Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avast, Me Proud Beauty! Wanna Know Why My Roger Is So Jolly?

As I write this deep within the comforting Arabian bosom of an Etihad airliner, bound for the frozen tundra of the UK for a family Christmas, I’m wondering if some of my Christmas gifts, to wit, a bumper harvest of pirated DVDs and computer software culled from the streets, and indeed the plazas, of Jakarta will be confiscated at Heathrow airport. I’m not so much of a cheapskate that I haven’t bought other presents costing more than Rp.7000 per piece, but I’d still be disappointed.

The war on piracy has really taken a ceasefire in Indonesia of course. In fact, battle was never really joined in the first place. Shoppers here can treat themselves to DVDs that flout not just anti-piracy laws but also the country’s pornography laws and censorship decrees (see the whole “Balibo” debacle). Bootlegged software and MP3 download stations are also all online at nearly every one of the city’s malls.

Intellectual property rights and copyright piracy are much discussed issues in our digital age of course and this very newspaper runs a regular column on the subject. There are various counter arguments to the finger wagging of the anti-piracy hawks however, more libertarian ideas that dovetail nicely with the more egalitarian information flows of our newly wired world.

Chin stroking thinkers stretching back to Thomas Jefferson have noticed, for example, that copyright violations involve the theft of information as opposed to something purely physical. It’s not as if someone’s sneaked into the house and stolen my camera (in fact, they did do that last year, the swine). Information is different, it’s not finite, rather it’s infinitely reproducible and thus universal. If, for example, a Jakarta street busker climbs on board a bus with his cardboard and cheese wire guitar and starts caterwauling the latest hit by Dewa, he is technically violating the artist’s intellectual property rights. This crime is redoubled in the unlikely event that he records himself thusly annoying commuters and then tries to sell copies on the street.

But hang on a moment. It’s his guitar, it’s his voice and, crucially, it’s his unkempt head, i.e. the place where the information of the song is stored, along with his date of birth and the names of his 34 siblings. You can’t have sovereignty over information without, so the argument goes, also owning people and their brains. Score one for our busker.

Another argument seeks to oppose the idea of patents. If I work hard and eventually come up with a gadget that can electrically knock out the sound emanating from all mosques within a two kilometer radius (and I have indeed long been working on such a device) do I own the idea and the design? Should I be allowed to patent my anti-sectarian-noise-pollution-o-matic? Conventional wisdom makes a distinction between inventions and discoveries. Patenting genes and biological material (which started in 1907 with the patenting of human adrenaline) is wrong in many people’s view, as such chemicals are the product of millions of years of evolution. My Call To Prayer Tazer ™ was invented and designed by me though. Case closed surely.

Is this distinction tenable though? The difference between inventions and discoveries can be viewed as being rather arbitrary. If it’s a law of nature that copper conducts electricity, for example, is it any less a law of nature that a certain amount of copper, when arranged in a certain configuration with some other added materials makes a battery, and so on? That guy in Java who came up with a Blue Energy device a couple of years back was quite obviously, to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of science, a 100lb pile of brown matter stuffed into a 50lb bag. If he’d been right though, as Yogyakarta’s Muhammadiyah University who funded further research into the project rather stupidly thought he was, would he have been entitled to become stinking rich off the whole enterprise? Surely it would have been the underlying laws of physics that made the whole thing possible?

This leads us onto another argument from the anti-piracy hawks, the idea that you need intellectual property rights to give artists, inventors and creative people financial incentives. This is basically the old capitalist anti-taxation argument in a different form, namely that if society was more egalitarian then its talented trailblazers would have no incentive to get out of bed in the morning. However, a counter argument runs that in reality, people draw on other people’s work in an ongoing collaborative continuum. Our new, increasingly open source digital world exemplifies this approach. Just look at Wikipedia or Ubuntu.

Similarly, heading back a few centuries, Shakespeare never wrote an original plot in his life. Why is he so venerated then? Because he took time honoured stories and imbued them with an intellectual and emotional depth that still resonates today. Similarly, Bach and Tchaikovsky both “sampled” passages by other composers and incorporated them into their work. Would these three find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit today?

Our computer world is increasingly throwing arguments such as the above into sharp relief as individuals become online nodes in a mind bogglingly huge network. Will cyber space spur an educational and intellectual revolution that’ll make the introduction of the public library system look like peanuts and put the fear up supposedly democratic governments everywhere? Or will the Facebook and porn brigade win? Keep buying those Rp.7000 DVDs I say.