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!