Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hey Copyright Abolitionist Movement: Copying Sometimes IS Theft

Earlier this year, a woman named Nina Paley released an upbeat little ditty onto the internet called "Copying Isn't Theft." It's a catchy tune, and the message is exactly what you'd assume it would be: copying something is not the same as stealing it. The song's argument: when you steal a bicycle, someone is left without a bicycle. But when you copy a movie, there's still a movie left, so no one is disadvantaged!

It sounds Utopian, I know. But in reality, as I will explain, it is a very frightening, very disingenuous message for an artist to be sending to their audience, and I am sure Paley is aware of exactly how much of an oversimplification it is. It ignores some fundamental problems in "copying" both bikes and digital files, it misunderstands the purpose of copyright law, and it misrepresents the kind of copying permitted by the creative commons. In the end, it's nothing more than misleading propaganda for an anti-copyright movement.

But before I get into that, some background, both about Paley and about the creative commons.

Paley and the Creative Commons

Nina Paley, about whom I have written previously, is a great example of someone who had an artistic vision and decided that sharing it was more important than profiting from it: she released her film, Sita Sings the Blues, in full, under a creative commons license, a mechanism for making artistic content more available.

As regular readers (and also annoyed friends who I have subjected to long-winded, highly nerdy rants) already know, I am a huge fan of the creative commons. The creative commons, in short and without getting too nerdy, offers a way for content creators (artists, writers, musicians, etc.) to make their content available without the specific restrictions of copyright. In other words, instead of protecting their content from copying and use, they give up some of their rights, allowing people to more freely distribute, transform, and in general enjoy their work.

In a lot of cases, this is a win-win-win situation: artists get more exposure, viewers get easier access to the things they want to see, and other creators get new stuff on which to base their own creative efforts. It's this kind of situation for which the creative commons is designed.

And Paley's situation was exactly this kind of win-win-win. She's now quite well known, her film garnered a significant audience, and her treatment of both old blues songs and Indian myths has certainly impacted other creators.

But as wonderful as her story is and as shiny and happy as the message of "Copying Isn't Theft" is, both taken together leave us with some problems.

Bikes and Files

The first major problem is the comparison between bikes and files on a computer. This little song asserts that copying someone's movie, for instance, still leaves them with their movie, much the same way that copying someone's bike still leaves them with their bike.

In reality, comparing copying a file to copying a bike does the opposite of what the song would like: it suggests quite a few reasons to discourage this kind of copying.

Because the thing is, we sort of do punish people for copying bikes. If I were to copy your Schwinn bike and then sell it, I would be directly stealing from Schwinn the price of one bike. I'd be guilty of counterfeiting goods; I may not be stealing from you, but I am certainly stealing from Schwinn. Taking a bike is theft of property, and copying the bike is theft of intellectual property (in this case, their bike design and their brand name).

That's what's happening when you copy a film: you're stealing from the film company the price of one of their films. It may not feel like stealing the same way taking someone's bike does (because you are stealing something intangible, the amount actually taken is quite small, and you aren't actually looking the victim in the eye), but there still is a victim, and that victim is still harmed.

So despite what this video indicates, copying really can be theft. The two actions (stealing a bike and "copying" a bike) are both wrong. One is a crime because it deprives someone of their property, and the other is a crime because it deprives a third party of their rightful reward for making that property in the first place. Both take something of value from someone else.

The Purpose of Copyright Law

Fine, I hear you saying, so copying a movie does deprive a movie company of the revenue from selling you that movie. But maybe they shouldn't even be getting that revenue from you in the first place.

That's problem number two. This film really does want you to believe that copyright law is an unnecessary criminalization of what could just be a victimless act: freely copying art. But the film doesn't mention that copyright law is based on an array of already established aims.

These aims are evident even from the very beginning. Our forefathers, the writers of the constitution, believed that movie creators should be getting revenue from creating movies. We provide movie companies with copyright laws so that they can get paid for their creative efforts; if they couldn't, they may stop making movies altogether. Copyright law seeks to incentivise creation.

On a smaller scale, a person who makes films to put food on the table can't afford to give away their product. They make their money by selling copies of their art, and if copying isn't theft, there's no incentive to make that art. The only incentive they have left is to just build their reputation as an artist, but even then, at some point, that reputation has to become a revenue stream. No artist, not even Nina Paley, would commit now to release all of her future work for free. It's just not a supportable business model.

In fact, money as an incentive for creation is almost as old as creativity. The old masters had their patrons (they were paid to create if a rich family liked their work), and the new masters have theirs (they are paid to create if the public likes their work).

The internet maybe changes some of this, considering the low cost of creating things for the web, but sites like Hulu prove that even online content very often needs ad revenue to exist, a prospect made possible by restricting the viewer to only one location at which to view this content. That restriction is achieved using copyright. A successful, copyright-free way of monetizing creativity has yet to be proposed.

So copyright law really is grounded in some very reasonable purposes and seems to actually be in service of artists by design. And judging from the content that actually does get created, the system is at least partially working. This is all conspicuously absent from "Copying Isn't Theft."

Creative Commons Copying

The third problem with the song is that it pretty fundamentally misrepresents what kind of copying the creative commons allows.

Here's what I mean: Nina Paley is pro-copying. As a result, she wants you to copy this "Copying Isn't Theft" video. So, she's put it under a creative commons license. But this license requires any copy to attribute it to her. That means that every copy of this video that is made must refer back to Paley's original. The question is, if copying Paley's cartoon doesn't leave her any worse off, why would she ever place restrictions on what kind of copying can be done?

The fact of the matter is that a creative commons license isn't a mechanism for wholesale copying. It's meant to be a tool for building a creative community. Under the creative commons, if you take Paley's video and chop off the credits sequence with her name in it at the end, you have stolen from her. Copying without crediting actually IS theft. It's theft of an idea.

And I'm not talking about claiming you are the creator of the video when you copy it; that's lying, not theft. I'm referring to the much more common problem of a picture, video, or song being freely copied absent any mechanism for discovering the true creator. Not only does this deprive the creator of rightful compensation (as discussed above), it also deprives the creator of the only other possible incentive for creation: reputation.

The Real Issue

And that's the biggest problem. "Copying Isn't Theft" can pretend all day that copying someone's movie is harmless, but in the end, the video itself (and the legal and philosophical context surrounding it) recognizes that there really is a harm associated with copying without restriction.

We all really do wish we lived in a world where artists created just for the sake of creating, never to expect praise, credit, or compensation. But that world is and always has been a fiction. And so, therefore, is "Copying Isn't Theft," a song set in that fanciful world.

All that I've said in this essay is well established in the world of copyright legal scholarship, so to ignore it and instead make a fun little video unqualifiedly extolling the virtues of copying is reckless at best and deceitful propaganda at worst. The site that hosts this video offers a bit more serious discussion of these issues, but standing alone (the way most viewers will see it), the video's message is just not sophisticated enough.

I'm not trying to argue that copyright isn't broken. I'm not saying that copyright is the best way to encourage creativity. I'd be all for this video if it were instead called "Remixing Isn't Theft" or "Century Long Copyright Terms Are Ludicrous." But copying often IS theft, and to say otherwise, no matter how sweet, catchy, and Utopian it sounds, is to politicize and oversimplify a complex discussion. And that's harmful to artists and consumers everywhere.

More info on the organization behind the video:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'm Feeling Lucky

I was looking for a definition when this came up. Rarely does a search engine accidentally capture the zeitgeist of a nation so well. We are a country of deep mythos, that, at this moment, have no clear definition. It’s a poignant reflection of my American experience.

I present to you,

"I'm Feeling Lucky."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I Dream Of Viral Marketers

This week, a new bit of viral content hit the internet. It's called "" If you click through, you will discover that this website claims to be a hub for a growing number of people that have all seen the same creepy visage in their dreams.

The site brings together a lot of evidence that This Man is appearing in dreams on a global scale. There is a gallery of artists' renditions of the guy, a display of "Ever Dream This Man?" posters from all over the world, and a few anecdotes about particular dreams featuring the weird face.

It all sounds so interesting, so fantastic, so science-fictional. You might even say it sounds "too interesting to be true."

Turns out, that just might be the case. A Google search of "" reveals first this website, but second this article explaining why the thing is probably viral advertising or guerilla marketing and not a legitimate creepy phenomenon. Specifically, the domain name is owned by a semi-renowned Italian guerrilla marketer and prankster named Andrea Natella.

Which is bad news for Natella. If this site looks like a hoax (or even not a particularly interesting fiction), why would anyone feel motivated to share it with their friends, aside from the impulse to mock it? This site doesn't promote anything yet, and when it finally does, it's not going to have an interested audience left.

That is the pit that viral marketing is always in danger of falling into. A viral ad has to be interesting enough to be passed around and still maintain enough of a connection to the advertised product that it still promotes it without feeling like a hoax or a waste of time.

So how can marketers provide an interesting story that is connected to their product but still offers something as a motivation for those that have the burden of passing it around to friends? We need look no further than the first giant viral marketing apparatus, one that ran its course in the early days of the era of the internet meme. It's called The Beast, and its scope and appeal are still surprising to this day.

In an upcoming post, I plan on waxing nostalgic about this little game while talking about just why it was such a huge success, but you can read up on it here before then.

In the mean time, keep an eye on I'm betting it'll be outed as an ad within the week.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What "Battlestar Galactica" Did Wrong, What "Lost" Does Right

I'd like to start by apologizing for the slowed rate of posting on this blog. But I think it's time I explained why. I'm interning for a science fiction blog called io9. I've been a follower of this blog pretty much since the day it launched, and to be able to get involved and write for them is a huge honor. I've been posting pretty regularly over there, and if you check out my profile page over there, you can peruse the things I have written for them.

One thing I wrote not too long ago was a reaction to an essay about the finale of the re-imagined "Battlestar Galactica" series, discussing how much danger there was of "Lost" making some of the same mistakes. The essay about BSG is here, and it's well reasoned and well organized. My response and analysis of LOST is here. Both those links and this post have spoilers for both shows.

It was fun to write that post for io9, but I also wanted to take a moment to explain here on the home blog three things that I thought about while researching and writing this particular post: what BSG did wrong in its final few episodes, why I still love the show, and what LOST has been doing right.

I'll start with why I think BSG's finale was such a colossal letdown. The essay explains this really well, but the bottom line is that the finale takes a complex, interesting show and reduces it to two or three simple principles. The show dealt with warfare, guilt, redemption, religion, alienation, and all of the other big issues that good science fiction touches on. The finale wraps it all up into a pretty neat little package, the bottom line of which was simply that we need to be nice to our robots.

So the show decided that its ultimate purpose was to tell humanity that god (or whatever he likes to be called) wants us to be nice to our robots. This is already pretty demeaning compared to the idea that the show has been flirting with about humanity's callousness balanced against their ability to create life. It's clear the show is aiming for a universal message, but it comes across as saying "be nice to your Roomba, because it might one day try to annihilate society."

Of course, a critic of my position would say that I'm oversimplifying. But even if I am, I only do so to echo just how overly-simplified BSG's final message is.. The complex struggle between human and robot played out in the end like a cautionary tale, and that's the kind of "Red Asphalt" pandering we expect a great show to stay away from. If the semi-pandering "be good to the environment" sub-message of Wall-E is its weakest point, the pandering "be good to your robots" message of BSG seems to be the finale's only point.

That's only one major problem. Another chief problem with the finale is how it saddles god with pretty much the entire path of our fleet. The "head 6" that became probably the leading path maker for the surviving humans was actually an emissary of god. So, probably, was the reincarnated Starbuck, the one that led the fleet to their ultimate earthly end. The whole of the last season, in retrospect, is all a process of reducing the epic scale of the fleet's journey further and further, until we're ultimately left with their free will diminished and their journey nothing more than the result of divine providence.

The most disappointing thing is, of course, that the finale seems to betray that the writers had no idea what they were doing all along. The finale does a good enough job pulling together the patchwork of unfinished leads that cropped up throughout the show, but it's clear from what this patchwork looks like that the creators of the show never really planned where most of those leads were going.

And these major flaws in the anatomy of the BSG finale don't even count the loose ends, the vast improbability of the fleet's end, and the scientific mistakes. The finale seems to be essentially a big ball of contradictions and oversimplifications. I admit that I found parts of it moving and very fitting for the show's legacy, but the overall message of the show seems so carelessly subverted by the shoddily constructed ending.

So now the question becomes, what does the finale change about how I feel about the entire run of BSG? The answer is, not much. I still love the show. I still think that, over the course of its journey, the show got really close to revealing fascinating truths about humanity, fully exploiting the sci-fi nature of the show to project humanity now into a portrait of humanity in the future. The show is still brilliant. It's just really disappointing to see the whole run of the show discredited as leading inexorably to a witless religious fictional piece at best, and a pedantic, simplistic cautionary tale at worst.

So I would still count it among the best science fiction shows ever made. It's still filled with compelling characters, it still develops some fascinating ideas, and it still has some really great space battle action. In fact, if you discount portions of the last season, it still hangs together as a coherent whole. It just didn't know how to end in any reasonable way.

And that is why LOST, even if its finale is a colossal failure, will not self-destruct. It will still hold together for a lot of the same reasons that BSG will. Its discussion of faith, reason, fate, and choice will all still be there, even if the finale sucks.

But the finale, I think (and hope), will not suck. LOST already has a few things going in its favor. For starters, unlike the show-runners at BSG, the LOST producers have demonstrated time and time again that they have a plan for the show. It may not be a detailed plan, but it is a plan, and it's being implemented. As a clear, concise demonstration of this fact: BSG was canceled in its 4th season; LOST negotiated 3 seasons ago just when it planned to wrap up.

Furthermore, the LOST producers have made all sorts of statements about tiering which mysteries get answered and which will not get any more screen time. Of course I do not like the idea of any mysteries left unsolved, but I am much happier to hear that the producers are planning carefully how they will wrap up the show.

Also, when BSG approached its final moments, the viewers were all wondering essentially the same thing: will it be the past, the present, or the future on our Earth when the colonials find it? LOST offers no simple multiple choice question. The show keeps taking chances and doing really strange and risky things, so even the most devoted fans can't begin to guess how the show will wrap up. To me, this will help the wrap-up feel fresh regardless of how it happens.

Even if you don't buy all of that, though, remember that LOST always had a plan, if not from day one, at least from the beginning of season 2. The writers have been working on reaching a pre-determined point for 5 years, whereas BSG was working towards their ending for about a half of a season. The BSG intro in season 1 said that the Cylons had a plan, but somewhere in season 3 the producers admitted that they didn't really know what that plan was. The ultimate comfort for LOST fans is that their show-runners have always had a plan.

In short, BSG is still one of the greatest science fiction television shows ever made, despite its ending, but LOST stands to be even greater, partially because of its ending. Here's hoping the LOST producers don't prove me horribly wrong.

Phew. Glad I got that off my chest. I promise the next post will be a lot less nerd-tastic.

(Note: I, of course, invite feedback, and I imagine that anyone who cares enough about both of these shows to read this whole article will also care enough about them to formulate an opinion, very possibly different from mine. Please share it.)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Won't somebody please think of the children

PETA and millions of decent football fans around the world are disappointed that the Philadelphia Eagles have chosen to sign a man who hanged dogs from trees, electrocuted them with jumper cables, held them underwater until they drowned in his swimming pool, and even threw his own family dogs into the fighting pit to be torn to shreds while he laughed. What sort of message does this send to young fans who care about animals and don't want to see them be harmed?

That, my friends, is the official statement from PETA after Michael Vick signed a contract to be the back up quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. A spokesperson from PETA later stated that Michael Vick "fit the established profile for anti-social personality disorder (APD)," more commonly referred to as a psychopath. There is no denying that Vick did some terrible, terrible things. Dogfighting is a brutal and dangerous sport. For this, he was sent to prison for two years, and is currently on probation.

If I may answer your question, PETA, the message to "young fans who care about animals" is that being the organizer of a dogfighting ring will earn you years in prison and cost you millions of dollars in legal fees and lost wages. And kids, if you're a professional quarterback who would be lucky to play 8-10 years in the NFL, then you should count on forfeiting about 20% of your lifetime earning potential. You should also expect to be treated as a morally inferior child by those who profit from a different brutal and dangerous sport.

The question that I have for PETA and everyone else showing such moral indignation about a football team signing Vick is this: What sort of message does this send to young fans who believe that human beings can change and should be given a second chance after they have been punished for their crimes? I'm not saying that Vick is or is not a psychopath or that he won't participate in a dog fight again in his life. I have no idea if those things are true. Nonetheless, he has been deemed eligible to return to work by our legal system. It would be a shame if we decided that an ex-convict could never work in his chosen field again.

I would be very happy to hear PETA's answer to these questions: Should someone convicted of harming animals never be allowed to participate in society again? Should we cut them off from all legal sources of income or just extremely high paying jobs in sports? I don't know the answers to these questions either, but I am fairly certain that if I operated a lucrative underground dog fighting ring and had a lucrative legal job and I was told that I was no longer morally eligible to return to my legal job, well, I would only have one choice left, wouldn't I?

Monday, June 15, 2009

The High Line Park

I wanted to do a very quick post to share a really interesting project that has been in the works for a very long time. It's called the High Line, and it's a park above New York City. The park has its origins in an abandoned section of overhead train tracks. The guys who developed the park got the idea from the little ecosystem that seemed to form itself over time in the abandoned space.

Now, the High Line has become something welcoming and engaging, a park for the public. Only one section is apparently open, but SBO friend Aviva paid this section a visit. The photo above is from her post about her visit. Read it here.

It's interesting to see how the remnants of a phase of societal development become the backbone for a later one. Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few other examples: the ritual center of a religious group becoming a pastoral must-see, an orchard becoming a loose collection of free fruit trees, or a prison becoming a tourist attraction. It also makes me wonder what of our current age will become the repurposed relics of the next generation.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Anonymous Revisited: Anonymity and Societal Norms

Patton Oswalt once said that the fuel of the nerd mafia is disappointment and exclusion. This isn’t only true of the nerd mafia: it’s true of any socially disaffected group that doesn’t have access to the well of societally granted superiority and therefore must fabricate their own. In any group that is mostly filled with nerds (or any other sort of socially less-accepted individuals), the people that craft the agendas and lead the pack are those that are best at fabricating superiority.

The most common method of fabricating superiority is to lambast anyone that doesn’t contribute in the desired way with personal attacks and derision. The nerd mafia don gets his power from being the meanest, most alienating member of the group, thus crafting his group only of people that will give in to his superiority.

But what happens when such a nerd society goes leaderless? What happens when, say, a group of anonymous individuals band together to have a laugh and pour out their derision on those less quick-witted than them?

If you are a regular reader of this blog (or if you are an informed Internet citizen), you have probably already pieced together that I am referring to the Internet’s most famous nerd mafia, Anonymous. In a previous post, I described some of the higher goals of this loose collective: the goals of free speech, of critical thinking, and of challenging social norms. All of these are noble goals, and Anoymous takes them seriously. But as a result of their structure as a largely unorganized group of aspiring nerd mafia dons, Anonymous is also a hotbed of bullying and hate.

Since every member of Anonymous is inherently anonymous themselves, each encounter they have with the group is a new chance to feel that surge of nerd power, to cut down another faceless individual with ridicule. The ridicule, then, is much more potent, vitriolic, and terrible than it would be if normal reputational factors were at work; people can say and do the most horrible things when neither they nor the objects of their ridicule are even clearly defined as actual people.

So any given thread on 4chan, Anonymous’s home base of a sort, is filled with faceless rage, meaningless hate, racism, sexism, cruelty of many kinds, and jostling competition for the reward of even one post declaring one nerd mafioso’s contribution “win.” This fleeting declaration of the worth of someone’s contribution is the only reward Anonymous offers.

Such fast-paced, quick-turnover work among tirelessly approval-seeking nerds breeds innovation, but of a certain kind. Rickrolling is the perennial perfect example: it’s clever, it’s hilarious for a while, and then, after what seems like mere weeks, it’s tired and played out. Anonymous is a breeding ground for this kind of viral content. Anonymous is innovative, but their innovation is fleeting, transitory.

Which brings us to today. Remember when Anonymous struck out against the actually quite harmful tactics of Scientology? They rallied around a cause, and their efforts were not unrewarded, since as a result of their protests, new documents came to light and new organizations jumped in to help those imprisoned by the more cult-like directives of Scientology. But in an organization that prizes quick-wits and competition for attention, a movement like Anonymous’s anti-Scientology campaign is bound to fizzle before it makes the desired impact. In fact, among the 4chan boards, those people who still protest at Scientology centers and still sport goofy costumes and pithy signs are considered the lowest of the low. They are slaves to the last big thing, and Anonymous only appreciates the next big thing. Within what passes for the social circles of Anonymous, these people are referred to as “the cancer that is killing” 4chan. Any progress this campaign was making is now halted by a wall of disapproval.

While I agree with the fundamental tenets of free speech and Internet anonymity, this factional split and continuous member alienation within Anonymous demonstrates what we lose when we do become entirely anonymous. What we lose is the benefit of societal organization. We lose social norms, the incentives to make a lasting change, and the deep rewards of long-term interpersonal relationships. While we don’t lose what it means to be human, we do lose what it means to be humanity.

Unfortunately, I am in no position to propose answers or clear solutions. For now, I merely seek to demonstrate the problem. Before any laws on privacy or anonymity are enacted or enforced, there must be a careful analysis of what we gain or lose when the Internet trends towards more (or less) anonymity. I value anonymity on the Internet, but such severe anonymity has its price. When society is a collection of flashes in the pan competing to see which can flash brightest, we’re just burning through useful social capital.

(image credit: cc licensed (by-nc-nd) image by JacobDavis)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Steroids and Lasik Eye Surgery

Bobby Baun.

I know that for Americans, there is little meaning to that name. Bring it up in Toronto though and people will immediately free associate words like "heroic" and "selfless." Bobby Baun had one of the most iconic moments in hockey history. In game 6 of the Stanley Cup final between his Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings, the largely defensive defenseman broke his ankle in the first period. He went to the locker room, got taped up, took some painkillers, and returned to score the overtime winner to force a game 7, which the Leafs also won. He is in the pantheon of sports heroes (Canadian sports heroes, but still).

Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds is one of the most reviled figures in sports history. Bring up his name and people will immediately free associate words like "cheater" and "disgrace." As his career began to take a back seat to the home run record chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire, he allegedly used steroids and put in some of the best numbers in the history of baseball. Books have been written about how he defiled the game along with every other person from the steroid era of baseball.

I am not entirely certain why, as sports fans, we worship the players who use pain killers to get the most out of their bodies, who enhance their physique through painful and unnaturally long hours of body building, who get corrective eye surgery so that they can see the pitch better, while cursing the players who use steroids to get the most out of their bodies.

The uproar surrounding HGH is even more confusing to me than decrying steroids. Malcolm Gladwell has already written a perfect post on this issue and I do not need to reiterate his points. I wonder if the real problem is that the public generally do not have any idea about what HGH is. They are just scary initials to most people and have been lumped with steroids in the minds of the people. HGH speeds recovery so that a player can get back on the field after an injury as quickly as possible. Why is that different than what Bobby Baun, the hero of the Toronto Maple Leafs, did?

I was reminded of the topic of steroid and HGH use after reading a recent excerpt in Sports Illustrated for a new book detailing Roger Clemens' alleged steroid use. I don't care to link to the article because I don't think Clemens did anything newsworthy. He used then legal means to improve his ability to play the game that he loved. At worst, we should be indifferent. At best, we should see him as heroic, like we do Bobby Baun and all the other players who showed “guts” and “heart” by “sacrificing their bodies” and “playing through the pain."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ancient vs. Modern Cultism: Is That a Thing?

earlier today, i was reading a pile of interesting wikipedia articles about all of the "messiahs" that have cropped up over the existence of judaism, and i noticed that a few of them spurred their own sects of judaism that persist even until today.

shabtai tzvi is probably the best known (aside, possibly, from jesus) of the jewish messiah claimants. he started his little campaign in the 1600s. the wiki describes him as basically bipolar, possibly a sociopath. he was well-versed in jewish mysticism, and he used this knowledge to craft a set of practices and doctrines that appealed to a surprisingly large number of jews at that time. he was, it seems, a smart, talented young man who felt self-important enough to call himself the leader of a people, a religious figurehead.

but isn't that a fair assessment of any of the charismatic, messianic figures at the top of any religious sect?

like, is jesus a possible example of that model? muhammad? moses, even? any of those people? couldn't we just see ANY of them as people with some good ideas and the will to push those ideas?

and it seems the current distrust of these types of religious figures might be a difference between modern and ancient attitude, not modern and ancient religious figures. is it just a coincidence that religious figureheads and leaders slide down towards the "levelheaded patriarch" end of the scale the farther back in time they started their religious teaching, but closer to the "mentally unstable cult leader" end of that same scale the more modern they are? older religious leaders, in general, seem more reputable to us, but newer ones, in general, seem less so.

the problem is that we have no way to directly inspect or experience any of the revered ancient religious leaders under modern standards; all we get is the minimal inspection done by their credulous followers.

in other words, would a modern outlook on the religious figureheads of the past convince us they are just as much charismatic sociopaths or attention lovers as, say, j.z. knight's ramtha? would our society's distrust of modern religious figures maintain its potency when turned on the religious figures of antiquity?

i don't see why we can't look critically at the genesis of our deeply held ancient religious convictions using a similar standard that we use for "modern religions" but still see the value in those convictions. for instance, if we really think about the beginnings of judaism (or christianity or islam or any ancient religion), we might ask: was moses a revelator? an emissary of god? or was he just a man with a still relevant and fulfilling message, with the self-importance and will to push that message onto a group of followers?

that's not to say that religion doesn't offer us something fascinating, helpful, personal and deeply fulfilling. that's also not to say that moses wasn't, as depicted, an exceedingly humble voice of reason. that's not even to say that moses's message lacked any sort of divine inspiration or godly spirit (however we choose to define any of those terms). any of those things can still be true. we can still get a ton out of religion even if we are skeptical of the "cult of personality" aspects of our own personal religious affiliations.

unfortunately, this way of thinking about religion implies all sorts of value judgments. it implies dichotomies between "primitive" and "enlightened" thinking, between "religious fervor" and "skepticism," between "smart" and "not smart." that's not the point, though. the point is to remember that religion isn't a set of answers to questions, it's a framework to appreciate and think about those questions. religion can offer us a TON when examined and practiced critically. it's just our job to make sure we actually DO examine and practice our religions critically.

(i, of course, invite any comments anyone has. i don't realllllly know what i'm talking about, even moreso in this post than in a lot of my previous ones, so feedback, questions, and challenges would be awesome. remember, i'm not challenging the validity of any religion, i'm merely challenging the rigidity of thinking about religious leaders. also, that image: public domain. also, no caps: is it distracting?)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Selling Your Neighbor's Lawnmower: The CC and Personality Rights

An interesting situation resulting from creative commons licensure on Flickr has cropped up relatively recently. A church youth leader posted a picture of one of the kids in his group on his Flickr account, and he chose a CC license (specifically the one that requires mere attribution for commercial use) for the photos in his photostream.

Half way around the world, Virgin Mobile in New Zealand grabbed the photo and printed up (rather large) advertisements, insinuating that the girl pictured was a pen pal that someone would finally be able to "drop" once they got a Virgin Mobile phone. That's not a nice thing to say about a pen pal, and the girl, who's name is Alison Chang, was reasonably kind of upset about her depiction on these ads.

So, she sued. Or rather, someone sued on her behalf. The interesting thing about this case is that the guy who took the photo has no copyright infringement claim against Virgin. His license gave Virgin every right to use the photo in their ads. The theory in this suit isn't a copyright one; it's a "right to publicity" or "personality rights" case. It's more akin to a model who hasn't signed a release form than to a photographer who's work has been stolen.

But aside from the claims against Virgin, the suit also names the Creative Commons as a defendant. That makes no sense to me. The license worked exactly as it was supposed to: the photographer released any rights to the photo (conditioned on attribution) to anyone who wanted to use the work. The Creative Commons didn't make any mistakes here. The photographer, however, might have. He released a right to use Alison's likeness that he never had in the first place. It's similar to if I sell you, via eBay, my neighbor's lawn mower, and my neighbor gets mad at you for using it. If the photographer did anything wrong, it was that.

But he probably didn't do anything wrong. The issue has to be re-defined: a reasonable person knows they can't sell their neighbor's lawn mower to a third party without consent. Does a reasonable person know they can't give their neighbor's likeness to a third party without consent? In general, probably yes: anyone knows, for instance, that people in the background of a reality television shoot have to sign releases. So does a reasonable person know that posting a photo under a CC-atrib license is the same thing as giving it away to anyone who is willing to credit them, to use it however they like? Maybe not.

This is a failure of individuals to try to understand their licensing, not a failure of the license. Flickr, by default, puts all new uploads under a traditional "all rights reserved" license. An individual has to actively switch their photos from "all rights reserved" (what this photographer probably wanted) to "some rights reserved" (the license that allowed this supposed misappropriation). Things like this wouldn't happen if people took a moment to think about what switching their license gives up. Should courts protect people who don't understand what they are giving away? Or should they incentivise learning what they are giving away? Maybe some combination of the two?

This case will help define how "personality rights" and model releases work for alternative licenses like a CC license. Either way, as alternative licensing structures become more commonplace and are more fully understood by the public, cases like this will likely become a lot less frequent. And according to CC, education about these licenses is one of their main goals. That means, at least in regard to the Creative Commons, that as time goes by there will be less litigation and more education, with reasonably understood copyright policies and rules eventually taking shape.

(Note: the image at the top is from Joe Pemberton's photostream, used under a CC license. It's a clever little image, but unlike the guy who created it, I don't think any of this confusion is the CC's fault.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

"Sita" Tries Very Very Hard to Finally "Sing the Blues"

New York based animator Nina Paley has done something remarkable in her film Sita Sings the Blues. The film is an elegant combination of a few disparate elements: animated dramatizations of the tales contained in the ancient Indian Ramayana, a hilarious retelling of those stories by three Indian shadow puppets, the titular Sita singing old blues standards to her mistreating husband Rama, and the story of Paley's own mistreatment by her husband while he was away in India.

It sounds complex, but the two narratives, as embodied in Paley's true breakup story and in Sita and Rama's story in the Ramayana, are pretty coherently presented throughout the film. The two tales also have a lot of parallels, and Paley deftly uses these various stylistic elements to draw them together in interesting ways. Even the blues song interludes resonate with meaning parallel to the two stories being told. The particular songs Paley chose for her film are all performances by early 20th century jazz singer, Annette Hanshaw, and her voice complements the film exceptionally well.

But there's a problem.

You see, song recordings like Hanshaw's are often, even now, still under their copyrights. Even more troubling is that the rights to a song can be divided between the copyright holder of the recording itself and any number of co-composers. The handful of songs that Paley used in her film for example, it turns out, were under copyrights owned by a long list of different people (you should check out that list... it's kind of daunting). And the amount of money this list of people required Paley to pay in order to use the songs proved prohibitive.

The short version of the contorted copyright fiasco is that Paley couldn't afford to get the required licenses to exhibit the film in theaters. She couldn't afford to release the thing she had worked on for so long solely because the songs she used were tied up in America's absurd copyright system. Her own expansion and reinterpretation of the meaning of these songs was held back by a backward-looking system of giant copyright terms.

Eventually, the critics caught wind of the film and watched their screener copies. The consensus was that the film was at least fun to watch, and at most a masterpiece (here's Ebert's take). The hype ball started rolling, and eventually Paley's plight was public enough that people started demanding to see the film, one way or another.

Paley has responded. Over at, the film is streaming in full. In fact, this site offers this list of places to see and download the movie for free all over the internet. All Paley asks is that people share and respect her art, and maybe even donate. She is concerned about money, of course, but she first and foremost needs this work to finally be seen. In her own words, "I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License."

So I recommend that you go watch the film, but even if you don't, at least think about what this means for the future of entertainment: we all own our culture, and if someone wants you to pay for it, in this increasingly pirated and remixed media world, they need to make it worth your while. Not only does Paley offer one example of a film that would be worth your while, she also shows that it isn't worth the while of ancient copyright holders to imprison the culture of the past; if we want it, it's already ours anyway, and we're going to use it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Indifference to Darwin

On February 12, 2009, many participated in Charles Darwin’s birthday, aptly named “Darwin Day,” to celebrate his contributions to science and to celebrate science in general.

Darwin’s evolution theory, a process by which inheritable changes in a population are spread over many generations, is the cornerstone of biology, providing vast insight into the history of our world and our species.

America is often criticized as one of the few secular countries where a majority of its citizens do not believe in evolution. Many argue that misconceptions about evolution are to blame, and to be sure, there is plenty of misinformation about the subject widely available on the Web. But recent surveys show that people really just don’t know anything about evolution in general, and frankly, they don’t care.

A Gallup Poll taken an early February shows that 46% of Americans could not name what Darwin was famous for. While 25% of Americans do not agree with evolution, 36% did not care either way. In June of 2007, a USA Today/Gallup Poll asked Americans whether a presidential candidate’s belief in evolution affected their vote. 54% of Americans said it made no difference, while 70% believe that is not even relevant.

As Darwin Day came and went on my campus, there weren’t public argument over the merits of evolution. There were the few that celebrated and then there was everybody else, the people who probably couldn’t care less.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Panic! at the Facebook Terms of Service

Another item for the "your media isn't yours" file, but probably this belongs more in the "needless histrionics" file.

Some background: when you use most interactive internet services, you have to agree to a set of license terms and general terms of service before you are granted access to the site. These terms define what rights you have in using the service, but also what rights the service has in dealing with you.

Now the story: Facebook changed it's terms of service a little while back. The new terms included an item that said something along the lines of "anything you post is our property / licensed to us in perpetuity, even if you delete your account," which sounds reasonably alarming at first blush. This tiny little term seems to imply that if you post a poem or photo on Facebook, you give up your rights to it forever.

So naturally, people were very concerned when this change first took effect. Or, I guess, saying "very concerned" sort of undersells it: people went insane, started myriad protest groups (example), and flooded the blogosphere with alarmist, high-strung panicked missives. The internet collectively flared up in anger over Facebook's new policy.

But this policy, on reflection, seems to be pretty right minded. Facebook says that this term only aimed to more accurately reflect how their system actually works: when you delete your account, you can't delete the things you put on other people's wall or in their inbox. Those things remain the property of Facebook, but not for dark, illicit reasons; this is merely to keep the site operating the way its users, like your friends, expect it to, even if you delete your account.

And of course a situation like this isn't simple. Facebook probably was overstepping their traditional proprietary content boundaries with the term, but they probably only meant it for the best. It's a murky gray area that is different in every case. The Trademark Blog points out, though, that there is one constant in "terms of service" change cases: overreaction. Like the 5 stages of grieving, the blog outlines the common pattern of public outcry in cases like this.

The blog's "theory" is astonishingly dead-on in this situation, and I think it might be generalizable to nearly any situation related to intellectual property and cyberlaw. People have pretty concrete expectations for how their cyber-life should work, and they pretty much uniformly panic when they find out that these assumptions have no basis. And, for better or for worse, any change in how people interact with each other over the internet will always include this panic stage.

Facebook has apparently reverted their terms since the outcry, so this panic certainly serves a normative function, at the very least; if people are going to go nuts over any change, companies will be more likely to explain changes and less likely to make unfair ones. At the worst, though, and possibly more likely, this demonstrates just how little people understand their rights (and the rights of other entities) on the internet.

(I've got a post brewing about how little people understand their rights under a Creative Commons license, too. Stay tuned! Image cred: TylerIngram)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Keeping the Waters of Research Fresh with Open Access

It seems that in the field of law, as in, I am sure, many other fields, professors, academics, and practitioners often develop specific pet issues that they talk about and advocate for more than any other issues within their field of expertise. As an example, Lawrence Lessig is well-known for his defense of the commons in an increasingly IP-rights-encumbered creative sphere on the web, but he recently switched to advocating for publicly funded elections and a less money-driven congress.

Professor Michael Carroll is no exception. He sits on the board of the Creative Commons, teaches law in D.C., and keeps a well written, well thought out blog. But his pet issue right now, it seems, is open access to scholarly journal material.

It's not a hard issue to understand. Academic and scientific research is imperative for the growth of society, so it gets funded, often, by a mixture of corporate money and government grants. But then the fruits of that research can get locked up, sometimes in patents, but almost always in copyrighted journal articles. Carroll recognizes this for the impediment to progress that it is, and he is advocating for open access to scholarly journal articles, particularly those that are funded by the very same public that is denied access through scholarly writing copyrights.

Carroll's blog touches on this issue often (here, for example), but a recent post offers a great example of this open access being offered by people who understand very well the monetary incentives behind copyrights: economics scholars. In this post, Carroll profiles a company that offers a platform for open access to economics journal articles. They offer this platform freely to any takers, not charging a premium or a licence fee for those that choose to implement the platform. An excerpt from their "about page" begins, "As economists, you should be asking: why is “ free” a sensible business model? There are several reasons...."

And the several reasons are all economically sound ones (and actually relatively easy to understand, even as a non-econ person). The most persuasive to me, of course, is that this group, called Access Econ, "sincerely want[s] open-access to spread as rapidly and widely as possible, especially in economics. To nickel and dime people who share this vision seems completely self-defeating."

Indeed, Carroll loves that last bit, too. But can you blame him? Sure, offering economic incentives in the form of copyright to those doing the research is what keeps the research going, but sometimes the very long copyright duration on these kinds of things forces the pool of available literature on a scientific or scholarly topic to stagnate.

No innovation or progress can live healthily and flourish in such stagnant waters, so it's not hard to see why new ideas flowing into this pool all the time is clearly a good thing.

(photo cred: Interestingly enough, IP and cyberlaw Renaissance dude Joi Ito took the photo of Prof. Carroll I used above. Ito is the CEO of the Creative Commons, so naturally he made this image available under one of that company's most permissive licences.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Privacy Controls vs. Digital Rights Management

("Locked away" from t3mujin)

Fantastic blogger Anil Dash asked an astute question the other day about digital rights management. To quote him,

"[H]ow are privacy settings on social networks different than DRM restrictions placed on media content files from companies? Is it because I'm not a corporation? Is it because the DRM technology is provided by Flickr or Facebook instead of by Apple's iTunes or Microsoft's WIndows Media? Is it because I only (theoretically) grant permissions to dozens or hundreds of people, instead of millions?"

Superficially, the two electronic control methods are similar. Both involve code controls on the dissemination of information. But there are clear differences as well, and it isn't, as Dash suggests, based on the size of the corporation or the size of the excluded population. In fact, it's more fundamental: the set of rights protected by DRM is drastically different from the set of rights protected by social network privacy controls.

DRM is traditionally a way of controlling property rights. So to compare social network privacy to digital rights management, you'd have to characterize people viewing your profile on Facebook as a transfer of property rights, with a need to control the consequences of that transfer. Sharing information is never a distribution of property; it is a bedrock principle of copyright that one cannot have personal property rights in information, only in expression.

As a counterexample, flickr does offer a transfer of property rights, in that someone can take a copy of your photo off of flickr and make it their own. Your expression through photography creates a property right for you in that expression, and it is therefore easy to see why you want to protect that property. Flickr does have privacy controls, as described in Dash's post, but it doesn't have DRM; if it did, there'd be a way to control who can download a copy of your photo, not just who can view it.

In other words, to compare the two is to compare you controlling your private information to someone controlling how you can use your property. It's like comparing someone reading your mail to someone stealing your empty mailbox.

While DRM and privacy controls are clearly in service of different legal interests and rights, Dash mentions the more key distinction: people don't like DRM, but people do like privacy controls. DRM traditionally takes money, apparatus, and architecture to implement. Those are things that big media companies tend to have, while private consumers tend not to. So, as a collective of private consumers, we, the people, are against it. It's something "big business" is doing to us, whereas privacy controls are something we are doing for ourselves.

And that is the heart of the DRM issue. As I've said a few times, giving creators the ability to control how the fruits of their creative labor are sold (i.e. how they are rewarded for expressing themselves) is in service of a real, fundamental, even constitutional concept: we want people to want to keep creating. Anyone can get behind that concept. But people feel cheated when they are deprived, as a group, of some right by a company, even in service of this noble goal. By contrast, people feel empowered when they do the depriving in a privacy context.

The only way to get past this creativity-incentive / corporate-animus dichotomy is to make DRM look a little more flawless, a little more elegant, but we are nowhere near doing that. Take, for instance, that ever present Spore case. A class of spurned Spore purchasers has initiated a suit against the company behind the game, on theories of interference with their computers via un-asked-for DRM applications.

As long as DRM looks more like a malformed fence interfering with our property and less like an amicable, neighborly border defining our media ownership, no one is going to accept it. It's not the existence of DRM that people are fighting, it's the architecture.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Masculinity, 2k9 Edition

Original post here

There have been a couple of articles online lately that have hinted to a new breed of masculinity emerging just in time for 2009. In a Videogum post titled "Bromance Is The Most Important Examination of Modern Masculinity Ever" from a few days ago the new MTV series Bromance is described as Women-Studies-PhD-thesis-worthy. I don't have cable so I haven't actually seen the show, and even if I did have cable I wouldn't have watched already anyway. From what I gather, Bromance is a reality series/pseudo-game show about a dude (MTV's The Hill's Brody Jenner) getting another dude to be his best friend (al la The Bachelor but with best friendship instead of marriage). In theory, the premise sounds noble-- there is a common, almost primal need for good friend. But in reality, it's a lot harder for the machismo male that's celebrated in American MTV culture to have a special platonic same-sex friend.

The reason Videogum calls this series out as a major player in gender theory is the interaction between contestants vying to be Brody's new Best Friend. Apparently the interaction between contestants and with Brody is kind of, well, gay. In the short Videogum recap video they posted of the show (seen above) the contestants are almost laugh-out-loud uncomfortably funny. The video clip is a lot of dudes trying to show how not gay they are while simultaneously showing a whole lot of tender, genuine emotion in order to snag Brody's attention.* At first I thought the uncomfortable humor on an MTV spin off of a spin off of a reality show was coincidental or maybe just a side effect of the cooky premise but now I don't think it is. On Brody's personal website he (or his publicist, or whoever blogs for him) calls attention to the Videogum post. He even calls it a"bomb-ass" (which, I think means, REALLY AWESOME in bro-in-a-reality-show speak) post. For the main character to point out to his biggest fans these theories as positive and important must mean he's in on the joke. I like that he's being playful in his role as a MTV reality star and his acknowledgment of the idea of homoerotic tension between EXTREMELY STRAIGHT bros is appealing and new for the type of dude that's usually hanging around on MTV.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

The other article that's potentially changing masculinty is the MSNBC discussion on Mantyhose. The product mantyhose is being discussed everywhere now and has blown into this huge internet meme (and yes, I'm adding fuel to this fire. you're welcome). Mantyhose is described as a pantyhose (or probably a lot more like tights) for construction workers, athletes and business men (the very manly positions they list is not an accident) that men use for "support, comfort and aesthetic purposes". The market for mantyhose is probably TINY at most and even smaller when you take out those that buy this product as a gag gift, a prop in a sexual fetish, or an actual legitimate product for the cross-dressing/drag queen population (this group of consumers is purposely left out of this discussion saying, " (the) trend has no connection to men who wear hose to cross-dress, since they prefer to wear pairs that are more feminine"). To be honest, if you buy good quality tights they actually can be really comfortable and warm even though a lot of people wouldn't agree. I actually have a pair of tights that I wear when I know I'm going to be in the cold because they have fleece on the inside I can understand why a dude might want to do the same thing.

The disappointing thing about all the buzz about mantyhose is that it only is buzz. One mainstream media outlet needed something wacky to talk about so their research department found the one online mantyhose shop and reported about it. Then a bajillion other outlets picked it up because they know they'll get hits. They think people are all like OMG GUYS WEARING WOMAN'S CLOTHING? I HOPE THERE ARE PICS. SO ZANY. And people probably are like that. That is why something like this isn't really doing much damage on the general concept of masculinity. The only reason this product is subversive at all (and it's bordering on being something that just exudes a new type of sexism instead of a new kind of masculinity) is actually because it is a product that was originally created for females but a few men have discovered its positive qualities.

Mantyhose has had its fifteen minutes and will probably never catch on to any mainstream population. Bromance, on the other hand, might actually be making some people think. There have to be guys that take their social ques from television and after watching an entire season of Bromance they might be willing to interact with their guy friends a little bit more intimately. Or, maybe not. What's important is that the option is being explored and allowed on a bro-centric channel. Who knows, it might pave the way for more important changes in thought in the future.

*Note: I don't think that when guys show emotion they're gay. But I do think the type of guys on this show typically think it's gay if they show that much emotion.

Monday, January 5, 2009

All That Glitters is not Gold

During volatile economic times, investors and traders go back to conservative positions. If the stock market looks risky, money markets, government securities, and even commodities (“hard assets”) look attractive. The phenomenon is called a “flight to quality” and is common during bearish markets. Gold, one of the first stores of wealth, has received much attention as a way to guard against inflation and market volatility.

A friend and proponent of the new “Gold Rush” (having sold most of his stock to finance his investment into gold) explained, “Gold has intrinsic value and that’s why it will always be a valuable investment.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, no commodity has intrinsic value—stocks and bonds do: they are tied to the performance and potential dividends of a company. Commodities, on the other hand, being the fungible assets that they are, are linked to fluctuations in global supply and demand. And often, their market values are reflective of what investors think they are worth, not now, but in the future.

Yet the Gold Rush has caught on among the crowd that believes we should move back to the “gold standard,” where the American money supply is linked dollar-for-dollar to a store of gold. Our current system uses a floating money supply, or “fiat” system. American dollars are backed in part by foreign currencies but not hard assets. There is no intrinsic value to paper: the US Dollar is worth what we believe it is worth—or what we believe it can buy us. This may sound ridiculous, but collectively, it’s a system that works.

From what I’ve gathered, gold investments sound appealing for two reasons. One—there is a common misunderstanding about its worth, that as discussed above, gold has an intrinsic, even monetary, value. This commonly held view, in my opinion, has its basis in antiquity, when gold was the primary form of currency. The Bible commonly mentions gold as a standard measure of wealth. Gold back then had an almost supernatural quality to it—it was used in the building of religious artifacts and was also a symbol of majesty and grandeur. Today, gold has less utility in the way of building religious items but maintains its symbol of luster in the form of jewelry. The power of this symbolism and its subsequent perceived value is still a matter of faith; in other words, gold is fiat too.

The second reason builds upon the first. During economic downturn, doomsayers prophesize the end of the US Dollar. A common misconception is that gold is not as volatile as the stock market and has even out performed it. If you follow this line of thinking, what better way is there to safeguard your money then by putting it into something with hard intrinsic value? But even in a complete economic meltdown, few items maintain their value. As pointed out an article in The Economist, during such times, jewelry could maintain some value; however, totalitarian governments emerging from the crises are usually quick to snag such items. Think of the treasures taken by Nazi Germany or Saddam Hussein. In these cases, gold jewelry may be valuable as property—but not as an investment. And you’d better have a good hiding place for it too.

But even a careful look at the history of gold (since its value began floating in 1971) shows the stock market has greatly and consistently outperformed it. After reaching an incredible peak (yes, gold is also subject to wide speculation too) in the 1980s, it has yet to even come close to this high.

In 2001, gold yielded about as much as the US Dollar, making it a rather lackluster investment. Accordingly, $10,000 in gold invested in January 1980 would be worth $10,600 today. Conversely, $10,000 in the S&P would be worth $279,000

To those pushing for a return to the gold-standard: if the idea of an investment is to outperform inflation, then returning to gold-backed money would mean the end to gold as an ideal investment.

The reality is that declining prices make stocks a better deal. Diversification is important—including into commodities—but gold does not provide the protection against inflation and the stock market that the proponents purport. Don’t buy the hype.

1. Zweig, Jason. “Why to Steer Clear of the New Gold Rush.” Money, v. 37 issue 4, 2008, p. 66-66.
2. “Apocalypse now?.” Economist, v. 386 issue 8572, 2008, p. 84-84.

Public Domain Day 2009!

(above: a beautiful illustration, now in the PUBLIC DOMAIN, of Raggedy Ann)

Let me start by wishing you a belated Public Domain Day! This is a joyous day for many, and I celebrated by reading a Raggedy Ann book.

First things first, you might wonder what Public Domain Day actually is. The story starts with some rudimentary copyright law: copyright protection for some works extends for the life of the author plus 70 years. That means that, for instance, if I wrote a children's book, the book would enter the public domain and be freely available, no limitations, 70 years after my death, on January 1st of that 70th year.

Things get more complex immediately after that in the story of copyright (for instance, if a publishing company owned the rights to my work, or if any part of the work became a trademark, or even if the work were created between certain years more recently, there are tons of extra protections). But in general, on January 1st each year, a new crop of artists' 70-years-after-death protection lapses and their self-published work enters the public domain.

The biggest names in this year's Public Domain Day celebrations are Raggedy Ann and Popeye the Sailor. Granted, most of the material associated with these characters is still under protection via other companies and not the creators, but the first self-published stuff concerning these characters is all free and clear now!

I know you might find it hard to get excited about a new Raggedy Anne book finally entering the public domain. But Public Domain Day might one day make a difference in your life.

Imagine a party scene, maybe in a film, with a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday To You," the classic birthday ballad. Most people don't know that "Happy Birthday To You" is still under copyright. Anyone who uses it in a film has to pay to do so (apparently, according to the Wiki, something like $10,000). Any film in which you have seen this song had to pay a royalty to use the song, and you had to pay the (admittedly very small) increased ticket price associated with higher film royalties.

That's why Public Domain Day is so exciting: on Public Domain Day in 2030, any filmmaker or songwriter or performer can freely use "Happy Birthday To You." That song will finally enter the public domain in approximately 20 years.

So this Public Domain Day, take a moment to celebrate the newest additions to the public domain (a somewhat comprehensive, complex list is here), but also take a moment to consider the arguably lousy state of copyright in the U.S., where an original artwork or composition can be off limits for the better part of a century after its creator has passed on.

Now go out and raise a can of spinach in celebration of Popeye's recent partial liberation into the public domain. Happy Public Domain Day!