculable dangers the world had in store for him as he became increasingly independent, that of all the leaps of faith I would eventually take as a father, trusting this doctor’s 30+ years of experience was hardly a real test. We vaccinated, as did most other families, and we rarely gave much thought to the few holdouts whose paranoia, religion, or neo-hippie ideology firmly rejected inoculation.  You’d encounter one from time to time, either doe-eyed and daft or militant and rude, insisting that vaccines were a grand conspiracy; but these individuals seemed scattered and isolated, more likely to cause localized harm than to incubate a widespread health crisis.  Then, we got on the Internet …

Do a Google search with the term “Should I vaccinate?,” and the results are very mixed. Do the same search using Bing, and the top results are a little more skewed toward advocating vaccination, but still mixed.  When I did this search during the measles outbreak earlier this year, the top six articles were all suggesting or insisting that vaccinations are to be avoided.  It stands to reason that when stories are “trending,” there will be more searches on related subjects; but because the search algorithms usually favor popularity with regard to prioritizing results, the apparent consensus on a given issue can have a profound effect on the individual doing the searching.  And because the default is pro-vaccination, it makes sense that more people — even those who will ultimately vaccinate — are going to review articles and sites providing them with rationales against vaccination. As a result, we see a situation in which people are doing exactly what they should do — use the Internet to educate themselves — but are inadvertently legitimizing a flawed proposal that, although it is a minority view, is still popular enough to foster a crisis.

Education is no antidote. To the contrary, healthy skepticism is a cornerstone of education; it is right to seek information that may not jibe with prevailing wisdom. Hell, this blog critiques the prevailing wisdom that Web 2.0 is exclusively a boon to democracy and economic prosperity.  We all have our biases and we look for information to support those biases.  And I’ve read some anti-vaxxer positions on the Internet; they’re generally not hysterical and screaming like Jim Carrey’s dumb tweet; they’re often thoughtful, well-argued, and frequently cite studies and research to support their positions. If I were a new father today reading all that, I would have doubts. As I say, I’ve been there. But there is still the problem that the principles of immunization are proven science despite the fact that the “democratization of information” has, at times, moved the subject to the realm of “debate.”  And because the architecture of the Web tends to reward quantity (i.e. traffic) regardless of quality, this can entrench even the most disastrous beliefs to the extent that the very concept of expertise itself is frequently attacked as “mainstream” or “elitist” or the exclusive purview of “gatekeepers.”

The very real measles outbreak we witnessed in California in the winter of this year is a pretty good example as to how a false idea gains momentum, takes on the veneer of credibility when amplified through mass media, and then manifests in unintended consequences that ought to give rational people pause to consider a fallacy in their hypothesis.  Instead, the evidence of sick children only seemed to entrench the anti-vaxxer view, not unlike the way we saw the murders at Sandy Hook galvanize the community of gun rights activists to shore up ideological defenses rather than participate in the conversation about gun violence in this country. As a result, for instance, democratic lawmakers in my state passed a reactionary and useless gun-control law that only serves to fuel the militance of the opposing crowd. And we see this with issue after issue in what appears to be our increasingly hostile and self-righteous politics across the ideological and economic spectrum.

The word community is thematic among the inventors and promoters of social media, but there is no question that the notion of community is also often subverted by the democratization of information through these platforms.  There is an extent to which the “everyone gets a voice” ethos nurtures the individual sense of civil liberty to the extent that it becomes entirely blind to a sense of community. In fact, I can’t help but find it particularly interesting that the anti-vaxxer in particular will assert his individual right to make the vaccine choice for his child while ignoring the communal responsibility implicit in the science of immunization.  Because in this context, I think about the men who first wrote our civil liberties into law and remember that every one of them witnessed firsthand the ravages and untimely deaths caused by small pox, measles, mumps, rubella, and a host of other maladies.  Thus, I wonder if the Founding Fathers could visit us today, learn that our scientists had eradicated these terrible diseases, but that certain citizens viewed their participation in this immunology as an infringement on liberty, they might not request a copy of the Constitution and a red pen.

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