Category Archives: Patents & Copyrights

Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use & Where do people find the time?

Clay Shirky wrote an interesting blog post about "The Collapse of Complex Business Models" (thanks to Boing Boing and TechDirt, among others).  Here is an excerpt:

About 15 years ago, the supply part of media’s supply-and-demand
curve went parabolic, with a predictably inverse effect on price. Since
then, a battalion of media elites have lined up to declare that exactly
the opposite thing will start happening any day now.

To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry
Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free,
and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that
users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for
content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will
have to pay for what they watch and use.”

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have
to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a
choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because,
spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we
will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have
grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

With that article in mind, it seems time to revisit another one of his articles, "Gin, Television, and
Social Surplus
" that I mentioned to my friend Amy last month and haven't gotten around to sending her:

I started
telling her about the Wikipedia
article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the
planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of
this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people
are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an
ruckus–"How should we characterize this change in Pluto's status?" And
a little bit
at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the
while–from, "Pluto is the ninth
planet," to "Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped
orbit at the edge of the solar system."

I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to
have a conversation about authority or social construction or
whatever." That wasn't her question. She heard this story and
she shook her head and said, "Where do people find the time?"
That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No
one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the
time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been
masking for 50 years."

how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit,
all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit,
every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia
exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100
million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin
Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but
it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of

Here is a talk he gave on his book "Here Comes Everybody" which elaborates further on the post's topic.

Looks like I need to pick up a copy of his book.

Pirates need to go local, not fork nationally

The Pirate Party started in Sweden and their platform is to reform copyright law, abolish the patent system and promote respect for the right to privacy.  They won two seats in the European Parliament in 2009 and have scored some success in Germany as well.  Membership wise, they are the second largest party in Sweden and their youth group has the largest membership of any Swedish political party.

In the US however, Pirate Party supporters seem to be a fractious lot.  Besides the Pirate Party International approved Pirate Party of the United States, there once was a United States Pirate Party.  Now there is an American Pirate Party, a USA Pirate Party and some time ago I found a third US-based Pirate Party web site.  The Greens in the US had their own schism in the 90's, that was mostly resolved in 2000, but this situation seems a bit much.

While I like their ideals and positions, they really need to concentrate on building state and local chapters instead of creating more national Pirate Parties.  sigh…

Patents Schmatents

TechDirt has a summary of a post by Cog at The Abstract Factory about how software patents stifle innovation.  TechDirt's summary / commentary and the post itself, which isn't long, are well worth reading.  I'll leave a few select bits from the post:

His startup recently got sued for patent infringement by a company
that independently developed a product that performs a vaguely similar
function. This other company's product is much less sophisticated, and
their user-facing site is an ugly, user-hostile pile of crap. The term
"search arbitrage" would be a kind word to apply to this other
company's product. And there is absolutely no sense in which my
friend's work builds on any of this other company's technology.

Now, my friend and his partner have consulted multiple IP lawyers
and they've said, "Yep, the law is probably on your side." They have
also said, "You're still screwed." The trial would take forever, the
legal fees would be ruinous, and in the meantime nobody will invest in
a company which has a litigation cloud hanging over it.

So, this sucks for my friend and his partner. More importantly, this sucks for you,
because, having seen the product, I am 100% convinced that you, or
someone you know, would love to have this technology acquired and
integrated into a major site that you use.

Of course the point of the patent system was so that there was an incentive for patent holders to share their ideas in the knowledge that they would be able to profit from those ideas for a limited duration.  However, as Cog points out:

At any software company with competent legal counsel, developers are instructed in the strongest possible terms never, ever
to look at a patent, because the tiniest amount of documented influence
could be used as ammunition in a lawsuit.

As product cycles shorten and the length of patents increase (now at 20 years, but up from 17 years), the advantage of sharing the ideas behind the patent goes to 0 for everyone.

The Supreme Court may rein in some patents, thankfully.  The Swedish Pirate Party has a "constructive and reasoned proposal" for an alternative to pharmaceutical patents.  For me, I think we should just kill software patents and let the software industry borrow from the fashion industry and force software companies to innovate their way ahead of the competition.