Copyright and the Social Contract

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent. It’s a somewhat fleshed out and more rounded version of this essay.]

Since the arrival of the Internet, there’s been unceasing talk about the imminent demise of traditional publishing models (especially newspapers), the subversive effect of ‘free’ online content and the purported damage done by Peer to Peer ‘pirates’ sharing music, movies and other creative works. At the centre of all this debate over the imbalance that new technology has created between creator and consumer is the oft-ignored conclusion that copyright as a regime for encouraging creativity in modern society is simply unworkable on the Internet.

Pundits, lawyers and media distributors the world over continue fighting the tide, thinking they can shape the Internet to match their expectations concerning copyright. Instead, they should be shaping their expectations to match the Internet.

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Creativity and the Social Contract

Tangled up amidst all the talk about the imminent demise of newspapers, the subversive effect of Free, the purported damage done by Peer to Peer ‘leeches’ and various other riffs on the imbalance that new technology has created between creator and consumer is the often unexamined conclusion that copyright as a regime for encouraging creativity in modern society is simply unworkable on the Internet.

That leaves us with two options: We can continue to tinker with copyright, attempting to redefine fair use, to place reasonable penalties (or at least disincentives) on unauthorised copying… ultimately, to renegotiate the compromise that lies at the heart of the concept.

That’s a commendable, fundamentally reasonable approach that unfortunately ignores the fact that digital information is immune to copyright enforcement. The practical ‘right’ to make copies is the very essence of digital technology. Its usefulness is predicated on the fact that data is infinitely mutable and that copies cost as close to nothing as makes no difference. To pretend that we can place anything more than voluntary limits on this capability is dangerously naive.

Alternatively, we can scrap copyright, go back to first principles and examine in detail what the rights of the creator really are.

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Selling Democracy – ctd.

Farhad Manjoo says the Revolution will not be digitised. His recent Slate column, subtitled “How the Internet helps Iran silence activists” makes the obvious point that technology makes all aspects of communications easier – even the unpleasant ones. But his simplistic analysis misses the import of his own observation.

The key to all this is his failure to distinguish between the network and the protocol. Manjoo says that the Internet helps Iran’s repressive efforts. That’s not true, at least not nearly to the extent he thinks. The network – the physical infrastructure of cables, switching and routing equipment, is what’s trapping people right now. If it weren’t for the end-to-end nature of the software protocols that make up what we conveniently call the Internet, little if any news at all would have emerged from Iran.

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Selling Democracy by the Byte

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent. Updated and edited slightly from the original print version.]

Thirty years after the Revolution, the June 12th Iranian presidential elections seem to have catalysed a transformational moment in the nation’s history. One Western commentator writes:

The widespread, sustained, peaceful and courageous demonstrations by Iranians this week has been an astonishing and inspiring sight. In a way this feels like the anti-9/11.

Analysts have suggested that the rapid rise in popularity of moderate candidate Mir-Hosain Mousavi caught the theocratic regime’s leaders flat-footed. Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute and long-time commentator on Middle-East affairs, writes:

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning. Mousavi’s spokesman abroad, filmmaker Mohsen Makhbalbaf, alleges that the ministry even contacted Mousavi’s camp and said it would begin preparing the population for this victory.

The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose.

They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts.

His narrative is, he admits, largely speculative.

The result, witnessed through countless independent blog posts, photos and videos, has been massive, occasionally violent protest in the streets of the capital Tehran and, according to reports, in Tabriz, Mashad, Shiraz and Rasht as well.

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[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

In Parliament, Speaker George Wells is ousted by his own party and VRP leader Maxime Carlot Korman takes his place.

On one short stretch of road in the Freswota neighbourhood alone, one passes no less than 4 small churches.

Not far away, in the bandstand in Freswota Park, a homeless woman, 8 months pregnant, sleeps with her 1-year-old child.

Each of these fragments, taken on its own, paints a curious picture. Piece them together, though, and we begin to understand the corner of the world we live in.

Since Independence, the number of political parties has steadily increased. Likewise the number of independent candidates. Factionalism within the parties continues unchecked. This phenomenon has been documented, studied and commented at length.

Our churches are following a similar trajectory. A pet hypothesis of mine is that the increase in the number and variety of churches (mostly inspired by American Pentecostalism) over the last few decades runs almost perfectly parallel to the number and variety of political groupings.

I suspect that the cause of each trend is the same: Vanuatu society is inherently anti-institutional. Once compelling outside forces are removed from the equation, it tends to look inward, to family first, and then to community.

Some commentators see this as a bad thing. I don’t. Not necessarily.

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Go With the Flow

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

NOTE: In a small place such as Vanuatu, it often happens that one has to wear a number of different hats. I work as an IT consultant, offering advice and information to clients in the private, public and civil society sectors. I am also a writer and photographer. I volunteer some of my time to help with local IT projects, and I serve as interim secretary of the Vanuatu IT Users Society. This column is written under those auspices, but from time to time my professional work bleeds into the area of advocacy and awareness-raising. In cases where I have a professional involvement or interest in a particular issue, I will make that clear within the text of the column.

No writer is free from bias. This is especially true of columnists. While I make every effort to ensure that any facts and statements appearing in this space are properly corroborated, I reserve the right to interpret them according to my own experience, judgement and insight. It’s my job to have an opinion. Unless I state otherwise, the views expressed here are my own.

Knowledge is power.

Everyone knows that expression, and many of us have to grapple with its practical implications every day. When we’re tracking down the person who knows how a particular thing works, digging through arcane data in order to become the person who knows, or whether we’re trying to pry special knowledge loose from a reluctant source, we find ourselves operating in an economy of scarcity.

When we trade in knowledge, we also rely on its scarcity to determine its value. If we have a juicy piece of gossip about someone, we don’t tell it to everyone and their dog. Instead, we parse our words and choose our confidants carefully, sometimes teasing them with partial revelation.

Let’s reformulate that initial statement, then:

Scarce knowledge is power.

If we follow the logic of that sentence, we are prone to conclude that widespread knowledge is therefore valueless. In the cash economy, if there’s too much money floating around, we experience inflation. Dollars lose their value because everyone has them. This has led some barstool philosophers to conclude that opinions, too, are of little value because ‘everyone’s got one.’

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40 Dei Ramble

I ran into Peter Walker and Jo Dorras, the founders of Wan Smolbag Theatre company, in town yesterday. They stopped and thanked me for the review I wrote about 40 Dei, their latest stage production. As she turned to leave, Jo said, “Nobody’s ever written that kind of a review on us before.”

Public commentators in Vanuatu don’t write nearly often enough about Wan Smolbag. Even when they do, their description of the work and its effect tend to fit them into the ‘development NGO’ straitjacket. That’s not entirely inaccurate, of course; Smolbag is a development NGO. But such descriptions are incomplete.

Woefully so, in my opinion. Once understood, the reasons for this misperception explain a great deal about the failures of many formal development programmes. (That’s programmes, mind you, not projects. But that’s an essay for another day.) The problem, ultimately, is our human incapacity to quantify, or even adequately to analyse, certain cultural inputs.

Now, given that Smolbag has been working with the softer tools of drama, dialogue, understanding and community awareness for twenty years, they’ve got the issue pretty well sussed. At least innately. If there are still tensions between what they want to do and what donors are willing to fund, they’re manageable, and it must be said that, from top to bottom, Smolbag staff know what they’re about. They’re are as good at demonstrating the value of their work to donors, partners and the public as anyone I’ve encountered in a couple of decades of part- and full-time advocacy work.

But the preceding is really just a digression – I need to say a few things about Wan Smolbag as an artistic institution, and the only way to get there is to indulge in a deliberate bit of hand-waving that runs the risk of belittling the dozens of non-theatrical activities they manage. There’s a small mountain of data out there expressing in very finite terms just how effective this group is.

My point, I guess, is that no matter how good that makes them – and they are very good indeed – there’s more to it than that. And that’s what I want to write about today.

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The Devil at our Shoulder

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

ABOUT THIS SHOW: 40 Dei plays at Wan Smolbag Haos in Tagabe on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The show starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are 50 vatu for adults, students and children. Because of its popularity, attendees should arrive at least one hour before show time to be guaranteed seating.

The thematic heart of 40 Dei (40 Days), Wan Smolbag’s powerful new play, is the story of Jesus’ 40 days of suffering and temptation in the desert. With Satan constantly at his side, Jesus fasted, contemplated and steadfastly resisted the Devil’s threats and inducements. Even in the extremities of suffering, he accepted his humanity, refusing assistance either from above or below.

As the New Testament tells it, Jesus embarked on this pilgrimage of suffering immediately after his baptism. It was, in a sense, his preparation to enter into the world. We first meet Matthew, the protagonist in Jo Dorras’ stark, deeply probing script, as he emerges from his own moral desert, a wasted youth of faithlessness, drinking and violence.

Lying on the roadside, bloody, filthy, half-clothed, Matthew presents a repulsive figure. Only Lei, a pastor’s daughter, sees him for what he is – a lost soul. Ignoring imprecations to leave this filth, this ‘doti blong taon’ where he lies, she instead recalls the parable of the Good Samaritan to her father.

Matthew awakes from his stupor to a vision of love – a beautiful young woman beside him, joyous music and light emerging from a nearby chapel. He is transformed, and decides at that moment to leave his errant past behind, to seek redemption and salvation.

But as with Jesus in the desert, the Devil is always at his side. And Matthew is human, all too human. Beset by difficulties, he tries to navigate the narrow passage between hypocritical moral rectitude and the nihilistic, hopeless existence of his young friends.

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Masters of our own Domain

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on contract to assist the Interim Telecommunications Regulator in conducting a consultation seeking public input on how best to manage Vanuatu’s .vu domain in a pluralistic, healthy commercial ISP market.

A fair amount of technical information necessarily goes into such discussions, and you can read more about that on the Regulator’s website.

The issue of managing Vanuatu’s national domain affects us all. It’s not sufficient for a bunch of geeks to get together and decide everything; we need to make sure everyone in Vanuatu has a clear idea what’s happening.

To that end, I’ve dug through a number of older columns on the subject of what a domain is, how it should work, and what it all means to Internet users in Vanuatu.

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Who We Are

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

After more than a month’s delay, prison escapee John Bule’s body was finally put to rest this week. While his family may have some degree of solace now that they can properly mourn his passing, and in spite of Government entreaties to allow the justice system to work, many feel that much remains to be said about how we treat our prisoners.

In a searing letter to the Editor earlier this week, one man described how his children and their nanny had been terrorised by knife-wielding thieves. The nanny was only saved from rape or worse by the man’s timely arrival.

If we had Capital Punishment,” he writes, “I would gladly pull the trigger on this criminal.

I know exactly how he feels. Nearly a decade after the fact, I have only to think about one man and I begin to shake with rage.

Years ago, I lived in a frontier town smaller than Port Vila. I found evidence that one of its residents had been molesting children for over a decade, and that one of them, a 12 year old girl, had since committed suicide.

I sat at home for hours, trying to decide whether to call the police, or simply to pull my rifle from its locker and shoot him myself. In the end, I picked up the telephone, not the gun.

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