Posts Tagged ‘rms’

Impunity, freedom and student body politics

datePosted on 14:21, March 20th, 2010 by Lew

fat_boy_slim_-_youve_come_aJust before the end of the university term last year, Peter McCaffrey and ACT On Campus gave the Victoria University of Wellington Student Association an object lesson in how democracy works. They successfully passed a resolution that VUWSA make a select committee submission in support of Roger Douglas’ Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill (making student association voluntary) despite various machinations employed by the VUWSA members and officeholders there. These events were well documented in text by Jenna Raeburn and in video with a ridiculously triumphal soundtrack (irony noted by felix).

The fundamental problem of non-democratic (and poor-quality democratic) political systems is that they shelter those in power from the consequences of their actions. Authoritarianism (and authoritarian communism in particular) is deleterious not so much due to the economic failings of the system (such as the economic calculation problem) as due to the fact that in such systems there exists no mechanism to force, require or even encourage the leadership to act in its peoples’ interest. I’ve written a lot about the power transfer problem of orthodox Marxist pragma, and this is an aspect of it. When the leadership is invested with the monopoly power and authority to suppress a counter-revolution, how do you ever get them to relinquish it?

The effect of impunity is similarly evident in other fields; particularly in commerce, where the customary opposition of the terms “freedom” and “regulation” are little more than straw soldiers in a propaganda battle. Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite have written at length about the extent to which so-called free trade mechanisms such as TRIPS are instruments of international coercion more than they are of international trade, and how almost the entire intellectual property system of the modern world has been so thoroughly captured by existing rightsholders that it now functions as a form of privatised regulation by asserting near-impassable barriers to entry into the information marketplace. This suppresses competition, promotes the establishment and maintenance of cartels between existing participants, and all this breeds impunity, where participants have no (or few) reasons to develop their products and services to suit their users’ needs, and so they develop them to suit their own needs. The results are everywhere; for instance, in the fact that people are compelled to purchase Microsoft software with most new computers although they might hate and despise it, or simply not need it; or in the fact that those same users, having reluctantly purchased Windows since there are no easily-accessible alternatives (those having been shut out of the market years ago by patent thickets, bundling, cross-licensing, and so on) are then locked into using proprietary media formats, players, content distribution and communication systems with (in some cases well-known) surveillance functions and which are designed to restrict a users’ rights to their own hardware, content and communication, so that the system — and users’ participation in it — works in the provider’s interest, rather than the interests of its users.

That example is just one with which I’m familiar. Much more socially and economically important examples exist; particularly around medical development and crop research. But the point is that this whole system, billed as being about “freedom”, does not mean freedom for users so much as rightholders’ freedom from the need to cater to their users without fear of someone else eating their lunch.

Returning to student body politics. When a student union compels fees from its students, and when students who disagree with the union’s agenda are unable to withdraw their support, what incentive is there for the union to represent the interests of the student body? The political consequence of that system is a student body politic so complacent due to impunity in charge of millions of dollars a year in revenue that it literally cannot organise a SRC vote to save itself.

I am no great supporter of VSM; I view the threadbare rhetoric of “freedom” employed by Douglas, McCaffrey and so on with a jaundiced eye. I don’t believe people should simply be able to “opt out” of their society if they don’t like it, and I accept that the loss of revenue which will result from the (almost certain) passage of Douglas’ bill will place much of the genuinely good work student unions do in jeopardy. But the integrity of political systems is more important than discrete policy outcomes, and to be perfectly frank VUWSA, for its rank incompetence and duplicity in the face of legitimate challenge, deserves to be humiliated in this way.

I hope that the lesson about how democracy works will be well understood — that is: unless people make it work, it doesn’t. CSM as currently implemented promotes apathy and idiocy in student body politics, to a greater extent than it would exist in any case. That is bad for student body politics, and it’s bad for students. It depresses the quality of candidates and policy, and reduces the system to a comic farce which many students are justifiably ashamed of (if they care about it at all). Much better, for me, would be the the genuine politicisation of student politics, with groups organising and campaigning on their positions, winning a mandate and executing it, as in national and local body politics. If ACT on Campus want to campaign on “letting you keep more of your money”, let them do so, and good luck to them. (Of course, they have been, and it hasn’t been working out for them, so the parent party has resorted to regulation in the name of freedom. Plus ça change.)

So in my view the current threats to compulsory student unionism is largely the fault of the student unionists and their sense of entitlement to membership dues without the need to prove the value of their work to those who pay for it. The Douglas bill, while it will likely prove deleterious to the good work student unions do, may have a silver lining in that it will enforce greater discipline and competence upon student politicians, and require them to prove to their constituents that the work they do is actually valuable in order to win a mandate. If the work they do is genuinely valuable, as they say it is, such a mandate should be winnable. May they go forth and win it.


Postscript: Go and submit!
Select committee submissions on the bill close on 31 March 2010. Whatever your views, make them known. As I’ve said, I think it’s likely to pass (bloc support from ACT, National and UF), but that shouldn’t prevent you from making your views known. Incidentally, I approve of the relatively impartial editorial line taken by Salient, the VUWSA magazine. Especially given that this august [sic] organ depends on CSM for much of its funding, this is a bold and principled decision. Well done Sarah Robson.

The Pirate Bay is a BitTorrent tracker – one of the world’s largest, most popular and best-known. Four of its co-founders were yesterday convicted of “assisting in making copyright content available”, sentenced to 12 months’ jail each and required to pay 30 million Kronor (about NZ$6.3m) between them. The offence was not the same as actually distributing the copyright material – the torrent files hosted on TPB are not themselves subject to copyright, but they enable a user to easily access material which is. For a quick backgrounder, see The Guardian’s FAQ, and for exhaustive coverage, see Threat Level’s archive.

I’m very interested indeed in the roles which intellectual property mechanisms play in the world. This verdict has complex and possibly profound political, social, technological and economic implications. I won’t argue its legal merits, but, despite their claims, I don’t think this case or verdict is in the content owners’ best long-term interests, because it perpetuates a business model which has been proven unfit for its purpose.

pirate-bay-guilty-mass-protests-followSocial and political implications
The social and political implications of this verdict seem likely to result in a sort of Streisand effect where by winning a battle, copyright owners may galvanise opposition to their business model and enforcement practices. This verdict was never going to be the end; as defendant Peter Sunde said it was to decide nothing other than which side would file an appeal. [Video in two parts here and here. The first five minutes or so is in Swedish; the rest is in English.] So as much bad-will as there is against the content owners, there’s plenty more time for it to build.

Online media consumption (sanctioned and otherwise) is largely the domain of the two generations born since the baby boom – quite distinct from those in control of the legal, business and political systems which produce that media and constrain its usage, who are middle-aged and older. There exists a significant disconnect between these generations, and the Pirate Bay verdict seems like it could crystallise that disconnect into an outright generational divide along political and philosophical lines. Those in their thirties and forties have been heavily involved in shaping the internet into the phenomenon it is, nurturing fledgling technologies (including filesharing) to meet their own needs and building cultures and identities around different types of participation. It’s theirs; they created it. The generation now in their teens and twenties have known nothing else, and they are the driving force behind its constant recreation, and are if anything even more strongly engaged. The content industry is currently trying the ‘stick’ approach – trying to dictate terms to two generations who’re used to having things their way and are more than capable of making it so. As those generations displace their pre-internet elders, and as the developing world begins to participate more strongly in traditionally-Western information communities, content owners will find themselves less able to dictate terms, not more so. Those in charge of intellectual property realise this and have been busy over the past few decades establishing and extending copyright, patent and trademark systems, conditional trade treaties, anti-circumvention legislation, privacy infringements under the guise of cyber-terrorism prevention, and other such measures under the auspices of TRIPS, the DMCA, the PATRIOT Act, IPRED and plenty of lawsuits, including this one – all in order to retain their existing, inferior business models rather than be forced to compete on the open market of ideas in order to develop better ones.

pirate-party-membership There are political implications for all of this, as well – the Pirate Party of Sweden, formed to reform copyright law, abolish the patent system and strengthen privacy rights, claims to have gained 3,000 new members in the seven hours following the verdict, giving it a larger membership than four out of seven current parties in the Swedish parliament (and if their online membership graph can be believed, it looks like they were up above 5,000 new members within 12 hours). Candidate Christian Engström said:

“The ruling is our ticket to the European Parliament,” concluded Engström, who expects a populist backlash against the ruling to help his party’s chances of gaining a seat in the EU’s primary legislative body. [source]

Now, single-issue parties have a particularly hard row to hoe (even TPB’s Peter Sunde doesn’t vote for the Pirate Party), and in terms of realpolitik few countries can afford to deviate from the intellectual property line established by TRIPS. Nevertheless there are big philosophical issues at stake here. Politicians ignore those two generations at their peril.

Technological and economic implicationspirate_bay
Technological and economic implications are linked because technology dictates the means by which content may be distributed, and without distribution there is no revenue. The Streisand effect mentioned above will likely manifest initially in the market for media as a short-term (and possibly short-lived) , but its long-term implications are much broader. Many of the content owners’ arguments against groups like TPB rest on the flawed premise that demand for content is static and copyright infringement is zero-sum (that is: every copy downloaded represents one less copy bought). The fall in revenue, they claim, is because of copyright infringement, so reducing copyright infringement will necessarily cause revenue to pick up again. There are two problems here: first, the genie is already out of the bottle, and two generations are now accustomed to consuming media on their own terms. They will not be forced to consume media in only the ways which content owners want them to, and whoever applies the stick in an attempt to make them do so will suffer as a consequence, because the content industries depend upon their consumers for survival, not the other way around. Second, and this is critical: by engaging in an aggressive game of whack-a-mole to safeguard a broken business model, the content industry has hastened the destruction of that business model by ensuring that only the fittest filesharing systems survive. Cory Doctorow makes both points better than I:

If The Pirate Bay shuts down, it’s certain that something else will spring up in its wake, of course — just as The Pirate Bay appeared in the wake of the closure of other, more “moderate” services.
With each successive takedown, the entertainment industry forces these services into architectures that are harder to police and harder to shut down. And with each takedown, the industry creates martyrs who inspire their users into an ideological opposition to the entertainment industry, turning them into people who actively dislike these companies and wish them ill (as opposed to opportunists who supplemented their legal acquisition of copyrighted materials with infringing downloads).
It’s a race to turn a relatively benign symbiote (the original Napster, which offered to pay for its downloads if it could get a license) into vicious, antibiotic resistant bacteria that’s dedicated to their destruction.

Content owners, by enforcing the discipline required to survive in a hostile environment, are granting clandestine distribution systems an enormous advantage: those systems evolve and improve while their own system stagnates. There are a few exceptions: Radiohead and Trent Reznor are at the forefront.

Of much more grave seriousness, however, is the chilling effect this verdict could have on the internet – search engines, ISPs and end users. Roger Wallis, Emeritus Professor of Media at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology (and an expert witness for the defence) warned:

This will cause a flood of court cases. Against all the ISPs. Because if these guys assisted in copyright infringements, then the ISPs also did. This will have huge consequences. The entire development of broadband may be stalled.

His point is that TPB’s technology meant their servers never hosted copyright files – those were hosted on its users’ home computers, and TPB simply provides a search engine to find content and a service which tells one user’s computer where to find files hosted on another user’s computer. If that makes one criminally liable, then those who are doing the actual distribution (te end users) and a whole lot of other people and organisations whose computers provide similar assistance including search engines and ISPs, are also criminally liable – and could even be more culpable than TPB were, since those computers actually host and distribute the copyright files themselves. Due to the highly robust, distributed, fault-tolerant nature of modern content-distribution systems made fit by nearly a decade’s worth of fine-tuning, there is simply no way to beat filesharing without targeting end-users and ISPs on a case-by-case basis. Any reluctance to roll out or use broadband internet services will have catastrophic flow-on economic effects, and given that media consumption is a major driver of broadband, content owners are in a catch-22 situation: either they aggressively prosecute ISPs and end-users or they fail to beat filesharing. In the former case, they get to keep their business model, at the cost of making criminals of their consumer base and ensuring that yet more complex, robust and powerful distribution mechanisms are developed – and possibly at the cost of the internet as we know it. In the latter case, they have to develop systems which are fit enough to survive on their own. The longer they delay, the harder it will be.

An upcoming post will look at the battle for hearts and minds which will fundamentally determine the winner in this contest.


Ka ora!

datePosted on 23:27, February 18th, 2009 by Lew

Ka ora! (I live!) – the triumphant second part of the famous challenge in Te Rauparaha’s haka Ka Mate, composed after his narrow escape from seemingly-certain death. Ka mate is itself a symbol of life and vigour and indomitable spirit, a rowdy celebration of vitality, and one of the most vivid and tangible symbols of New Zealand culture, both for Māori and for Tau Iwi, and much-loved and admired by people the world over, so ubiquitous that many simply know it as the haka, as if there were none other.

Now the rights to this famous tāonga are to be vested in Te Rauparaha’s descendants, Ngāti Toa Rangatira. This is a sore spot for many people, who for the reasons above feel as if they have a stake in Ka Mate as well. Much of this hearkens back to the old `iwi/kiwi’ rhetoric of the 2005 election campaign, and in particular I’d like to point to one small exchange which I think illustrates that that rhetorical line no longer has quite the currency it did; then I’d like to engage with the actual matter of the issue: the meeting of intellectual property, identity and mātauranga Māori.


haka13The Rod Emmerson cartoon at right appeared on the front page of the New Zealand Herald on 11 February 2009, the day the Letter of Agreement between Ngāti Toa Rangatira and the Crown was signed, and is the most direct reference to the old iwi/kiwi debate. The image was also attached to the online story. However, that day during Question Time, Minister for Treaty Negotiations Chris Finlayson harshly criticised the cartoon, saying it was “puerile and inaccurate […] highly offensive to Ngāti Toa. We are not talking about that kind of redress”. This position was reiterated by John Key, and was the subject of another article the following day. They’re absolutely right: as I will demonstrate below there is no merit whatsoever to the argument.

After Finlayson’s statement in Parliament, the cartoon was detached from the article – but it remains on the NZ Herald’s server, and that it was attached to the article is proven by google images. Tangentially, the cartoon appears to be one of a batch by Emmerson, including this one, very similarly composed. At least two other cartoons emphasised the financial issue – Mike Moreu’s and Tom Scott’s.

The importance of this very minor editorial backdown by the NZ Herald is huge. I’m not arguing that Finlayson’s statement in the House caused the Herald to take it down, but it was undoubtedly an influence: perhaps the Herald saw that the tide has turned. The very fact that a National Minister would so firmly repudiate such an allegation of graft among Māori business interests, against the editorial line of both our major press outlets, shows how far they have come since the bad old days of Don Brash’s populist point-scoring. It also shows that they’re in government and mean to stay there.


People talk about `intellectual property’ as if it’s unified by a central legal idea, or created from whole cloth. In fact the whole realm is a minefield of social, legal, technical, customary and common-law complexity from several intellectual traditions, dating back to the enlightenment, and very poorly updated to encompass things which have happened since. The S92 protests currently underway are an example of its deep and thorough dysfunction. It’s vastly more ugly and complicated than you might think: for an excellent critique of the whole system, I can recommend none better than Drahos and Braithwaite, Information Feudalism. Incidentally, like Richard Stallman, I abhor the term `intellectual property’ for this reason; though unlike him I don’t eschew its use when talking about the whole awful mess together.

When people talk about `intellectual property’, usually they mean `copyright’ but want to sound knowledgeable. Even when people talk about `copyright’ they are usually, in fact, mixing up two quite distinct parallel traditions: economic rights of copyright, and moral rights of the author. Simply; economic rights allow the copyright holder to extract a rent from a work, while moral rights afford other sorts of protection, such as the requirement of attribution. The two sets of rights can exist independently or apart; they need not necessarily go together, but can coexist happily if need be. The discourse inherent in the cartoons above, and in much of the news copy, is rooted in the supposition that economic rights are the only rights, and that Ngāti Toa Rangatira must therefore be looking to extract a rent from Ka Mate (even if only a piffling, `dollar dollar’ for the single most famous piece of Māori art in existence). This is also the foundation of Whale Oil’s rather smug argument that, since NZ copyright allows for a term of 50 years after the death of the author, copyright on Ka Mate lapsed in 1899 and it’s now in the public domain.

As is so often the case, the reality is quite different. The Letter of Agreement mentions nothing of the sort – no discussion of economic or moral rights, or of copyright, or even of that broadest of terms, `intellectual property’. No, the complete text in the LoA relating to Ka Mate is as follows:

– Ka Mate haka

The settlement legislation will also record the authorship and significance of the haka Ka Mate to Ngāti Toa and the Crown will work with Ngāti Toa to address their concerns with the haka in a way that balances their rights with those of the wider public.

The Crown does not expect that redress will result in royalties for the use of Ka Mate or provide Ngāti Toa with a veto on the performance of Ka Mate. Ngāti Toa’s primary objective is to prevent the misappropriation and culturally inappropriate use of the Ka Mate haka.

This stops well short of even the weakest copyright protection. It implies a subset of moral rights, and explicitly enjoins exercise of economic rights. The entire line of argument is therefore completely discredited, and if anything, Ngāti Toa Rangatira are faced with a hard task of staking a claim in any way other than the symbolic. If they choose – and there’s the big question nobody is asking.

Colonising Mātauranga Māori

Suppose Ngāti Toa Rangatira had been offered exclusive, authorial economic and moral rights to Ka Mate. Should they accept? Ultimately, of course, this is a matter of utility for that iwi, and them alone – but let me sketch a few of the issues in play. First, and most obviously, the adoption of Tau Iwi systems of knowledge ownership for mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) is a dangerous business. Those who have legitimate entitlement to the mātauranga might be prevented from exercising it by colonial IP laws; more importantly, the nature of the mātauranga itself is impacted upon by its presence within a framework, and the degree of codification and specification that requires. As M A Hemi said regarding the use of Māori terms in the Resource Management Act,

Māori concepts when treated in isolation are incapable of proper function and development. In fact, any concept when divorced from its cultural base is subject to dysfunction and cultural reinterpretation or hi-jack. (Quoted in Mason Durie, Te Mana, Te Kāwanatanga, p33.)

Nevertheless, there can be great utility in protecting these things by colonial means, in order to prevent their exploitation by colonial systems. This is the foundation for the WAI 262 claim, to my knowledge the longest-running and most complex claim ever brought to the Waitangi Tribunal, with enormous precedent value. And why shouldn’t they see any tangible economic benefits from their mātauranga now, given that for generations it has been exploited and co-opted and adapted without their consent or input, and to great commercial gain?

The question is a live one – ka ora.