March 12, 2010

Stuff I have been enjoying (a freaken lot)

So in the last week I have read some stuff, seen some presentations, and visited some sites that I have really loved, so here they are to share:

Trollcats (this will take my power point slides to a whole NEW level) and here is one for all the free software geeks, in particular.

I finally read Manuela Carneiro da Cunha fantastic Prickly Paradigm press book “Culture” and Culture: Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Rights. If you don’t know jack about the thorny issues around indigenous knowledge an IPR, the first 2/3 provides a pretty darn good introduction rooted not only in an explanation of trade treaties, the limited repertoire available for indigenous groups to politically respond, but a great story about a specific frog that secretes a sticky film that basically F’s you up (if you let it seep in your open wounds). It is entertaining. The last 1/3 takes a far more theoretical turn and will be harder to understand for novices (it helps if you have like at least a BA, possibly MA in anthro, best if you have a PhD from her academic home, U of Chicago). It is there where she discusses the relationship between culture as “reflexive” (hey, peoples of the world, we have x, y, c culture) as lived unreflexively (the unconscious plane of norms that helps guide perception and action). I loved her theoretical somersaults whereby she explained how contradictions between the two are experienced as anything but a contradiction.

Ok so today I went to this conference Radars and Fences III (where I presented my anon/scientology talk for the first time 3 years ago!). I was not able to stay the whole day but I saw Ricardo Dominguez & Amy Sara Carroll from the Electronic Disturbance Theater present on the Transborder Immigrant Tool, which I knew about but did not know how infused it was in poetry, poetry that is, in fact, an integral part of its arsenal. Their presentation was fantastic and it reminds me the great political work being done at the interface of art and technology (and believe me, these 2 are rabble rousers. UCSD, who helped fund the project, are not all that happy they did and they also get not hate mail they get but the HATE mail).

Then I saw Laila El Haddad & Mushon Zer-Aviv present on an amazing project You are Not Here which is a bit hard to explain briefly but I will try (and their site introduces it as “an urban tourism mash-up. It takes place in the streets of one city and invites participants to become meta-tourists of another city.”

So basically there are two interlinked sites (NYC and Baghdad and Tel Aviv and Gaza) where you can be a tourist (though the physical place to follow the symbols are only in NYC and Tel Aviv). You need a map. You get a map. The map, once put up to the light shows two cities/places with symbols that indicate a special spot on the map. You find the physical spot, there is sticker or other sign with a phone number, you call, and you hear a story not about NYC or Tel Aviv (where you would physically go) but about Baghdad or Gaza and a story that pertains to the area of the map that overlaps where you are in NYC or Tel Aviv. We saw a bunch of examples and they were riveting and powerful.

March 3, 2010

The Statute of Anne (was actually kinda revolutionary)

Category: Academic,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 4:17 am

Last night, in two different instances I read the claim that the England’s first copyright act, the statute of Anne passed in 1710 was never intended to protect authors but to protect the reproducers like printing houses and presses investing in authors implying that printing houses loved the act.

After pouring through hundreds of pages of Adrian John’s history of piracy, that statement is pretty off and in fact I don’t think the Statute was really about printers/booksellers or authors but the public.

While licensing had all together lapsed for a period before this statute was passed, and the printing houses and book sellers were indeed clamoring loudly for an official recognition of property in literary works, they wanted a perpetuall right in literary property rooted in common and natural law. Like I am talking here about forever, not like a measly, paltry 14 years.

They were not exactly thrilled at this statute (in fact, they were downright pissssssssed off) for it severely limited how long they held a property right over books. In fact, so pissed were they, they challenged the statute, went to court in 1769 (Millar v Taylor) and got what they wanted: a perpetual right to literary work.

It took s a fiery Scot and bookseller by the name of Alexander Donaldson (I kind of think of him as the RMS of booksellers; he was quite a rabble rouser) to challenge Millar and he finally got his day in the highest court of the land in 1774 in Donaldson v Beckett and the outcome was that a perpetual right in books was tossed out the window. The court ruled that copyright was a limited statute. One of the lords in the case even stated “”Knowledge has no value or use for the solitary owner: to be enjoyed it must be communicated.” Adrian John’s explains the significance of this case in the following way:

““Copyright, they decided, was not a right of man at all. Indeed, it was almost the very opposite: an artifact, and one that replaced a prior right established by an author’s work of creation. . . In terms of revolution principles, liberty won out over property”

Again the printers booksellers (minus the “pirate” ones) were not happy a bunch. Unfortunately the subsequent history is one we all know well, one in which booksellers and others with vested interests in copyrights pushed to extend property rights in all sorts of ways to get to where we are today (obviously with a lot of different historical developments), a land, time, period where perpetuity may not be forever but it is long enough to nullify the very public domain envisioned by the first copyright act.

However, I think it is nonetheless important to recognize how radical in many respects the first copyright act was: given what the book printers and sellers wanted (and they were a powerful bunch).

For those interested in learning more about Alexander Donaldson, I would check out his Some Thoughts on the State of Literary Property, where he rails against the London booksellers for being monopolistic and calling for a limited property right in books.

February 21, 2010

Logos of our Lives

Category: Academic,Fair Use,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 8:52 am

Two of the more influential books that have taken swipe at our contemporary intellectual property landscape concerned themselves with trademark, logos, and capitalism. Here i am thinking of Rosemary Coombe’s seminal The Cultural Life of Intellectual Property Law and Naomi Klein’s more activist take on the subject, No Logo. What would happen if you condensed the arguments in these two books into a 15 minute video?

Well, this morning I found out what this might look like.

Someone pointed me to a mind blowing video that might be called All Logo, All the Time: an amazing visual and dystopian rendition of the alphabet soup of logos, trademark acronyms, corporate mascots that pervade our landscape, one might even say consciousness. I would take a whirl and watch before the IP police take it down.

February 6, 2010

Hard to imagine but it is our history

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 10:12 am

Stowe v Thomas (1853) where the court argued that a German translation of Uncle’s Tom’s Cabins did not constitute copyright infringement (quoted from Meredith McGill’s excellent bookAmerican Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853:

“Before publication [the author] has the exclusive possession of his invention. His dominion is perfect. But when he has published his book and given his thoughts, sentiments, knowledge or discoveries to the world, he can have no longer an exclusive possession of them. Such an appropriation becomes impossible, and is inconsistent with the object of publication. The author’s conceptions have become common property of his readers, who cannot be deprived of the use of them, or their right to communicate them to others clothed in their own language, by lecture or by treatise”

February 1, 2010

Patenting of Genes

Category: IP Law,patents,Politics — Biella @ 7:07 am

There is a *very important* patent case being deliberated tomorrow in NYC. I am SO tempted to ditch some important work to go. We will see… Whatever case, I will be following it closely. Does anyone know if you are allowed to bring a laptop into federal court?

ACLU attorneys Chris Hansen and Sandra Park will argue the case before Judge Robert W. Sweet of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York Court. Other co-counsel in the lawsuit, including Daniel B. Ravicher, Executive Director of PUBPAT, as well as some plaintiffs and expert witnesses will also attend the hearing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010
10:00 a.m. EST

Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse
Judge Robert Sweet’s Courtroom 18C
500 Pearl Street
New York, NY 10007

January 4, 2010

All tech

Category: Academic,Digital Media,IP Law,Phreaking,Piracy,Politics — Biella @ 5:32 am

Fall semester I did not teach any classes that covered digital media (in part because I was swimming in the stuff writing a review essay on the topic, which I am sending today to the journal, ending about 4 months of hell).

On the other hand, spring semester will be all about digital media: hackers, free software, privacy, piracy, phone phreaking and more. I am excited. Here is my graduate syllabus on the commons and piracy and here is my undergraduate class on hacking. Both are still under development but pretty far along.

December 1, 2009

The Politics of Piracy and Spicing the Political Life

Category: Academic,Canada,Digital Media,IP Law,Piracy,Pirates,Politics — Biella @ 7:36 pm

Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable. Stephen Duncombe

This fall I have been awash in a few obsessions including book piracy and spam. I recently got to talk about one of these obsessions when I was interviewed about book piracy by Nora Young for her weekly CBC radio and podcast show Spark. I mostly gave a lay of the land panorama with a nod toward some of the conditions, technological and social, that can help us grasp the contemporary explosion of book piracy and also raised some thoughts about what might change the future landscape.

What I don’t raise is whether a politics built around an explicit embrace of “piracy” is regressive, progressive, or something else but these ethical questions were posed in the comments left for the full interview. Some of the comments pointed to the pitfalls and shortcoming that can follow the terminology of piracy many of which I share.

But what keeps me interested in the politics of piracy is how it can speak the language of spectacle, which can be a powerful tactic and technique for broadcasting a political message. Here I just paraphrasing and cribbing the work of Stephen Duncombe, who has argued, I think quite persuasively, that we cannot rely solely on reasoned debate for building political programs. Duncombe does not argue that we must toss out rationality and truth seeking (these are absolutely necessary) but notes how on their own or if not clothed in some other cloak, they may not be enough to convey and compel, especially in this day of total media saturation. Or to put a but more poetically by him “Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable.”

Much (though not all) of contemporary digital piracy follows the logic of spectacle. It builds and conveys a fantastical drama of right and wrong, of new possibilities, of freedom from the noose of the law; it signals and speaks to the thrill and fun in twisting, even breaking, existing structures and constraints; and provides a window into another way of acting/behaving. In many cases what it provides is a commons (and I will be exploring it in depth in my class next semester on the commons) and many folks, I imagine, turn to piracy simply for the free stuff, and a number of them come out of the other side transformed into copy fighters willing to engage in a politics beyond sharing stuff and waving the pirate flag.

For those of us who believe in greater access and different ways of imagining structures and strategies of re-compensation, piracy on its own is not certainly enough and I understand fully and even to some degree, share the skepticism many feel toward such language. But I am not quite ready to declare a politics of piracy as always politically bankrupt or necessarily backward. I guess what I embrace is a diverse political ecology. For some, the drama of spectacle and thrill of transgression are what turns their political mojo on; for others it is the cool and reasoned debate common to policy and reform; for others, they want to focus on building alternatives as we see with Free Software or radical tech collectives. For some, it is both the reasoned salt and the transgressive pepper that spices their political world. And I would rather have more spice than less, especially in an era where the blandness of political apathy is that which is our most dangerous enemy.

Related Links:

Here is a wonderful animation by the NZ Book Council that captures what I love about books and renders its materiality wonderfully alive. On the Media has a episode on book publishing and Cory Doctorow has penned some thoughts about the future of book selling. If you want to keep abreast on the politics of liberating books, check out Free our Books. If you are more interested in the technical side of things, check out the book liberator project.

November 21, 2009

How Far Can it Go?

Category: Academic,Berkman,F/OSS,Free Culture,IP Law,Open Access,Politics — Biella @ 10:20 am

During the month of October I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the past, present, and future of F/OSS. This was due in part to participation in a Berkman Center event on Free Culture, where we discussed the historical arc of Free Software to Free Culture, the relationships between them (and their differences), and also the content and meaning each. Over the years, what I have found so interesting about Free Software is how it left its enclave to inspire countless groups into rethinking the politics and ethics of production and access and yet, as I raised in this pod-cast interview (due to the prompting of my interviewer, Elizabeth Stark), Free Software and/or Free Culture is still pretty bounded and contained phenomenon especially when compared to something like the existing consciousness over the environmental movement, which many folks “know” about and understand even when and if they are not involved in doing anything for the movement. I always ask my first year students whether they know what Free Software or Free Culture is and 9 out 10 stare at me with those blank eyes that basically speak in silence: “no.”

Now, there are a group of activists, many located in Europe, a number of them with deep roots in the social justice movement who are taking Free Culture down a different path, trying to expand its meaning and conjoin it to social justice issues, build a broad set of coalitions across the political spectrum so as to override the fragmentation that is so characteristic to contemporary political moment, and use FC as an opportunity to critique the market fundamentalism of the last few decades.

If you are interested in these issues, take a look at their charter: they are looking for comments (critical and constructive) as well as endorsements (here is the long version).

I myself have a few comments, for example, I think it is worth noting something like the limits of what FC can do, that even if in many ways it can be activated to do good in the world, it is also best to highlight in the same swoop that FC is not some political panacea and has limits.

For example some groups in the world, notably some indigenous communities abide by a different logic of access and culture, whereby full access is not culturally or ethically desirable, as the work of Kim Christen has illuminated. I also wonder in what ways issues of labor might be addressed more forcefully, and though they briefly raise the question of environmental sustainability, it is worth expanding these more directly and deeplyas this article by Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell make clear.

There is more to say but I will leave it here for now and just say it is really great to see Free Culture taken down another political path that is rooted in coalition building.

August 27, 2009

Updates: Private Foundations and Licensing

Category: Berkman,F/OSS,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 1:57 pm

A few updates on the EveryBlock case and the Knight Foundation. Tieguy (Luis Villa) left a comment which I am quoting in full below:

That said, it is entirely possible that Knight was ill-advised and believed (as many casual users do) in the magical power of open source licenses to create community. If this did indeed catch Knight off guard, it might be worth pulling people together to discuss best practices for grant-making organizations who want to create real value and not just lumps of well-licensed code.

Related to this, Berkman has released a whitepaper on (apparently) just this topic today. Probably worth checking out for folks interested in this topic.

Then there is this excellent interview led by Jonah Bossewitch with Chris Mackie who is a program office at Mellon.

Update: Here are some thoughts I penned down very very quickly in response to the interview:

1. I can see the argument about complex software products benefiting
from the BSD: at the same time I can totally see the value of just
keeping it open as well so everyone can benefit from improvements to
something that is as complex as Chris points point. Also if you keep
it totally internal to your shop, you don’t need to re-release,
although if you want to combine propriety and non-proprietary software
and then re-release I can see the value of the BSD code

2. When it comes to the question of ownership, where he says IP trumps licenses,
Chris Mackie does not seem to link the complexity of project to the licenses. When I was
having a discussion about this on Debian-devel, a number of folks
mentioned how very complex projects with many contributors, each who
had copyright and asserted GPL, worked through this swarm to protect
one person trumping ownership at some future point. They saw this as a
feature, not a bug, which I completely agree with. So some projects
are –and please correct me if I am wrong–far far more susceptible to
of weakness of the licenses if 1) they don’t hand over to a
trustworthy organization, like the FSF or the copyrights are held in a
few small hands. Once you start spreading the copyrights over a large
mas of people, it becomes very very difficult to ever assert a
copyright up and above the GPL.

August 18, 2009

In Detail: The Nuances of the Everyblock Sale to MSNB

Category: F/OSS,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 9:55 am

Chris Anderson, who is mentioned in my previous post on Everyblock, has penned a very thoughtful blog post The Nuances of the Everyblock Sale to MSNBC. He sums up the debate so far and raises some interesting new points. It provides a great summary of some basic legal points in conversation with the particular case.

His conclusion included below:

I’d like to see all future versions of code devloped under the Knight grant remain open, whoever buys them. I think this is an ethical use of Knight grant money — and a good business strategy as well.

ps– a number of folks have told me that “grassroots” is def not the way they would describe Everyblock, even among those who think it is a pretty neat project.

update: (linked fixed) Here is another exxxceelllent blog entry about code. community, and foundations by John Eckman’s who finishes with this important insight:

Put differently, communities are great at creating (and maintaining, supporting, extending) code: code is not great at creating communities.