Just Who Is The Barbarian?

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Digital Dilemna

We can now create and disperse intellectual content far easier than it’s ever been possible before. This creates a huge problem in protecting intellectual property rights.

A big safeguard of intellectual property has always been the practical difficulty of copying it. It takes a lot of effort to copy the contents of a book using old media, enough to discourage personal copying except under the most extreme conditions.

Sure, people can bootleg, but with old media, you need a fairly sizable physical plant to do wholescale copying, and if the authorities seize it, no more copying.

Now that copying is infinitely easier, that old safeguard isn’t there any more. So we need new ones. No safeguards, no products.

In-Tether, The Digital Attila?

We had a newsblurb the other day about In-Tether, which looks to be a very clever way to protect digital media. We got the following piece of hysteria about that over at Ars Technica (I would have provided a link, but since the author seems to think he’s got a God-given right to cut-and-paste anything and everything, I just cut-and-paste everything he said. 🙂

For instance, if you fired up an InTethered Word doc in Word, you’d find that Word might not let you use the clipboard (depending on what permissions the doc’s author has granted you). The file might also self-destruct after a set length of time, or it might be limited to a certain number of views (or plays, if it’s a music file). . . .

So basically, you’re locked out of your own machine. . . . It’s quite clear that the primary purpose of InTether is not to grant privacy to end users, but to grant total control over the dissemination of information to so-called rightsholders at the expense of the end user’s right to fair use.

This really rips my shorts. As I’m doing the news tonight, I’m also working on a class project that involves collating a handwritten, medieval Greek manuscript with a typeset base text. . . by hand. It’s tedious work, and it involves going through manuscript pages a line at a time and copying out variant passages. If I could just cut and paste, the project would be significantly easier. If the monks who copied the original manuscript could have cut and pasted, the project wouldn’t even be necessary. . . . Disabling cut and paste in published documents isn’t a step forward, it’s a leap backward.

It is the height of irony that the folks in the publishing and music industries are proclaiming that without such “anti-piracy measures,” we could descend in to a cultural “Dark Ages” as artists become unable to support themselves from their work. Oh no, the Dark Ages was a time when, if you wanted to copy something, you did it by hand. The Dark Ages was a time when, if you wanted to distribute something, you were severely limited in your ability to do so by the constraints of the medium in which the work was transmitted. The Dark Ages was a time when there was only one copy of the Bible in a parish, and the bishop kept it chained in the basement of the cathedral to prevent theft. The Dark Ages was a time when that copy was in Latin, a language you didn’t know, and your only access to it was in a controlled environment (the church) at an appointed time (mass) through an appointed channel (the bishop). I, for one, have no desire to return to the Dark Ages. Sadly, though, it appears that some people do have such a desire.

Let’s look at this:

“you’re locked out of your own machine”. No, what InTether currently does is prevent cut-and-pasting of any and all documents when an InTether document is open. That may be a small flaw (or the document the tester tested just didn’t allow for any cutting-and-pasting) or a big one, depending on whether or not InTether can allow for limited copying or not.

It’s quite clear that the primary purpose of InTether is . . . to grant total control over the dissemination of information.

Nonsense. If you want to copy a sentence or two or a paragraph, just read it and transcribe it, just like you do with a book.

“so-called rightsholders at the expense of the end user’s right to fair use.”

“So-called rightsholders?” They are rightsholders trying to protect those rights.

Cutting-and-pasting is now a sacred right? Inconvenience is now cruel and unusual punishment?

I got news for you. Wholesale copying of material is not called “fair use.” It’s called “plagiarism.”

“If I could just cut and paste, the project would be significantly easier.”

If that’s the case, then why don’t you just scan the damn thing, correct scanning errors, then cut-and-paste to your heart’s content? That contents of that manuscript isn’t copyright-protected. Its text will never be protected by an InTether system. You can’t do it not because of some evil copy-protection scheme, you can’t do it just because nobody did the donkey work before you got to it.

So why don’t you do all that, and when you’re finished, release a text file so that everyone else doing the same kind of work in the future can have a significantly easier time of it?

Oh, you’d want to get paid for all that extra work? Hypocrite. Even the monks got paid bread and water and a warm, safe place to sleep.

If the monks who copied the original manuscript could have cut and pasted, the project wouldn’t even be necessary.

If Rome had nuclear weapons, we’d all be saying, “Hail Caesar.” So? Those monks had some nerve not using computers a thousand years before they were invented.

Disabling cut and paste in published documents isn’t a step forward, it’s a leap backward.

No, it remains just the same; actually somewhat better, since you can search keywords in digital text, while you can’t with a book. But transcribing text from a protected digital book to your own work is no worse than you copying a passage from a book. Not as convenient as cut-and-paste (but I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to allow for some limited copying in an InTether document).

What technologies like this would allow in the future are digital copies of copyrighted materials that will never be legally available so long as there’s no safeguards for it.

So the real choice is not between digital text that can’t be cut-and-pasted, and thet which can, but rather between digital text that can’t be cut-and-pasted and no digital text at all.

So it still is a step forward, and probably could be easily modified to accommodate any legitimate use of cutting-and-pasting.

It is the height of irony that the folks in the publishing and music industries are proclaiming that without such “anti-piracy measures,” we could descend in to a cultural “Dark Ages” as artists become unable to support themselves from their work.

It’s not ironical at all; that’s what would happen if nobody paid anything for intellectual content. What you call that is hysterical, because it will never come to that (see below).

For most of recorded history, culture has been reserved for those who could pay for it, which usually haven’t been too many. Mass distribution allows mass sharing of costs, which greatly lowers the price of individual admission, and not incidentally allows a lot more people to try making some. It thus allows mass culture. Get rid of the cost-sharing, and we go back to the bad old days.

However, what is most likely to happen is one of two things.

If intellectual property finds reasonably effective digital safeguards, in which case, we’ll probably see a flourishing of culture like we’ve never seen before over the next couple centuries.

Or they won’t, and intellectual property will remain with old media where it can be protected.

No, we won’t get a Dark Ages if the latter occurs, we just won’t get a digital Renaissance. As big a tragedy, just not as obvious. Those who make the Internet untenable for digital distribution aren’t just stealing MP3s; they’re stealing that future.

And that’s why I get so angry about this topic.

Oh no, the Dark Ages was a time when, if you wanted to copy something, you did it by hand.

So did the classical Greeks. They didn’t have cut-and-paste, either. Nor did the Romans; their idea of cutting and pasting was cutting their enemies’ heads off and pasting them onto a sharp pole. :).

Nor did Confucius or Dante or Cervantes or Shakespeare or Goethe or for that matter any other human being who lived and died before 1970 or so. Somehow, someway, we managed to invent the wheel and the steam engine and the Bomb and computers and even put a man on the Moon without cut-and-paste. How could this be?

The Dark Ages was a time when, if you wanted to distribute something, you were severely limited in your ability to do so by the constraints of the medium in which the work was transmitted.

(Folks, I beg your indulgence, my inner historian is screaming to get out, because he’s seen better history in Warner Brothers cartoons.)

Actually, when it comes to the medium itself, it actually was a good deal easier handling books rather than the scrolls of classical times. The copying mechanism was also a bit easier due to the development of cursive script.

The real constraints of the Dark Ages were the breakdown of law and order, and the tossing away of literacy (not that it had been anywhere near universal prior to the Dark Ages) as a superfluous frill. It was very unusual for even a king to be able to read and write back then.

The Dark Ages was a time when there was only one copy of the Bible in a parish, and the bishop kept it chained in the basement of the cathedral to prevent theft.

The average Dark Age church probably didn’t have a Bible, and it wasn’t a catherdral. Parishes weren’t (and aren’t) run by bishops, they’re run by priests (who at the time were barely literate).

But in those places where you had a bishop and cathedral and Bible in one place; I’m sure it was chained up, and not because the Evil Church wanted to restrict access. If you made a Bible today the same way, it probably would cost at least $30-40,000, probably more. It would take about a year to make. That’s why it got chained up, if it got stolen, it wasn’t just a matter of running down to the religious bookstore for a new copy. More like replacing a vintage sports car without insurance.

The Dark Ages was a time when that copy was in Latin, a language you didn’t know

Actually, if you were a European peasant at the time, there was a pretty good chance you knew Latin. You just didn’t know how to read any language, but then again, nobody else did, either. If you knew how to read there and then, you knew how to read Latin.

your only access to it was in a controlled environment (the church) at an appointed time (mass) through an appointed channel (the bishop).

During the Dark Ages, nobody wanted to learn how to read. The only people who wanted to teach anybody to read was the Church, and they couldn’t even get all of their own to learn.

This argument starts becoming true for some places towards the END of the Middle Ages, after:

1) literacy began to become somewhat common outside the ruling class;
2) native languages were different enough from Church Latin so as to require translation and
3) people began thinking that the Bible might be a good weapon to use against what were considered (often for good reason) Church abuses.

But all this happens about four to seven hundred years (depending on when you consider the Dark Ages to have ended) later than the end of the Dark Ages. This is like criticizing Columbus for gays in the U.S. military. It’s historically illiterate, barbaric, even. 🙂

(OK, get back in, inner historian.)

More importantly, even if all of this were absolutely correct, comparing the inability to have wholescale cut-and-paste to the Dark Ages is awesomely stupid, unless you think the Dark Ages only ended in 1970.

I, for one, have no desire to return to the Dark Ages. Sadly, though, it appears that some people do have such a desire.

The answer to hysterical stupidity is not even greater hysterical stupidity.

Paul Fussell once said that there are some things that are so stupid that only an intelligent person could come up with them. He was referring to a feminist who thought all sexual intercourse should be banned. If calling cutting-and-pasting the only thing keeping us from a new Dark Ages isn’t in the same league, I don’t know what is.

Makers and Takers

This whole debate about digital content is very simple. The people who make intellectual content think they should get paid for it, and the ones who take it don’t.

Leave aside for a moment exactly what the value of a digital copy of something is, except to say that it’s probably a good deal less than the makers think, and a whole lot more than the takers think. If you think very roughly about half of what “old media” costs, you’re in the right ballpark.

What is indisputable is that we won’t have valuable intellectual content distributed in the long term over the Internet by those who make it if they don’t get paid for it. If piracy reaches a level where nobody pays the makers, they will just stop making, and put their efforts into something that they will get paid for.

Then the takers will whine and moan about something they caused.

If nobody pays for a book, or movie, or whatever, you end up with a lot less or no books and movies or whatever.

It’s very doubtful we’ll end up with no books or movies or whatever throughout society if Internet piracy isn’t controlled. What’s just as doubtful is ever seeing legitimate books or movies or whatever on the Internet if it isn’t.

Just Whom Is the Barbarian?

Do you know why the Dark Ages were so dark?

It was because we had anarchic narcissism.

If somebody wanted something, he took it, or at least tried to. No law or order besides “Might makes right.”

You can’t have what we would call an advanced society built on that. During the Dark Ages, it didn’t pay to make, because you couldn’t keep it. Word would get around and eventually somebody stronger than you would take it from you. So people stopped making more than the bare minimum, leaving everyone much worse off, even the takers.

People spent their time laying low and trying not to get killed. That was a full-time occupation back then, making even the ability to learn how to read a luxury.

The spirit of those Dark Ages lives on in those who truly feel that if they want it, and can take it; to hell with everyone and everything else. The gangsta whiteboy shakes hands with the Goth.

Just who is the barbarian? The person who wants to defend his property under the rule of law, or the person who says, “To hell with any law, I’ll take what I want, and nobody’s going to stop me?” Amazingly, the author of the piece says the first guy is the barbarian. Talk about calling black white.

I don’t think most people who grab MP3s or warez really think like this, but that’s whom you’re sleeping with.

The barbarians didn’t say, “Let’s go tear Rome up and live in squalor for a few eons.” They saw the Romans had a good thing going, and wanted that without paying the price the Romans paid to keep that good thing going.

By the fifth century, Rome was as fragile as Humpty Dumpty, so it took very little to push Humpty Dumpty off the wall. But since they were clueless on egg maintenance, for centuries and centuries, they were too busy beating on each other to even think about putting Humpty back together again, and until they couldn’t even start until they stopped being taking barbarians and started being making civilizers.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

I don’t think so. It’s not hysterical to observe that if the Ku Klux Klan took over America, that things wouldn’t be too hot for African-Americans. What would be hysterical would be thinking there was any real chance of that happening.

But barbarians don’t have to bring the whole structure down. You put a bunch of barbarians together in one place, and there goes the neighborhood.

The Internet can in time become a wondrous world community with easy, cheap access to the world’s creative resources. Or it can remain stunted as two marketplaces: one for the tangible goods that can’t be stolen, and a slum that serves as a “free” fence for the stolen intangible stuff.

Why don’t people live in slums if they can at all help it? Why don’t they set up businesses there? A big reason why is because slums usually have high crime rates. People don’t go there because they’re afraid of being robbed. Businesses don’t go there either for the same reason, and the few that do charge a lot more to make up for the thefts, the risk, and the fear.

Would you say the people who live in that slum are better off due to crime? Like hell they are, they’re usually the victims. Most people who live in slums are perfectly law-abiding citizens, but they pay the biggest price for crime.

It’s the same thing with digital media. To them, the Internet is one big crime-infested slum filled with too many thiefs, and not a cop in sight. So they don’t go there now, and never will so long as it stays like that.

What will this mean to you? It means your children will have to go to the Blockbuster or the music store or bookstore or library and pay more rather than just downloading a digital copy for less.

It will mean people will never get the chance to see and hear untold creative acts, or be inspired to create yet more. The Internet will never get used as a cheap distribution mechanism so long as enough people who have never done a creative thing in their lives insist on it being free, and steal it if it isn’t.

And yes, it is stealing. What else do you call taking something that doesn’t belong to you without the permission of the owner? Publicity? Fine. Let me grab your credit card number without telling you and start partying with my friends. I’ll give you full credit and tell everybody I’m treating what a great guy you are. Send me your number now. No? But why not?

It’s not stealing if it isn’t concrete? Your bank account balances and credit card limit is just as intangible, but you seem to understand those just fine. If I take your number and start transferring some of those intangible numbers from your account to mine, and I tell you that I’m giving you great publicity by telling everybody what a great guy you are paying for these things, would you find that OK, too?

The best you can argue is justifiable theft, which is still theft. Some can make a pretty good case for that, and I’m not arguing with that here. I’m arguing with those who don’t think it’s stealing or that it isn’t stealing if you don’t get caught.

You don’t need an apocalypse to have a tragedy, a tragedy of what could have been instead.

P.S. This is not to say the makers are entirely on the side of the angels, either. They certainly aren’t. Tomorrow, I’ll rip them a new one, too, just to be fair. 🙂

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