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Music, movies, microcode, and high-speed pizza delivery [May. 5th, 2007|01:33 pm]
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Slashdot, the technical news site, has a mixed reputation. Mostly, it's known as the abode of armies of Microsoft-bashing trolls with too much time on their hands, a domain of vitriolic, fact-free arguments and tired "In Soviet Russia..." jokes. But every so often, it throws up something really insightful, like this comment. It's a great, thoughtful post, and I recommend you read it; but I'll try to summarize anyway. It's an attempt at explaining why America (and, increasingly, Europe) is passing such ridiculously restrictive Intellectual Property (patents, trademarks, copyright) laws, such as the much-hated Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and why they're trying to force such laws on other countries using, for instance, the World Intellectual Property Organisation. The argument goes like this: in a fully globalized world, in which everything that can be outsourced has been outsourced, what remaining competitive advantage does the US still have? Well, there's lots of agricultural land, and plenty of natural resources, like coal and timber, but that won't finance American lifestyles, or anything close. Neal Stephenson hit this one on the head: the four things America's really good at are music, movies, microcode, and high-speed pizza delivery.

Let pizza delivery stand for all the service sector stuff that can't be outsourced, and expand "microcode" to include pharmaceuticals (which, by the way, dwarf the three M's as a source of revenue). Aside from the pizza delivery, these things are all IP-based. So it makes a naive kind of sense to force everyone to buy in to strong IP laws so that you can continue to sell them the only things you still seem able to make. To quote the linked article, "if you're a politician, grabbing onto intellectual property as the salvation of high-cost Western society probably isn't the stupidest thing you'll do all day."

[There are many problems with this approach, and even more with the details of the laws they've enacted. But the basic one is that all creativity comes from standing on the shoulders of giants, and strong IP law makes it much harder to do this. Far from protecting the goose that's laying the golden eggs, these laws are slowly asphyxiating it.]

Then it hit me: the way industries develop is by import replacement. You start by importing bikes, then you develop the expertise to make some of your own spares, then you start to make more and more spares yourself. Eventually you know enough to make a whole bike, and a few decades down the line you have the Japanese car industry (this actually happened). Currently, pharmaceutical companies in India, Sri Lanka and so on are reverse-engineering the drugs they need to control the AIDS epidemic: this has been a major bone of contention with WIPO and the US. I'd assumed this was because the US was concerned about Big Pharma's revenue streams now (hard to think anyone would shed a tear for some of the richest entities in the world, but apparently they would). Here's another interpretation: what the Indian pharmaceuticals industry is doing now is import replacement. This is stage 2 in the template above: give it a few decades like this, and India won't need to reverse-engineer US drugs, they'll be developing their own. Given that more movies are made in Mumbai than in Hollywood and that Western companies are increasingly outsourcing their coding to India, and I think you see where this is going: unless the third world can be stopped from developing their IP industries now, the US will be left with nothing but pizza delivery. The strong IP laws are not just a short-sighted, short-term extortion racket, they're a strategic move aimed at safeguarding long-term economic power. They're still doomed and short-sighted, mind, but they're doomed and short-sighted on a higher and more strategic level.

Then I remembered Hanlon's Razor: never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity :-)

[User Picture]From: johnckirk
2007-05-07 06:13 pm (UTC)
Regarding Slashdot in general, I have a pretty low opinion of it. I think the most charitable thing I can say is that it doesn't make me despair for humanity quite as much as the threads on IMDB.

Joel Spolsky wrote a post about building communities with software a few years ago, where he mentioned Slashdot, and in particular their moderation system: "[W]hen you read Slashdot with the filters turned up high enough that you only see the interesting posts, the narrative is completely lost. You just get a bunch of random disjointed statements with no context."

For that matter, I'm pretty dubious about the values that the moderation system rewards: it seems to encourage "groupthink" at the expense of any individual effort. For instance, I read a Microsoft blog called "The Old New Thing" (by Raymond Chen), and last week he wrote an interesting post about a mistake he made which required a security patch to be recalled and re-issued. This was then posted at Slashdot, and there was a noticable decline in the quality of comments to his original post. Looking at the Slashdot thread, here's a sample comment ("Why the HELL wasn't it caught in QA?") which was modded to "+5: Insightful". A response to that comment (only scored at 2) is more useful:

"How to tell if somebody has only read the summary: they ask a question that was explicitly answered in the link. How to tell that most mods haven't read the article either: said post gets modded insightful."

This seems to be a trend, glancing at a more recent thread: "I haven't read the article..." gets modded to +5 Insightful.

After all, why bother to do basic research, when you can just sit in a big echo chamber instead?
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[User Picture]From: pozorvlak
2007-05-07 09:06 pm (UTC)
Like I said, mostly dreadful, but with the occasional gem (another one might be, say, the guy who commented on how the US Army deals with the problem of sensitive data on hard drives - basically, a thermite charge strapped to the drive :-) ). Reddit, say, isn't so dreadful, but lacks the gems.
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[User Picture]From: johnckirk
2007-05-07 06:28 pm (UTC)
Regarding pharmaceuticals, I'm involved in that industry, although for my purposes it doesn't matter which company (or country) actually manufactures the drugs that we test. I can't claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do have a certain bias.

You say: "hard to think anyone would shed a tear for some of the richest entities in the world, but apparently they would". Based on my own experience, I'd say that developing new drugs is an expensive process, so I think it's reasonable for the pharma companies to want to protect their investment. There's also a certain amount of risk involved (you can't be sure that any new drug will work properly), and so the money you get for the "good" drugs has to cover your losses on the "bad" ones too.

In an ideal world, I can see a situation where you have researchers with guaranteed jobs, and they can all share knowledge to cure disease. However, this does raise the question of where the money comes from. Is the state employing all these researchers (e.g. via university funding)? And if so, which state? I assume you're familiar with "the tragedy of the commons", and being cynical I can see a similar problem here: if the benefits are freely available to everyone, group X may well be better off if they don't contribute to the cost (even if that makes the benefits a bit smaller).

Coming back to your scenario, suppose that Indian companies wind up at stage 3 in the template, and manufacture new drugs. Do you think that they'll impose their own patent laws, or will they make the drug formulae freely available to any US companies who want to build on the research?

This all ties into my general thoughts on piracy - there's not much point in criticising the current system unless you can come up with a workable replacement, and the most important question is "who pays for it?"
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[User Picture]From: pozorvlak
2007-05-08 11:04 am (UTC)
OK, perhaps this wasn't clear. The Indian companies are doing nothing illegal - Indian law allows you to patent a process for making a drug, but not the drug itself. The Indian drug companies are therefore working out different ways to make the important molecules, and selling those. The US and WIPO are pushing for laws to make Indian patent law more like US patent law, so that the Indian companies can't do this. They've also been pushing for things like the ability to patent software in the rest of the world despite the clear stupidity of such a thing.

I wasn't arguing against all IP law (at least, not here) - I was pointing out the damage that overly-strong IP law can cause. Speaking as an academic, copyright law is simply a pain in the arse. Speaking as a programmer, software patents are a huge, lurking minefield, that's messing up the industry (though I'm prepared to accept that patents may be appropriate in, say, manufacturing industry). Development is much easier when everything's open-source - and yet this is a deliberate subversion of copyright law. If copyright law were weaker, it wouldn't be needed. Does it make sense for genes to be patentable? That's not the same question as "does it make sense for anything to be patentable?".

And yes, I'm aware of the difficulties bringing drugs to market. But the pharmaceutical industry has done, and continues to do, some pretty shady things - badscience is good on this stuff. And you're aware that as an industry, Big Pharma spends twice as much on advertising than on R&D, right? When I said "hard to think anyone would shed a tear for some of the richest entities in the world", I was really trying to say that the industry is quite big enough to look out for itself, without needing to co-opt the US Government to interfere in some other country's laws to protect their business model - this isn't how either government or business is supposed to work!

This all ties into my general thoughts on piracy - there's not much point in criticising the current system unless you can come up with a workable replacement, and the most important question is "who pays for it?"

I'm sorry, I don't agree at all. In the software world, do we require every bug report to come with a fix attached? No, of course not - we recognise that identifying problems is a valuable service in and of itself. If the problems are identified and the news spread about enough, someone else can work out a way of fixing it.

And I'm really not worried about the long-term prospects of making money out of curing sick people. The precise business model can and will vary, but as long as people want to stay alive, there'll be demand, and as long as there's demand, there'll be a way of making it pay. The same goes for music and movies, btw - people have been wanting to watch entertainments since at least the ancient Greeks, and making and listening to music since the first proto-human hit two bones together and noticed that they made a nice noise. The business model has changed any number of times, but the industry's survived.
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[User Picture]From: totherme
2007-05-08 01:19 pm (UTC)
do we require every bug report to come with a fix attached? No, of course not - we recognise that identifying problems is a valuable service in and of itself

This is my instinctive reaction too. It occurs to me though, that there's an implicit assumption that we're talking about a system, which may have been designed (or may have grown from hacks and patches over the years), which may have bugs, and which can be patched or replaced.

I've had arguments with economists in the past, when I've come very much from that standpoint, and we've hit a brick wall in the conversation pretty soon - because they've not agreed with that assumption, and neither of us had really identified that we were making assumptions in the first place. On those occasions when I've come close to noticing my assumption, I've continued to believe in it and thought the other party was just failing to notice that what they thought were laws of nature were in fact alterable laws of man.

Now I'm starting to wonder though...

I don't know how fundamental a lot of this stuff is... It's like: are these laws (copyright, patents, etc) more like a transformer - a giant constructed robot, which can be changed, redesigned, scrapped, replaced, etc -- or are they more like an Eva - a giant robot suit/armour/restraint-system designed to control the giant angry monster imprisoned within it?

If the latter, then there could conceivably be a fundamental copyright monster which we have to deal with - because that's the way the world works. We dress that monster up in robot-suit-laws which follow it's shape, and make it a bit easier to live with, but the monster is still there underneath, even though you only see the suit. So the consequence of dismantling the existing suit, and perhaps building a replacement somewhere else, is that the fundamental monster gets free, the replacement is obsolete at best, and we all have to deal with the raw monster again.

Like I say - I don't know how fundamental the laws and rules of economics and business are, so I don't want to assume that any bugs are fixable. I don't want to assume that they're not fixable either though - so for the moment I agree that they're worth identifying and talking about - with or without potential fixes. I don't yet think it's as pointless as discussing the morality of gravity. I do want to keep an eye out for evidence of more fundamental laws though.

Here's a question before I go:
Every so often, people talk about extending the tube to Croydon. It never happens. Even when people are talking about it, they talk about reusing an overland line, and tying it up to a tube line at the northern end. No-one ever even thinks about digging a new tunnel - that would be just too hard.

It wasn't too hard for the Victorians. They riddled the city with tunnels - for sewage, trains and all-sorts. Technology has gotten better since then - so why is digging tunnels harder now?
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[User Picture]From: pozorvlak
2007-05-08 04:25 pm (UTC)
Yeah. It seems obvious to me that the "laws" of supply-and-demand (say) aren't laws on the same level as the laws of physics. Human societies come in a bewildering variety of shapes and forms - witness Margaret Mead finding societies with every extreme in the space of maps (biological sexes)=>(gender roles) in New Guinea alone. But then, there do seem to be some invariants, albeit of a highly abstract kind - every society has some form of kinship, some form of religion, and some form of coming-of-age-ritual, even though the forms vary wildly. Maybe there really is such a thing as "human nature" that can't be changed, that puts fundamental limits on what kind of societies we can have?

It's also not at all clear to me that we actually know what the correct versions of the laws of economics are. I'm 95% sure that most "laws" of economics quoted on the Web are rubbish, or at least oversimplified to the extent that they resemble Aristotle's physics more than Newton's.

The "system" model does seem to apply pretty straightforwardly to our body of legislation, though, because it has evolved by a series of patches (it also suffers from a bad case of grognard capture, which doesn't help). Like any large, crufty system, it has bugs: places where the code does things that aren't in the spec, or fails to do things that are. This would also suggest that many bugs are fixable (unfortunately, the current managers seem to believe that spamming the codebase with new, potentially buggy, code is better than taking a few steps back and refactoring). But we can still have spec errors: we may be asking our system to do things that fundamentally aren't possible (like setting π equal to 3, for an uncontroversial example, or stopping people from using drugs, for a more controversial one). This comes back to the first paragraph - is "human nature" an invariant? Are the "laws" of economics (whatever they are) really laws, or can they be worked around?

So, that's three more degrees I need, then - one in economics, one in law, and a third in anthropology...

In this specific case, I don't think there's anything very fundamental about copyright. It's basically an artifact of the printing press - copyright laws weren't needed before, and I think they're rapidly becoming obsolete now. Unfortunately, a lot of very powerful and rich people are heavily invested into the old system. Can we stop them from taking our freedoms away in a doomed quest to save their business models? Can we buy them off?
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[User Picture]From: totherme
2007-05-09 01:20 pm (UTC)
Fundamental human nature:
I wonder how much of this we really need to understand in order to say useful things about systems of humans? We could, for example, ignore the nature/nurture question, and restrict ourselves to systems which will work when comprised of individuals who exhibit the behaviours we observe in those around us - regardless of the cause of those behaviours.

I think I tend to assume that people are basically rational, with imperfect knowledge/belief and often with obscure utility functions. That's an assumption about fundamental human nature isn't it? There's a chance it may not be the sort of assumption you were thinking of though - it's not so deep. Perhaps that depth is hidden in the utility functions I glossed over ;)

I certainly don't think I know what the correct laws of economics are - I don't know if anyone else does. It sounds to me like a hard thing to really understand.

The system:
Certainly there is a system - the body of legislation we're talking about. That body of legislation has evolved through patches, I agree with this. What I'm not 100% sure about any more is whether all the things that I previously thought were bugs in that system are indeed bugs in the system - or whether they're the inconvenient shape of an underlying fundamental structure, which isn't man made. Possibly that shape could be better glossed over, but possibly not... I don't know.

Of course, one man's bug is another man's feature - especially in an evolved spec-free system like this. Who gets to decide what we want in the first place?

I think they're supposed to get easier after the first one ;) You might also like to consider english lit, if you're interested in fundamental human nature - the human condition.

This specific case:
I'm inclined to agree with you, but in the interests of playing devil's advocate, I'll try to argue the case that copyright, or something like it is fundamental. (in another comment, since I seem to have hit the limit)
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[User Picture]From: totherme
2007-05-09 01:20 pm (UTC)
So let's consider what might happen if we had no copyright law - stuff that's been communicated is free to reproduce and evolve as RMS would like. The GPL is meaningless, because the copyright law it sits on doesn't exist any more - so there's nothing to stop me from downloading firefox, changing a couple of fonts (or not?) and passing it off as my own work to anyone gullible enough to believe me. We hope that ubiquity of communication will make this kind of scam much harder to pull off than I've implied - folk will realise that it's not totherfox, it's firefox in a different box.

Of course, proprietary software will go the way it's going anyway - since there's no copyright to prevent software copying, they stop selling software and start selling software-based-services. You can copy MS Office all you like, but you'll still only have one windows live account, one username/password, one place to store all your work - all your confidential letters, etc. Same goes for games, which are all at least partly online now anyway, and operating systems, which need online support for security patches, etc.

Now, entertainment. Musicians can make money from doing live performances, of course - as can actors. So maybe we get some of the theatre and gig revival that a lot of anti-copyright people want. I guess the equivalent of the theatre for animators and filmmakers is probably cinema - which is currently used as a massive promo for dvd sales. If we assume for a moment that dvd sales aren't going to work any more, then perhaps those guys start relying on cinema - which means hightened security in the cinamas themselves. You sign an agreement on the way in that you won't record the performance, and they enforce that agreement themselves. I guess if you're doing that then there's less motivation for interoperability - the studios might end up running their own movie houses with security they trust, and with their own weird film formats, refresh rates, etc. And maybe not - perhaps someone like odeon would convince enough people that their security was up to scratch.

I wonder if you could do something similar for home viewing - buy a movie on its own custom hardware - maybe a pair of glasses, or something else that's difficult to record from. Maybe the glasses could have integrated eye trackers too - you could do some cool directorial things with those, and they'd also serve to shut the thing down if it sees a camera instead of eyes. Maybe you don't need all this technology - maybe just an NDA every time you buy a movie, and a private NDA enforcement force would do the trick.

Of course, the security and the technology aren't free, so prices go up, and wages go down across the board - except for the security specialists filling the market gap that was left by the retreating legislation. Where wages go down, I guess they go down fastest and furthest in the most vulnerable places. The masses of people doing menial jobs below the poverty line are easier to replace if they complain about going slightly further below it than the execs making the decisions...

How's that?
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From: hannahyung
2011-01-19 11:06 am (UTC)
The US and WIPO are pushing for laws to make Indian patent law more like US patent law, so that the Indian companies can't do this.
How does this sound: US and WIPO are pushing for laws to make Indian patent law? US and WIPO have no "jurisdiction" in India so I really don't see how they'll be able to succeed in this demarche.
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[User Picture]From: totherme
2007-05-07 09:49 pm (UTC)
Have you ever watched any standalone complex?

Those dudes seem pretty obsessed with something I think is related to what I used to call "emergent behaviour" when I was talking/ranting about MS back at Balliol. That is to say, complex - verging on apparently intelligent - behaviours, arising spontaneously in large systems. It's interesting stuff to think about :)

Let's connect it to Hanlon's Razor - it's not a group of people being individually malicious, but nor are they being particularly stupid. They're just playing their part to their best individual advantage in a large system which has evolved a function for self-preservation. The behaviour you're seeing is a result of the large systems fitness, not particularly the intent of any individual in the system.

Hm, perhaps I'll ramble more about this - and the connections with the London Tube - after I've had more sleep ;)
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[User Picture]From: pozorvlak
2007-05-08 11:05 am (UTC)
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From: xanayalupu
2010-09-29 01:03 pm (UTC)
Music, movies, microcode, and high-speed pizza delivery, let's analyze them one by one: music - British musicians are the pioneers; Hollywood movies - let's stick to I've seen better; microcode - how many scientists have English as their native language?!?!?!?; high-speed pizza delivery - nothing to say about the "high-speed delivery" but pizza taste better anywhere else.
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