IP Confusion

March 22, 2005


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This is expanded from a comment I left in response to this TCS article emphasising the importance of Intellectual Property to the US economy.

Britain is also a large “producer” of IP, so I don’t see a problem in dealing with the article from here on its own terms (apart from the baseball analogy; in these parts, hitting the batter with the ball is just good bowling).

Duane Freese makes points that are reasonable in themselves, but he avoids all the difficult questions.

Intellectual Property is very difficult to enforce. In a rich, orderly society like the USA or the UK, it is possible to act against sellers of unauthorised copies. It has not been possible to act against “private” breaches, such as an unauthorised public performance of a music cd at a party. Such activities have long been tolerated, despite being technical IP breaches, because the losses were low and enforcement was not practical. Another class of breach — users copying music or early computer games to tapes — was more frowned on, but still escaped legal enforcement.

Two developments have changed the situation: widespread digital hardware has made private copying easier and better, while globalisation has increased the significance of overseas jurisdictions where different enforcement policies are in use.

The domestic question is not whether authorities should attempt to enforce existing IP laws. Some people are questioning whether we should have IP at all, but that is not really a mainstream argument. The issue is that the authorities are not able to effectively enforce IP laws in all cases, and the scale of breaches that are outside the enforcable areas is growing. To reduce the volume of breaches of IP, it would be necesary to expand the reach of enforcement further into the private arena than has ever been the case in the past. This involves unprecedented police powers and loss of personal privacy, and vast government expense. This is the issue over which the “Copyfight” is being waged.

The foreign question is over countries which, through choice or necessity, take a different stance than that of the big IP producers as to what breaches of IP law can practically be acted against. Freese says should be punished for it. But for a country like Russia, where the authorities have their hands full just trying to collect taxes, imposing an IP enforcement regime like that being demanded by Freese is not remotely possible.

Finally, the breadth of IP law is such that it cannot be treated purely with generalities. The patent system is failing as patent offices and courts are unable to scale up to handle present rates of innovation. Third-world production of drugs also raises questions which deserve to be dealt with specifically. Remember that IP law has never been about absolutes (hence the time limits on copyrights and patents), but has always been subject to cost-benefit analyses that vary from one area of innovation to another.

Punishment in Context

March 20, 2005


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I didn’t closely follow the fuss kicked up by Eugene Volokh’s praise for Iran publicly hanging a serial killer, which seems to have ended in a good deal of intelligent analysis all round.

One of the most interesting arguments is that judicial punishment, in addition to its more obvious purposes, performs the useful function of restoring the self-esteem and public status of the victims, which would be damaged by their wrongs going unavenged.

What I didn’t see discussed was that this also applies to the judicial system and the state itself. A state which lets crimes go unpunished or nearly so loses respect in the eyes of its people — and not only those who are considering crimes themselves.

What constitutes sufficient punishment depends on the character of the culture itself. In a culture where violent death (legal or illegal) is commonplace, a state that won’t even kill people is likely to be seen as ineffectual — even if it is actually quite effective at detecting and deterring crimes. On the other hand, in a society that is free of violence, an execution penalty would make the state seem backward, rather than strong.

In some circumstances then, it might be necessary for a state to use penalties such as Iran does, just to assert its authority.

If one accepts this argument it means that he should be cautious about applying the standards of humane punishment appropriate to his society, to other countries. I am happy living in a country without the death penalty, but I’m not sure it’s reasonable to attempt to insist that other countries do the same. The USA is seen, both here and there, as a more violent place. (This may well be an inaccurate view, but for these purposes the perception is probably more important than the reality). Is their retention of the death penalty a rejection of civilised standards, or a rational response to conditions?

There are caveats: the influence would presumably work both ways — while a society conditioned to violence might demand violent punishments, an abandonment of those punishments might delegitimise violence within the society. Furthermore, I think our governments have more status and authority than is good for us, and reducing that might be preferable. But neither of those really apply to states where violence is deeply ingrained, and where the state is in danger of disintegrating altogether.

Protest Votes and Fringe Parties

March 20, 2005


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A few ideas to bring together on dealing with a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Assuming you’re not one of the few lucky people who have a major party that
shares your policies, you have several choices:

  • Ignore politics (most popular option by a long, long way)
  • Vote for the party nearest your views and count that as enough
  • Vote tactically against the party furthest from your views and count that as enough
  • Spoil your ballot in an attempt to show disaffection
  • Vote for the major party most likely to change the voting system
  • Join the party nearest your views and try to move it in your direction
  • Support a minor party in the hope it will become a major party
  • Support a minor party in the hope it will affect the policies of the major party.

I would have thought the above list was exhaustive, but a new tactic has been introduced:

  • Vote tactically against the major party you’re closest to in the hope of affecting its policies

The first five are working with the parties as they are — either making the best of what’s
offered or attempting to change the voting system.

The next three attempt to change the political shape within the same system.

The only recent UK example of a minor party getting anywhere near becoming major is the SDP, which was formed by disaffected Labour MPs in the 1980s, won a few seats and eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the current Liberal Democratic Party. The last new major party before that was the Labour Party.

click here for the rest of the article…

TV Fun

March 20, 2005


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Dave of The Policeman’s Blog has a go at Inspector Lynley, and suggests an outline for a gritty, realistic drama surrounding the police officer responsible for filling in MG6e forms, and his “struggles with the photocopier”.

From time to time, in response to a perceived over-representation of police and hospital personnel on our screens, some creative type comes up with a drama series set among teachers, or Probation officers, or something, which is massively boring and only lasts one series. The useful thing about the police is that there is a well-understood “fictional police” setting which can be the background to a drama, which is more interesting than the same thing. If you pick some random profession, the only background you can use is the tedious real thing.

Where's the Pork?

March 18, 2005


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Fascinating interview with Oona King MP in the Evening Standard.

See her last comment, referring to the threat to her seat from Respect candidate George Galloway:

“He can bluff and bluster as much as he wants,” she says. “At the end of the day [if he is voted in] he will never persuade the Treasury to spend an extra ten pence in Tower Hamlets because he has no influence at all. And that worries many local people.”

We are familiar with the idea — “pork-barrel politics” as they call it in the States — that the role of an elected representative is to bring government money to their constituency (although a different term would be more suitable to King’s 55,000 Bangladeshi constituents).

This goes beyond that. She is implying that a Labour Government would punish the voters of Bethnal Green for not voting Labour.

This is not a particular criticsim of Oona King, who is gaining a reputation for saying things better left unsaid. There are, after all, better reasons for voting against George Galloway than the government’s blackmail. The blackmail is the effect of a centralised state controlling 40% of the economy. (In this country, even money spent by local authorities is mainly effectively controlled by Westminster).

We have only one vote for the government of this country. If we use up our vote in an attempt to influence the redistribution of wealth, we have no vote left with which to express our views about war, freedom, security, or the ever-vexed issue of school dress codes. That itself is a reason for separation of economy and state.

Bypassing grassroots

March 17, 2005


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Labour elite join pre-election rush for safe seats — Guardian

41 sitting Labour MPs are standing down at the next election. No big deal. 14 of the 41 have made the announcements too late for their constituency Labour parties to carry out their own selection procedures — with the result that the national party gets to pick the shortlist. The implication is that most of the 14 have delayed their announcement deliberately to move this power from local parties to the national party.

I can’t see how this would not be resented by Labour party branch members. For the Labour Party to repeatedly pull this stunt on them, either they must put up with it, or the national Party doesn’t care whether they put up with it or not. Either way, the situation indicates a great decrease in the significance of the Labour Party’s rank and file membership.

There is an inevitable, and universal, tension between party leadership and part grass-roots. The leadership want to get elected, and are willing to compromise their platform in order to gain power. The activists are also in favour of winning elections, but are likely to be much less willing to move to the political centre. A strong grass-roots organisation forcing the party away from the centre is an electoral liability.

Historically, the importance of the party membership has been in campaigning and fundraising. These tasks have been diminished by the rise of television and corporatism — if the party leadership can talk directly to the electorate, with money taken from industry (or, one day, state funds), the grass roots lose their traditional role.

The mass party is still essential in another role — one that used to be done so well that it wasn’t noticed, but is becoming difficult for modern diminished parties to fulfill. The party leadership is drawn from the rank and file. The Labour Party is still just about able to lay hands on sufficient high-calibre individuals to fill the front bench, and this is now proving one of its key advantages over the Opposition. Blair, Brown, Straw, Blunkett — whatever their faults, these are intelligent people, capable of managing underlings and gaining respect.

That generation, however, joined the Labour Party in the 1970s, when selecting candidates and electing the NEC made the party membership more important, and presumably made membership of the party more fulfilling.

It may be that the old route — party member to councillor (or trade union official) to MP to senior figure — might be replaced by a career path that winds through the party headquarters: researcher, media advisor, policy advisor, whatever. It seems unlikely that this could provide as large a pool of potential candidates to draw on as did the constituency committees of old. What is the Labour leader of 2020 doing today?


The Economist:

Electricity is sold by the kilowatt-hour. Now a researcher has proposed that computing power be sold by the computon

If a 500MW power station could only be built by putting fifty thousand small 10kW generators in racks, with expensive complicated machinery to try to keep as many as possible fueled and running at once, then I don’t think the concept of an electricity grid would ever have caught on. But that’s what a “computing” power station looks like.

There are some slight economies of scale to computer hardware, mainly in management overhead, but compared to the cost of putting your own computer at the other end of a wide area network, they’re negligible.

The amazing thing is that this idea keeps cropping up, year after year, despite the fact that the basic technology just does not exist. Maybe it will one day, although currently it’s moving in the other direction.

Quick point on Terrorism Act

March 15, 2005


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One reason why the new Terrorism Act goes so much further than the old ones is that Islamist terrorists are more keen to kill large numbers of people than the IRA ever were. I don’t dispute that.

But there is another reason. In the Good Old Days, if the police believed that particular individuals in Britain were terrorists, but didn’t have the evidence to prove it, they didn’t just whine to the Prime Minister for more powers. No by Jimminy they didn’t.

No, like any self-respecting police throughout history, they got up off their arses and faked up some evidence. That’s the traditional way.

Modern forensic techniques and legal requirements make that more difficult these days.

So today, instead of having explosive residue planted on him, or being invited to sign a blank piece of paper on which will be written a contemporaneous account of his confession, our known terrorist will get a totally legal Control Order from Charles Clarke.

There’s one thing we know now about at least some of the people fitted up in the Good Old Days by the boys in blue.

They were completely innocent.

Just one little point to bear in mind.

Censorship as Expression

March 14, 2005


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Bouncing around random links from this week’s BritBlog Roundup, I ended up at a Mark Lawson piece in the Grauniad on censorship in the theatre.

There was a breathtaking exchange on a Radio 5 programme this week. A leader of the campaign to disrupt Jerry Springer: The Opera was interrupted by another guest in the studio who said: “But I’m also a Christian and I don’t believe that Jerry Springer should be banned.” The religious censor pounced: “Yes, but you can’t impose your interpretation of Christianity on everyone else.”

The key to understanding this exchange is that in the current media world, the most obvious way of expressing dislike for something is to try to ban it — to the point where it appears as the only way of expressing opposition. The first speaker in the passage above was expressing his opinion of Jerry Springer: The Opera by campaigning to ban it, and his opponent, by criticising that, was effectively saying the first speaker should not express himself, and thus attempting to censor him.

In an ideal world, the anti-Springerist should have been able to express his view of the work, and have that view publicised, without threatening to forcibly prevent people from seeing it. In this world, to achieve such a thing is so difficult it probably never occurred to him, and, if it did occur to him, he would rationally have been bound to discard it as a strategy. He would not have been able to get such views discussed at all, let alone on Radio 5. In our culture, it is difficult to get people to even understand the concept of opposing something without making it illegal, and if you succeed in getting the idea across, you will still lose impact and be seen as wishy-washy or over-complex. This is the problem for anti-prohibitionists in the drug debate, for example.

Again, in the ideal world, he could have taken out advertisments urging people not to go to watch the offending work, or campaigned for clergy to condemn it in the pulpit. I feel slightly silly even making these suggestions. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to demand a ban. If you don’t get it, that doesn’t matter so much. You will have expressed your view, and got media coverage, and you will have shown both your friends and your enemies the strength of your support.

How to get to my ideal world? I can see two approaches. One is to try to delegitimise censorship off the bat, and refuse to engage with the substantive opinion of someone demanding censorship. The second is the opposite, to treat the demand for censorship as purely formal, and have a debate only on the actual objections of the would-be censors, without taking seriously or considering the practicalities of how the censorship would actually happen.

Neither approach looks much like working to me. Does anyone have a better idea?

I suppose we should also ask how we got to this situation. I guess it’s just that greater democratisation of society, and greater access to mass media, has meant that a vocal minority actually can ban things, and that has made doing so the obvious way of expressing dislike.

More Northern Ireland

March 13, 2005


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Light is shone on the IRADaily Telegraph

This piece (h/t Tim Worstall) uses the McCartney murder to criticise the Northern Ireland peace process, and the British and Irish governments for supporting it.

I had an argument over at US blog Captain’s Quarters with a commenter making a similar point.

The peace process obviously makes no sense if you believe that the IRA was on the verge of comprehensive military defeat anyway. While British forces had achieved a number of operational victories in the years prior to the first cease-fire, I don’t think that was the case. Indeed, the current situation demonstrates that that was not the case.

The IRA could not be eliminated so long as they retained a measure of support in Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. It might be possible to contain or suppress them under those conditions, but not to finally defeat them. Furthermore while it might be theoretically possible to carry out this containment without increasing resentment of the British forces and sympathy for the IRA, in practice it is unfeasable to do so. The daily routine of army patrols, house searches, and checkpoints (Iraq is not the only country where non-terrorists get shot at checkpoints) is enough to reinforce perception of the British as an occupying force.

The McCartney affair is at once a demonstration that the Provisional IRA retains a degree of legitimacy in its community, and the greatest blow to that legitimacy in its history. The line that the PSNI can take is: “Any time you want us to police your streets instead of these murderers, we’re ready to do the job”. If the murder of Robert McCartney (and the Northern Bank job) are enough to win the PSNI sufficient help to solve them, then this is the beginning of the end for the IRA. If they are not yet enough, the government will have to wait.

Kevin Myers in the Telegraph article says that, in return for the police reforms, Sinn Fein have given precisely nothing. Here I disagree. The fact that the government no longer has to police nationalist areas of Northern Ireland as an occupying army, as it previously needed to in order to protect the mainland and the rest of Northern Ireland, means that it can start to establish its own legitimacy to challenge that of the IRA. The fact that the IRA no longer has an enemy to fight, but is only an organised crime syndicate, simultaneously eats at its legitimacy. Unless the government overplays its hand, there can be only one long-term outcome.

One clarification: when I say that the IRA maintains its grip over its areas by the consent of the population, that could be interpreted as saying that those populations have chosen — and therefore deserve — to have the IRA rule them. That of course is not the case. The IRA does not need 100% local support, or even 50%. It may be as low as 10% or 20%. The rest are simply its victims, and deserve sympathy — especially when they show the courage of McCartney’s sisters. But it is an unfortunate fact that a liberal democracy is not able to function in a population where even a significant minority support armed resistance. There can be no quick victory, but I believe the slow victory is being won.

Update: via Slugger O’Toole, a piece from The Independent, with actual reporting, describing in detail the source of IRA’s legitimacy and the decay of that legitimacy.

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