Why is copyright law so weird?

When we came across an old Remington Typewriter in a small curiosity shop in Manchester Vermont (founded 1761), the 12-year old looked at it with great curiosity and asked how it worked. He knew it was a writer’s tool but he was unable to figure out how text was produced.

So I explained how to load it with paper, pointed to the ribbon and explained that simply touching the keys would do very little – this was a classic machine where every key needed to be thumped hard to produce an imprint on the paper. The shopkeeper and the other customers (being older) all smiled at the idea that something so simple needed to be explained.

Naturally, everything imaginable has already been done on the Internet, so if you want to get an idea of what this conversation was like, check out the Typewriter episode of the adorable “Kids React to Technology” series:

One of my favorite quotes is that the machine “…types and prints at the same time”. Many of the kids seem to enjoy the tactile nature of typing but they all agree it’s too complicated.

Reminiscing about the typewriter is not only nostalgia. Understanding the technology of the past is vital to understanding the regulations and culture of the present. Take for example something simple like

Ctrl X – Ctrl V

Which, as most people know, are the keyboard shortcuts on a computer for cut and paste. But how many know the reason for cut and paste is that in the analogue world moving section a section of text could literally involve a pair of scissors and some glue. You cut it out and pasted it into the right place.

This is easy enough but it gets even more complex when we talk about law (or culture, but I am limiting this to law). For the longest time, copyright law did not really need to address private copying because the process of copying involved hours of labor and low-quality final output. Physical reality acted as a barrier to the action and therefore legislation was unnecessary. We have no regulation prohibiting people from passing through walls – the very nature of walls makes it unnecessary.

The problem arises when we live through a period of rapid technological change. The law is, and always will be, a slow mover. Most legislators grew up in worlds where typewriters did not need to be explained. Their understanding of the physical realities of copying were created in an analogue reality.

As Douglas Adams writes in Salmon of Doubt:

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

So what does this mean? Picture a legislator: they are often (unfortunately) older, wealthy men. For our example, picture Lex, a 60-year old legislator. Lex was born in 1954, he was fifteen in 1969, and hit 35 in 1989.

Technology invented prior to 1969 is perfectly natural: Obviously the typewriter, the radio and television were all natural. Email had been invented but most people were more likely to get a telegram than understand what an email was. The hottest new device – in this area – was the fax machine. Mobile telephones were invented but it was highly unlikely that anyone would ever hold one.

The development of technology between 1969 and 1989 was astounding – this era began with the first manned mission to land on the Moon: one small step and all that. But still Lex would be slowing down in his appreciation of technology; he would be able to use the VCR and he may even have considered buying the bulky Macintosh portable introduced in 1989…but the Internet, smartphones, mobile devices and most things we now take for granted in communications were not even in his imagination. Few people in 1989 thought landlines would be disappearing.

Just because Lex is old doesn’t mean he cannot be innovative. However, the lens through which he interprets the world is formed by a set of technological tools that have, for the most part, been replaced completely or been upgraded beyond recognition.

When Lex talks about copyright, he uses the vocabulary of this era but often his mindset is interpreting the words through the lens of his established technological world. To make matters worse, he is probably interpreting a set of laws that were created in the 1970s by men whose technology visions were set in the thirties. Naturally all these laws have been updated and modernized – but their fundamental nature remains anachronistic.

So the next time you are puzzled by copyright law remember that it wasn’t built for your iPad…it was built by people who never even dreamed of iPads.

This post first appeared on Commons Machinery.

Public shaming with technology

A question that has been bouncing around my head for a while, and maybe this is because of an article I’m working on now, is why do people use technology to shame, defame, slander or insult in ways that they would never do without technology?

This is not a new discussion. In the early Internet days part of the answer that was often used was the idea that people felt that they could be anonymous online and this made “bad behavior” permissible or possible.

The important thing about this anonymity was that it was a perceived sense of anonymity as opposed to real anonymity. This caused many to believe that if anonymity could be taken away technology users would behave themselves.

Surveillance would resolve bad behavior.

This thinking created the idea of enforcing real identities online.

Countries like China and South Korea and companies like Google and Facebook have for different reasons implemented real identities online.

Naturally policies and regulations such as these have been criticized.

But do we behave if we do not believe ourselves to be anonymous online?

Apparently not.

Look at the abuse that Marion Bartoli, the woman’s Wimbledon champion, faced.

With tweets like “Someone as ugly and unattractive as Bartoli doesn’t deserve to win” there is a direct connection between physical appearance and physical skill. Sadly, of course, this connection is more common when it is related to women.

What is interesting is that many of those who offered opinions like this (and worse) were not anonymous and yet they were still openly hostile, belligerent and maybe slanderous.

The Swedish clothes company H&M printed clothes with pictures of Tupac Shakur, a 21 year old Swedish woman, wrote to question on H&M’s Facebook page asking why they thought it was ok to use the picture of a man convicted of sexual abuse in their clothing.

As a result she received thousands of comments, she was threatened with, amongst other things, rape, stoning and drowning. The main discussion was whether or not H&M had behaved correctly by not being actively enough in removing comments.

But what is interesting is that the comments where all on Facebook, people seemed to be happily open with their misogynistic, threatening and illegal comments. There was no illusion of anonymity, the users were easily identifiable by everyone and yet this did not stop them.

Bad behavior online is not prevented by openly identifying everyone.

My gadgets and I

Its difficult not to think about digital culture after reading Jaron Lanier‘s book You are not a Gadget. He captures me at once with his discussion on how we are locked into our technological settings by previous design decisions. These decisions may not be the best but they might have been the best at the time. To overcome their flaws we build work-arounds and use more power but at the heart of the system lie flaws which are limiting us and controlling our ability to develop.

The problem, according to Lanier, is that we continued to develop our gadgets and became so impressed with them that two things happened. First we began to think that the gadgets we actually doing the work (computer beats chess player) and not realizing that it was the programmers et al doing the work (programming team & chess experts together beat chess player). Second the popularity of gadgets and applications were not increasing our freedom and development. The iPad & Facebook (just to pick 2) are not freeing us but limiting our choices of action.

Obviously digital culture, web2.0 and social media are not high on Lanier’s list of popular ideas. The hive mind lacks intelligence and the collaboration is all about remixing bits of information without producing anything new. Individuals produce – the hive iterates.

But this is where he loses me. Critiquing the masses for not being innovative or exiting smacks of arrogance – they (the mob) just dont get the sophistication of what the web could be? Sure, we (the mob) are controlled by our iPhones and Twitter. Our communications are not totally free – but when were they ever free? Was there ever a period where the mass was more exciting than it is now? The mass collaboration of Wikipedia may not be producing new knowledge but encyclopedists never did. They are however providing information more efficiently than ever before.

Critiquing bloggers for not being memorable writers is equally unfair as 99% of all writers either never got published or are now out of our memories. Critiquing twitterers for not being deep is also to forget that 99% of all human communication is shallow and pointless (Hello, how are you? nice weather we’re having). The point is to establish relationships (real or imagined) and occasionally pass information of importance.

Sure we are not gadgets and I totally agree with the dangers of the lock-in and the fact that people not networks are the most important – but simply because we are controlled by our infrastructure (as was the medieval scribe) does not mean that we are pawns of our infrastructure.

We are not gadgets – but we may be too fond of them… but thats a different problem.

Read the book its an important addition to our understanding of how technology forms us. Read The Independent & New York Times review of Lanier’s You are not a Gadget

Vulnerable IT Society

The whole neighborhood is suddenly pitched into blackness. A major power failure has killed even the street lamps. Thanks to my liking for candles and mobile broadband I still have some connection to the outside world beyond the blackness but it is interesting to see how vulnerable the IT society has become. I have candles to last the night but my laptop will only manage two hours. People are outside on balconies talking on their mobile phones and even walking outside with torches – or probably with the light on their phones.

An interesting experience not common in the safety first Scandinavia.

Us Now documentary

Us Now is a documentary film that explores the ways in which web2.0 technologies are changing the way in which we interact and thus changing the fundamental roots of society. It’s “A film project about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet”.

In a world in which information is like air, what happens to power?
New technologies and a closely related culture of collaboration present radical new models of social organisation.

From what I have seen so far this is an insightful and interesting film which presents the viewer with many questions about our society. It is filled with interesting people and examples revealing interesting new social organizational forms and asking questions about the way which will could and should be governed in the future. There is an underlying demand for true participation in the ways we are governed.

The film is also released under the Creative Commons BY-SA license.

Here is a blurb from Vodo.net

Can we all govern? Us Now looks at how ‘user’ participation could transform the way that countries are governed. It tells the stories of the online networks whose radical self-organising structures threaten to change the fabric of government forever. Us Now follows the fate of Ebbsfleet United, a football club owned and run by its fans; Zopa, a bank in which everyone is the manager; and Couch Surfing, a vast online network whose members share their homes with strangers.

Check out the trailer:

The top 10 laws of the Internet

In its effort to supply basic education to readers who daily use the internet but may be unaware of its history The Guardian today lists the top 10 laws of the internet. Very nice! Well to be honest I did not know all of them but I have definitely followed most of them.

Here is the list – but dont forget to read the whole article with explanations, examples and discussions:

1. Godwin’s Law
The most famous of all the internet laws, formed by Mike Godwin in 1990. As originally stated, it said: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” It has now been expanded to include all web discussions.

2. Poe’s Law
Not to be confused with the law of poetry enshrined by Edgar Allen Poe, the internet Poe’s Law states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”

3. Rule 34
States: “If it exists, there is porn of it.” See also Rule 35: “If no such porn exists, it will be made.” Generally held to refer to fictional characters and cartoons, although some formulations insist there are “no exceptions” even for abstract ideas like non-Euclidean geometry, or puzzlement.

4. Skitt’s Law
Expressed as “any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself” or “the likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause the poster.”

5. Scopie’s Law
States: “In any discussion involving science or medicine, citing Whale.to as a credible source loses the argument immediately, and gets you laughed out of the room.” First formulated by Rich Scopie on the badscience.net forum.

6. Danth’s Law (also known as Parker’s Law)
States: “If you have to insist that you’ve won an internet argument, you’ve probably lost badly.” Named after a user on the role-playing gamers’ forum RPG.net.

7. Pommer’s Law
Proposed by Rob Pommer on rationalwiki.com in 2007, this states: “A person’s mind can be changed by reading information on the internet. The nature of this change will be from having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.”

8. DeMyer’s Laws
Named for Ken DeMyer, a moderator on Conservapedia.com. There are four: the Zeroth, First, Second and Third Laws.

The Second Law states: “Anyone who posts an argument on the internet which is largely quotations can be very safely ignored, and is deemed to have lost the argument before it has begun.”

The Zeroth, First and Third Laws cannot be very generally applied and will be glossed over here.

9. Cohen’s Law
Proposed by Brian Cohen in 2007, states that: “Whoever resorts to the argument that ‘whoever resorts to the argument that… …has automatically lost the debate’ has automatically lost the debate.”

10. The Law of Exclamation
First recorded in an article by Lori Robertson at FactCheck.org in 2008, this states: “The more exclamation points used in an email (or other posting), the more likely it is a complete lie. This is also true for excessive capital letters.”

Virtual marketing for university course

Since being given permission to hold a course on the Vulnerable IT-Society I have been very busy in trying to market the course. The course was approved far too late for it to be included into the ordinary university course catalog so I have been left to my own devices. Basically I have had two months (last date for applications is 15 April) to make people aware and to get them to apply to a course that has been totally unknown.

The attempts to market the course have kind of taken a life of their own and I think that it may be interesting to write an article on the way in which university marketing may work. The first thing I did was to start a blog on the 23 Febuary. The content of the blog mirrors the topics which the course will address and over the last weeks I have added pages of information of literature, course information, lecturers and web2.0 stuff.

A couple of days ago I started a Facebook group and added information to the site. Actual spamming has been relatively low impact and has not resulted in all too much visible results. Finally I have posted notices around town and at various university libraries the results of this have yet to be measured. At the begining of the course I intend to poll the students to find out which information the students found and which had the most effect on them. My hopes for the course is that it will be a big success even in the number of applicants.

The figures so far (all based on the blog stats)

Total views up until today: 2,890

Busiest day: 248 views (February 27, 2009)

Total Posts: 74 & Comments: 70

Over 250 views of the about the course page

All in all this has been a successful blog but will the blog transfer to applications? And will the applications eventually turn into students attending the course? All remains to be seen.

The Vulnerable IT Society

The formalities are cleared and I will be responsible for a new course at Göteborg University begining after summer. The course “The Vulnerable IT Society” (Det sårbara IT-samhället) will be in Swedish and there is some more information here.

Naturally the new course already has a blog http://techrisk.wordpress.com which will focus on the vulnerabilities of the information technology society. So basically I am looking for students, bloggers and general interest in the subject – but all in Swedish this time.

Photographic film and social change

While in Vienna I saw the surprising and nostalgic sight of two tourists helping each other to change a role of film in their camera. The development of film has been superseeded by digital cameras which themselves are losing to mobile phone cameras. Mobile phone cameras are digital cameras but the camera as an artefact is slowly disappearing. Another thing that happened in Vienna was that I browsed a collegues photographs of the art she had seen over the last year all stored in her mobile phone – no need for a camera here.

The demise of photographic film is a fascinating story beginning way back in 1876 when Hurter and Driffield experimetnted with light sensitivity of film. Naturally early photography did not use rolls of film which I have pangs of nostalgia for but the early daguerreotypes used tricky glass plates consisting of polished silver surfaces coated silver halide particles deposited by iodine vapor (wikipedia).

Eastman Kodak changed all this in 1885 with the first flexible photographic film. This breakthrough made cameras cheaper, easier to use, lighter to carry and the era of snapshot photography was launched. Now the photographer could easily carry a camera and use it on people who did not have to be standing still. The privacy implications launched a major discussion into the nature of privacy in relation to technology. The seminal article in the privacy field is The Right to Privacy by Warren and Brandeis (1890), is still widely quoted.

The move from the heavy and complex equipment to the small, cheap and portable devices show how changes in base technology affect social change. The ubiquitous holiday snaps are a product of these developments. Now that this phase is going to its grave, being overtaken by digital photography, we see new developments. More photographs are being taken and (maybe) saved but there also seems to be an issue of accessibility and use.

If the pictures are not online do we ever look at them?

Fixing leaky legal systems

Too much of the Swedish legal education system is all about learning the law as it is. Attempting to develop a social consciousness about the way in which the law should be is almost frowned upon. This is important if the goal of law school is to produce skilled legal workers (in Swedish I would have used the word hantverkare). This however degrades the ability and importance of the law professional to the level of plumber, electrician or doctor. This last sentence is not meant in any way to degrade the knowledge necessary in these professions but refers to the way in which they approach and resolve problems.

The doctor, plumber, electrician and lawyer see a problem and apply the tools of the trade to fix it. And this is an important task in society. When your boiler is leaking it is important that you can call a plumber who arrives and resolves the issue without re-interpreting the way in which your house is built. But, (you knew that there would be at least one but…) between leaks the plumbers education should have encouraged him or her to think about how and why pipes, houses and people interact.

The ability to fix direct problems should not mean that these professions cannot evolve and challenge the established set of knowledge. The plumber, doctor and electrician all have the ability to change the way in which their professions understand their own work situation. The Swedish legal education system does not promote this kind of critical thinking.

For critical legal thought we must leave the cold Norse climate and look to the Anglo-American legal system. Sure, there are legal systems which promote critical thinking but not as much as the Anglo-American system. And sure, not all Anglo-American lawyers think critically – which is good since sometimes you need a lawyer to be, just a lawyer.

There are a multitude of examples, courses, books, scholars and whole schools of thought to promote critical legal thought or social legal theory. But one of the more enjoyable must be cross between law and literature which provides a mix of deep thought, social criticism and comic relief all in the academic format (not an easy task).

Take for example this article I just came across by Kimberlianne Podlas of the University of North Carolina: Homerus Lex: Investigating American Legal Culture Through the Lens of The Simpsons. (Seton Hall Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law 93, 2007). From the abstract:

The Simpsons is not merely the most successful cartoon in history (and seen in more than 70 countries), but a pop culture chronicle that uses satire to explore a variety of social issues. No subject is immune from its scrutiny, and the law is no different. Though not traditional law programming, The Simpsons includes some of television’s most profound depictions of the legal system, regularly referencing statutes, private settlements, and trials. Accordingly, it is important to understand what its legally-tinged themes communicate about the value of the legal system.
Embracing a socio-anthropological perspective, this paper studies the function, role, and ideology of law in Springfield, the hometown of the Simpson family. Rather than critiquing a few memorable episodes, it employs ethnographic analysis. Hence, it considers every episode of the first eight seasons, systematically recording each “instance” of law, organizing these into themes, and analyzing them with an eye toward understanding the values and operation of law.
Though politicians and media often present a pessimistic view of the legal system, where litigation is out of control and law impedes common sense justice, The Simpsons depicts a system that is just and beneficial to society. The Simpsons may satirize situations prompting legal action, it upholds the value of law in maintaining a civil society and being a tool that citizens use to right wrongs and make them whole.

This is not legal plumbing, this teaching in such a way as to encourge legal criticism and independent thought. No matter what the conclusions of the article, its very existance shows that law schools are capable of producing more than competent hantverkare who can be called to fix leaks.