Monday, August 25, 2008

Is Stealing Music Wrong?

This post is largely in response to Hanno's request that I address whether stealing music is wrong. Specifically, stealing music digitally (p2p or peer-2-peer networks such as Limewire or Kazaa). However, a simple yes or no will not suffice. Stealing a physical cd from the record store is different than ripping a song off of a p2p site. In the store you are stealing physical property, on the internet you are stealing intellectual property. One of the major differences is copyright law. When you download a song, you are violating copyright law.

My answer to this question is largely shaped by one man: Lawrence Lessig. As he states, The original term of copyright set by the First Congress in 1790 was 14 years, renewable once. Now it is closer to two hundred. Thomas Jefferson considered protecting the public against overly long monopolies on creative works an essential government role. Who is copyright protecting? Consumers? Artists? Distributors?

Instead of providng a full defense here, I wish to simply begin the conversation by quoting from chapter 11 of Lessig's book, Free Culture:

The more I work to understand the current struggle over copyright and culture, which I’ve sometimes called unfairly, and sometimes not unfairly enough, “the copyright wars,” the more I think we’re dealing with a chimera. For example, in the battle over the question “What is p2p file sharing?” both sides have it right, and both sides have it wrong. One side says, “File sharing is just like two kids taping each others’ records—the sort of thing we’ve been doing for the last thirty years without any question at all.” That’s true, at least in part. When I tell my best friend to try out a new CD that I’ve bought, but rather than just send the CD, I point him to my p2p server, that is, in all relevant respects, just like what every executive in every recording company no doubt did as a kid: sharing music.

But the description is also false in part. For when my p2p server is on a p2p network through which anyone can get access to my music, then sure, my friends can get access, but it stretches the meaning of “friends” beyond recognition to say “my ten thousand best friends” can get access. Whether or not sharing my music with my best friend is what “we have always been allowed to do,” we have not always been allowed to share music with “our ten thousand best friends.”

Likewise, when the other side says, “File sharing is just like walking into a Tower Records and taking a CD off the shelf and walking out with it,” that’s true, at least in part. If, after Lyle Lovett (finally) releases a new album, rather than buying it, I go to Kazaa and find a free copy to take, that is very much like stealing a copy from Tower.

But it is not quite stealing from Tower. After all, when I take a CD from Tower Records, Tower has one less CD to sell. And when I take a CD from Tower Records, I get a bit of plastic and a cover, and something to show on my shelves. (And, while we’re at it, we could also note that when I take a CD from Tower Records, the maximum fine that might be imposed on me, under California law, at least, is $1,000. According to the RIAA, by contrast, if I download a ten-song CD, I’m liable for $1,500,000 in damages.)

The point is not that it is as neither side describes. The point is that it is both—both as the RIAA describes it and as Kazaa describes it. It is a chimera. And rather than simply denying what the other side asserts, we need to begin to think about how we should respond to this chimera. What rules should govern it?

This is a great topic to discuss at the philosophy club. My answer can't really be said any better than by Larry himself.

The Wisdom of Johnny Rotten, pt 3

By Hanno

At age 15, in 1971 (!), when to be cool was to be a hippie, have long hair, wear bell bottom jeans, etc., Rotten was told by his Dad to get his hair cut. He got it cropped, and turned it bright green. This, of course, at a time when no one is doing anything like that. No group of similar weirdos to hide with, no context for others to make any sense of his act of rebellion. One can only imagine the reaction.

By the time I grew up, someone might have gone punk in my school, (we did have a few), but they already had the context of punk to all others to make sense of what they were doing. You were being a punk. Joining a specific group. And the people who were the target of Punk ire used to (with a good bit of justification) charge that the punks claim to be so individualistic, but really, they just join a different group, and then work hard to fit in.

When Rotten does this, however, it is totally new, totally outside conventional and even conventional non-conventional behavior. To be sure, anger is the fuel. Rules in a society that make it so that as poor Irish kid in London has no future, and instead of accepting that, he strikes back with any weapon he can find.

I'm not a revolutionary, a socialist or any of that. that's not what I'm about. An absolute sense of individualist is my politics. All political groups that I'm aware of on this planet seem to strive to suppress individuality. They need block voting numbers. They need units... If a homosexual inside the [ gay Liberation movement] dares stray away from what then term as the norm, then they victimize that person. Its replacing the same old system with a different clothing. I hate all groupings, any kind of gathering. It destroys personality and individuality. Maybe a roomful of people having very different ideas is chaotic, but its wonderfully chaotic, highly entertaining, and very educational... I don't suppose my kind of world can exist because there are so many sheep that need leaders. Let them bleat among the flock, that's not for me. I'd rather be the lone sheep out there fending off the wolves. It's much better. When you grow up in a working-class environment, you're supposed to stay inside and follow the rules and regulations of that little system. I won't have any of that. It's all wrong, equally bad. (p. 309)

There are good points and bad points in this psychology. One thing is clear: it can shake the world. But how desirable is it? In one person? In a society? Is politics possible with such a view? Ethics? Is community possible? Perhaps such an individual is the gadfly, like Socrates, that shakes up a society. But a society of gadflies cannot exist.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Philosophy Club Meeting: Monday, August 25th

The very first philosophy club meeting of the year will be taking place in Room C of the Frazar Library. With the addition of the new Community Coffee kiosk, we can now enjoy caffeine induced discussion and debate on campus!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Wisdom of Johnny Rotten, pt. 2

By Hanno

There are two parts of his autobiography I want to examine. This is from p. 309 (work previously cited, and heartily recommended).

Am I a walking contradiction? A singer who never sings along with records at home? A touring performer who can't handle flashing lights? A shy kid who became one of the most notorious pop figures around? Oh, yes, I'm not!
After we finish chuckling at that last line, we might think about its implications. First, Rotten simply is not worried about what appears to be inconsistency to others. He is who he is. Rather than try to defend himself by showing that the apparent inconsistency is in fact consistent, he is perfectly happy to accept the inconsistency, indeed, to revel in it.

And second, the deeper lesson is, of course, for us all. We all have contradictions in our lives. A psychologist friend once told me "Everything implies its opposite." He meant that strong feelings show that the opposite is there as well. The person who is the most confident also goes through the pangs of insecurity, perhaps deeper and more painful pangs. Its not that the confidence is a show, no, they really are confident. But within themselves, there is also the other side, and that insecurity may come out in other ways, or even as over confidence. The person who wants order also needs chaos.

These maybe points that philosophers and psychologists are familiar with in other guises. But I don't think rotten discovered or believes this because Nietzsche said it, or because some psychologist told him. I think he found it on his own, and I think that is extraordinary. I also I find the way Rotten presents his acceptance of himself a humorous as well as fresh.

Next up: Rotten's hyper-individualism.

Friday, August 8, 2008

If Value, then Right

reposted from boingboing via Cory Doctorow

Siva Vaidhyanathan's book The Anarchist in the Library identifies a theory implicit in much of the copyright wars called, "If value, then right." It holds that if something has some value, then the person who made it has a right to be compensated for using that value.

For example, your DVDs have value as discs you put in a player, which you pay for when you buy them at a store. But when you rip the disc and put it on a portable player, then you realize some new value. According to "if value, then right," the studio that made the DVD has the right to be compensated for that new value. Otherwise, you're stealing.

Exploring this idea, David "Everything is Miscellaneous" Weinberger has compiled a list of "20 things I’ve stolen" according to the "If value, then right" theory.

1. I took an extra napkin from a Taco Bell for unspecified use “later.”
2. I sat on a bench on a hot day, enjoying the breeze as the man next to me fanned himself.
3. I read the headlines of a newspaper that was for sale in a kiosk box.
4. I divided a single-serving DingDong in two, and had it for dessert on two consecutive days.
5. I listened all the way through to a Metallica song emanating from my neighbor’s radio, but closed my window when the commercial came on.
6. I remembered the movie times in my newspaper from the day before so I wouldn’t have to buy a copy of the paper today.
7. When a friend’s cat chose my lap to sit in, I petted it, precisely to discourage it from moving to the lap of its rightful owner.
8. I said “What a long, strange trip it’s been” without air quotes.
9. On the Amtrak “quiet car,” I listened to a man in the seat ahead of me explaining to the bored woman next to him how he gets such a great shine on his shoes. I have since used his technique, successfully.
10. I have stared carefully at reproductions of great paintings.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How Magicians Control Your Mind

reposted from BoingBoing

The Boston Globe's Ideas section covers a paper just published in Nature Neuroscience about the way that magic tricks illuminate the inner workings of human perception -- the paper is co-authored by five magicians, including Teller of Penn and Teller:

"Our picture of the world is kind of a virtual reality," says Ronald A. Rensink, a professor of computer science and psychology at the University of British Columbia and coauthor of a paper on magic and psychology that will be published online this week in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. "It's a form of intelligent hallucination."

The benefit of these sorts of cognitive shortcuts is that they allow us to create a remarkably rich image of our environment despite the fact that our two optic nerves have roughly the resolution of cell-phone cameras. We don't have to, for example, waste time making out every car on the highway to understand that they are, indeed, cars, and to make sense of how they are moving - our minds can simply approximate from the thousands of cars we have already seen in our lives.

But because this method relies so heavily on expectation - not only to fill in the backdrop around us but to determine where to send what psychologists call our "attentional spotlight" - we are especially vulnerable to someone who knows our expectations and can manipulate them, someone like a magician.

"In magic," says Teller, half of the well-known duo Penn & Teller and one of five magicians credited as coauthors of the Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, "we tend to take the things that make us smart as human beings and turn those against us."

Monday, August 4, 2008

Trolls, Griefers, and Anonymity

Recently, the New York Times ran an article entitled, "The Trolls Among Us." Trolls are people who purposefully disrupt online communities, forums, and discussion groups. Wired ran a similar article earlier this year entitled, "Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World." Griefers are people who act in willfully antisocial behaviors seen in multiplayer games like Ultima Online and first-person shooters like Counter-Strike (fragging your own teammates, for instance, or repeatedly killing a player many levels below you). In the real, non-virtual world, we call these people A**holes.

Both Griefers and Trolls are relatively harmless when destroying their friends in a video game, but they become subject to legal ramifications when they begin to participate in cyber-bullying and cyber-harrassment. For example, Trolls once flooded the Epilepsy Foundation's forums with flashing images and links to animated color fields, leading at least one photosensitive user to claim that she had a seizure. In the non-virtual world, someone who intentionally ran into the a group of epileptic patients with flashing light displays attached to their clothing would more than likely be arrested. However, in the virtual world of cyberspace, the Trolls and Griefers work under a cloud of anonymity.

Anonymity is the source of the problem...and a double-edged sword. Anonymity is an essential feature in fostering honest, critical discussion of hot-button issues within online forums. At the same time, it protects the identity of those who wish to commit cyber-crimes. Anonymity is quite possibly one of the most important elements to consider as we continue to construct a virtual community on the world wide web.

Kevin Kelly wrote on this topic two years ago, and his essay is worth examining today. He wrote:

Anonymity is like a rare earth metal. These rare elements are an absolutely necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive, but the amount needed is a mere hard-to-measure trace. In larger does these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Take cadmium. Essential for life in very minute amounts; toxic in any significant amount.

Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishing small doses, it's good for the system by enabling the occasional whistleblower, confessional, or persecuted dissent in a tyrannical regime. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system, even a half-rotten system.

I believe anonymity is essential. It is vital to a healthy society and market. Without the option of anonymity I believe a society would be less than optimal. Indeed I would fight vigorously to keep the option of being anonymous as an essential part of any society. It is both humane and wise.

At the same time I think there can be too much anonymity at work. When it becomes a default option it poisons the community -- like a rare-earth metal. My argument is not against anonymity but against too much of it.

How much is too much?
How little is too little?

A Common Thread

4 months in the making, 42 countries, and a cast of thousands.

Despite our differences, there are universal threads and this is one of them...

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.