May 20, 2012
Back in May of 2010, the popular file-sharing service Limewire was found guilty of copyright infringement in a federal court; Limewire closed last October. Still, the plaintiff, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), is seeking damages– $75 Trillion in damages.
Perhaps noting that $75 Trillion is roughly five times the GDP of the U.S. (and more than the world’s combined GDP), and materially more than the entire music recording industry has made since Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1877, Judge Kimba Wood has ruled the request “absurd.”
But while this is good news for the forces of common sense, it’s a limited victory. Under current IP laws, the defunct company could still owe more than $1 Billion.
[Read more at PCWorld.com]
Meantime, back at the ranch, RIAA members are presiding over the implosion of their business…
larger image at source: “Online vs. Offline in the U.S.: Are the Media Shrinking?“
… and it ain’t piracy that’s doing the damage.
December 5, 2010
The GFAJ-1 strain of Halomonadaceae bacteria is able to use arsenic in its internal structure, an element considered poisonous to all previously known life-forms (source)
On the heels of the last post, “Dykes, Leaks, Fingers…,” comes news of more change that’s on the way whether we’re ready for it or not– NASA’s announcement that scientists have discovered organisms that can swap phosphorus, a basic building block of life as we’ve known it on earth, for arsenic… and flourish.
It could be that arsenic-based life (or life based on some other surprising element) will turn up somewhere else in the universe; as Randall Munroe quips in the xkcd panels above, that’s what NASA-watchers were waiting to hear. But in any case, the announcement is a clear signal that insofar as the arena of biology is concerned, the ropes are down. The “givens” aren’t necessarily given; the limits… well, there may not be limits, at least none anywhere near where we thought they were. This amounts, as lead researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon observed, to “cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.” Indeed, as Caleb Scharf, a Columbia University astrobiologist, told The New York Times, “It’s like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat.”
When the silicon revolution exploded the barriers to faster computation, then communication, large academic/research organizations and mammoth companies took part in the exploration of the new terrain that was opened. But famously– and critically importantly– so did individuals and small groups of hobbyists, hackers. and ultimately, entrepreneurs. Precisely the same pattern is emerging in the exploration of the expanding frontiers of biology.
Huge incumbent institutions like NASA are at work– and so is an already large, and growing, community of “biohackers.” As Nature reports:
…Would-be ‘biohackers’ around the world are setting up labs in their garages, closets and kitchens — from professional scientists keeping a side project at home to individuals who have never used a pipette before. They buy used lab equipment online, convert webcams into US$10 microscopes and incubate tubes of genetically engineered Escherichia coli in their armpits. (It’s cheaper than shelling out $100 or more on a 37 °C incubator.) Some share protocols and ideas in open forums. Others prefer to keep their labs under wraps, concerned that authorities will take one look at the gear in their garages and label them as bioterrorists.
For now, most members of the do-it-yourself, or DIY, biology community are hobbyists, rigging up cheap equipment and tackling projects that — although not exactly pushing the boundaries of molecular biology — are creative proof of the hacker principle. Meredith Patterson, a computer programmer based in San Francisco, California, whom some call the ‘doyenne of DIYbio’, made glow-in-the-dark yogurt by engineering the bacteria within to produce a fluorescent protein. Others hope to learn more about themselves: a group called DIYgenomics has banded together to analyse their genomes, and even conduct and participate in small clinical trials. For those who aspire to change the world, improving biofuel development is a popular draw. And several groups are focused on making standard instruments — such as PCR machines, which amplify segments of DNA — cheaper and easier to use outside the confines of a laboratory, ultimately promising to make DIYbio more accessible…
Meredith Patterson, developing genetically-altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine (source)
Biohacking has a long, if not altogether respectable, pedigree: plastic surgery, performance-enhancing drugs… but then, the earliest tech hackers were often considered outliers– if not indeed, outlaws. The respectability that they gained over the years was a function of the establishment of the new fields– and new markets– they helped build. And as Freeman Dyson observes, that’s sure to happen in the biosphere as well:
… I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee [for computers], becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized…
Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.
Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious…
[Read the whole essay, "Our Biotech Future," in The New York Review of Books. And do click through to the letters and responses at the end-- an amazing colloquy.]
As Dr. Dyson observes, there are certainly attendant dangers. But as analogs from the silicon revolution (and indeed, all the way back to the beginning of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution) demonstrate, “civilian” participation can speed the development of technologies and multiply the ways in which those technologies can be used. Indeed, the only major technology of which I can quickly think that did not have meaningful enthusiast/tinker involvement was the development and exploitation of nuclear weapons/power (and that’s arguably not far off); others– even capital/research-intensive tech like aviation, telecom et al.– were lousy with it.
So, are biohacking and the ever-democratizing biotechnologies that enable it a good thing or bad? Wrong question. History teaches us that technologies aren’t good or bad, they simply “are.” We experience them positively or negatively as a function of the way that they are used. So surely the better question– given that (like the technological capability that spawned Wikileaks) biohacking is here to stay– is what we can do to assure that its impact is, on balance, good.
This provocative book introduces a brand-new view of technology. It suggests that technology as a whole is not just a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies. Kelly looks out through the eyes of this global technological system to discover “what it wants.” Kelly uses vivid examples from the past to trace technology’s long course, and then follows a dozen trajectories of technology into the near future to project where technology is headed.
This new theory of technology offers three practical lessons: By listening to what technology wants we can better prepare ourselves and our children for the inevitable technologies to come. By adopting the principles of pro-action and engagement, we can steer technologies into their best roles. And by aligning ourselves with the long-term imperatives of this near-living system, we can capture its full gifts.
[From the Viking 2010 catalog]
One doesn’t have to buy (as, FWIW, I do) Kevin’s identification of technology as a “living, evolving organism,” even as a metaphor, to appreciate the wisdom of his conclusions: we need to understand emerging technologies; we need engage them, steer them in directions that are safe and productive– we need, jiu jitsu-like, to turn their power to our collective good.
Attempts to deal with the unfamiliar and often uncomfortable implications of new technologies by outlawing the new technologies themselves pretty routinely fail. But worse, they distract from the need– and the opportunity– to learn how to make use of their new capabilities: e.g., while the RIAA insisted on playing Whack-a-Mole with P2P sites, Apple figured out how to use the new technology to reconfigure the music market with iTunes.
More recently, governments have gone ballistic over Wikileaks, using every direct and indirect means at their disposal to silence the site. But as The Economist observes, “short of imposing Chinese-style firewalls and censorship, free countries cannot consistently stop their citizens finding out…” Nor, one might argue, should they– given that what citizens are “finding out” is the range of things being done in their name and on their dime. But in any case, unless they head for totalitarian extremes, governments will have to find a way to behave that’s not so vulnerable to disclosure: the genie has left the bottle.
About 12 years ago I gave a talk to the senior management of one of the largest multiple-media conglomerates in the world, outlining the technological forces (then) in play, and suggesting ways in which they might disrupt their (then) current business models. At the end, I asked if there were any questions; the manager of one of the older, more traditional businesses, threw up his hand. “Yeah, I’ve got a question: How do we stop this?”
The answer, history confirms: “You don’t.”
[Apologies to Rudy Rucker for appropriating the title of this post from his terrific novel.]
Filed in Competition and Industry Structure, Economic, Entrepreneuring, Environmental, Information Industry, Media and Entertainment, Political, Scenario Planning, Social, Technological
Tags: Apple, arsenic, arsenic-based life, bacteria, biohacking, biology, biotech, Caleb Scharf, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, Freman Dyson, GFAJ-1, Halomonadaceae, iTunes, Joel Garreau, Kevin Kelly, Meredith Patterson, NASA, Nature, P2P, phosphorus, Radical Evolution, RIAA, Rudy Rucker, technological progress, technological threat, technology, What Technology Wants, wikileaks, xkcd
In news from the one of the more active fronts in the ever-astounding war over copyrights and intellectual property protection, this reminder from ReadWriteWeb of just how absurd things have become:
BayTSP, a Los Gatos, CA-based company, is best known for putting the cease-and-desist smackdown on peer-to-peer copyright violators. The site serves infringement information forms to offending parties on behalf of the copyright holders. Think of them as the online debt collectors of the BitTorrent universe, with all the information security risk that implies.
BayTSP’s process involved sending suspected copyright violators a URL to a “Web Infringement Response System.” These pages were online forms containing fields with infringement notice ID numbers, email addresses, IP addresses, DNS names, and URLs that would identify users by household or even by device.
If the information were secure, this might be fine. However, in some monumental lapse of judgement, the entire site was left open to search spiders and accordingly indexed by Google, allowing anyone with hackerish leanings ample opportunity to create all kinds of mischief.
A Google search for “‘infringement information’ site:baytsp.com” yields distressing results. Some of the pages have been removed, but you can still have a look at the cached versions:
Not only have the forms been online for Google and the waiting world to view; the forms could also be completed and submitted online by just about anyone.
More technically savvy tricksters could send infringement notices of their own. “And, on top of that,” the TechDirt blogger writes, “some have discovered that BayTSP’s site has some scripting vulnerabilities such that you could create a fake complaint and get people to, say, download malware or enter credit card data.”
Although this recent debacle is simply one more PR disaster for the media industries themselves, my first thoughts were echoed by TechDirt commenter Mechwarrior: “Once this hits 4chan, it’s over.”
(Lest the 4Chan reference be obscure, it’s the font-of-all-memes site the members of which recently manipulated Time‘s on-line poll asking users to name the “World’s Most Influential Person” so that “Moot,” 4chan’s reclusive founder, emerged as Number One… see here and here.)
“‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ said Alice. ‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the cat. ‘We’re all mad here.’”
– Lewis Carroll
April 15, 2009
By way of update (and briefly, as your correspondent is still traveling, with limited connectivity):
Wired‘s Threat Level reports that the senior ranks of the Justice Department continues to fill with RIAA veterans… portending, one fears, a hawkish, “neo-con-equivalent” approach to Intellectual Property Rights– copyright, patent, trademark, et al.– consistent with the positions that all of these new hires have been arguing for the last several years.
For reasons explained earlier (see “Caution! Pile-up Ahead…,” “Update: As Feared…,” and “Patently Absurd…“), I fear that this is a step away from the IPR reform that is desperately needed to restore the preconditions for both the re-democratized civic discourse and the revitalized innovation that the U.S. so badly needs.
At the very least, it’s a reminder that all of us need to be vigilant of this seemingly-arcane frontier as the actions of these newly-empowered players unfold.
March 26, 2009
Further to “Caution! Pile up ahead!…,” and the concern expressed a couple of months ago that newly-appointed Justice Department officials with RIAA pedigrees would involve the government in record companies’ suits against listeners, this piece on Wired.com– “Obama Sides With RIAA, Supports $150,000 Fine per Music Track“– reports that they are doing just that.
This is not happy news.
So long as Justice is fighting to sustain the rococo copyright (and patent) system that’s accreted over the last few decades, real intellectual property rights reform is less likely– indeed unlikely– to move effectively forward in the U.S. That’s a problem, because (as I’ve argued, among other places; e.g., here and here) IPR reform is key to getting the U.S. back onto an innovative path to growth. To repeat,
Study after study demonstrate that, when faced with unreasonable terms and restricted access, people– otherwise law-abiding folks– turn into “pirates.” And when that piracy begets a draconian response from owners (a la the RIAA suing individual students for hundreds of thousands of dollars) a vicious circle– more piracy > more enforcement > more piracy > more enforcement– ensues. It’s distracting; it’s expensive; and it doesn’t work… so it undermines faith in both the commercial establishment and in the law…
We may all have different opinions as to the appropriate size and shape of the government’s Stimulus Program; but we can all agree that we need it to work– we need its seed investments in innovative new economic activity to sprout. If we want those sprouts to emerge and grow, we need to think like gardeners; and (to push this metaphor painfully literally), we need our government’s help in cultivation– in creating and supporting the conditions for innovation and growth… We need our government to help us cull plants that have withered with age and cannot/will not bloom again (if only by refraining from investing to keep them unnaturally alive). We need our government to help us rip out the opportunistic “weeds” that threaten growth (at the very least, not to join forces with industry associations fighting to roll back the clock). And we need our government to help “fertilize” its stimulus investments and ours (with a regulatory environment and on-going federal investment/spending that is open and friendly to innovation). Intellectual property rights reform is no silver bullet– but it would be a giant step in this direction.
Sadly, joining forces with the champions of an out-dated and unworkable copyright regime is worse the neglecting the weeding; it is cultivating the weeds.
Filed in Competition and Industry Structure, Economic, Entrepreneuring, Information Industry, Media and Entertainment, Political, Scenario Planning, Social, Technological
Tags: copyright, intellectual property, Intellectual Property Rights, Justice Department, obama administration, RIAA
February 7, 2009
Like so many of us, I am still on a high from the change of Administration in Washington. But I confess that, for all my elation at the selection of folks like Stephen Chu and Julius Genachowski to positions of real importance, I’ve had trouble with a number of other Obama appointments.
Mostly, it’s been a matter of regretting the selection of folks who have been complicit in the the creation of the very problems they’re now meant to solve. One powerful example: the appointment of Mary Schapiro to head the SEC. Ms. Schapiro is “experienced” all right: Prior to her appointment, she was the head of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, “the largest non-governmental regulator for securities firms doing business with the public”– the industry’s self-regulatory body. Before that, she served as chairman of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, and prior to that, for six years as a member of the SEC… which is to say that President Obama has appointed the person who shared oversight responsibility with the SEC throughout the period of such epic failure– the person who failed right along with the SEC– to take over the SEC. And then there’s Tom “mouthpiece of Monsanto” Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, or (before he withdrew) Tom Daschle, or… what’s going on at the Department of Justice.
Gizmodo and CNET both report on the staffing of Justice– with attorneys who have strong ties to the recording industry (in particular the RIAA), the Business Software Association, and the other pillars of copyright extension and enforcement… and to that Axis of Denial’s champion-in-chief: Vice President, nee Senator, Joe Biden. Quoth Gizmodo:
According to CNET, “President Obama is continuing to fill the senior ranks of the U.S. Department of Justice with the copyright industry’s favorite lawyers” with the selection of Donald Verrilli… Verrilli is the guy who shut down Grokster, sued Google on behalf of Viacom, and sued the pants out of Jammie Thomas in the name of the Recording Industry Association of America, that bunch of nice lovely assholes. His new position at the Department of Justice? Associate deputy attorney general.
This follows up the naming of Tom Perrelli as associate attorney general, the third-in-command post at the DoJ. Perrelli was and probably still is the favorite lawyer of the RIAA, suing people and companies left, right, and center in the name of the recording gang. He will be in charge of the DoJ’s civil, antitrust, and civil rights division.
But don’t go away, because there’s more. Who is the deputy attorney general, the second in command at the DoJ, do you ask? Mr. David Ogden, who-according to his previous job’s biography-represents “media and Internet industries, as well as major trade and professional associations.” He also as “part of the department who successfully defended the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act before the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Not enough? Don’t worry, because the VP has other friends in other places. Take Neil MacBride, another associate deputy attorney general, who previously was an aide to Biden himself. MacBride was the king of the legal hill at the Business Software Association. As the BSA’s antipiracy enforcer and general counsel, MacBride oversaw the creation of the program that rewarded people for phoning tips about suspected software piracy.
All these picks follow President Obama’s words, announcing that these people “bring the integrity, depth of experience and tenacity that the Department of Justice demands in these uncertain times.” It also comes after his words as presidential candidate, asking for less restrictions and less power for the recording industry.
These Justice appointments (and in other sectors, appointments like them) are alarming because they aren’t folks who stood by and let things happen– things that President Obama has pledged to change– these are folks who actively helped those things happen.
All of which is, in the moment, maybe just a gripe, a disappointment with a President in whom, as I say, I (like so many of us) have invested probably unrealistic hopes.
But with an eye to the future (from a scenaric perspective, if you will), it’s more troubling. To take the Justice Department/intellectual property rights case as an example:
If Justice– the government’s chief agent of either copyright/IP extension and enforcement or of copyright/IP reform– acts in the way that the pedigrees of these new appointees suggest it will, real intellectual property rights reform is unlikely to move effectively forward in the U.S. That’s a problem, because (as I’ve argued, among other places; e.g., here and here) IPR reform is key to getting the U.S. back onto an innovative path to growth.
Indeed, as study after study demonstrate, when faced with unreasonable terms and restricted access, people– otherwise law-abiding people– turn into “pirates.” And when that piracy begets a draconian response from owners (a la the RIAA suing individual students for hundreds of thousands of dollars) a vicious circle– more piracy > more enforcement > more piracy > more enforcement– ensues. It’s distracting; it’s expensive; and it doesn’t work, so it undermines faith in both the commercial establishment and in the law– which is all to say, to put it politely, it’s not contributing anything constructive to the economy.
Instead, it’s like a big pile-up on the freeway: it’s pruriently compelling to watch; but in the end, it’s painfully destructive of those directly involved, and it slows down traffic for everyone else.
Update (2.8.09): for a piece on a different version of the same phenomenon, see Frank Rich’s “Slumdogs Unite!” in today’s NY Times– beautifully observed and written, as ever.
Filed in Competition and Industry Structure, Economic, Entrepreneuring, Information Industry, Media and Entertainment, Political, Scenario Planning, Social, Technological
Tags: BSA, copyright, innovation, intellectual property, Intellectual Property Rights, Obama appointments, patent, RIAA, SEC