Copyright and Wrong

The digital revolution has ushered in a new culture war.  On one side are the creators: the artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers who, by law, hold copyright over the works they have originated.  Joining them—significantly—are the entities, most of them corporations, which have traditionally promoted and sold their creations: the major record labels, the publishers, the film and video distributors.

kellysfordLined up on the opposite side of the battlefield, thumping on their shields, are the digital audience legions, all of us who read, listen to or watch copyrighted material online, often without payment.  Joining this army are those corporations whose revenue is found in monetizing websites that traffic in copyrighted (as well as uncopyrighted) material, chief among them of course Google, which owns Youtube.

The history of this warfare is interesting, with many incremental skirmishes along the way.  Back in the days of vinyl, no one knew how to replicate an LP at home.  The record labels ruled, and their reputation as rapacious ogres was opportunistically well earned.  Tape came along, and with it rerecording, but the rerecorder still had to first buy the record.  Then music was digitized, processed into a computer file that could be copied indefinitely, with essentially no loss in quality.  And then came the nuclear bomb, although again the shock waves went out incrementally… the internet.  For the creators and their corporate allies, all hell broke loose.  And the market has never fully recovered.

A peace settlement for this war is remarkably difficult to achieve, and thus it drags on.  The defeat of Napster in 2001 seemed a clear victory for the creators, but as of 2011, music sales in the US were still at less than half of what they were in 1999.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Douglas and McIntyre, the largest independent publisher in Canada, filed for bankruptcy in 2012.  MGM, owners of the single most successful movie franchise in history—the James Bond films—sold for $5 billion in 2004, but is now evaluated at less than$2 billion.  The list of dead or wounded grows steadily.

One basic distinction that has to be upheld, if ever this war is to be over, is the one between those who ‘remix’ copyrighted material, mashing it up in their own artistic creations, and those who simply copy and sell unadulterated copies of other people’s work.  Remixers are artists unto themselves, complimenting rather than threatening the appropriated work.  Unlicensed resellers are simply thieves who deserve prosecution.

So too should we distinguish between individual downloaders of copyright material and the file-sharing and ‘locker’ sites who facilitate their downloading.  These sites have always employed the old dodge of, “We don’t actually do any illegal uploading or downloading ourselves, and we’re not responsible for any of our users who do.’  It doesn’t wash.  Here we should bust the dealers, not the users.

Too often even this distinction is not maintained by zealous corporations who, NRA-like in their paranoia, blindly prosecute any and all perceived violations of copyright laws, targeting even the smallest infraction.  Lawrence Lessig, in his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, recounts how lawyers from Universal Music Group threatened the mother of a two-year-old with a $150,000 fine after she posted a 29-second video of her son dancing to a Prince song on Youtube.  Give me strength.

Most importantly I think, this war needs to be seen as a war of corporate interests, none of them more altruistically motivated than the other.   As Danny Goldberg, former head of Warner Records, is quoted as saying in Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, a recent and effective rebuttal to Lessig’s book: “What happened is this extraordinarily powerful financial juggernaut entered society and changed the rules about intellectual property.  But that was not necessarily inevitable, and it wasn’t driven by all of these consumers—it was driven by people who made billions of dollars changing the rules.”

The creators are of course the ones who must be protected in this conflict.  The corporate interests who have sided with them have simply done so as technology changed and the commercial advantage swung from them to other corporate interests.  Just as Facebook lobbies mightily for weaker privacy laws, Google lobbies mightily for weaker copyright laws.  Why?  Because the effort serves their bottom lines.

There is very little moral high ground in the copyright culture war.  There is only the area off to the side of the main battleground, where the creators continue to suffer and die.



The Happiness Train

file000971156487-1If nothing else, the happiness train is well funded.  By one estimate, those buying tickets spend about a billion dollars a year on self-help books alone, comprising roughly 6% of the overall book market.  And if we look at the book bestseller lists in the weekend newspaper, we’re sure to see at least one book there promising a bulletproof prescription for happiness and fulfillment.  If money can’t buy happiness, the selling of happiness formulas is certainly enriching a lot of people.

Except that happiness does in fact correlate with money, to a certain level at least.   There’s an ongoing debate underway, but it seems clear that there’s a distinct law of diminishing returns at work with increased money and happiness: beyond a certain quantity of money, the payoff in more happiness begins to drop off.  What seems more important in ensuring the happiness dividend is to spend the extra cash on experiences, not stuff, and to give some of it away.

These findings come as part of a whole slew of research that began back in 1999, when a small, select group of academics, led by Martin Seligman (here he is in a TED Talk), met in Akumal, Mexico, and gave birth to what is now called Positive Psychology.   They defined their new field in a “manifesto” as “the scientific study of optimal human functioning;” this as opposed to the traditional psychological study of mental illness.

Some of their recent findings are fascinating.  One of the most interesting to me is that older people are generally happier than younger people, although it isn’t clear why.  It seems to me that this is likely the case because, as we age, we are steadily relieved of “the burden of the future.”  That burden has to do of course with expectations and aspirations around work and personal relationships, and as we reach a certain age we are obliged to choose between accepting life as it is, or continuing to grieve for what isn’t, and won’t be.  If we can choose acceptance, rather than frustration, the payoff in contentment is real.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother happiness research discovery that I find intriguing is that people with children are not generally any happier than those without.  This does not surprise me; any parent knows that having children involves a whole lot of work, expense and sacrifice.  Two parents today with two jobs and two small children endure an abundance of stress.  Even more so perhaps for the single parent.

The payoff with children is not in happiness, not for a long time at least, but in meaning.  If you ask the two no-more-happy parents described above if they regret having children, I suspect the answer will be almost uniformly no, and that’s because the raising of children engages them in an experience that is profound.  It locks them into a course where, if they can succeed at all, they can feel they’ve done something consistent with the most important values they hold; those having to do with love.  In the end, family will come first, and we would do well to remember that when caught up in the blur that is life with a career and small children.

At the risk of sounding rather formulaic myself, I think it’s critical to understand that the happiness train isn’t going anywhere.  As the adage would remind us, happiness is not a destination but a manner of travelling.   Those who have climbed onboard must engage in the present, and refrain from regretting the past, or machinating on the future.  As the great American songwriter James Taylor has espoused, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”  If you’re onboard the happiness train—and we all are—you shouldn’t worry about whether you’ll arrive on time, or what you’ll do when you get there.  It shouldn’t matter which terrain the train is travelling through, island retreat or urban jungle.  Neither should you be concerned with where you are in the journey, whether that be the aspirational beginning, the hardworking middle, or the hopefully more contented end.  (Luck will play a significant part in the circumstances you’ll find yourself in, come the end, but you can’t do much about that either, other than to be prepared.)  Just try to enjoy the ride.



Andrew Blum, in his new book Tubes, describes a scene taking place late in the summer of 1969—an excited group of grad students had gathered on an otherwise placid Saturday afternoon in the courtyard of Boelter Hall on the UCLA campus.  This was the summer of Woodstock and, even though they were exclusively science geeks, no doubt a few of them wore bell bottom pants, and more than one moustache adorned an eager young face.  Somebody clutched a bottle of champagne.

220px-Interface_Message_Processor_Front_PanelThe occasion was the arrival of the very first “IMP”—interface message processor—a 900-pound behemoth costing $80,000 ($500,000 in today’s dollars) which was nevertheless referred to as a “minicomputer.”  It had been air freighted from Boston by the engineering firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman, who a few years earlier had signed a one million dollar contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop an impervious computer network to be called the ARPANET.

This celebratory event harkened directly back to 1957, when a Polish-born engineer named Paul Baron landed a new job at the RAND Corporation, where he soon became involved in a project to design a nuclear-attack-proof communications system for the U.S. military.  Elvis Presley made his seventh and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that year, and in November of 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first earth satellite, traumatizing the American psyche and prompting the federal government to call for the building of more backyard bomb shelters across the nation.

Baron began experimenting with different communication models, and soon fell upon the advantages of a ‘fishnet’ design, as opposed to the ‘star’ design employed by the then monopoly AT&T system.  The AT&T model featured a focal hub through which nearly all information flowed, making it especially vulnerable to a nuclear attack.  The fishnet model had no vulnerable centre; if one part of it was damaged or destroyed, any bit of sent information could still reach its final destination by flowing through an alternate set of nodes.

These occurrences in turn of course relate directly to the birth of computers connected via the internet, the single most disruptive technological transformation humankind has witnessed.  Economists have labeled these kinds of innovations general purpose technology (GPT), that is technology which can be applied in a great many situations, work and play, thus resulting in far greater social and economic impact than any kind of industry-specific invention.  Prior GPTs include steam power, electricity and the internal combustion engine.

Recent studies—Race Against the Machine, by MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee is a particularly apt and concise summation—have shown that, while productivity has grown with the onset of digital technology, employment has not.  Median family income has stagnated in recent years, and the last decade is the first since the Great Depression which saw no overall net gain in job creation.  We have the phenomenon of the ‘jobless recovery’ from the crash of 2008, and Brynjolfsson and McAfee are clear about a major contributing factor that’s often been ignored by both business and government:

“… there has been relatively little talk about the role of acceleration of technology.  It may seem paradoxical that faster progress can hurt wages and jobs for millions of people but we argue that’s what’s been happening.”

The military origins of the internet are unmistakable, but I think we can safely assume that the Generals never foresaw that their nuke-proof system would one day be used by so many civilians in so many different circumstances.  Similarly, we’ve done a poor job of foreseeing the economic consequences of rapidly evolving digital technologies, in part because this evolution has been so incredibly rapid.

Ned Ludd and his followers were wrong about the loss of jobs inherent in the steam-powered weaving machines they were smashing back in the early 1800s.  As the industrial revolution progressed, more, not fewer jobs were created.  Those new jobs were more often in the city, not the village or farm, but there were nevertheless more of them, and what’s more they often required more than just an able body.  Sometimes they even required genuine creativity.

We’re living in a new post-revolutionary world, where again jobs are not what they used to be, and where right now there may be fewer of them.   Whether we can adapt to, work with rather than against the new machines to create a new and better society is the question once again at hand.



Suicide Watch: the CBC in Crisis

121px-CBC_logo_1940–1958The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was effectively born a mixed-blood child back in 1929, taking over a series of radio stations first set up by the Canadian National Railway.  Early CBC radio broadcasts included American programming, and, even in my day, as a kid growing up the late 50s, early 60s, CBC was ‘affiliated’ with many privately owned radio stations across Canada, replete with ads.

The breakthrough came in 1974, when the radio network stopped running commercial advertising.  What followed was an unprecedented flowering of creativity and quality that saw CBC Radio become as good as any broadcast service that’s ever been offered, anywhere.  In the wake of that 1974 decision, CBC went on to undoubtedly become the most important cultural institution in the country.

I have to stress that these accolades belong rightly to CBC Radio, as opposed to CBC television, which began in 1958 with an impossible blend of commercial and public mandates, and has never been allowed to try flying without the debilitating weight of advertisers (and therefore the abiding incentive to seek higher ratings).

Last week the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (the CRTC) granted the CBC up to four minutes of advertising per hour on Radio 2, the music arm of the network, beginning what will surely be the death throes of CBC radio as we have known it.  This coup de grâce comes after decades of brutal cutbacks to the Corporation, all while overall federal spending climbed steadily.  The most recent will see a further 10% cut from CBC’s annual budget by 2014.

Thus you might lay the blame for its demise at the feet of CBC’s hostile patron in Ottawa, which has, over the years and despite it all, born the critical brunt of mostly exceptional CBC news services.  But this latest blow has of course come at the behest of CBC management, desperate to maintain its own viability.  It’s CBC staffers who have initiated their own suicide watch, in a mad attempt to stay alive by imitating the very private stations which threaten them.

CBC has one and only one viable future—as a distinct alternative to the private broadcasters.  What possible justification for its taxpayer outlay can the CBC find in providing what the private stations are already providing?  It should be but somehow isn’t dreadfully apparent to CBC executives that every inch closer to their commercial counterparts they step is an inch closer to their own oblivion.

It’s likely too late for CBC TV.  For a nation as small as Canada, in today’s media marketplace, it’s likely just too expensive to produce quality television with taxpayer dollars.  What’s more, CBC television was simply too cruelly compromised from the outset, never able to assume the robust communal role that might have won it unambiguous public approval.  CBC TV’s only hope for survival now is as a PBS-style broadcaster focusing upon news, public affairs and other serious, not schlocky (i.e. Battle of the Blades) factual programming.  That means no sports, and, like PBS, no original production of dramatic shows.  (In anticipation of all those who would cry ‘elitist’ in the face of the reduced audience that such a content shift would entail, let me say that I and many others like me would gladly, immediately contribute their own personal monies to such a service, were it to be commercial free.)

As to CBC radio, it certainly isn’t as good as it used to be when bigger budgets meant a more international focus.  But from AM’s The Sunday Edition, hosted by Michael Enright—who himself should be considered something of a national treasure—to Rich Terfry’s Radio 2 Drive, which, for my money, provides the best music programming anywhere on the dial, CBC Radio has, amazingly, been able to pretty much get it right.  This formerly brilliant and still great national lead character must not be allowed to hang itself.  Canadians everywhere should stand up and shout, as loudly as they possibly can, at both their MPs and at the frightened, misguided CBC managers, calling for the preservation of a genuinely public radio broadcaster, 100% government and listener-supported.

Otherwise we should just pull the plug right now, before it gets too painful to behold.