the end of intellectual property?

From the conclusion of Adrian Johns’s remarkable book Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates

The confrontation between piracy and the intellectual property defense industry is perhaps set to trigger a radical transformation in the relation between creativity and commercial life. That idea is not as inconceivable as it may seem. Such turning points have happened before — about once every century, in fact, since the end of the Middle Ages. The last major one occurred at the height of the industrial age, and catalyzed the invention of intellectual property. Before that, another took place in the Enlightenment, when it led to the emergence of the first modern copyright system and the first modern patents regime. And before that, there was the creation of piracy in the 1660s-1680s. By extrapolation, we are already overdue to experience another revolution of the same magnitude. If it does happen in the near future, it may well bring down the curtain on what will then, in retrospect, come to be seen as a coherent epoch of about 150 years: the era of intellectual property.

A remarkable book, indeed, but not without its longeurs — Johns likes to tell his stories in great detail, and while my scholarly-completist side admires this trait, my readerly side sometimes wished for less exhaustive treatments. 

But it’s a very rich book full of remarkable events, which Johns shrewdly analyzes. It deserves careful reading by people in a wide range of disciplines, from the history of science to the history of law to political philosophy to the history and theory of technology. I have sometimes thought about inaugurating a Text Patterns Book Club, and this seems like a great candidate. Another one might be Nick Carr’s forthcoming The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. Thoughts? 

Aaron Swartz and MIT

I have one one thing to say about this statement from a MIT professor about the Aaron Swartz tragedy, and that’s that the piece doesn’t say anything. It’s supposed to point the way beyond the big report on how MIT dealt with Swartz, but it doesn’t. It just cycles through some typically vacuous boilerplate administrative prose: We need to “review our practices,” we “were not intellectually engaged,”“ we might have a responsibility to help [our students] grapple with the reality of that power.” what power, you ask? Um, let’s see: “The young people we work with are so extraordinary, and are so empowered by their time here.” That power. Or empowerment. Or whatever.

I bet there have been some really fascinating discussions going on at MIT since Swartz’s death, because the legal and ethical issues raised by (a) his actions and (b) his prosecution are manifold. I want to understand those issues better, and to see how major universities are going to respond to them in practice. Will they try to close down their networks to make access more difficult? Will they accept the legal aggressiveness of entities like JSTOR, or will they try to moderate them? What if powerful institutions, especially those that sponsor influential academic journals, were to refuse to cooperate with the JSTOR subscription model and sought other avenues for funding?

As I say, I bet the conversations at MIT on these matters are fascinating — though maybe not. The one really interesting point in the statement is this:

In reviewing the record for the report, I was struck by how little attention the MIT community paid to the Swartz case, at least before the suicide. The Tech carried regular news items on the arrest and the court proceedings. Yet in the two years of the prosecution, there was not one opinion piece, and not one letter to the editor. The Aaron Swartz case offers a textbook example of the issues of openness and intellectual property on the Internet—the kinds of issues for which people traditionally look to MIT for intellectual leadership. But when those issues erupted in our midst, we didn’t recognize them, and we were not intellectually engaged. Why not?

It is possible, of course, that the community was “intellectually engaged” — just not in public. As Aaron Swartz discovered to his cost, in these matters people and institutions can be quite fierce in protecting their interests. Were faculty and administration at MIT disengaged? Or just wary about going on the record?

In any case, I am sure in the aftermath of Swartz’s suicide that the university’s lawyers have gone over every public statement from MIT employees, including this one, to make sure that they are so anodyne that they might as well not have been written at all.

Cory Doctorow is making sense

Maximal, abusive, mindless copyright expansion isn’t just a disaster for the public, though. It’s also a disaster for creators. There’s this myth that those of us who write do something different from those of us who read, that there’s a fine line between writers and readers, but I’ve never known anyone to use more information than those who create information. The most aggressive copyists, the most aggressive owners of books and acquirers of books and all other media that I can think of are writers. The most aggressive users of the network to research and market, to reach out to their colleagues, to communicate with their publishers, are writers. So even though some writers might think that they might need this, even thought they might apply some Stockholm Syndrome that’s caused them to align themselves with the copyright maximalists that run giant industrial entities that figure that this would be a good idea—it doesn’t actually follow that this is actually good for writers, or for other creative people.Copying creates new opportunities for writers and other creative people that have not existed before.

The talk is in some respects the usual Cory Doctorow message, but very well done. You should read and heed.

Lessig on GBS

A video of Larry Lessig's talk on the Google Book Settlement — and its legal and technological background — is here. The talk is careful and nuanced, as is typical of Lessig, and while it gives me a great deal to think about, it really doesn't help me understand what I should do.


I don't know what to think about the Google Books Settlement, though since it affects me, I really ought to have a position. The Author’s Guild is strongly for it. The William Morris Agency is strongly against it. Professors at the University of California accept the general outlines but suggest some changes. What “may be the most fundamental challenge to the settlement yet” comes from this attorney. My own agent, the fabulous Christy Fletcher, is leaving it up to me. I’ve got sixteen days to decide whether or not to opt out.

the good old days

Charlie Stross:

As for the intellectual property, I try not to get too worked up about it. There’s a lot of people angsting about piracy and copying of stuff on the Internet, publishers who are very, very worried about the whole idea of ebook piracy. I like to get a little bit of perspective on it by remembering that back before the Internet came along, we had a very special term for the people who buy a single copy of a book and then allow all their friends to read it for free. We called them librarians.

(Via Jessamyn.)

first they came for the readers of pro-choice literature

Concerning the whole deleted-books-from-your-Kindle imbroglio, Sam Jordison writes in the Guardian:

This early Kindle book-burning episode also provides a reminder of how closely ebook devices monitor their users' reading. And that provokes quite a few questions. What's to stop advertisers paying to find out about your preferences, for instance? What's to stop churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area? What's to stop governments finding out about your revolutionary reading preferences?

Now, Jordison later grants that these “sinister manipulations . . . are improbable” — though “not entirely impossible” — and as a great believer in the right to hyperbole I won't give him a hard time about that. I won't even say anything about the palpably ludicrous notion that this is a form of “book-burning.” But: “churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area”? Seriously? You think your local churches are scheming to find out what people in the neighborhood are reading? (What are you supposing they wold do if they found out — have you stretched on the rack, perhaps? Or pressed to death with stones?) And you envision churches asking for Amazon’s help in this endeavor? And Amazon perhaps agreeing to cooperate? — Okay, okay, okay: hyperbole it is. But even if you’re going to speculate about the most outrageous improbabilities imaginable, what you come up with is “churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area”? Really??

the Kindle saga, part . . . um, whatever

I have already related the lamentable tale of the loss of my Kindle. I now have an update. I didn't buy that Kindle with my own money: there’s a very generous research budget associated with the chair I currently hold at Wheaton which I used for that purchase, and I recently learned that the college’s insurance covers the loss. Which allows me to get a replacement. So I did. My Kindle 2 arrived a couple of weeks ago, in a much more compact package than the original had. I opened the box, pulled the clean new thing out, and . . . dropped it on my hardwood floor. Yep. Before I had even turned it on. The original Kindle had a rubberized back that made it easy to grip. I knew that the Kindle 2 was differently constructed — though I didn't know exactly how — but I think that at that first opening I was subconsciously handling it the way I handled its predecessor. Which, it turned out, wasn’t firmly enough. I picked it up, plugged it in, turned it on . . . and yes, the screen was damaged. Just in the upper-right-hand corner. The wonky area is small enough that it doesn't prevent me from reading any text, though, as I quickly discovered, it keeps me from seeing my battery charge. I looked into my options, and decided that the second-cheapest one would be to buy a two-year extended warranty for $65, which allows for one exchange of a Kindle you;ve damaged. I can do that if I’ve had the machine for less than thirty days — so it’s actually still a possibility. But I’m not going to do it. Even though it wasn’t my money per se, I’ve now given Amazon nearly eight hundred bucks for Kindles, and that’s enough. I can use the one I have perfectly well — though, as I have noted in earlier posts, I’m not as enamored of the thing as I once was, and the DRM issues are making me increasingly itchy. Incidentally, while the Kindle 2 is an improvement in some ways — better resolution, a more logical way of putting it to sleep and waking it, etc. — I find it more awkward to handle. I really miss the rubberized back, and would even if I hadn’t dropped the damned thing.