Australian educators are using my $5,000 plagiarism settlement to sell schoolkids (on science)

Two months ago, you might remember, the gods of humor and blogging saw fit to bestow on me an unexpected gift:

Model 1: But if quantum mechanics isn’t physics in the usual sense — if it’s not about matter, or energy, or waves — then what is it about?

Model 2: Well, from my perspective, it’s about information, probabilities, and observables, and how they relate to each other.

Model 1: That’s interesting!

“For almost the first time in my life,” I wrote then, “I’m at a loss for words … Help me, readers. Should I be flattered? Should I be calling a lawyer?”

Almost three hundred comments later, your answer was clear. Half of you thought I’d be a stereotypical American jerk, epitomizing everything wrong with modern society, if I sought any redress for the blatant plagiarism of my quantum mechanics lecture. The other half thought I’d be a naïve moron if I didn’t seek redress. However, there did seem to be a rough consensus on two topics: first, that as part of any settlement I should “date the models” (at least a hundred people made some joke to that effect, each one undoubtedly thinking it highly creative); and second, that it was probably okay to try to get something from either Ricoh (the printer company) or Love Communications (the ad agency), as long as the proceeds went to charity and I didn’t directly benefit. Since, like any public figure, I now make all decisions by polling my base, I finally had a warrant for action.

After talking things over informally with Warren Smith — the guy who discovered the Ricoh ad in the first place, who just happens (in one of the many ironies of this case) to be studying Australian intellectual property law, and to whom I’m deeply indebted — I next contacted a lawyer from a well-known Australian law firm. Talking to her confirmed my suspicion that many of the armchair legal theories offered in my comments section were simply mistaken. In Australian copyright law, as in American law, you can’t just take someone’s words and use them for commercial purposes without permission or attribution, regardless of any subjective judgments about the “uniqueness” or “specialness” of those words. I was on strong legal ground. But there was also a key difference between the Australian and American legal systems: Australian lawyers are prohibited from taking cases on a contingency basis. If I wanted the law firm to pursue the case, then I would have to pay them up-front.

Disregarding the pleas of my relatives — who at this point were begging me to sue — I instead wrote to Love Communications directly, proposing a settlement to be donated (for example) to a mutually-agreed-upon Australian science outreach organization. We eventually agreed to a settlement of AUS$5,000. Considering the value of Love Communications’ Ricoh account — which the Sydney Morning Herald reported as more than AUS$1,000,000 — I thought the ad agency was getting off incredibly easily, but at least I wouldn’t have to write any more letters or deal with lawyers.

The one remaining problem was to find a suitable Australian science outreach organization to which to donate the $5,000, and that would also be amusing to blog about. As I chewed on this problem, my mind wandered back to my visit to Brisbane in December 2005, and to a conversation I’d had there with Jennifer Dodd — then of the University of Queensland and now of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. In that conversation, Jen had told me about a popular-science lecture series in Brisbane she’d founded, called BrisScience. I’d immediately asked her to repeat the name.

BrisScience,” she said.

“Spell it?” I asked.

“B-r-i-s-Science. Why, is there something funny about the name?”

“No, no, it shouldn’t be a big deal in Australia.”

Aha! I now emailed Jen to ask whether BrisScience had continued its “cutting-edge” outreach programs in her absence. Jen replied that yes, it had, and she put me in touch with Joel Gilmore, BrisScience’s current director. Joel told me that not only was BrisScience still going strong (with the next lecture, by Bill Phillips, being about quantum mechanics), but that he (Joel) also directed another science outreach program called the Physics Demo Troupe, which does hands-on science shows for schoolkids in Brisbane and rural areas. Joel proposed that we donate $2,000 of the settlement to BrisScience and $3,000 to the Physics Demo Troupe, the latter supporting a visit to the Torres Strait Islands in North Queensland. I agreed, and Love Communications agreed as well.

I am, of course, gratified that this sordid southern-hemisphere tale of sex, plagiarism, quantum mechanics, and printers could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, without the need for a courtroom battle, and that schoolkids in Torres Strait Island might even learn some physics as a result. But is there one sentence with which to conclude this saga, one sublimely fatuous thought that sums up my feelings toward the entire affair? Wait for it… wait for it…

That’s interesting.

131 Responses to “Australian educators are using my $5,000 plagiarism settlement to sell schoolkids (on science)”

  1. nextquant Says:

    Well done! :)

  2. Harry Says:

    I’m glad you got things settled without having to go through court or a huge legal process (which would’ve probably ate up any reward you may have received). Well played I would say, kudos on the donation.

  3. a Says:

    you’re awesome, scott!

  4. Paul B. Says:

    Judging from the fact that the venerable Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics (http://britneyspears.ac/lasers.htm) is still up and running, good looking girls are much more cool about copyright violations by scientists than the other way around… :)

  5. Koray Says:

    Yay! This means that the future will have more science nerds who can be plagiarized.

  6. lylebot Says:

    Judging from the fact that the venerable Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics (http://britneyspears.ac/lasers.htm) is still up and running, good looking girls are much more cool about copyright violations by scientists than the other way around… :)

    I doubt she holds copyright on the photos. I’m positive she has no IP claims on the content. I’m fairly sure her name isn’t trademarked. There are no song lyrics or music on the site. So how does that page infringe on Britney Spears’ intellectual property rights?

  7. James Says:

    Intellectual freedom died a little more today. It is disheartening when even academics seem to have lost their way.

  8. harrison Says:

    Although I would have tried for more then $5000 (wait, Scott: is that US$ or AUS?), I’m pretty sure that this deal can’t be reasonably classified as a blow against intellectual freedom.

    I mean, everyone won! Scott shattered his previous record for “most comments on a blog entry,” Ricoh Printers got a well-written ad (except the last line) with almost 30k YouTube views, Australian television viewers got a computer-science perspective on quantum, and Australian schoolkids and, uh, Brisbanians got to be advanced in the ways of SCIENCE. The only people who lost were the lawyers, really.

  9. harrison Says:

    D’oh, scratch the US or AUS thing. OK, good; in six months, it’s hard to say what exactly US$5000 will be worth. Note to self: Read more closely than that when I’m taking my finals next week.

  10. James Says:

    I mean, everyone won! Scott shattered his previous record for “most comments on a blog entry,” Ricoh Printers got a well-written ad (except the last line) with almost 30k YouTube views, Australian television viewers got a computer-science perspective on quantum, and Australian schoolkids and, uh, Brisbanians got to be advanced in the ways of SCIENCE. The only people who lost were the lawyers, really.

    Try this thought experiment: Replace the quote from Scott by a quote from William Shakespeare, circumstances otherwise the same. Would you still contend that everyone wins? Even ignoring the (more important) moral issues, do you know what broken window economics is?

  11. harrison Says:

    Well, first of all, as smart as William Shakespeare was, I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t be able to provide Australians with a computer science perspective on quantum. ;)

    Second, I’m gonna be the one to blatantly steal from Scott now, as I inform you that everything I post on this blog is stamped with the Official Harrison Brown Seal of Really Seriously Meaning It. Including the last sentence. And the last one. OK.

    I’ve somehow managed to have never heard of it before, but I did just look up the “broken-window” story. OK, I see where you’re coming from, but I’m not convinced it’s totally applicable here. I’m certainly not arguing that “without IP violations, no one would ever give money to scientific causes.” That’s just silly. All I’m saying is that, in the long run, the actual resolution of this affair probably benefited more people than would have, say, Scott suing Love and Ricoh’s asses off for a huge sum. Was the $5000 deal Pareto-optimal? Probably not. Is finding Nash equilibria in two-player games NP-hard? Yep. Do I know the complexity of determining whether a stable Pareto-optimal solution exists in “games” like “an Australian ad agency stole my lecture to use in a printer ad; how much do I sue them for or what do I do otherwise?” No, but I betcha it’s pretty hard. And to my mind this was a good approximation.

  12. rrtucci Says:

    Well done! You achieved little at great effort, but your heart is in the right place.

  13. onymous Says:

    I now emailed Jen to ask whether BrisScience had continued its “cutting-edge” outreach programs in her absence.

    I laughed out loud at this sentence. They really don’t see why their name is funny?

  14. Scott Says:

    rrtucci: The effort on my part wasn’t particularly great (mostly a few emails and phone calls).

  15. Jennifer Dodd Says:

    The name was suggested by a friend of mine as a play on “BrisVegas”, a sort of affectionate nickname that people use to refer to Brisbane. By the time the other association had been pointed out to us, we were pretty committed to the name, so we stuck with it. We’ve had a lot of laughs over it, though….

    Anyways, whatever the humour in the name, I’m glad you thought of contacting me, Scott, and happy to have been able to put you in touch with Joel. On behalf of everyone who will benefit from the donation, thanks!

  16. Colin Danby Says:

    Every good story has a mohel.

  17. scott took my name Says:

    So did you get to date the models or not?!

  18. Scott Says:

    So did you get to date the models or not?!

    Informed, intelligent questions like this remind me why I got into blogging in the first place.

  19. Job (UG) Says:

    I would’ve thought a $2500/$2500 would have been more appropriate. Quite frankly, i’m a little bothered by it. There go the physicists getting more funding than us. Is that some sort of a statement? Are you 2/5 PHYS and 3/5 TCS or the other way around? Sometimes i don’t know anymore.
    The nerve!!

  20. Job (UG) Says:

    This made possible by the Aaronson foundation.

  21. Scott Says:

    Job, what you don’t seem to realize is that both programs are run by physicists — and not only that, but the same physicist. Given that, I thought it wise to let Joel himself decide how to split the donation, and he suggested 40/60.

    (Incidentally, I’m unaware of any Australian theoretical computer science outreach program. For that matter, I can think of essentially just one TCS outreach program anywhere in the world: the Andrew’s Leap summer camp at Carnegie Mellon, founded by Steven Rudich.)

  22. Job (UG) Says:

    I wasn’t being serious, i actually thought it was a nice, exemplary, solution.

    On the other hand, you could have used it to bump up the Aaronson $25 prize up a little, geez. Right now i’m getting paid $0.000025/hour, and that only covers half my tuition at Uconn.

  23. Aggie Says:

    Thanks for the donation, Scott!

  24. cody Says:

    i like the ending to this story. its happy.

  25. Elimis Says:

    I always knew you were a typical American bastard!!!!

    :)

  26. Non-native speaker Says:

    I’d be grateful if somebody explained the ostensible hilarity of BrisScience to us who aren’t blessed with English as a mother tongue, or whose mind isn’t constantly in the gutter. (Whatever applies.)

  27. Greg Egan Says:

    I’d be grateful if somebody explained the ostensible hilarity of BrisScience to us who aren’t blessed with English as a mother tongue, or whose mind isn’t constantly in the gutter. (Whatever applies.)

    If you follow the link Scott gave to Wikipedia for the first syllable, you’ll get the joke.

    Actually, when I encountered the name in writing previously I always mentally pronounced it “BrizScience” — because the name of the city is always pronounced much closer to “Brizbane” than “Brissbane” — so no images of sharp instruments came to mind.

  28. Ryan Budney Says:

    I always thought a good name for a cannibal snack food was “brisbits”. Kinda like fried squid.

  29. milkshake Says:

    non-native: google to the rescue.

    A tourist needs his watch repaired. Its Sunday, and he finds a tiny shop that is open, with a beautiful millenium clock on display in the window…

  30. Bruce Webb Says:

    “Try this thought experiment: Replace the quote from Scott by a quote from William Shakespeare, circumstances otherwise the same.”

    Hmm. The Works of Shakespeare are in the common domain. People can and do cite them in extenso. You might want to replace ‘William Shakespeare’ with someone whose copyright hasn’t expired.
    __________________

    I don’t know why people are so squeamish. For non-native speaker and others who might be equally scratching their heads a ‘bris’ is a Jewish circumcision, performed by a ‘mohel’ on the eighth day of life. In this case ‘cutting edge’ cut a little too close for comfort.

  31. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    “So did you get to date the models or not?”

    That is an undecidable problem in Model Theory.

    Oh, wait a minute. We were discussing the complexity of model cognition, weren’t we?

    Wikipedia reminds us:

    Maria Remenyi (born c. 1946) is Miss USA 1966.

    Maria Reminyi was a junior at the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in high energy physics, when she became the first representative of a dormitory to win the campus Miss Beauty contest. Less than a year later she won the Miss California Universe title and went on to become California’s second representative to achieve the title of Miss USA. She was a semifinalist in the Miss Universe contest. She later moved to Vermont and has a career in real estate.

  32. Luca Says:

    Scott, you are playing with fire with that last line. Now Love Communication can sue you for plagiarizing the only piece of original writing from the ad, and you might have to surrender 0.5% of the profits you made out of this post.

  33. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Hey Scott, this adventure with Love Communications has been a great victory (seriously). Turning to new things, can you spread the word about Science Debate 2008?

  34. James Says:

    Hmm. The Works of Shakespeare are in the common domain. People can and do cite them in extenso.

    Yes, exactly the point. Why, from first principles, is that okay and this not?

  35. Greg Egan Says:

    Why, from first principles, is that okay and this not?

    Because WS, as a dead person, has fewer rights and interests than SA, who is a living one.

    Now this isn’t exactly where I’d draw the line at copyright expiry if I’d just married J.K. Rowling and she told me her health was poor. Laws on the duration of copyright and whether it’s based on publication date or the death of the author vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But legislators the world over have agreed that (a) copyright exists, and (b) it doesn’t last forever.

    Why you imagine that this long-standing situation is the death of intellectual freedom is beyond me. Did you get caught with some illegal MP3s, and decided to go for the popular “punish me, and you destroy Western civilisation” defence?

  36. Scott Says:

    Greg K.: OK, I’ll try to blog about Science Debate once I land in New Delhi (I’m at the airport now, heading to QIP).

    Frankly, though, I don’t see the Republicans agreeing to it in Ackermann(500) years — this attempt to focus on reality and evidence is a transparent liberal ploy.

  37. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Oh come on, A(500,500) is a crazy exaggeration. Give them A(5,5) years.

  38. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    If I’d just married J.K. Rowling and she told me her health was poor.

    But then, would anyone fret about your financial future in that circumstance?

  39. Greg Egan Says:

    But then, would anyone fret about your financial future in that circumstance?

    True, but it’s hard to think of a famous author whose dependants would be plunged into penury if copyright ceased at the moment of death. The hard-luck cases take longer to explain: If I had young kids and no life insurance, then if I died tomorrow it would certainly make a substantial difference to their welfare to be able to rely on further royalties from my existing works.

  40. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    I hope you will have fun in India Scott:)

  41. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Nagesh! (On the plane, taxiing — alright, I should turn the Blackberry off before the flight attendant yells at me.)

  42. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    If I had young kids and no life insurance, then if I died tomorrow it would certainly make a substantial difference to their welfare to be able to rely on further royalties from my existing works.

    Yeah, they’d have to make do with your ordinary novels instead of HARRY POTTER.

    (Okay, with that remark it is now past time for me to buy some Greg Egan books.)

  43. Greg Egan Says:

    Yeah, they’d have to make do with your ordinary novels instead of HARRY POTTER.

    Even the poor can read Harry Potter books; we do still have public libraries in Australia — though I expect the waiting period to borrow Rowling’s books might be quite long. And of course they’d be able to heat the house in winter with remaindered copies of my own books.

    Seriously though, if I’m entitled to be paid for sales of a book of mine, 20 or even 50 years after I wrote it, it seems reasonable to me that if I die young my heirs should get that income instead. What seems fair to me would be a copyright expiry of, say, 75 years from the date of publication, possibly with the additional requirement that the author also be dead. After all, nobody should suffer the indignity of living to see their work used in advertising.

    75+ years is much longer than patent rights, of course, but then, ideas are not copyright at all. An overly-broad patent can really screw up a whole industry, but Tolkien’s enduring copyright didn’t stifle competition, it spawned a whole lucrative industry of imitators, good and bad.

  44. anon Says:

    “Seriously though, if I’m entitled to be paid for sales of a book of mine, 20 or even 50 years after I wrote it, it seems reasonable to me that if I die young my heirs should get that income instead.”

    “My children getting income after my death” is the only context in which transferring copyright makes sense, and there is no way to restrict the other uses.

    For instance, allowing you to lose your copyright by selling it to a corporation which is allowed to use it exclusively in advertising, makes little sense.

    The fact that you are transferring the “right” itself, and not just the right to receive income makes some very absurd situations possible:
    Take for example the case where one of your children loses half (or all) of your copyright to an ex-wife/husband following his/her divorce, and that ex-spouse stops the distribution for decades because she hates science-fiction leaving millions of fans disappointed.

    I think copyright should be restricted to the creator of the works – it might be unfair in some cases but in the long run the writers and society as a whole would benefit.

  45. James Says:

    Because WS, as a dead person, has fewer rights and interests than SA, who is a living one.

    I suppose I walked into that one. Of course, I was trying to elicit a positive justification for these powers. Instead take any living person that is freely quoted. Say “One small step for man”: Why should others have the power to restrict people from quoting them but not Armstrong? Why can’t he solicit $5000 a pop to give to charities?

    Why you imagine that this long-standing situation is the death of intellectual freedom is beyond me

    Freedom of speech and thought are important. There need be a good reason if they are to be abridged in some way. Appealing to tradition is not one.

  46. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Seriously though, if I’m entitled to be paid for sales of a book of mine, 20 or even 50 years after I wrote it, it seems reasonable to me that if I die young my heirs should get that income instead.

    I have no problem with inheritance of copyright, but I must say that I don’t see the wisdom in extending copyrights past 20 years. It may be good for some “industries” to do that, but I don’t see that it’s good for humanity. In the past 70 years, the wealthy democracies have amassed mountains of legally sequestered writing and music. Most of it has minimal sale value; it’s kept under wraps by publishing houses for their convenience, just in case it can be sold one day. And the incentive value for authors past the first 20 years is usually minimal or even negative. As I understand it, a lot of authors would be happy to give away their old work to attract attention, but they can’t because of the deals that they signed at the beginning.

    Consider the intellectual wealth of the corpus of classical music. So what if some of it is debased in television advertisements. That is a small price to pay for the convenience of millions of amateur musicians. In fact, the ironic current development is that the typesetting of sheet music is copyrighted even when the music is by Bach. This is an economic archaism of the pre-Internet age and an obstruction to the intellectual growth of society.

    I am not a copyleft anarchist or communist; I understand the need for authors to make a living. But surely 20 years is a generous compromise, maybe over-generous, given: (a) the monumentally redundant profit incentives for the top 1/10,000 authors, such as J. K. Rowling; and (b) the non-market value of free information.

  47. Idetrorce Says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  48. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    On the plane, taxiing — alright, I should turn the Blackberry off before the flight attendant yells at me.

    Yeah you better:) Indian attendants definitely are not best in being polite. But you will be privileged by attention when you roam around streets in New Delhi.

  49. Gasarch Says:

    Will Scotts actions destroy the free flow of ideas?
    By itself, no. But I want to ask SCOTT the following
    question: if you sang a funny song in lecture and
    someone videotaped it and put it on YOU-TUBE,
    would you take some sort of legal action?
    And if so, on who?
    (I have no real point to make here, I just want to
    know what you would do— maybe you would post
    about it and poll your audience.)

  50. Scott Says:

    Bill: I’m not sure how I’d feel about someone posting a video of me on YOU-TUBE. But if they were posting it on YouTube, it’d be nice of them to ask permission.

  51. Kevin Says:

    Nice job man.

  52. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    Some universities and colleges assert that they own the copyright to the lectures given by their professors, as the professors are employees, and thus the lectures are “work for hire.” Does that seem reasonable to you?

    The Writers Guild of America (West) have been on strike for 6 weeks against Producers who believe that writers of television shows and films should receive none of the revenue streams from distributing the episodes or films on the internet and via other “new media.” Does that seem reasonable to you? It does not seem so to me.

    In essence, the producers are saying: “It is the year 1900. You novel writers want to be paid if we adopt your novels into these newfangled moving pictures. But we know that these will never make any money. You should be grateful if an adaptation of your novel appears as flickering images on a screen, because that will help to sell more of your books.”

    I spent an hour on Thursday pushing a wheelchair around the WGA picket line outside Paramount Studios, with a disabled writer in that wheelchair. Harlan Ellison gave a fantastic speech to the crowd.

    I just want to point out that the Intellectual Property arguments on this thread are slightly less abstract for writers who have been out of work for 6 weeks, as well as those out of work in related unions (those who mjake costumers for films and TV, for instance), and the employees of those people (subcontracted seamstresses, for example), and their hungry children.

    Sometimes, I’m a funny guy. But the rights-grab by schools and producers is no joke.

  53. Greg Egan Says:

    Freedom of speech and thought are important. There need be a good reason if they are to be abridged in some way. Appealing to tradition is not one.

    No, but the co-existence of that tradition with a perfectly healthy intellectual culture (and the clear provisions made in all the laws to ensure that intellectual freedom is not impaired) puts the onus on anyone demanding a change in the law to demonstrate some substantial benefit as a result of that change, or substantial hardship as a result of the status quo.

    You haven’t even spelled out what you want the laws to become, apart from complaining about Scott’s specific behaviour. Since it would be farcical to claim that this particular event has curtailed intellectual freedom, you need to explain what it is about the status quo that is so terrible (and which can’t be fixed while also retaining, among other things, Scott’s rights exactly as he exercised them).

    Say “One small step for man”: Why should others have the power to restrict people from quoting them but not Armstrong? Why can’t he solicit $5000 a pop to give to charities?

    Let’s assume he wrote the words, rather than NASA’s PR department. He uttered the words at a historic event in the hope that they would be reported and would enter the culture as a common currency (and if that was not his wish, it was certainly the wish of the employer who was paying him to say them). When you succeed spectacularly at an aim like that, I think you do lose the right to claw the words back from the public culture, even if, say, they were being put to some highly morally offensive commercial use.

    Possibly Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech would fall into the same category, though personally I can still envisage commercial uses of those words which I’d be quite comfortable with King’s estate having the right to veto, or profit from, so long as it does not prevent the reporting of the words or their free discussion.

    James, the reason your response is so comical is because (a) it’s obvious that selling printers with Scott’s words is not a vital cultural freedom that needs to be defended, and (b) this is not the edge of some kind of slippery slope leading to the curtailment of intellectual freedom, since it is merely the status quo, not some terrifying new precedent that threatens to change the copyright landscape.

  54. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    it is merely the status quo, not some terrifying new precedent

    But you have to admit, if you step back and look at everything happening on the Internet these days — YouTube, Google Books, BitTorrent, etc. — that the status quo is untenable.

  55. anon Says:

    “I am not a copyleft anarchist or communist; I understand the need for authors to make a living.”

    There is no connection between copyright as it applies to written works, and copyleft, which is relevant only to software.
    It might be convenient to act as if there is one, but there isn’t.

    Books are written mainly by one or two persons (or to be specific are considered to be the work of one or two persons, the editors, typesetters etc. don’t count).
    The only practical reasons to modify a books content (parody and so on) are protected by the copyright laws.
    In most countries there are public libraries where you can get a very cheap access to books.

    If copyright only last a couple of years, we can benefit from a book without limiting anyones copyright.

    Software on the other hand became unbelievably expensive, is almost never being developed by less than a four men team and benefits significantly from being non-proprietary.

    So why is copyleft that bad?

  56. Greg Egan Says:

    Greg Kuperberg:

    My objection to a loss of copyright after 20 years would be less about insisting on gathering a tiny trickle of income from readers than about retaining moral rights, and also preventing others from making spectacular profits from my work while I get nothing.

    The time lag between Philip K Dick publishing “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and the release of “Blade Runner” was 14 years, but do you really think if it was the magic 20 years, he should not have been entitled to decide whether or not the story was adapted, and to share in the profits when it was?

    The music typesetting thing is a special case, and in a few years we’ll have software that typesets Bach from a recording of a performance — which I certainly don’t think should be classified as an infringement of any rights in the recording.

    The academics who write for free for massively profitable journals are staging some minor revolutions to try to get free access for all their papers (I’m sure you know all about this already, but here’s a link for other people). I guess if I had to make my novels available for free after 20 years in order to get textbooks into the public domain after the same period, that’s a price I’d be willing to pay — so long as I get to keep movie rights, and the power to veto Love Communications. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

    In fact when it comes to textbooks, I’d rather they just became so cheap straight away, through electronic publishing, that the author could be remunerated fairly without anyone being priced out of the readership. When I pay $200 to Springer for some slab of paper shipped from Germany, I doubt the authors get much of that, and I expect they’d be happier to get $5 from me in exchange for a PDF, and $0 for the PDF from someone in Burkina Faso. (And of course lots of academics already make it $0 for everyone.)

  57. Greg Egan Says:

    that the status quo is untenable.

    Possibly, we’ll see. Maybe we’ll end up with a culture where only the top .001% of musicians and writers get any income from their work, and the mid-list have to do it as a hobby and feed themselves some other way. That won’t be the end of the world, though the transition will be tough for unemployable dinosaurs, like me.

  58. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The time lag between Philip K Dick publishing “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and the release of “Blade Runner” was 14 years, but do you really think if it was the magic 20 years, he should not have been entitled to decide whether or not the story was adapted, and to share in the profits when it was?

    These are not easy questions for me. Part of the answer is that astronomically profitable movies are themselves a construct of the status quo of distribution and copyright. Recall the famous essay on software, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Hollywood movies are obviously cathedrals of artistic effort. But maybe Internet piracy will kill the enterprise, and maybe humanity will switch to something better.

    There is a paradox here. Big-ticket movies like The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings are amazing. So are cathedrals, though. You can wax nostalgic and yet realize that there are good reasons to move on. I’m sure that videos will survive as an artistic form. But maybe they will be more like staged plays, plus computer graphics plus YouTube, than like blockbuster movies. Why not? Recently we saw the cheap, old, forgotten movie The Intruder. It was not that much more than a playhouse version of a dime novel by the same name, itself derivative to a true story. I liked it about as much as To Kill a Mockingbird, which was an expensive Hollywood production on the same general subject.

    The academics who write for free for massively profitable journals are staging some minor revolutions to try to get free access for all their papers

    Yeah, I may know something about it. My perspective on this is a little different. I help with the arXiv, which is doing for math and physics papers what CPAN does for Perl scripts and the IF archive does for interactive fiction. As of this week it has 454,000 freely available papers. I’m much more interested in building the new nation, a project which is well under way in my research discipline. If someone wants to storm the Bastille in the old country, then that could be useful but it is not my main interest.

    The music typesetting thing is a special case, and in a few years we’ll have software that typesets Bach from a recording of a performance

    It’s an important special case, and the solution is not as simple as processing recordings with software. It’s easy to see the gap between OCR and full-featured typesetting; music typesetting has the same issues. It’s a lot like the problems solved by TeX and by the arXiv. Eventually there will be a free archive of good classical sheet music. In the meantime, the music discipline is mired in a legacy system.

    It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

    I agree with that, and I don’t know that you and I really have to disagree about anything. My main point is that current copyright law looks like the Titanic. All or nothing will be the outcome of it unless they make big changes.

  59. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Maybe we’ll end up with a culture where only the top .001% of musicians and writers get any income from their work, and the mid-list have to do it as a hobby and feed themselves some other way.

    Maybe. But maybe the anti-copyright revolution will rob the top .001% more than it will rob you. And would your novels have to be a “hobby”? You could still get paid on commission, or with grants. Or you could be paid to teach your craft, and your books would just burnish your reputation. After all, these are the ways that I get paid for my creative work. I don’t think of it as just a hobby.

  60. Hans Dieter Mundt Says:

    Houston Control: “OK, Neil. You’ll say, ‘That’s a small step for one man, a giant leap for mankind.’ Got it?”

    Eagle: “What? Oh, yes. About that ascent engine ignition procedure….”

  61. James Says:

    No, but the co-existence of that tradition with a perfectly healthy intellectual culture (and the clear provisions made in all the laws to ensure that intellectual freedom is not impaired) puts the onus on anyone demanding a change in the law to demonstrate some substantial benefit as a result of that change, or substantial hardship as a result of the status quo.

    Where you see a healthy intellectual culture I see a world of ‘IP’ lawsuits costing billions of dollars a year, frivolous patents impeding innovation, absurd copyright terms; a world where nearly the entirety of youth are criminals under the law; a world of ‘permission culture’ stifling freedom of expression and creation.

    Let’s assume he wrote the words, rather than NASA’s PR department. He uttered the words at a historic event in the hope that they would be reported and would enter the culture as a common currency (and if that was not his wish, it was certainly the wish of the employer who was paying him to say them). When you succeed spectacularly at an aim like that, I think you do lose the right to claw the words back from the public culture, even if, say, they were being put to some highly morally offensive commercial use.

    An indication that there is a problem is when you need to craft a plethora of non-sensical and inconsistent ‘special cases’. Is your rule here that if the words are popular they receive no protection? Or that the author freely relinquished their use (and the assuredly handsome profits)? Or some weird association to the event in which they first appeared?

    James, the reason your response is so comical is because (a) it’s obvious that selling printers with Scott’s words is not a vital cultural freedom that needs to be defended, and (b) this is not the edge of some kind of slippery slope leading to the curtailment of intellectual freedom, since it is merely the status quo, not some terrifying new precedent that threatens to change the copyright landscape.

    This is just one instance of a troubling phenomenon that has been growing for years. Not notable in itself save for the fact that it involves an intellectual and in particular one who works with mathematics. Someone who would presumably understand the value of unbridled intellectual freedom. Someone who should understand how critical it is to be able to use math results without having to get permission from anyone and that the same should be true of any ideas. If this intellectual-permission-required mentality has permeated mathematicians and the like then we are in a sorry state of affairs indeed.


    I did not realize that you were a fiction writer. Trying to convince someone that they do not have a (natural) right to the powers they wield is a hopeless endeavour. I withdraw from further discussion.

  62. Greg Egan Says:

    I did not realize that you were a fiction writer. Trying to convince someone that they do not have a (natural) right to the powers they wield is a hopeless endeavour. I withdraw from further discussion.

    That’s a great trick! Why didn’t they teach me that one in Philosophy 100? Next time I’m losing an argument with someone who refuses to accept my crackpot economic theories, I’ll just identify a category of property that they own but I don’t, and claim that they are consequently incapable of reasoning about the subject.

    Of course, I’m sure you’re scrupulously consistent about this and also accept that everyone who has wielded their power to download an illegal MP3 is also beyond the reach of rational debate.

  63. Elimis Says:

    I’m certainly no expert on copyright issues, but if anyone here is interested in reading some excellent articles on the subject, try:
    http://baens-universe.com/authors/Eric_Flint

    There are articles there covering many aspects of the copyright issue, from the point of view of a succesful SF author. Very highly recommended.

  64. Gilad Says:

    For some reason the “Aaronson vs. Armstrong” debate is missing some key points. For instance:

    1) When saying “one small step for man”, I may as well be saying “As Armstrong said…”. I’m sure Scott would have resented the commercial less if the model said “Professor Aaronson writes that…”.

    2) If a company were selling “One Small Step For Man Boots”, I’m not sure I’d mind them being sued.

    Using an academic piece someone has chosen to put to everyones easy use (such as Scott’s lectures) to sell printers is not intellectual freedom, it’s plagiarizing. Quoting a commercial in a paper is intellectual freedom :-)

  65. James Says:

    1) When saying “one small step for man”, I may as well be saying “As Armstrong said…”. I’m sure Scott would have resented the commercial less if the model said “Professor Aaronson writes that…”.

    So it is a question of truth and not of control? That might be a reasonable argument requiring further discussion but that hasn’t been the impression I have been getting from anyone. Even you qualify the statement making it meaningless. Would you say that, from a moral perspective, if they had attributed the quote the company would no longer require permission? Who cares if he resented it less if he was still entitled to the same powers to restrict others freedom?

    Using an academic piece someone has chosen to put to everyones easy use (such as Scott’s lectures) to sell printers is not intellectual freedom…

    Many people have this bizarre notion that if money is involved freedom somehow goes out the window. It’s not unethical to use graph theory to build a commercial search engine and it’s not unethical to quote someone to sell printers.

  66. Chris Says:

    Good stuff!! I saw the physics demo troupe perform at the Australian Institute of Physics conference this time last year and they were awesome.

  67. csrster Says:

    I’d rather date a model than have a date with a mohel.

  68. aravind Says:

    hi scott, i hope you are having a good time in india (first visit?). btw, i was looking at your very impressive CV, and wanted to point out a small typo – your Spring 2008 course at mit is listed instead as Spring 2007.

    hope your lecture-notes from there will also be publicly available!

  69. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    The key to the Armstrong v Aaronson debate is a rational and consistent definition of property rights. Copyright fails to be consistently and predictable, which is why enforcement requires multitudes of lawyers reams of legislation. Just because politicians, lawyers, authors, artists, songwriters and other content providers conspire to enable rent seeking does not make it morally sound.

    You can own a book, but you can’t own either the words or the ideas contained within that book, and neither can the author. What is inside your brain is yours, whether you independently thought of it, or whether you read it or were told it.

    But, on the whole, I don’t think Western civilisation and freedom of speech is going to be threatened by Scott negotiating a donation to a charity. And if a classical liberal society did suddenly spring into being, there is no doubt that providers of original content wouild still be paid handsomely for the content they provide if it has value to others. Traditional concepts of copyright are merely a way in which we have tried to commodify intellectual activities, but it is a form of protectionism for existing producers that has no solid basis in natural rights.

  70. Greg Egan Says:

    And if a classical liberal society did suddenly spring into being, there is no doubt that providers of original content wouild still be paid handsomely for the content they provide if it has value to others.

    Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, once you’ve succeeded in creating a culture of entitlement where everyone expects all forms of content that are easily copied to be free, who exactly is it who will do what none of their peers are doing, and pay for music, or a movie, or a work of fiction? Poor old Morrissey won’t get much to eat if only a few diehard fans like me are willing to hand over their cash, while a hundred thousand people who actually enjoy his music — but not quite enough to break the habit they learnt from Napster — are happy to freeload.

    Technology has enabled vastly cheaper distribution. The price of music, etc., should fall proportionately. If the price falls to zero, the supply won’t dry up completely, but the quality will plummet.

    The trouble with pristine, abstract theories about “natural rights” is that they make no contact whatsoever with actual human nature. A “classical liberal society” is in the same class of fantasies as a communist utopia.

  71. Greg Egan Says:

    What is inside your brain is yours, whether you independently thought of it, or whether you read it or were told it.

    Just to be clear about the axioms of your theory: do you really mean “inside your brain”, or do you actually mean “on your hard-drive”, or maybe “on some bit torrent you can access”? I know it’s rhetorically convenient to invoke the brain as the inviolable bastion of freedom, but if you actually mean “anything inside any storage device, anywhere in the world, belongs to everyone”, you really should say so.

    If you can personally memorise all three Lord of the Rings movies and re-paint them by hand, frame for frame, then I doubt even Peter Jackson would begrudge you making a profit from the results.

  72. Jon Katz Says:

    Is there any more to the story? Like how they came across your lecture notes in the first place?

  73. Gilad Says:

    James,
    Is it a question of truth or of control? Of both. The reason that freedom of speech is venerated as a right is, historically, to prevent oppression by political and religious institutions. The freedom is there so people can make up their minds about things that matter. The case here isn’t of Scott trying to prevent people from knowing the content of what he said (without paying him), and isn’t that of Scott trying to prevent people from quoting him so they can’t argue with him. Giving Scott due credit is simple common courtesy.
    As for financial rights, so long as we accept that books and other written works are protected, I think Scott’s work is too. This protection is not meant to prevent people from reading what he wrote. It’s just that other people shouldn’t directly profit from what he wrote without giving him a cut. If you think there isn’t a case for any form of intellectual property than Scott’s text has, of course, no special rights. Just keep in mind that assuming your philosophy allows for material property, you’re leaving the power in the hands of those who control the majority of property and money, and are aiming for a world where the free exchange of technical ideas may be limited – given that the major way I can break out of poverty is using my ideas, and given that these have no legal protection, I probably won’t be sharing them any time soon if I want to make a living. More MS that doesn’t disclose API’s than Linux.

  74. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    Greg,

    I’ve never heard anyone describe a classical liberal society as a crucible for a culture of entitlement, a more apt description for the welfare state we’re in today. Content providers will be paid because they provide content, which is what drives consumers to consume. Television content has been provided at no cost to audiences for decades, where do you think Oprah gets her millions from, or Seinfeld, or David Letterman?

    Yes, I do believe that from first principles, no one can own content (or copyright) per se. But, not everyone can provide content, and that is a valuable service that people are willing to pay for, even if its subsequent distribution is free. Rather than defend the indefensible, content providers should be innovating the way in which they deliver their service. Asking the user to pay when they can easily obtain the same content for free is pointless and expensive.

    The horse has bolted on copyright and it will never be reigned back in.

  75. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    Gilad,

    Freedom of speech is useful tool against opression, but that is not how I’d defend it. Freedom of speech is really a property rights issue. You own your property, therefore you should be allowed to do anything with your property so long as it doesn’t infringe on others equal right to enjoy their own property. Publishing or broadcasting does not infringe on anyone else, so therefore it is your right to use your property to express yourself. This is freedom of speech.

    Talking of physicists though, did Einstein or any of his heirs get a dime for all those E=mc2 t-shirts and merchandise? Do you think they should have?

  76. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    Not clear if Einstein could have owned the copyright to “E=MC^2″ as there was prior art.

    However, he was far from naive about Intellectual Property via the Patent law of several countries.

    The “Einstein Refrigerator” is a type of refrigerator co-invented in 1926 by Albert Einstein and former student Leó Szilárd, who were awarded U.S. Patent 1,781,541 on November 11, 1930. The machine is a single-pressure absorption refrigerator, similar in design to the gas absorption refrigerator. The refrigeration cycle uses ammonia (pressure-equalizing fluid), butane (refrigerant), and water (absorbing fluid).

  77. Gilad Says:

    Brendan,
    While I doubt Einstein or his heirs got a dime for all those E=mc^2 t-shirts, the name “Einstein” as it relates to the late scientist is copyrighted, and the rights were left to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Various companies who wish to use the name must pay, and some companies are not allowed to use it at all.
    If someone were asked to come up (as part of his job) with a formula and got payed for it, I feel it’d be fair to share profit of this use with Einstein. However, the use on T-shirts is “art” (in the widest sense).

  78. Sebmojo Says:

    Greg, the case of Radiohead’s In Rainbows might be of interest to you – released on a ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ basis, and a huge number of people (myself included) happily stumped up some cash for it. In my case a fiver, which I think was roughly the (anecdotal) average. Loads of people paid nothing too, of course, but were they ever going to pay for it?

    Hard numbers are scarce, but I’m comfortable reasoning from my own thought processes and assuming they’re not unique.

  79. Greg Egan Says:

    Television content has been provided at no cost to audiences for decades, where do you think Oprah gets her millions from, or Seinfeld, or David Letterman?

    And once technology can strip advertising from content completely and effortlessly, how much do you think their sponsors will be willing to pay?

    But, not everyone can provide content, and that is a valuable service that people are willing to pay for, even if its subsequent distribution is free. Rather than defend the indefensible, content providers should be innovating the way in which they deliver their service. Asking the user to pay when they can easily obtain the same content for free is pointless and expensive.

    Since it’s not the user paying, just who are these mythical people who are “willing” to pay? The fact is, many users are prepared to pay non-onerous amounts for content, and it’s pure ideology to insist that it’s “indefensible”. Anyone who thinks cable TV rates as an attack on human freedom really ought to get their priorities straight. And it’s farcical to compare paying for pop music with paying to use mathematical theorems — a notion nobody in the world has ever proposed, and which is only a “consequence” of existing copyright law to people who think it’s some kind of crime against reason to treat different cases differently.

    You and James make it sound as if consistency across a vast spectrum of types of content and types of use is some kind of inviolable fundamental political/philosophical/economic principle; it’s not, it’s just a kind of extremist longing for purity. Human laws and moral systems are not like laws of physics; they are messy, pragmatic things that are rooted in history and politics as much as in biological human nature (let alone anything truly timeless). This is not a tragedy or a perversion; it’s a necessary fact of life.

  80. Greg Egan Says:

    Sebmojo, I was waiting for someone to mention Radiohead. It’s an interesting experiment, and open to all kinds of interpretations. I’m not surprised that some people paid (since I would have myself), and won’t be surprised if they make a non-trivial amount of income. But whether this is a practical long-term approach remains to be seen. Is the culture moving in a direction where the minority of people who do pay really will be indifferent to the fact that they’re subsidising millions who don’t? I’m not suggesting that that’s a bad thing, if it’s true, but I’m a little sceptical about the long-term numbers of people who’ll pay, when all their peers just laugh at them for needlessly throwing money away.

  81. Will Says:

    What interests me about the Radiohead case is that they’ve already taken all the benefits from selling your soul to the dinosaur (that is, publicity, distribution, high-cost production, etc.) and leveraged it into something that people somehow take as vindication for independent artists. So, as long as I have a fanbase of tens of millions through radio airtime, widespread album distribution, and interviews on late-night television, I can make it as an independent artist! Woohoo, the shackles are broken!

  82. Scott Says:

    Aravind: Thanks! You can get all my slides (free of charge!) at http://www.scottaaronson.com/talks.

    My only Internet access right now is my Blackberry, and while I’d love to join the interesting debate about natural rights, classical liberalism, and the future of intellectual property, the buttons are too small.

  83. anon Says:

    Greg,
    You keep insisting that once technology will allow easy sharing of copyrighted material, no one will pay for it.

    However,it is obvious that someone must get payed in order for books/pop music etc. to be created.
    In a free enough market, a way will be found to pay the authors.
    (in the same way people can make a living from free software, or theoretical computer science)

    What the ability to share gives the consumer is a better bargaining power in this future model.

    Another point is that with the current technology, enforcing copyright has to envolve giving the state( or worse, the media corporations) some disturbingly powerfull enforcment tools.
    Why is it worth it?

  84. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    Greg,

    I don’t think pay TV is an attack on liberty. Consenting adults can agree to any contract they want. The fact that some commercial relationships will become outdated by technological progress is a fact of life. Scribes used to get paid to copy out books by hand and copyright as a concept didn’t exist until after the printing press was invented, more as a method of censorship (or at least controlling what could be copied and by whom) than as protecting author’s incomes.

    It is not about idealogical purity, it is really about practicality. Technology exists that can make distribution essentially free and can sever the embedded advertising. But that doesn’t mean that their won’t be a way for artistic work and academic work to be commercialised in some other as yet unthought of way.

    I don’t see that much of a problem really. Artists and academics will always be valued because of our (seemingly)innate and unquenchable desire for new ideas, new forms of expression, new ways of telling the same stories. The way that artists and academics are compensated for their work will evolve as the method for distributing their work evolves.

    The beauty of technology will also be that instead of having to rely on a massive industrial infrastructure to get your work published, new artists and academics can upload their work via the internet with little overhead costs. As Scott in this blog demonstrates, and as countless other people who contribute their time freely to providing content for the internet, it often the message we have to tell which is more important than any direct form of compensation. For recording artists like Radiohead and Morrisey, they’ll have to adapt. A worldwide tour of Radiohead will more than compensate them for providing their latest album essentially gratis. People will pay to get a direct feed of live concerts into their living room, just look at sporting events.

  85. Greg Egan Says:

    You keep insisting that once technology will allow easy sharing of copyrighted material, no one will pay for it.

    Only if all efforts to encourage the user to pay are abandoned. I’m arguing against two people who believe that it is unethical for the user to be required to pay, and that the very notion of copyright is intrinsically immoral.

    My own position is that the user, as the sole beneficiary, is the obvious person to pay, and that a mixture of legislation and technology can continue to make that a viable model (notwithstanding examples of crudity and stupidity in both legislation and DRM).

    In a free enough market, a way will be found to pay the authors.

    People keep repeating this with religious certainty, but nobody has yet described a single realistic model. Only a tiny minority of the people who work on free software receive any remuneration for that — and none of the mechanisms that produce that income translate into sensible equivalents for music or books.

  86. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    Greg,

    No where have I argued that it is unethical to pay for content, only that content itself is not what is actually being sold, but access to content. When you buy a book, you are buying the ability to read it, ownership of the book (unless it is some rare edition) confers no benefit, but a consumer’s ability to read and the technology of printing enable the book seller to sell access to the novel. Devices like Amazon’s Kindle electronic book may well put an end to the book as a mass market product. But how will Amazon make a profit from Kindle? Who is going to buy one without access to content? Amazon will try to control access through selling individual titles, but eventually technology will mean that Kindle owners are simply filesharing their titles.

    We view the internet as a single entity, but it really is a conglomeration of individual users all freely giving access to content. ISPs and content providers both have self-interest in both existing, amd they should be developing a commercial relationship to ensure this. Copyright as it is attempted to be enforced now is a barrier to new commercial arrangements. Once content is released, there will be little to prevent it being distributed freely, but people will pay for first access and ease of access. Internet publishing houses would have motivation to sign and promote new talent and established talent would be forced to compete on their new releases rather than their back catalogues simply to get access to the ISPs. The commercial life of new content will be much shorter, but that will only mean more new content. It will unleash a creative explosion of human potential. Copyright protects established artists and makes it more difficult for new artists. It is rent seeking, pure and simple.

  87. Greg Egan Says:

    Brendan wrote:

    No where have I argued that it is unethical to pay for content

    And what I wrote was:

    I’m arguing against two people who believe that it is unethical for the user to be required to pay

    Brendan wrote:

    people will pay for first access and ease of access

    In the absence of copyright laws, this would be a tiny number of people, and unless they pay a truly spectacular premium, the income of all content-creators will drop by orders of magnitude. This might not worry J.K. Rowling, but it’s rather more than enough to send me (and hundreds of thousands of others) back to their day job. That might not be much of a tragedy, but nor is the status quo the great injustice you keep trying to paint it as.

    Copyright protects established artists and makes it more difficult for new artists.

    A new artist who wishes to distribute their (original) work on the internet and impose no copyright on it is entirely unimpeded by the fact that other people are doing things differently.

  88. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    Greg,

    I’m not trying to prevent you from selling your product, I just believe that current ways of trying to control content and commercialise artistic and academic work is like trying to stop water flowing through a sieve. Even if you think copyright is legitimate (which I don’t), trying to enforce it is both expensive and ultimately futile.

    Of course anyone can freely distribute their product on the internet, but that hardly enables them to commercialise it. Copyright makes publishing companies value established artists over new artists because of the profit they can generate from back catalogues. More marketing and investment in established acts means less resources available to dedicate to new artists.

    I really don’t understand what it is about artistic and academic work that makes people think they should get paid indefinitely (or at least until copyright expires) for a service they essentially provided once. Simply because artistic and academic work is hard to value does not excuse rent seeking, it simply means that an appropriate way to value the provision of content is yet to be developed that does not rely on the whim of legislators and the judiciary deciding what can and can’t be copyrighted that is neither predictable or consistent.

  89. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    My posts seem to be getting caught up in a spam filter.

    I’m not going to convince you Greg that current copyright laws are at best arbitary and whimsical and thus bad law, not to mention awkward from a philosophical point of view.

    Why should authors, artists and academics get paid indefinitely for a service that they provided once? Does an artist whose painting appreciates in value as it is exchanged between owners have any claim on subsequent sale prices? Or does the value or popularity of their existing work influence the price of their new work? Why should it be any different for easily reproducable content?

  90. Greg Egan Says:

    Why should it be any different for easily reproducible content?

    Now authors have to be identical to painters? You keep trying to impose a one-size-fits-all model, out of the misconception that it’s some kind of moral failure if everything people do is not considered precisely equivalent.

    It takes me at least a year of full-time work to write a novel. My books sell about 10,000 copies; a fee of $2 per e-book would keep my head above water, in a world where copyright still existed and every reader paid.

    Many literary authors might take five years to write a book, and some as much as ten. A painter might spend a similar amount of time on their masterpiece, but while any painting that rises above the amateur is unlikely to sell for less than $1,000 (and obviously vastly more in some cases), only the most deranged book collectors fork out more than $100 or so for gimicky limited editions of modern works. I’m sure you could find an exception for an edition signed in blood by Stephen King, but we are talking about business models for ordinary writers. As for finding even a dozen people willing to pay $100 each for the privilege of being the first readers of an e-book by a mid-list author, forget it.

    However philosophically repugnant you find it that I get “paid indefinitely for a service I provided only once”, the fact is no group of people are going to pay a total of $20,000 for some kind of “premium access” in the first few days of a book’s release — least of all if it can be grabbed off the net for free shortly afterwards. If you believe $20,000 is a vast overpayment for a year’s work, that’s fine, just say so, but pretending that the Internet Tooth Fairy will pluck the same sum out of the aether — when it could have been fairly and painlessly amortised over 10,000 readers — is pure wishful thinking.

    And I’m still waiting for you to back up your claim that copyright “makes it more difficult for new artists”. By selling my own books with an implicit contract with my readers that they won’t scan them and put them on the net, this blocks other people’s fresh new artistic and business models … how, exactly?

  91. Gilad Says:

    Brendan,
    Greg isn’t asking for rights on particular copies of his book, and a painter hasn’t a right over particular copies of his work. I would say that if a painter creates a wonderful design and someone copies and mass produces it, the painter should get a cut.

  92. Peter Shor Says:

    Someday the Supreme Court is going to rule that copyright laws that get extended every 20 years (whenever Mickey Mouse is in danger of being released to the public domain) is not compatible with the Constitution’s statement that copyright should be granted for a “limited period of time.” I thought the latest extension to 120 years would have failed this, but I guess not. Prediction: the next extension will be declared unconstitutional. Poor Disney.

  93. Peter Shor Says:

    Gilad:
    Einstein’s name is not copyrighted but trademarked, undoubtedly for a limited subset of uses — using it to talk about the special theory of relativity is perfectly legal. The name Einstein is not copyrightable.

    (Gilad said:
    While I doubt Einstein or his heirs got a dime for all those E=mc^2 t-shirts, the name “Einstein” as it relates to the late scientist is copyrighted, and the rights were left to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Various companies who wish to use the name must pay, and some companies are not allowed to use it at all.)

  94. anon Says:

    “Only a tiny minority of the people who work on free software receive any remuneration for that — and none of the mechanisms that produce that income translate into sensible equivalents for music or books. “

    But there is a lot of free software – which is a good thing.
    Somehow the fact that you can’t get rich just from developing free software hasn’t pervented this.
    So there is some kind of a model.

    And yes, perhaps there is no reasonable model that will allow someone to write one novel a year, and make a living out of it.
    Maybe all of the possible models will involve also doing other types of writing, ot maybe there will be a smaller number of novelists and they will be supported by grants.

    You keep pointing out that there is no practical model that will allow you to keep working the way you do now.
    But there is also no reasonable way to enforce copyright without using something as evil as trusted computing. Plain DRM won’t be enough.

    Suppose you bought a tiket for a show. Would you agree to a full cavity search and having to deposit your cell phone to make sure you don’t record it to share with your freinds?

  95. Greg Egan Says:

    Would you agree to a full cavity search and having to deposit your cell phone to make sure you don’t record it to share with your friends?

    Actually, I wish they confiscated everyone’s phones as often as possible, so I wouldn’t have to listen to people taking calls. But I’d prefer a Terahertz scan to the cavity search, thanks.

    Look, if Sony or Apple want to put a chip in my hard drive that checks every file it reads and writes, they can go screw themselves, but just because the extremist lunatics on the pro-copyright side deserve a smack across the head, that’s no argument for ditching all copyright laws.

    There are almost certainly no perfect technological means to frustrate determined copiers. So what? If sharing copyright material remains illegal and at least slightly inconvenient, and if legal e-books cost something like $2, I believe that enough people will continue to buy them to allow authors to continue to survive on sales. People do actually buy songs from iTunes etc., despite the fact that if they really wanted to they could probably get free versions with impunity. Musicians haven’t all slit their wrists or got jobs as waiters. That’s only going to happen if the extremist lunatics on the anti-copyright side — the ones who say that copyright is controlling their thoughts — get their way.

    But there is a lot of free software – which is a good thing.

    I agree. And it all happened without any need to repeal existing copyright laws, or put all non-free software companies out of business.

    There are also lots of free books on the internet. There is absolutely nothing I am doing, or advocating, to prevent that trend from continuing. (However, if you read a few of those books you might decide that it’s not quite such a blessing as the free software. The textbooks by academics, which are being subsidised by their employers, are of the usual standard, but most of the fiction is not.)

  96. anon Says:

    If sharing copyright material remains illegal and at least slightly inconvenient, and if legal e-books cost something like $2, I believe that enough people will continue to buy them to allow authors to continue to survive on sales.

    I totally agree.
    The key here is that it should be slightly inconvinient to share, and downloading would actually cost something like 2$ for a non DRM copy.

    The moment it becomes really inconvinient to share, you start to see things like people spending more money on (awfull) ringtones for their cellphone than on the actual phone-calls that are spent mostly on adertising those same ringtones.

    Another point is the 2$ have to go to the author.
    If the intellectual property aspect of copyright (i.e the ability of the author to sell copyright) won’t be limited, we will have to pay much more than 2$ to acomplish that.
    We will pay for advertisment, managment, dividents to the share holders, copyright laws lobists, etc.

    The current copyright laws are already much more generous than what I consider justified, and i think your original proposition of 75 years after publication, with no other changes to the status-quo is also a bit too much.

  97. srp Says:

    More interesting to me than the copyright issues is the point Esther Dyson raised many years ago: The Internet, by drastically lowering the cost of distribution, vastly increases the competition in every category of content and will tend to drive content prices to zero.

    Except for a few very strong name-brand writers, earning a living from content will be rendered impossible by the existence of numerous close substitutes for everything. These zero-price substitutes will be produced by talented amateurs, professionals using content as a come-on for live performance, people operating on an advertising model, and so on.

    Dyson went on to argue that the dominant creators’ business model of the future would be free provision of content and paid provision of live and/or customized performances. We see this has started to come true for rock groups, whose recorded music is becoming just a come-on for concert sales. Consultants have used this model for a long time–write something in Harvard Business Review without compensation, then get hired by people who’ve read your article or heard about it from others. (This analysis was not popular with most content creators at the time, and Dyson took a lot of unfair flak, as people confused her predictions with her preferences and got things mixed up with the copyright issues.)

    I don’t see how Dyson’s performance business model can work for novelists, though, so I hope she’s wrong about the market equilibrium there. People like Greg Egan, who are really good at what they do and have some brand equity, can still stay ahead of the competitive mob, I think. But screwing them on copyright is not going to help.

  98. christine Says:

    As a former Brisvegan, thanks for sharing. Esp on the Torres Strait Island trip. And no, I had no idea that BrisScience – a name I’ve heard around the blogs a lot (see, eg, John Quiggin) – was in any way amusing.

  99. Len Ornstein Says:

    Creative effort requires motivation. Depending upon personal idiosyncrasies, history and cultural milieu, motivation can vary enormously.

    In capitalistic environments, almost the only way to survive is with a monetary income. Patents, copyrights and trademarks are devised to help stimulate creative effort, and create motives for supporting creative work. Of course, they can have other antisocial consequences as well.

    In the long run, automation will necessarily change the capitalist model drastically, because the cost per man-hour for nearly all kinds of mass-production will approach zero. (Assuming ultimate zero population growth) most people will ‘have their survival needs provided’ by social mechanisms that may be more like ‘relief’ than compensation for labor. The very low cost of reproducing music, print and video, are harbingers of this certain trend.

    So what’s being discussed here is fundamentally more important than most seem to realize.

    What is needed are mechanisms that assure that creative motivation remains high, and creative people can survive.

    Communism generally failed, at least, as a motivator. So have most religious models. The central question is, are there mechanisms that can appeal to ‘fundamental’ perceptions of justice…and that would be almost self-policing?

    That really hasn’t been addressed here.

  100. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    In my opinion, this argument with Greg Egan has gotten far too polarized. What Egan is saying, above all, is that the world would be a better place if people like him can make a living by writing fine novels. I think that he would agree that any viable method of compensation is acceptable. He just doesn’t like the attitude that all subscription is theft, and that the content will appear out of nowhere even if no one ever pays for it. At this abstract level, I agree with him. (He has also spoken for artistic control, which is a separate if related issue.)

    What I would maintain on the other side is that the status quo is deeply broken. To make up for my joke comparison with Harry Potter (which truthfully is okay but monumentally over-promoted), I looked into buying some of Greg Egan’s novels as Christmas presents. It turns out that not one of them is being sold as new. I can get some of them for Kindle (which I don’t yet trust), or I can get worn copies for the price of new, or I can get well-tended copies for a very high price. Moreover, the latter two put no money in his pocket. This is a pathetic contrast to what Egan can do with the research papers of many people in this thread, which is download them freely and immediately from the arXiv. Without saying that Egan doesn’t deserve to be paid, certainly the world needs some other system to pay him.

  101. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Ha, somehow I reverted to a less-polite last name convention for Greg Egan. It’s because he has the same first name as me. I should say Greg E., while I am Greg K.

  102. Greg Egan Says:

    Greg K: What don’t you like about Kindle, and what could Amazon (or their competitors) do to make you want to read e-books?

    While I think it would be great if every book in the world could be downloaded immediately, I’m not convinced that this ought to be universally free. I actually co-authored two papers on the arXiv, and while the other authors were being supported by academic salaries, I was being supported by … [evil rent-seeker that I am] … royalties from Japanese translations of my fiction.

    While it’s probably a good thing that most physics papers are written by academics, I wouldn’t say the same about novels. There are novels being written by English professors (part-time, or on sabbatical) and by the recipients of philanthropic or government grants. But I don’t think it’s either likely or desirable that this source of fiction will expand.

  103. Len Ornstein Says:

    Correction for #98

    Not “the cost per man-hour” but ‘the labor cost per unit of production’ will approach zero.

  104. Michael Welford Says:

    I think we can all acknowledge that creators of intellectual property are entitled to benefit from their work, but that current law has gone to a counterproductive extreme. I mean century long copyrights?? Seriously!

    I don’t foresee far reaching reforms any time soon. Intellectual property law is too useful a tool for the developed nations to keep poorer nations from catching up technologically. But I have an idea that wouldn’t interfere with the program of keeping less developed nations in their place.

    Let intellectual property rights lapse if the intellectual property is not being made available to the public for a period of say 30 months. Holders of intellectual property can hardly complain of being deprived of income when they’re not marketing their ideas. And exploited nations wouldn’t benefit much from the reform, since a technology that hasn’t been sold for more than 2 years is probably obsolete.

    BTW, I’ve long had an interest in voting systems. ( Plurality vs. runoff, proportional representation, that sort thing ) I think that I may be on the verge of a breakthrough. If my ideas pan out, should I apply for a patent?

  105. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    What don’t you like about Kindle, and what could Amazon (or their competitors) do to make you want to read e-books?

    With Kindle it’s as simple as that it’s a new product and I don’t know that it’s trustworthy. If they can get enough other people to use it, then they can get me to use it. A lot of these services turn out to be money and hassle for not much content. I’m not a fan of copyright violations, but on the other hand I’m not going to see subscription fees and DRM as a great feature for the consumer. They are a feature for the provider only, one that needs to prove itself with to the consumer with superior content.

    That said, I do have a Netflix subscription and I also had a TimesSelect subscription before that was cancelled. I have never done iTunes, but that is partly or entirely because I do not buy much music of any kind these days.

    Form also counts for something, especially for gifts and for fiction (which is meant to entertain). Part of the value of a book is that it is a very comfortable presentation format that evolved over a long time. Actually I do not see why Amazon cannot have its own book-binding operation to generate a copy of any of its scanned books on demand.

    But I don’t think it’s either likely or desirable that this source of fiction will expand.

    If it’s unlikely that novelists will be paid with grants and teaching money (and presumably lecture circuits), then it’s unlikely. But otherwise, why wouldn’t it be desirable?

  106. Greg Egan Says:

    If it’s unlikely that novelists will be paid with grants and teaching money (and presumably lecture circuits), then it’s unlikely. But otherwise, why wouldn’t it be desirable?

    What I meant was:

    (A) I’m not advocating that either governments (i.e. taxpayers) or philanthropic organisations spend more of their finite resources on subsidising the production of fiction. There are plenty of worthwhile things that can probably only ever get done with such grants, and the production of fiction would be way, way down my list of priorities for that particular kind of resource, long after the last disease was cured and the last obscure species of beetle described.

    (B) Academic life is always going to be a viable option for only a certain subset of people. I don’t think it’s desirable that that subset (or any other) produces a disproportionate amount of the fiction. To some extent it’s unavoidable that writers won’t be perfectly representative of society in general, but academics are already over-represented. I don’t see any need for people with a vast range of life experiences (and temperaments or skill sets incompatible with universities, teaching, research, or public lectures) to write physics papers … but I’d hate to live in a world where they were effectively unable to write novels.

  107. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    Greg Egan:

    I don’t think you’re evil for taking advantage of the status quo, and I’m not opposed to authors earning income from their work. Technology advancement does mean though that the ability for copyright holders to enforce their copyright will require increasing amount of resources with an extremely diminishing return rate.

    You can disagree with me on whether copyright is a positive right or a negative right, but you can’t disagree with the reality that with a short amount of effort I could probably find one of your published works on the net and print off a cumbersome, but readable version. Content providers should be developing ways of commercialising their work that doesn’t rely on distribution.

  108. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    Len Ornstein:

    Your thoughts on the diminishing value of labour goes against all economic history. As the productivity of labour goes up, rates of pay for that labour increase. The only point that that relationship could be broken is if the cost of production actually reached zero, and that would be breaking the law of conservation of energy!

  109. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    #107

    Should read:

    “…that doesn’t rely on the control of distribution.”

  110. Scott Says:

    Greg K.:

    I looked into buying some of Greg Egan’s novels as Christmas presents. It turns out that not one of them is being sold as new … This is a pathetic contrast to what Egan can do with the research papers of many people in this thread, which is download them freely and immediately from the arXiv.

    Yet isn’t it the very inaccessibility of something that makes it valuable as a gift? Somehow, stockings over a fireplace stuffed with freshly-printed rolled-up arXiv preprints doesn’t seem right to me…

  111. Paul Beame Says:

    BTW: Following up on that Paul Davies NYT op-ed (which became a November “Mistake of the Week”), there is now a clarification by Davies as part of an interesting NYT piece by Dennis Overbye.

  112. John Sidles Says:

    IMHO, this thread has steadily evolved in the very interesting direction of discussing “How are new jobs created, and new resources distributed?”

    The past generation of American mathematicians and physicists did not often discuss this question, except at the most rudimentary level … there is even a cynical aphorism: “Most physicists are interested in creating just one new job.”

    A question that our QSE Group sometimes discusses is exactly opposite: “By what paths (if any) could scientists and engineers aspire to create one billion new jobs.”

    We picked the number “one billion” for a pragmatic reason; that’s how many new jobs the planet needs to create.

  113. Len Ornstein Says:

    Brendan’s #108

    Were you addressing my correction (#103)?

    The labor cost, PER UNIT OF PRODUCTION, is clearly heading towards zero.

    With effective automation, that’s so, even when the wages (of probably fewer employed) are going up.

    And this calls for an entirely new paradigm of compensation to insure both motivation and fairness…and therefore continues progress AND possible domestic peace.

  114. ScentOfViolets Says:

    Sebmojo, I was waiting for someone to mention Radiohead. It’s an interesting experiment, and open to all kinds of interpretations. I’m not surprised that some people paid (since I would have myself), and won’t be surprised if they make a non-trivial amount of income.

    This strikes me as just the sort of empirical research that people should be doing. How would one design such an experiment? How costly would it be?

    Suppose Radiohead lost money they would have otherwise gotten by employing a more traditional model – would anyone one the other side come around to Greg E’s views? If not, why not, and what would have to be done to convince you?

    Otoh: leaving the issues of morality and ethics aside (and here I completely agree with him), suppose Radiohead actually made money – would Greg E concede maybe there’s not too much too worry about in terms of a content provider being able to earn a living off of the content they provide? If not, why not, and what sort of experiments would have to be done to convince him otherwise?

  115. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    interesting NYT piece by Dennis Overbye.

    interesting → aggravating

    Overbye has had a number of articles over the past few years that co-opt serious physics with fatuous pseudo-ideas. What if the universe is a “computer”? What if “mathematics is the universe”? What if the laws of physics “change over time”?

    It should be said that the New York Times does have the best science journalism among newspapers and is thus victim to high expectations. Even so, mathematics and the mathematical side of physics are not their strong suit.

  116. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Well, okay, are and are not their strong suit. Now and then they have great articles in mathematics, again generally better than other newspapers. You have to wait a long time for them though.

  117. Greg Egan Says:

    ScentOfViolets (#114), as Will pointed out (#81), Radiohead are starting from a very high level of success that was attained by the traditional means, so even if they’re able to sustain their income this way the question remains as to whether future bands starting from scratch can do the same.

    There certainly are newer bands than Radiohead that have become at least moderately successful by initially just giving their music away (though I haven’t paid much attention to them and can’t recall any names). If one of those bands succeeded to support themselves without ever signing up for traditional distribution, it would be an interesting and encouraging datum.

    I should stress that I’m not apocalyptically pessimistic about the prospect of users continuing to pay for music and books — so long as the copyright laws aren’t scrapped (and if anything, become smarter and less punitive; the recent case where a woman was ruined financially for uploading songs to a file sharing site was unconscionable). iTunes has sold a billion songs, and shows no sign of going out of business; it doesn’t matter if the illegal filesharing market is larger than that, if the total audience has expanded so that the revenue for an artist is still significant. Are those billion iTunes sales all to middle-aged dinosaurs with outdated 20th-century morality, or are millions of young people reasoning that it’s a case of enlightened self-interest to support the bands they like for $1 a song?

    When Brendan Halfweeg (#107) says “I could probably find one of your published works on the net”, it’s like saying that I could go and find some music by a band I’d never heard of before and had no interest in listening to. The question for me is whether a significant proportion of the people who’ve enjoyed my work enough to shell out $10-$30 for paper books will choose an illegal free version over a $2 e-book, when they’re (mostly) smart enough to understand that they risk sending me back to a day job and reducing my output of fiction by a factor of 10.

  118. Greg Egan Says:

    What if the universe is a “computer”?

    This is an especially fatuous one. How could the universe not be a computer?

  119. Scott Says:

    Paul and Greg K.: Reading Overbye’s piece on my Blackberry during a talk, I actually thought it was decent, as long as you see it as a poetic meditation and not physics reporting.

  120. Brendan Halfweeg Says:

    Len Ornstein at #113:

    No, I was saying that you are wrong.

    As productivity increases, wages increase. Has been, always will be.

    The application of capital (in the form of new technology)may displace some workers who are skilled in the old inefficient way of doing things, but the new jobs created by the new technology will be higher paid. The workers displaced will have to either learn the new technology or move industries. Either way, even if there is individual short term hardship, overall resources are being used more efficiently to produce more that is of value.

    We all get richer as automation increases, not poorer.

  121. Job Says:

    The universe may not be a computer but could probably be made to be.

  122. anon Says:

    “Either way, even if there is individual short term hardship, overall resources are being used more efficiently to produce more that is of value.”

    We all get richer as automation increases, not poorer

    Your assumption that all it takes a person move to a new technology is “short term hardship”, is unrealistic.

    Not all technologies create new jobs, or at least not as many jobs as the old ones. Otherwise automation wouldn’t be worthwile. Many people have to start over, in a different not-yet-automated field.

    Even when new jobs are created, they usually involve not just a new way of doing things but a more sofisticated way.

    Since changes are fast paced, experience has less value.
    Eventually older workers, and uneducated workers are too expensive to retrain, and might never catch up – not a “short term hardship” at all.

    And if the automarion doesn’t mean more sofisticted jobs, it at least means the employers depend less on the workers skill (or cooperation).
    All you really need is to buy a good product and find the cheapest way to operate it.
    Take for example the way your cell phone is manufactured – one needs a handfull of well paid designers, engeneers, and managers and houndreds of underpaid uneducated, easily replacable Thai children.

    All automation (near) guarantees is that the sum of everybody’s production will increase…

  123. Greg Egan Says:

    The universe may not be a computer but could probably be made to be.

    The universe is a physical system that supports universal computation. What else do you demand of something for it to be a computer? We don’t have the means to program the whole thing any way we like, but then I don’t get to program my entire Mac either (or not without voiding the warranty), but it’s still a computer.

    Then again, maybe the universe doesn’t support universal computation. That would explain why Mathematica is so slow: it’s outsourcing all its computations to another universe.

  124. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I actually thought it was decent, as long as you see it as a poetic meditation and not physics reporting.

    What irritates me is that he makes no distinction. As if poetic meditation were the essence of fundamental physics.

    The universe is a physical system that supports universal computation. What else do you demand of something for it to be a computer?

    The whole problem, of course, is that there isn’t really anything to demand. But the rough idea is to posit that we are all trapped in a simulation. Or to use an older phrase, that life is but a dream.

    That would explain why Mathematica is so slow: it’s outsourcing all its computations to another universe.

    Ha! Yes, that would explain it. It’s not really true — but they may well be planning something very similar to that.

  125. Michael Welford Says:

    Brendan Halfweeg at #120 tells us:
    As productivity increases, wages increase. Has been, always will be.

    This turns out not to be a timeless economic law. You might want to start reading Krugman in the NY Times.

    Speaking of technology, prototypes of the Espresso Book Machine are operating at selected sites. As the name kind of implies the EBM will print a paperback book for you from a PDF file while you enjoy a hot beverage.

    I’m wondering how Greg Egan feels about this development. On the one hand it allows him to keep his books “in print” continuously without risk while insuring he gets his cut from the sales. On the other hand it puts him in meaningful competition with every science fiction writer since Verne.

    The EBM provides some context for my idea of unused intellectual property rights lapsing.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Espresso_Book_Machine

  126. Len Ornstein Says:

    Brendan:

    “We all get richer as automation increases, not poorer.”

    As I noted in #99: this whole thread about copyrights and the ‘vanishing’ costs of digital reproduction, is evidence that this capitalist mantra is not “guaranteed”, and may turn out to be a harbinger of what will happen with most manufacturing, though not VERY soon.

  127. Blake Stacey Says:

    I was in the MIT bookstore a few weeks ago (I happened to be visiting the ol’ stomping grounds for some occasion), and out of habit, I browsed their science-fiction section. I had some pocket money, and I figured I might as well pick up a David Brin or Greg Egan paperback. . .

    None of which were there.

    I thought to myself, very loudly, a word which should not be repeated on a family blog. Arguments over the right way to distribute different kinds of content so the creators get their proper compensation seem a little beside the point when the only way you can get an SF novel onto the MIT bookstore shelves is to write a Star Wars, Star Trek or Halo tie-in.

  128. NE1 Says:

    Sorry Blake, Brin was a student at the *real* Institute of Technology.

  129. J Thomas Says:

    Milkshake said:
    —-
    non-native: google to the rescue.

    A tourist needs his watch repaired. Its Sunon-native: google to the rescue.

    A tourist needs his watch repaired. Its Sunday, and he finds a tiny shop that is open, with a beautiful millenium clock on display in the window…nday, and he finds a tiny shop that is open, with a beautiful millenium clock on display in the window…
    —-

    I couldn’t find this joke on Google at all. Could you tell the rest of it?

  130. milkshake Says:

    …and then it becomes paifuly clear that the turist won’t get his watch repaired. The turist angrily asks the man in the shop: “Why did you put this fancy clock in the display window if you are a mohel?” And the mohel asks: “And what else should I put there?”

  131. efrique Says:

    A good outcome. Well done.