Fiction Bitch

Teleread has a short bit about the Fiction Bitch, an author who will critique your purply prose in no uncertain terms (I wonder what this sentence would net me) out of hatred for bad and mediocre writing.

When I was about twenty I had a pen friend who was nuts about so-called ‘student’ magazine Propria Cures. PC, as it is generally abbreviated, is a satirical magazine. Supposedly written and edited by students, it often has staff that would have been kicked out of university decades ago.

Not sure if I remember this correctly: but apparently, my friend and her friends thought it way cool if you got a mention in the magazine. The editors used the letters page to bitch about bad prose, and sometimes praise good writing.

I had as few illusions about the quality of my writing then as I have now; in order to be printed, thus to be cool, I had to write something that would strike the right level of badness.

I managed to craft a song, a cheerless little ditty about ‘the environment’, of which they printed the refrain. I cannot remember it all, but it went something like: “De bomen gaan dood / De bomen gaan dood / Milieuproblematiek / Groot is de nood”. (The trees are dying / The trees are dying / Environmental problems / Large is the distress. It rhymes in Dutch. Honest, it does!)

Their comment: “Our waste-paper basket shares your pain.”

Fandom and cultural contamination

I wish I could say that I am not a fan; fans are people who are irrational when it comes to the object of their admiration. But I would be lying: I am a great fan of the works of Hergé, the creator of Tintin. I have at least half of the Tintin albums twice, sometimes even three times: some in the old Dutch translation, some French versions and two Spanish. I bought a collection of the complete Hergé. I have spent hundreds of euros on crappy biographies. I am a fan.

What I like so much about the man’s work is, of course, hard to say. The Tintin books are part of my consciousness. Sometimes I dream unwritten Tintin stories. Many pictures of the albums are like icons of the 20th century. With Franquin and the Goscinny/Uderzo team, Hergé was one of the pillars of the European humorous adventure comic in the last century. This may not mean much to people outside western Europe, but these comics were a part of growing up.

Tintin is also connected by many tendrils to the current main topic of this blog, copyright law. The strip started shortly after the ideas generated by the Berne convention had established themselves, and the author died shortly before digital copying became ubiquitous. After his death, Hergé’s widow Fanny married Nick Rodwell, as bereft as her of any talent but that of greed. Together they maximized the profits created by somebody else’s hard work, vigorously attacking anybody who used a Tintin drawing for whatever purpose.

There is a scene in The Calculus Affair where Captain Haddock tries to get rid of a piece of band-aid. It is stuck to his hand, and Haddock is waving furiously to rid himself of this meddlesome piece. He succeeds, but through a hilareous series of events the band-aid keeps coming back to him.

Art is like that too. What’s more, anything that is copyrighted is like that piece of band-aid. Once you have learned of its existence, and the idea it encapsulates, you cannot get rid of it.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), our minds are not DRMed computers. We do not always know which ideas are ours and which are those of others. I used to write comics with a bunch of guys in Nijmegen, the town of my alma mater. The process was not necessarily productive, but it was fun; we would sit around the table and keep spewing forth jokes and ideas, until we thought we had some useful ones. We would often hit a corny mood in which everything was funny and nothing was useful.

Then, the next day, one of us, appointed by the others, would sit down and write out a funny story we could sell. (Yes, it’s true, I have worked for the Evil Empire. What’s worse, I would do it again.)

Within days I would have forgotten who thought of what. It was not that the truly brilliant ideas did not originate in any one person, but because the others immediately started building on it, or used an idea as the starting point for a new line of thought, it was hard to identify afterwards who had thought of what.

And once an idea is out in the open, who is to stop it? You can call it plagiarism or infringement, I call it human nature. There is a fine line between what should be allowed and what not, but I trust most people know where to draw it. The law, unfortunately, has not caught up yet.

Citizens

The thing that perhaps irritated me the most during the otherwise excellent debates at the Copy=Right festival my provider XS4All (Echelon keyword bingo!) organised last year, is that of the many stakeholders mentioned, the citizens were neglected. Now that’s funny, because the state that ordains the law we’re discussing, supposedly does so in name of and for the ultimate benefit of citizens.

It’s not just the Copy=Right? Festival where this disdain for the citizen was shown, it was just so noticeable there, because many stakeholders were present. Author, publisher, reader: in the end these are just roles that citizens take on, and most if not all citizens have performed each role many times in their lives.

Copyright law was introduced to protect citizens that write from citizens that publish.

Now it could be argued that times have changed and that nowadays citizens that write are much more threatened by citizens that read; but how has that changed the position of citizens that publish? How and when did they turn from a lot so immoral that a special law had to be written against them, to the guardians of the citizens that write? Who, to borrow a phrase, appointed the fox to guard the henhouse?

In my opinion, there is no evidence that publishers have stopped being the enemy. Any politician who lets the fox into the henhouse should seriously reconsider if he’s fit for representing citizens. Not because citizens that publish wouldn’t deserve the same protections as other citizens, but because citizens that publish still have enough rotten apples among them to be eyed with supreme suspicion.

There’s another thing: all citizens that read are winners. Not all citizens that write are, nor are all citizens that publish.* There’s a reason for this: a lot more people are capable of appreciating the fruits of good authorship then of creating these fruits. The law should reflect this, and does (did) with the copyright lottery, which says that good writers (and publishers) have a higher chance of getting money than bad writers. Some citizens that publish and some that write want to skew this state. Perhaps that is fine, but why should that be done in such a way that those who read, lose? In the balance, the publishers are a minority that already has gotten much more than they have a claim to.

*) I tend to believe that an activity can be its own reward, but not everybody shares that belief.

Book Chr. Thijm about law in the internet age

I was developing copyright tunnel vision: as I explained in a comment to a Lessig blog entry about Open Source in the UK government, copyfight discussion on the web seems to be taking place mainly in the USA. That country has a copyright system that sometimes differs quite a lot from the European systems. So the following development came as a nice surprise.

According to Webwereld, starting September 6 Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm will publish a book about how law is dealing with the internet age. Thijm is known for succesfully representing Kazaa all the way to the Dutch supreme court (Hooggerechtshof) in its legal battle against collection agency Buma/Stemra. The latter claimed that Kazaa facilitated copyright infringement, a notion that the court dismissed with a bow to the US Supreme Court’s famous Betamax decision.

Thijm also won a case for Zoekmp3.nl against Brein, the Dutch RIAA/MPAA wannabe.

The book is called ‘Het Nieuwe Informatierecht‘ (The New Information Law). A preview of the book, the chapter about copyright and P2P, can be downloaded from the Webwereld site. The book tries to outline the areas where existing law is a mismatch with new technologies, and covers topics such as spam, hyperlinking, p2p, domain names, et cetera.

Drowning

When I was about ten or twelve, I still did not know how to swim. How undutch. Swimming lessons were a part of my elementary school curriculum, but at one point my knees started touching the bottom of the instruction pool and I gave up.

That the instruction pool had become too shallow (or rather, that I had outgrown the instruction pool) did not matter much to me; however, at the real pool (the one near my uncle’s house that we snuck into) I was only allowed in the shallow end, and that was getting a bit ridiculous. I wanted to feel the water flow over my shoulders.

Let me first show you how the pool looked like:

As you can see, the pool was L-shaped. The shallow end (represented by light colours) was separated from the deep end (dark) by a low bridge that allowed the life guards to patrol and to get to spots of trouble quicker.

Now pool guards are busy people, and they cannot keep track of everyone. So from time to time, I snuck under the bridge into the deep end. As you can also tell from the picture, the transition to the deep end on the left hand side was minimal; one day I found out that the right hand side was different.

I decided to take a short cut, and went under the bridge at the deep end of the deep end. There was a steep slope there: I slipped, lost control, skidded into the deep deep end, and suddenly found myself sitting at the bottom of the pool, with what felt like a lot of water over me.

I pushed myself upwards, but since I could not swim, I sank immediately. I kept propelling myself from the floor of the pool, broke surface, took a quick breath, and sank to the bottom again.

This could not last for ever, of course. I had oxygen, but was also getting tired and pannicky. First, I tried to shout when I got above the water. That strategy proved pretty disastrous: instead of being able to shout “help”, I could just utter “he” and swallow water and chlorine. So instead of drawing attention, I just robbed myself of air.

The weird thing about the whole situation was that I had now been busy drowning without really drowning for about half a minute, in a pool full of people, and nobody even seemed to notice. However, several people had bumped into me and that gave me an idea. I decided to latch onto the next person that would swim by, and not let go until we were out of the water.

That idea may have saved my life then and there (or so I think). I grabbed hold of the first person that bumped into me swimming by. A struggle ensued; the person tried to get rid of me, but I would not let go. The person swam to the shallow end, after which I disengaged. It turned out I had grabbed a girl not much older than me (oh Google, what will ye bring me now), who was of course furious. I tried to stumble an apology and an explanation and a thanks, but I don’t think she believed me, because she was still looking angry when I walked slowly out of the pool to find a place to rest.

Idea: online peer-reviewed school

Must jot down this idea before I forget.

Create an online school in the mould of Ars Digita University. Let those who are further along in their studies review the ones that are not as far. In other words, create a system like the years in school, but discard the teachers. Even the curriculum could be based on Wikipedia-like text books.

How trustworthy would such a system be? I don’t know.

It could be used for other purposes. Once, when the internet was young, oldbies would introduce newbies to the things that could be said about the topic of a given newsgroup. Sometimes an oldby would become indignant and point the newby to a FAQ. Sometimes the newby would learn and become an oldby.

I am a regular contributor to the nl.internet.www.ontwerp news group (all things webdesign). Most of the birdchatter there is of newbies (drive-by newbies, often) who indignantally tell us to help them, now! What bliss it would be if there were three or four of those newsgroups, overlapping, and you could only progress from one to the other by proving your worth. You could have a Slashdot-like system of modding postings up and down.

Sounds very much the recipe for old-boys-network type disaster. How to solve that aspect of it?

Swede and Canadian threatened with US law

Big Copyright seems to have discovered BitTorrent. BoingBoing reports that film maker Dreamworks has sent a DMCA takedown notice to BitTorrent tracker The Pirate Bay, whilst a customer of cable ISP Cogeco reports to have received a takedown notice from the MPAA through the ISP.

The interesting bit is that The Pirate Bay is based in Sweden, while Cogeco and its customer are in Canada. Neither countries are of course under rule of US law.

The blogs that run this story laugh about the stupidity of the MPAA and Dreamworks, but I think it is sad that everybody seems to accept as fact that the parties in question are breaking some kind of law (filesharing just happens to be legal in Canada, something that Cogeco and its customers do not seem to ‘get’), and that Big Copyright can try scare tactics on people in other jurisdictions. I wish people would worry a bit less about the poor starving artist, and a bit more about the constant nibbling at the foundations of democracy by corporations.

(See also the take-down notice Pirate Bay received and their response.)

As they say: do not ascribe to malicious intent that which can be explained by stupidity. And although these actions of the MPAA and Dreamworks may be the result of stupidity or accident, the malicious intent may be a criminal offense in this case.

Taping versus file sharing

It’s always more interesting to hear creators talk about copyrights, than it is to hear lawyers. There is a reason why a lot of copyfighting lawyers are now just repeating what Richard Stallman said 20 years ago; for Stallman, the problem that he as an author could not sample or build upon was a very real and concrete one back then, not a theoretical problem to be discussed over cigars and cognac.

Of course, creators aren’t always as savvy about the law as Richard Stallman is, but why should they have to?

nl20 is the local magazine that will tell you what’s on in the cinemas or who’s playing in the theaters. They’re published by PCM, not an unknown party to Dutch copyright lawyers.

This week they published an interview with Kasper van Kooten, ‘theater maker’, and apparently songwriter. I had never heard of him, but then again I am notoriously out of the loop.

Apparently, Kasper has written a song against filesharers. The natural thing to do, he confesses, and he really does not understand why fellow artists seem to care so little: “It is the disease of the download/Everybody grabs what they can/Sweat and tears stolen rudely/But once created so lovingly”.

Ah, but!, points out interviewer Robert van de Griend (btw, who owns the copyrights to an interview?), you also sing that you’re doing this for your artist buddies. “And those buddies were busy with cassette recorders when they were young.”

“That was different,” Kasper feels, “Downloading is no different than cloning. We used to tape the Soulshow from the radio. Exactly at the point where you thought you had recorded a complete song, they started playing a jingle, and your tape was worthless.”

The interviewer points out that if Kasper had been a kid now instead of then, he probably would have downloaded too; the interviewee shrugs off the point as moot, because hypothetical.

Richard Stallman, you light-hearted optimist you!

Folklore has it that politicians are completely in the pockets of Big Copyright. That is of course nonsense. Just because a couple of politicos happily and loudly parrot Big Copyright’s party line, does not mean they’re being paid to do so—let alone that all representatives are.

What is true, though, is that Big Copyright wants to own the law makers. This is not, perhaps, the desire of anyone in particular within the cartel. But of its hivemind? Definitely!

And Big Copyright is lucky in this respect, because unlike most copyfighters it has the ear of the politicians. They nibble, but do not binge. They nudge a bit here, nudge a bit there.

There are a few arguments that almost all politicians are sensitive to: “For the children”, “For the poor starving artist”, “For the public good”, “For the almost extinguished animal/plant”.

And suddenly what you end up with is the following: you have a law that forbids copying of any kind, and it basically lasts forever. However, you need to enforce that law, but law enforcement is a governmental monopoly.

So instead of calling in the cops after the fact, you try to make the copying impossible beforehand. Here’s what you do:

You make a storage format, one that is significantly better than what went beforehand. You trademark the logo, you patent the technology, you copyright the keys. You then vest all these rights in a rights controlling organisation.

So far, politicians love this stuff. Self regulation, yeah! Power to the people, yeah!

Then, you nudge and you nibble, and you get a tiny law passed that says people may not break locks. “For the poor starving artist,” you explain to your representatives. You make sure you appear serious about this to them, you put on your best puppy eyes, and honestly, who is it going to hurt if you outlaw something that clearly can only be used for illegal purposes?

So now you have a lock that may not be broken, and a key that is copyrighted, and anyone who wants to use your significantly better medium will have to play by your rules. Contract law makes sure of that. Even if copyright law is not as ‘strong’ in some countries, you bind the producers by contract to your rules.

Here’s the beauty of that tiny law: you can make the lock as weak as you want. The law does not care about the strength of the lock, you’re still not allowed to break it.

You can repeat the process ad infinitum with any old significantly better medium that comes by.

The content production is now in your iron grip, but it had already been mostly under your control. Now you need to catch the bad guys, the criminals, the terrorists: your customers, the general public.

It takes a pretty smart guy to figure out all these sneaky movements towards complete annihilation of your freedom of speech (because that is what this is about, in the end, even if it’s not the purpose of this scheme); I must admit it wasn’t me. In 2001 I heard Tomas Vogt give a speech at the HAL computer security conference that outlined the above.

As he notes, Richard Stallman was an optimist when he wrote The Right to Read, an essay that paints a very bleak picture of what the publishing industry will allow us to do with our computers in the future. (Richard Stallman is the inventor of copyleft, a method of trying to restore the imbalance of modern copyright law.)

The ‘funny’ thing is, when I discussed this method on Usenet two or three years ago, people laughed at me: “These laws are just to deter the big pirates; the publishers will never go after regular people. You can still say and write what you want, and if you share mp3s, you can do so without worries.”

That was then, and now is now.

Succesful living through the rainstorm

How successful you feel depends on how you manage to balance the following three utterances appropriately:

* That’s my fault

* That’s somebody else’s fault

* That’s nobody’s fault

At least, so I thought a few days ago, when I was balancing two long planks while biking home through a rain storm.