digital books: when it rains, it pours.

Posted March 16, 2010 by Peter Soppelsa
Categories: Cultural Resources

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The recent release of David Shield’s book Reality Hunger: a Manifesto (see here and here) comes on the heels of increasing controversy in Europe over Helene Hegemann’s literary debut Axolotl Roadkill (see here). Hegemann is already caught up in an intellectual property scandal; we’ll see what happens to Shields. Both books take a recombinant, “remix” approach to writing, cobbling together excerpts of other people’s writing with their own bits of text. How very contemporary. The idea of remixing as a unique mode of cultural production and the attendant issues of intellectual property that always seem to follow it have now made it into the book market.

While consumers read literary mash-ups like last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, media giants like Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble are competing to get the reading public hooked on portable hand-held digital reading devices: Kindle, Reader and Nook. Consequently, the publishing industry is already embroiled in typical efforts to protect corporate property: conflict over ebook file formats and which devices can read which formats, as well as concern over the proliferation of ebooks as a hot commodity for file sharing.

At the same time, but getting less media attention, has been Google’s ongoing commercial/legal negotiation with various publishers, universities and other authorities as they expand the ever-growing Google Books project. The project makes a massive amount of material available to the public, online, much of it for free, but many books and other printed materials are still not fully usable or readable thanks to pressure from publishers.

There are many things that are controversial about Google Books. For one, why should we trust a private corporation with the next generation of media services we would normally expect from public libraries? If Google cuts a deal with publishers, much of the content would likely become pay-to-play – and then, publishers would have some say in the cost and accessibility of their products. Even if Google was committed to keeping user access free and open, other issues might arise, too.

Nicholas Sarkozy, Jean-Noël Jeanneney and others close to the French National Library have argued that Google books will only speed the trend of cultural globalization as Americanization, and place control of books belonging to France’s national “patrimony” in non-French hands. Other times, their line seems to be pan-European. But whether they argue for a French digital library (like Gallica), or a European Union version (like Europeana), the point is to mount a public, European challenge to American corporate digitization projects like Google’s.

These varied anecdotes suggest that we’re witnessing an interesting moment of transformation in books, and in the ways that people talk about, think about, buy and sell, and fight over, books. With so much intellectual content and so much money at stake, this dialogue, now fairly widespread, will only get hotter.

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Prelinger Manifesto: On the Virtues of Preexisting Material

Posted February 23, 2010 by Peter Soppelsa
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Rick Prelinger, a force in internet archiving, is also the author of this useful manifesto On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, in which he outlines 14 Principles for using preexising works to make new work:

1 Why add to the population of orphaned works?
2 Don’t presume that new work improves on old
3 Honor our ancestors by recycling their wisdom
4 The ideology of originality is arrogant and wasteful
5 Dregs are the sweetest drink
6 And leftovers were spared for a reason
7 Actors don’t get a fair shake the first time around, let’s give them another
8 The pleasure of recognition warms us on cold nights and cools us in hot summers
9 We approach the future by typically roundabout means
10 We hope the future is listening, and the past hopes we are too
11 What’s gone is irretrievable, but might also predict the future
12 Access to what’s already happened is cheaper than access to what’s happening now
13 Archives are justified by use
14 Make a quilt not an advertisement

Brief note on the culture of privatization

Posted February 23, 2010 by Peter Soppelsa
Categories: 1

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Op-Ed collumnist Roger Cohen has a nice piece in today’s New York Times about “The Narcissus Society,” in which he connects America’s staggering social fragmentation and anomie to our inability to wrap up the health care debate in a productive way. The piece, short and sweet as it is, connects many of the threads we try to weave together on this blog.

Brooks on the Attitudinal Health of “Protocol Economies”

Posted December 22, 2009 by P
Categories: Cultural Resources, Technological Resources

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Today’s NYTimes features an op-ed by David Brooks that offers an alternative take on the changing notions of ownership I brought up in my post a few days ago. Brooks’ frames this as a transition from an economy of physical things (his corn and steel, my bicycle) to an economy of “protocols”:

A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass.

Brooks then goes on to argue, referencing a new book by Arnold Kling (of the Cato Institute) and Nick Schulz (of AEI), that the success of a protocol economy “depends on its ability to invent and embrace new protocols.” And what is it that allows economies to nurture this ability?

Protocols are intangible, so the traits needed to invent and absorb them are intangible, too. First, a nation has to have a good operating system: laws, regulations and property rights.

[…]

Second, a nation has to have a good economic culture. “From Poverty to Prosperity” [ed., a new book by Kling and Schulz] includes interviews with major economists, and it is striking how they are moving away from mathematical modeling and toward fields like sociology and anthropology.

What really matters, Edmund S. Phelps of Columbia argues, is economic culture — attitudes toward uncertainty, the willingness to exert leadership, the willingness to follow orders. A strong economy needs daring consumers (Phelps says China lacks this) and young researchers with money to play with (Romer notes that N.I.H. grants used to go to 35-year-olds but now they go to 50-year-olds).

A protocol economy tends toward inequality because some societies and subcultures have norms, attitudes and customs that increase the velocity of new recipes while other subcultures retard it. Some nations are blessed with self-reliant families, social trust and fairly enforced regulations, while others are cursed by distrust, corruption and fatalistic attitudes about the future. It is very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.

So, according to Brooks, successful economies must quickly adopt new protocols, and the two most important factors in being able to adopt protocols quickly is to develop strong intellecual property rights and then to have inate anthropological characteristics that will develop strong leaders and eager followers, all arranged into self-reliant families. In short, Brooks takes a Randian, social Darwinist perspective on the global information economy. Those who excel in such economies do so because they originate from superior cultures and are bolstered by regulations which prevent the untermenschen from ransacking their protocols (which would, one assumes, weaken the incentive for futher protocol development). This is a proposal for a Bell Curve of the information economy.

On a related note, Arnold Kling got himself into a little scandal last February, when he suggested that Obama’s stimulus plan was actually “a reparations bill” (additional commentary here). Unintentionally as it may have been, Kling draws a very neat line between the ethics of slavery and colonialism and opposition to the so-called Socialism of government-run social services.

In any case, ignoring for the time being the fact that we all still rely very much on things like food and petroleum, not just “protocols,” Brooks’ logic (or the logic he takes from Kling, Schulz, et al) also fits quite nicely into a Hayekian/Trickle-Down worldview wherein the concentration of resources in the hands of the few somehow ultimately translates into prosperity for the masses.

As such, Brooks’ argument seems to have nothing to do with changing systems of value and ownership in the protocol age, except in that it seeks to justify the imposition of artifical scarcity on digital resources in order to preserve the same old justifications for enclosure that existed in those old-fashioned physical economies.

Who Owns Science? Part 2: the Bayh-Dole Act

Posted December 18, 2009 by Peter Soppelsa
Categories: Cultural Resources, General, Key Concepts, Natural Resources, Technological Resources

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In the United States, the question of who owns science was given a loud and clear answer in 1980 by Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole. Their “Bayh-Dole Act” allowed businesses and non-profit organizations to retain private, patent-style rights to control innovations and discoveries, even discoveries developed using federal funding. This effectively privatized large parts of big medicine and the military industrial complex. It also created a new academic trend: universities across the country created offices of technology transfer, which were responsible for surveying research being done and looking for ways to snatch up innovations and take them to market. This greatly accelerated a trend brewing since World War Two: universities began to rely more and more on private sector profitability for their funding. Ask any graduate student in the sciences who funds his/her education, and you’ll find many with private sector grants. It also encouraged another trend: the question of what topics should be researched became increasingly shaped by what is profitable. Because laboratories and experiments are often so expensive, private sector funders have little incentive to invest unless they think results could be profitable. Hence basic research in science, guided by the latest trends in the field, now takes a back seat to research that is more likely or more certain to generate profits.

Who Owns Science?

Posted December 18, 2009 by P
Categories: Cultural Resources, Technological Resources

Tags: ,

Via the P2P Foundation blog, I ran across some impassioned back and forth over the issue of IP in the realm of scientific research. The clash begins with a November 2009 manifesto published by the University of Manchester’s Institute for Science Ethics and Innovation (ISEI), in tandem with the Brooks World Poverty Institute

Entitled Who Owns Science?: The Manchester Manifesto [PDF], the report takes as its underlying platform the argument that the core purpose of scientific innovation is (or should be) to serve the public good and from that perspective, lays out an extensive series of particular points regarding current systems of IP as it relates to scientific research and innovation and in doing so reaches the conclusion that,

the dominant existing model of innovation, while serving some necessary purposes for the current operation of innovation, also impedes achievement of core scientific goals in a number of ways. In many cases it restricts access to scientific knowledge and products, thereby limiting the public benefits of science; it can restrict the flow of information, thereby inhibiting the progress of science; and it may hinder innovation through the costly and
complicated nature of the system. Limited improvements may be achieved through modification of the current IP system, but consideration of alternative models is urgently required.

The London-based Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) immediately and unsurprisingly struck back at the report (again, this funny collective/private tightrope walk of the professional association). In my opinion, their three most important assertions are these:

– Patents can’t be used to prevent a product coming onto the market – if demand for a product is not met on ‘reasonable terms’ then, subject to certain safeguards, anyone can apply to the IPO for a compulsory licence under the patent. The competition authorities can also take action if patents are abused.
– Patents do not prevent universities from carrying out research – acts done for ‘experimental purposes’ don’t infringe.
[…]
– The alternative to patenting university research is that big business would get a free ride – they could use the work of universities to make profits for themselves.

In response, ISEI points out the employment of IP law to prevent the distribution of generic drugs as well as the fact that the blurred lines between academic reseach and “pre-commercial” development of scientific products within universities makes the boundaries of protected reseach uncles. Further, they argue that they are not seeking the abolition of IP altogether, but rather “to bring [IP] far more into line with the public interest – and indeed with the interests of the goose that lays the golden eggs and creates the discovery on which not only the IP Law industry, but civilization relies, namely science and technology research.”

They also very successfully create a class intervention into CIPA’s association between IP profits and innovation:

The IP system is a tool for encouraging innovation for drugs for rich markets, but this mechanism does nothing about affordability, leading to the problems of access described. In the absence of a rich market, the IP tool is of no help in creating incentives to discover and manufacture drugs, leading to the problem of neglected diseases for which the “necessary investment to discover and manufacture” drugs is lacking.

More information on ISEI’s research into the question of who owns science can be found here.

Public Water/Private Water: Whither Clean Water?

Posted December 17, 2009 by P
Categories: Natural Resources

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Today’s NYTimes has a rather extensive article regarding concerns that millions of Americans may be drinking tap water contaminated with all sorts of hazardous chemicals – despite the fact that this water passes the requirements of the (seemingly far insufficient) federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The article doesn’t indicate whether private water systems are, on the whole, more hazardous than public systems, but in describing the egregious case of Maywood, CA, it does note how private systems exacerbate the already difficult process of bringing clean water to the people:

Maywood is only one square mile, but has three water systems. All are privately owned, so local officials have no real power except forcing them to follow federal and state regulations. About three-quarters of the nation’s water systems are private entities, beholden only to their shareholders and the law.

Laboratory tests show Maywood’s tap water has contained toxic levels of mercury, lead, manganese and other chemicals that have been associated with liver and kidney damage, neurological diseases or cancer.

But when Maywood’s residents asked for cleaner water, they were told what was flowing from the taps satisfied the Safe Drinking Water Act, and so the managers didn’t have to do more.

So while insufficient environmental regulation endangers the health of those reliant on both private or public water systems, the privatization of three quarters (!) of the nation’s water systems has closed off the principal avenue public recourse: pressuring elected officials. In fact:

When a city council member named Felipe Aguirre lobbied for cleaner water, anonymous leaflets arrived. “Felipe Aguirre has deceived the citizens of Maywood!” one reads. “Felipe Aguirre does not care that Maywood residents will be paying more for water already safe to drink!” another says. “Do you want this liar and corrupt politician to decide the future of Maywood and its residents?”

If water is a “private” resource, then the owners of that resource can openly declare that profit, not safety, is the bottom line – so long as they are working within the constraints of the law.