Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Considering Copyright

"Current copyright law does not merely distort some markets -- rather it destroys entire markets." 

--So reads the final line of a report released by the Republican Study Committee of the House of Representatives that is highly critical of current copyright law.

Are Patents and copyrights Inherently Evil?

The report points accurately to many of the flaws that have crept into modern copyright.  Including the absolutely false notion that Intellectual Property is -- or ever  was -- about what the content creators “deserve” or are “entitled to” by virtue of their creation. Or that the purpose of copyright is to benefit the creator. Rather, the purpose of copyright is to benefit the public: to  “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

Intellectual-PropertyArs Technica heaps further praise: "The memo, titled 'Three Myths about Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix it,' is a direct assault on the relentlessly pro-copyright worldview dominating Washington for decades." 

It is certainly worthwhile to go visit these two linked articles and see what the fuss is about...
... before pausing, taking a step back, and lamenting that even the Good Guys in this controversy proudly display shallow thinking while smugly proclaiming themselves to be wise.

To be clear, I pay college bills for my kids out of my copyrights and patents.  Nevertheless, I am philosophically willing to posit that people should not and cannot inherently "own" ideas or knowledge in any fundamental way, even if they created it in the first place. They have interests, some rights. But those are more constrained.

intellectual-property-lawMoreover, let me further avow that IP law has become a warped thing, twisted by lobbyists to serve the interests of mighty corporations and not the public or progress. All of the complaints cited in the articles have valid points that should be addressed. And yes, the chief villains are those who would use "ownership" to make "intellectual property" serve lawyers and oligarchs, rather than creative people.

Still, I am unsympathetic to those who righteously demand the very opposite, tearing down all copyrights and patents, under the proclaimed theory that we would then automatically enter some sort of Open Source Nirvana.  An Age of Aquarius and infinite sharing and endless voluntary creativity.

Yipe!  I lived through that sort of talk in the 1960s.  And what species do these fellows think they are part of? Elsewhere I have repeatedly proved that I am a friend to the Maker and Open Source movements! But please, don't make it religious dogma. We are practical men and women, with practical problems to solve.

300px-NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1I come close to despair over how proudly ignorant all the righteous people are (right or left, techie or troglodyte) about actual human history. For example, have you ever heard of the Antikythera Device?  The Baghdad Battery?  The fabulous piston steam engines of Hero of Alexandria?  Our ancestors were creative people! Yet, all of those technological advances and a myriad others were lost!  Why?

Until you can answer that question clearly, you will never grasp why patents and copyrights were invented in the first place.  And you should always understand the thing that you want to replace.

Put yourself into the shoes of an inventor or innovator in 99% of human cultures. Unless you found a patron in the king, you had only one way to benefit from your innovation -- by keeping it secret! By scribbling your designs in cryptic verse and murky code, in just one carefully guarded grimoire, in a hidden attic.  Under a floorboard. Only then could you keep customers flocking to you... till the clever blacksmith in the next town reverse engineered your improvement and started competing with you.

Self-interested secrecy was the failure mode that ruined human progress for at least ten thousand years, keeping the process clogged and slow.
human-progresss-secrecyAnd when you and your son died in a plague or fire? Or when the town was pillaged... what happened then to your invention? Do you get the picture?  Secrecy slows things down, and very often means that advances are simply lost. And yes, this resonates with The Transparent Society - should you be surprised?  

A way had to be found that would lure inventors out into the open, eager to announce, avow and declare their innovations!  While pondering how to fix the flaws in Intellectual Property, we are fools if we don't consider how much better things got, when it was invented.

Go.  Read history. Hold conversations with Ben Franklin in your mind. Maybe even read The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?. Understand the actual problem. Then, instead of railing at us quasi-religious incantations like "information wants to be free" come up with another way to keep creative people shouting "look what I just came up with!"  Instead of slumping back into the old ways that stifled innovation for 10,000 years.

Then we can talk about a replacement solution, admitting that it is time for patents and copyrights to give way, gradually, to another innovation. 

Another invention.

See also: People Who Don't 'Get' Transparency and Zero Sum Games


LATE ADDENDUM: Were you surprised the sensible call for copyright reform cam from the GOP's Congressional staff?  Well relax.  You haven't plopped into a parallel universe where the Republican Party is run by adults.  You are still at home in this cosmos. 

"The Republican Study Committee, a caucus of Republicans in the House of Representatives, has told staffer Derek Khanna that he will be out of a job when Congress re-convenes in January. The incoming chairman of the RSC, Steve Scalise (R-LA) was approached by several Republican members of Congress who were upset about a memo Khanna wrote advocating reform of copyright law."  Ah, the world is as it was.


* After-note for authors! If you sold rights to your copyrighted works after 1978, you should be aware that based on Section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act,  authors may cut away any contract after 35 years. It happens that my own very first book contract (Sundiver) was signed in the year... 1978... and is coming due for such a release or renewal right about... now.) It is still a world where you're well-advised to keep informed. Now go and be creative.


UnwiredBen said...

Did you mean "I am a fiend to the Maker and Open Source movements" or "friend"?

Narkor said...

Information might want to be free, but wisdom is expensive.

The future is "open source wikipedia level truthiness" - where there are few "authoritative" sources to cite because no one can afford all the extra leg work (because paying for information, according to freetards, is evil) to ensure that what they publish is accurate.

NomadOfNorad said...

You said at the end of your article "[...] No go and be creative."

I assume you meant to say "Now go and be creative."

And yeah, we all have typos. I've been guilty of a gazillion of them over the years. Particularly in chat. :D

Talin said...

First off, I want to give the full context for the "information wants to be free" quote - it's from Stewart Brand's _Media Lab_, and he says "Information wants to be free; Information also wants to be expensive." In other words, the original meaning is not a manifesto or call to arms, it's an observation on the paradoxical relationship between information and property.

Secondly, I really think that the issue of patents needs to be considered separately from copyright. Let me discuss copyright first.

It's true that the ever-extending term of copyright is a violation of the spirit of the original "bargain" of copyright, but frankly it doesn't affect the lives of most authors or readers all that much. More worrying to me as a consumer is the steady erosion of my *other* rights - the ability to lend, fair use, the first sale doctrine, the fact that (on some devices at least) my so-called "ownership" of a book can be revoked at any time.

As an author, I would think that you would whole-heartedly support my ability to lend one of your books to a friend - think of how many SF fans have been "hooked" on a particular author because of a borrowed book? Yet now that I have run out of physical shelf space and have switched to only buying e-books (which I happily pay full price for, as long as they are DRM-free), I have lost that capability. And I think both of us are poorer for it.

The issue of patents, on the other hand, affects me personally all the time. Like the vast majority of software developers, I strongly believe that patents have become a plague on our industry. Part of the problem is that patents were invented to deal with scarcity of ideas, but in our industry we have ideas in abundance - the typical programmer is constantly inventing and innovating, and most of these ideas go un-patented because there simply isn't time to do the paperwork - but then some patent troll can come along and prevent me from using my own invention! (BTW, I have theorized that the benefit of patents is proportional to the rate of invention, but the *social cost* of patents is proportional to the *square* of the rate of invention - and those two curves crossed a long time ago, at least in my industry.)

For most of these ideas, there's no problem with keeping the idea secret. You see, a lot of innovation happens not as a result of new solutions to old problems, but rather solutions to new problems. I've seen a lot of inventions that were the result of someone responding to the changing technological landscape. As someone once said "When the world was given the gift of TCP/IP, suddenly a billion ideas became obvious." And they became obvious to a whole lot of people - but the person who won the race to the patent office got a monopoly.

Here's one solution to the patent problem I would like to suggest: Require that each patent have a *problem statement* that attempts to describe what problem the patent is attempting to solve. Then give that problem statement - minus the solution - to three experts in the industry. If any of those experts come up with the same solution, then the idea should be considered obvious and non-patentable.

Ian said...

Here's a thought:

1. Impose a per-bit tax on internet data, collected from the ISPs.

2. Allow authors to register their works ("author" and "works" here includes, for example, movies from major studios.)

3. distribute the revenue from the bit rate to registered authors on a pro rata basis based on the size of their work on the number of times it was transmitted.

4. Participating authors would have to agree to their work being freely distributed over the internet.

Ian said...

Here's another thought: radically shorten the patent period - say to three years - but exempt income generated from the patent during the patent period from income tax.

This would, if anything, increase the incentive to commercialize patents while destroying the business model of the patent trolls.

Aric said...

@Talin, you have interesting ideas about patents, the square law and problem statement. I'm only a spectator to the patent situation, but it seems the courts are a problem too. In many cases I guess the validity of a patent is fairly obvious and can be determined quickly, but the legal process takes much longer. This more expensive the process is the more it benefits those with deep pockets and not the good patents.

I also want to add that, isn't it true that a patent is only valid if the idea was not already documented or public? So if you invent an idea you don't need to patent it to keep the patent trolls away, you just need to release the somehow (sorry I don't have more details).

Anonymous said...

The patent office is out of control, or perhaps more correctly out of compliance and over burdened. Patents get approved that allow for deep pockets to simply raise the barrier of entry to a given market. For example I used to work at a laser company (you know who) and was asked to review a patent application. I looked it over and then asked the in house attorney, “are you serious there is no patent here”? He explained that there was and indeed got the patent awarded. The patent was titled “Use Of Multiprocessor STD Bus Computer For The Control Of Excimer Lasers”.
When I explain this to non-technical folk I equate it to “Use of Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles For Short Trip Paid Transport of One or More Individuals”, or “Use of Momentary Push Button Switch to Notify Dwelling Inhabitants of Visitors Via Bell or Buzzer”. It was a patent to use an industrial computer (with multiple processors) to control an industrial piece of equipment. To this day I cannot believe the US patent office granted it. The patent would certainly be over turned in any litigation, but you would have to pay to overturn the patent. Put enough of these out there and the cost to litigate kills time to market, financing etc. I can’t blame the company for doing this; it is the system so they will use every aspect of the system to further their goals.
Patents were supposed to be issued for works of genius and not just the protection of basic trade secrets. My understanding is that, until recently, large industrial concerns would calculate compensation to solitary inventors by determining the price of litigation to overturn the patent, not the market value. This is based on the notion that the higher the appeal the more likely that a patent would be over turned for having been improperly awarded and that the Supreme Court invalidated most patents that came before them. Something has got to change.

Alex Tolley said...

@Ian "Here's another thought: radically shorten the patent period - say to three years - but exempt income generated from the patent during the patent period from income tax."

That would break the pharmaceutical industry as the patented drug doesn't even get to market for well over a decade.

Tim H. said...

Patent law needs to be tightened up, especially with regards to obviousness and prior art, perhaps lengthening the duration of patents might persuade the patent trolls to not fight reform. The period of copyright is excessive, and may get worse around 2035, to keep the early work of an animation studio from going public.

David Brin said...

LATE ADDENDUM: Were you surprised the sensible call for copyright reform cam from the GOP's Congressional staff? Well relax. You haven't plopped into a parallel universe where the Republican Party is run by adults. You are still at home in this cosmos. "The Republican Study Committee, a caucus of Republicans in the House of Representatives, has told staffer Derek Khanna that he will be out of a job when Congress re-convenes in January. The incoming chairman of the RSC, Steve Scalise (R-LA) was approached by several Republican members of Congress who were upset about a memo Khanna wrote advocating reform of copyright law." Ah, the world is as it was.

Paul451 said...

From the main article:
"Moreover, let me further avow that IP law has become a warped thing, twisted by lobbyists to serve the interests of mighty corporations and not the public or progress."

...or even content creators. Past content creators get some limited protection if they are smart enough to make sure they "own" the rights to their own ideas, but the system clearly isn't meant to assist new content creators to see further by standing on the shoulders of giants, nor does it protect content creators from exploitation by powerful near-monopolies. [Clearly, sunset clauses like the one in your addendum would never be placed into law today.]

I worry that the idea of ideas as "property" is so entrenched, the ability of even nation-states to experiment with different levels of copyright or patent has been eroded. I can see a nation deciding that it would be better off without IP laws, except it would become an international trade pariah. Treaties are making things worse. ("Free trade zones" are okay, but "Free idea zones" are forbidden?) But without a place for experimentation, how can we test our ideas, and without testing ideas, how can we get IP "innovation"?

(Turing: "101 thingDV")

Paul451 said...

Oops, I meant your other addendum, at the end of the original article.

Re: Pharmaceutical industry.

A better solution, IMO, for any country with a subsidy system is to grant full or partial supplier monopolies through drug subsidies. For example, here in Australia, we'd be vastly better off abandoning drug patents altogether. Instead, inventors of genuine breakthrough drugs should be made the sole drug in their class to get onto the subsidy system (which is the bulk of prescription medicine in Australia.) For differing periods depending on the importance and price of the drug. (Note, this is after the drug is introduced, solving the problem of delay-to-market that you mentioned.) This period would not need to be set in stone, it could still be challenged at any point by a rival who can come up with a significant improvement. And other drugs can still be freely sold without subsidy, if they are cheap enough to compete.

Much of the true breakthrough research in Australia is also government funded, so not much would change there (except we'd have to reverse the trend towards government researchers being expected to "commercialise" (patent) their publicly funded discoveries, and return to the idea of publicly funded research being for the public good.)


I'd also like to see the length of the IP monopoly reduced for every transfer away from the original creator. This is in the copyright system, for an individual it is "for the life of the artist plus...", whereas for a company and for inheritors it is only the "plus". That reduction should continue, so grandchildren of the original artist get even less time. And each resale/transfer of the copyright would also shorten its life. Movement back towards the original creator might reverse it, so if an artist is able to buy back their early catalogue, it restores their "life of the artist plus..." period, with the "plus" being reduced by the number of years the work was out of the artist's hands.

Same for patents. If the original company/inventor goes bankrupt and has their IP sold off, the patents are reduced by, say, 5 years. Another sale or transfer, another 5 years lost.

duncan cairncross said...

Patent life should be industry related,
Software can be implemented in days or months
industrial design can take years - new engine for instance
Medicines even longer

Having the same patent life for each is wrong

David desJardins said...

I don't think there are very many people who want to abolish all copyrights. It's just that current copyright law goes much (much, much) too far.

Abolishing all patents would be ok, though. That probably wouldn't reduce innovation at all. We would need some alternative systems to reward some kinds of economic activity (e.g., exclusive rights to sell drugs for a certain period of time in exchange for putting them through clinical trials).

Spud said...

I have been screwed so many times by the "money" men that now I do do care to share.

Paul451 said...

I'm wondering how your experience with publishers changed as you became a "name". Did you receive lower rates of royalties, have to sign away more rights, during your early years? Or is the industry pretty standardised, beyond the bidding-war, flavour-of-the-week authors?

Unknown said...

A good data point for the costs of keeping an invention secret is Obstretric Forceps. Kept secret for as long as 150 years (out of fear of the idea being stolen), earlier wide distribution of the tool could have saved tens of thousands of lives in childbirth.

reason said...

Alex Tolley
"That would break the pharmaceutical industry as the patented drug doesn't even get to market for well over a decade."

Is that an advantage or a disadvantage of the proposal? Given the antisocial behaviour of the industry in question, I'm not quite sure.

reason said...

I'm of the view with patents, that they should allow you to own the rights to an invention, but on condition that other people (than the patent holder) get to produce the item in question (i.e. several producers must be licenced to ensure competition in the product market, and they must be independent of the patent holder).

But this is about copyright isn't it? So this is OT apart from the general point about the need (in my view desperate) for intellectual property reform.

Tacitus said...

Bit o' triva:

Hero of Alexandria also seems to have invented the first vending machine. Put in a coin and it dispensed something called "lustral water", probably for use in religious observances.

Don't get me going on pharmaceutical patents. Just.....don't.


Rhinobird said...

Hero of Alexandria did NOT make a piston steam engine. He made stuff that used pistons (for pumping) and he made the useless Aeolipile (a rotary steam rocket).

Mitchell J. Freedman said...

I have long felt that large corporations are the gorilla in the room. Take two extreme examples: Get rid of copyright, and corporations will run wild with others' creative content. Make copyright law even more powerful, such as increasing years of rights even more, Disney wins again (I realize Mickey is also trademarked, so that example is less than it seems).

The Founders, as usual, had it right in promoting copyright and patent rights. Trademark law is something that arises with the industrial age more than anything else.

The beauty of the Internet remains the collective brain and the ability to find outlets outside of economic conglomerates. That is where our focus should continue to be.

And if we can limit the power of the 1998 Copyright Act as Larry Lessig has long argued, then so much the better.

Patrick Down said...

What is the defendants were required to pay the legal fees of the challenger if the patent is struck down. This would provide a incentive for patent applicants to make sure the patent they are applying for is not trivial.

David said...

The three types of intellectual property I'm aware of (copyright, patents and trademarks) all seem to have different purposes and protections. Trademarks are about protecting consumers from confusion. Patents are about encouraging inventors to come out into the open. Copyrights are about encouraging authors to write more.

Your post provides a rationale for patents, but I am having a hard time seeing how it applies to copyright. Before copyright, I don't think authors, composers and artists were keeping their creations hidden in garrets in fear that they might be copied. It seems to me that there was generally a desire to have others see/experience their work. The thinking was that by enabling financial return, they'd be encouraged to do more. Or, more realistically perhaps, with reduced need for other employment, the the good and fortunate ones would have the time to do more.

Do we need the level of copyright protection we have now to achieve that effect? Does some of the protection we provide never translate into a benefit to the creator, enabling him or her to produce more? I think those are the questions that should drive copyright reform.

Those and, perhaps, how do we balanced the increased productivity from compensating creators with the reduced scope because so much of our cultural storehouse remains locked up and unavailable for derivative works. So many of the great works from the past were, it seems, not completely original stories but re-tellings (e.g. Shakespeare's King Lear).

Offered for consideration.

Acacia H. said...

There is an ongoing problem concerning theft of copyrighted materials in the online art and comics communities. Several people and a couple companies willfully steal content and repost it as their own. When called out on it, these thieves will ignore the artist or accuse THEM of being thieves. The ongoing war against these thefts has resulted in using service providers to try and shut down groups who refuse to comply with copyright of art and comics.

Rob H., who attributes everything he posts on his review site and uses Fair Use rules to try and avoid this problem

Acacia H. said...

P.S. - Talin, I love your use of a DMFA avatar.

Talin said...

@Aric, I believe that the patent office requires that the idea be published in an established journal before it will consider it to be "prior art" - simply posting it on the internet or using it in a program isn't sufficient.

Jonathan Andrew Sheen said...

A couple of points, one minor and one more substantive.

Information wants to be free is one of the most misunderstood statements in this discussion. It's not a directive, moral, ethical, or otherwise. It's descriptive. In much the way you would describe one of the fundamentals of fluid dynamics by saying "Water wants to run downhill," when you know full well that water is a mere clear liquid without volition, desire, or agenda, or that "Nature abhors a vacuum," when it has no emotional response of any kind to low pressure, it is appropriate to say "Information wants to be free," as that describes the natural behavior of information. This does, in fact, tie in with my second point, but let's pause here for a moment. Information, unlike, say, piles of gold coins, not only can reproduce itself automatically, without decreasing its original self, it does it automatically. As you've been reading these words, thought that are still in my mind have been placed in yours. (Accompanied by others, such as, "Jeez, you're a pompous twerp using way too many words to state the obvious," for instance!) Reproducing and spreading unless forcibly stopped is what information does, just as water runs downhill unless acted upon by another force.

This brings be to my second point. The problem with "Intellectual Property" as a concept is that it's a model, and that model is broken. It's been rendered obsolete by technology. We could think of "Information" as "Property" when it had to be intrinsically connected to a physical object to be transferred. A book, a phonograph record, a cassette tape, a compact disc, a reel of film, a video cassette, a DVD.... To get the information from point A to point B, to transfer it from one person to another, it had to be physically passed in the form of an object. As technology improved, there were cracks in the model. If you were determined, and your boss wasn't watching, you could bring a library book to the office, and Xerox it, page by page. You could put a microphone in front of your phonograph, and record "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" on a cassette. (I used to do that, actually, with Star Trek episodes. They held up remarkably well as "radio plays," possibly because I'd seen the episodes so many times I had recorded the video on brain cells.) But these were so inefficient, labor-intensive and lossy that they were too rare to be a real threat to the value of the information.

But as information went digital, it became easier and easier, really effortless, to reproduce it, without loss and at no cost. Information was no longer dependent on some physical object to be reproduced, and thus didn't need to be transported. At this point, information started to behave as it naturally behaves. It "wants to be free," so it goes forth and multiplies. Without a piece of physical property to be anchored to, Intellectual Property ceased to be a valid model.

Of course, it's entirely necessary that we work out a means by which creative people are recompensed for their creations. This is a no-brainer! If David Brin has to spend his nights bent over telescopes, and his days writing grant proposals, he won't have time to write any more "Uplift" novels, which is surely unacceptable. We want him to be paid!

But we can't make that happen by trying to force information to keep acting like an object, because that's not what it is anymore.

A new model needs to be devised. I don't know what that looks like, but I know without it, the system is only going to spiral further and further into uselessness that will harm everybody involved.

sociotard said...

To the list of bagdad battery and Hero engine, might we add Elon Musk's rockets? I'm told he doesn't patent them, because then China would just use the secrets and ignore the patent obligation.

And I have no clue how to solve that problem

Acacia H. said...

Fake patent. You create the patent with a flaw in it that will cause the rocket to explode when used. When the Chinese steal the patent and start using it, their rockets start blowing up. Thus they learn a harsh lesson about respecting the intellectual property rights of other organizations.

Rob H.

Carl M. said...

I think it was in Wired: go back to requiring a model for inventions. Also: make the patent office biggerrer. It's one of the few things the federal government does that's constitutional.

David Brin said...

Sean fascinating example re forceps.

Paul Blaze said...

@Carl M. That's a good thought, but it's a little deeper than that. There are a lot of expired and active patents for things that have never existed. This hinders people from actually bringing a practical solution to market because the idea is "patented" even though it never worked before.

With respect to copyright there is an important distinction to be made between copyright on works of entertainment, such as a novel, and functional software. Specifically, in that using a piece of software is very different from having the source code. Regardless, there is data to back up the assertion the copyright has been destructive to innovation in, or at least the preservation of, creative works as well

Ian said...

Maybe what's required is much greater use of "compulsory licensing".

Alfred Differ said...

I'm not a fan of compulsory licensing. That approach eliminates the value of the signal we receive when prices are established for a transaction. Absent that signal, we don't know what something is worth and wind up guessing at it or trying to back-track to it from secondary sales data.

Ian said...

Adiffer: shadow pricing is always a second-best solution but in the face of market failure it can be better than nohting.

Alfred Differ said...

hmmm... I think the failure has more to do with the political influence 'property' owners have than with any intrinsic flaw. That means I'd much rather change the incentives for that influence than change the market itself. There are differences between market failures and political failures.

The signals we receive from prices are terribly important to protect. Without being nosey and asking David how much he gets paid to do various things, I can watch from the sidelines and figure out roughly what the rewards are by how much time he alots to parts of his life. If in my personal effort to succeed I choose to imitate him, I would imitate the alotments and associated behaviors. If I do that and try to get the best deals I can, I have a reasonable chance of success without having to be intrusive. We ALL do these kinds of imitations with respect to each other, but the prices David receives for each kind of action turn his self-interested behaviors into community signals from which we all benefit.

I recognize that there are problems with patents and copyrights, but I'm loathe to touch the signals we send each other. We have to find a better way.

Adam said...

Just in terms of making a living off copyrights, from what I understand some parts of the computer game industry have been very successful at competing with piracy. The strategy used by Steam, and other spaces seems to just be, "make it more convenient than piracy, and don't lose too much sleep over the people who keep going to the trouble."

Apparently Steam's been successful in Russia despite piracy being endemic, so it seems to work. (see )

Paul451 said...

Cassini confirms river system of flowing liquid hydrocarbons on Titan, draining into the Kraken Sea

Screw Mars, this is a real living world, running in an entirely different temperature scale. We need more instruments on the ground.

Acacia H. said...

I saw an interesting article about the inability of the U.S. to pass treaties due to Republican Senators refusing to pass any non-free-trade treaties. It's an interesting bit on how the U.S. is losing its leadership role due to its inability to pass any form of treaty.

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...

hmm... It SHOULDN'T be easy to pass treaties. They come in as roughly the legal equivalent of a Constitutional Amendement. They are the least democratic feature of our legislative branch. Some of the things brought to the Senate for approval have been real stinkers as far as I'm concerned, so I don't mind this too much.

Acacia H. said...

And yet the U.S. blithely ignored and abandoned multiple treaties to Native Americans and the like over its existence. It doesn't sound much like the "legal equivalent of a Constitutional Amendment" unless you of course believe that much of the U.S. ignored several Amendments in the past.

Rob H.

Unknown said...

Much of the U.S. did ignore constitutional amendments in the past. Jim Crow laws, polling taxes and the like are prime examples.

Acacia H. said...

I know. I was being sardonic.

Here's an amusing rescripting of Susan Rice's letter to the President in which she steps down from consideration as Secretary of State.

Rob H.

guthrie said...

Dear Dr Brin,
please read some actual history written by people who know what they are talking about. Especially as up to date as possible. You have fallen into the same sort of trap that arts graduates fall into when discussing science - they don't realise that what they were taught at school is based on poor communication of outdated information.

Basically, the Baghdad 'batteries' probably weren't batteries at all. The wikipedia entry lists a number of very good reasons why.
As has been said, Hero invented a rotating cylinder, not a piston engine. Moreover, the reason it died out was because it was an adventuresome piece of equipment that pushed the boundaries of what was possible and no real use could be found for it. See also Babbage and his engine for instance although I think they might have been able to find a use for it had it been possible to build it.
The aelopile was simply a toy, and complaining about it dying out is foolish because even if it had been compulsory for every town to have one, it was still useless due to its incredible inefficiency, lack of decent energy transfer mechanism etc.

This is an important point in history of science and technology - inventions don't exist in a vacuum. An entire network of support is required to realise them.
See also Harrison and his clocks, which were made possible both by previous inventions of nearly frictionless bearings and his own of things like bimetallic strips.

Your only real example is probably the Antikythera mechanism, which I don't know a huge amount about, seeing as TV shows on it are generally poorly made and don't contain enough information and I havn't read up on it. Perhaps the manufacturing method was a bit too expensive for general use, and you would have required quite well trained and educated seamen to use it.

Regarding the battery idea - one of the reasons people used to find the battery hypothesis attractive was because in the middle east, and central America, lots of artefacts with nice pure gold surface coatings have been found, and people reckoned you could only make such coatings using electroplating. (It was a popular strand of the ancient astronaut stuff of von Daniken and others in the 60's/ 70's)

This is of course wrong, as it turns out that you can make such surface coatings by the careful use of plant acids to eat away the silver and polishing up of the remaining gold. This has been experimentally verified. It is a process called depletion gilding, but just using what plants are locally avilable, as in modern days, we use specific acids.

Our ancestors spent a lot of time watching things happen, and innovated according to need and whimsy. Did you know that the earliest uses for metals were not for axes, but for jewellery? After tens of thousands of years of hitting stone with stone, someone thought of hitting shiny metal with stone and found that it flattened. The end result being shiny jewellery. Not axes. They came along later.

Hank Roberts said...

Nobody should trust a grade-school teacher, but mine (in the 1950s) taught us about a social contract, and part of that was the patent system, which said that the patent disclosure was so anyone could make the thing themselves at home, but only the patent-holder could sell them.

Does that sound anything like reality?

If so -- then home fabricators should only do DRM for more than a single copy -- or fabricate in a RFID tag with the patentholder's electronic banking account -- or something.

Or were they just kidding about that social contract thing? I never did find a printed copy.

Alfred Differ said...

The problem is that we ignore them sometimes and enforce them at other times. We ignore parts of the Constitution itself at times too. When was the last time the US legally went to war? 8)

Treaties are troublesome. When it is in the best interests of authority to enforce them, they do. When it isn't, they don't. Their power derives from us, but we have little motivation to force them to enforce treaties most of the time. We COULD do it, but historical evidence suggests we often don't care.

The power to adopt treaties should be backed by something that gives them teeth, but like other laws where that that connection is never made they make a mockery of the Rule of Law.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. The whole point for a social contract is that it is NOT written.

We only write down parts of it when people don't follow it. Those written parts are called laws and we ask authority to enforce them. If goofy people obeyed the social contract we wouldn't need any of that. 8)

(Yah... I know... There is no way that could happen in a real world.)

David Brin said...

guthrie, I am not interested in conversing in detail with an $%$# who begins with insults and then utterly typifies the exact kinds opf sophistries of which he accuses others.

Hero did a LOT more than send a globe spinning. There are accounts of vast steam propelled engines that used hydraulics to move theater sets and giant temple doors. The dissenters re the Baghdad Battery have their points. I do not consider them conclusive and find it entirely plausible that the vinegar industry of the time would have stumbled into simple shock devices. School kids do it today.

Scads of inventions were lost to secrecy. Ian showed us how obstetric forceps were kept secret by one family of doctors for 150 years costing many lives. Stirrups and heavy plows in Roman Times and gigantic, gear-driven water wheels. Frigging CONCRETE.
But you were rude and I will say no more.

Will Shetterly said...

Without copyright, some people hoarded ideas. With copyright, everyone does.

Stig Hemmer said...

Going out on a tangent here.

Question to mr. Brin and everybody else who makes a living from creating content:

If we lived in Iain Banks' Culture where everything you want is given to you and you can do whatever you want with your time, would you still be writing books?

Will Shetterly said...

Stig, of course.

I should, perhaps, clarify my position: until society cares for everyone, limited copyright helps artists make art. But if everyone was cared for, people would make art for the most basic reason: because people like to make art.

Brendan said...

(Rant) Gahhh! Could everyone please check what they are saying and correctly identify if it refers to Copyright or Patents. I know the confusion started with our esteemed host, but we are an intelligent bunch and should be able to tell the difference.(/Rant)

Personally, I am in favour of a 'Life of the Author'(with caveates for orphaned works) term for copyright. My guess is the Life+50 that was first implemented in the UK was to support the immediate family of copyright creators especially wives and daughters who may have been largely dependent on continuing royalties for their income. That was all well and good for the time, but an anachronism today.

I remember seeing a documentary on one of the Tin Pan Alley writers and it was pointed out that when he was presented with a life time achievement award they used one of his out of copyright works to introduce him onto the stage. That sort of struck me a kinda harsh.

I also make allowances for special circumstances like Beatrix Potter's perpetual copyright since royalties based off her works go towards her trust for the preservation of the Lakes District, which is also where a majority of her revenue went when she was alive. While the perpetual copyright may be a cost to society creatively, I think the use it is put to(which is a different form of societal benefit) more than makes up for that loss.

guthrie said...

I disagree entirely about the vinegar suggestion - you're talking about joining together concepts from multiple different areas for no readily apparent reason, when technological improvement doesn't work quite like that.

Your accounts of vast steam engine thingies needs a "Citation required". I can't find an online version of the pneumatica to check, but

See "Engineering in the Ancient World" by J. G. Landels for more information.

I've remembered another example that is surely relevant - "The Crystal sun" by Robert Temple interesting. It persuaded me that they did indeed have rock crystal lenses 2,000 and more years ago, used them for magnifying things and may have invented the telescope as well. But the knowledge was kept secret because it was qutie wonderful and of some use in the Egyptian Temples for making awe inspiring lighting effects.

Ian Gould said...

"Scads of inventions were lost to secrecy. Ian showed us how obstetric forceps were kept secret by one family of doctors for 150 years costing many lives. Stirrups and heavy plows in Roman Times and gigantic, gear-driven water wheels. Frigging CONCRETE."

The forceps were Sean's contribution, not mine.

But while we're on the topic: Greek fire.

David Brin said...

Will and Stig... a society of plenitude... e.g. Star Trek or The Culture or the world envisioned by Marx and (ironically) tertiary libertarians would provide resources for folks to do as they like. Would I write? Sure! I am above average at it. And my "pay" would be the respect of others. And I would still want the forms of "copyright" that safeguarded that respect. Open avowal of my authorship.

Brendan... "life of the author or 60 years, which ever is longer."

A roman senator used a glass bowl full of water to read with. The clear glass methods were lost. The greatest tech loss of all history! Had we retained clear glass, marvels would have happened 1500 years earlier. Thanks for reminding me of that example which absolutely and perfectly proves my point.

David Brin said...


Neil Miller said...

Tangential question I've been meaning to ask (maybe more relevant given 35 year rule comment): are any of your books available as a DRM-free purchase? If not, is that because it's up to the publisher and not you? And if that's the case, might we being seeing some once you are able to "cut away" some of the contracts?

David Brin said...

I believe TOR has gone DRM free. Check Kiln People and Existence. And be good about it, yes? ;-)


Ian Gould said...

'The aelopile was simply a toy, and complaining about it dying out is foolish because even if it had been compulsory for every town to have one, it was still useless due to its incredible inefficiency, lack of decent energy transfer mechanism etc."

The aeolipile was the basis of the steam jack, which was commercially produced in the 18th and 19th century until replaced by more efficient steam and electric motors.

Brendan said...

David, since you posted the terms of the 1978 copyright act I will try to dicker you down to "Life of the Author or 35 years, whichever is longer." 35 years should be ample time for a company to recoup their costs and make a profit from a dead author.

David Brin said...

Almost all of it lost. And Hero actually published a book!


AMusingFool said...

I must admit, after lots of reading the last few years about things being broken with both copyright and patents, I've been wondering whether either one is still useful.

I get what you're saying about mandatory disclosure, but I'm not sure how much that still helps (I realize that I have a bit of a perception bias here, because most of the patents I see should have never been issued).

Certainly, both patent and copyright systems are broken, as is. The patent system because a) it doesn't scale, b) too many obvious things are allowed to be patented, c) patents are allowed for algorithms (see: software and business method patents, esp), d) the patent office has an "allow patent" default when in doubt, and e) trolls (non-practicing entities) are allowed to thrive as a tax on real innovation.

The copyright system because a) protection lasts far too long, b) it is being used as a stifle on free speech (see how DMCA takedowns are generally used, in practice), c) it is also being used to remove due process (see, esp, three strikes laws which require no more than accusations. Also look at the process of the Megaupload takedown; no matter what you think of Megaupload's business, the process should disturb you mightily), d) too much enforcement is going after non-commercial use, e) registration is no longer required for claiming copyright, and f) the courts are increasingly allowing enforcement of copyright on the ideas behind books/music, when they should only be able to enforce against specific expression.

(I'm quite certain, too, that neither of those lists is exhaustive.)

My personal preference for copyright, at least, would be something like: initial protection would be available for a nominal fee for, say, five or ten years. After that, a regular (and exponentially increasing) fee would be required to maintain protection.

That way, things with limited commercial value would enter the public domain quite quickly, while things of great commercial value could be maintained for a long time. But not even Disney would have enough money to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain forever. Plus, the public would get some benefit out of creations' segregation from the public domain.

I'm not sure what needs to be done about the patent office; some of the problem comes about via judicial capture (CAFC handling all patent matters). Some via the PTO's "patent first, allow disapproval via (very expensive) litigation later" approach to approval. Some via the lack of "independent invention" as a valid defense.

And as a side note on trademark, take a look at how the argument of "dilution" is being used to stifle things that do not cause customer confusion. It might be heading off the rails, as well.

James S Pratt said...

Okay, maybe I missed something, but your argument seems self-contradicting. You talk about how a history of secrecy and keeping innovations to oneself for one's own private benefit held back human advancement, but somehow this is supposed to prove we need copyright?

To my ears, it sounds like copyright is exactly the same thing as the old-fashioned secrecy, just instead of hiding the secrets under floorboards, they hide it in a file cabinet and have people in uniforms take down anyone who is doing something similar. Sounds like the same thing as the old system to me.