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“Beware of him who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master”*…

NOAA/Plotting the position of the survey ship PATHFINDER, Alaska

Stewart Brand once suggested that “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. …That tension will not go away.” Indeed, it seems to be growing…

Aaron Swartz was 26 years old when he took his own life. He did so under the shadow of legal prosecution, pursued by government lawyers intent on maximal punishment. If found guilty, he potentially faced up to 50 years in prison and a $1 million dollar fine. Swartz’s crime was not only legal, but political. He had accessed a private computer network and gained possession of highly valuable information with the goal of sharing it. His actions threatened some of the most powerful, connected, and politically protected groups in the country. Their friends in the government were intent on sending a message.

It’s the kind of story you would expect about some far-off political dissident. But Swartz took his life in Brooklyn on a winter day in 2013 and his prosecutor was the U.S. federal government. When Swartz died, he was under indictment for 13 felony charges related to his use of an MIT computer to download too many scientific articles from the academic database JSTOR, ostensibly for the purpose of making them freely available to the public. Ultimately, Swartz potentially faced more jail time for downloading academic papers than he would have if he had helped Al Qaeda build a nuclear weapon. Even the Criminal Code of the USSR stipulated that those who stored and distributed anti-Soviet literature only faced five to seven years in prison. While prosecutors later pointed toward a potential deal for less time, Aaron would still have been labeled a felon for his actions—and to boot, JSTOR itself had reached a civil settlement and didn’t even pursue its own lawsuit.

But Aaron’s cause lived on. This September marks the ten-year anniversary of Sci-Hub, the online “shadow library” that provides access to millions of research papers otherwise hidden behind prohibitive paywalls. Founded by the Kazakhstani computer scientist Alexandra Elbakyan—popularly known as science’s “pirate queen”—Sci-Hub has grown to become a repository of over 85 million academic papers.

The site is popular globally, used by millions of people—many of whom would otherwise not be able to finish their degrees, advise their patients, or use text mining algorithms to make new scientific discoveries. Sci-Hub has become the unacknowledged foundation that helps the whole enterprise of academia to function. 

Even when they do not need to use Sci-Hub, the superior user experience it offers means that many people prefer to use the illegal site rather than access papers through their own institutional libraries. It is difficult to say how many ideas, grants, publications, and companies have been made possible by Sci-Hub, but it seems undeniable that Elbakyan’s ten-year-old website has become a crucial component of contemporary scholarship.  

The success of Sci-Hub has made it a target for injunctions and investigations. Academic publishers have sued Sci-Hub repeatedly, opponents have accused the site’s creators of collaborating with Russian intelligence, and private sector critics have dubbed it a threat to “national security.” Elbakyan recently tweeted out a notification she received that the FBI had requested her personal data from Apple. 

Whatever happens to Sci-Hub or Elbakyan, the fact that such a site exists is something of a tragedy. Sci-Hub currently fills a niche that should never have existed. Like the black-market medicine purchased by people who cannot afford prescription drugs, its very being indicts the official system that created the conditions of its emergence… 

The cost of individually purchasing all the articles required to complete a typical literature review could easily amount to thousands of dollars. Beyond paying for the articles themselves, academics often have to pay steep fees to publish their research. Meanwhile, most peer reviewers and editors charged with assessing, correcting, and formatting papers do not receive compensation for their work. 

It’s particularly ironic that this situation exists alongside a purported digital “infodemic” of misinformation. The costs of this plague are massive, from opposition to the pandemic response to the conspiracy theories that drove a loving father to fire his gun inside a pizza parlor and a man to kill a mafia boss accused of having ties to the deep state. But few public figures, if any, draw the direct connection between the expensive barricades around scientific research and the conspicuous epistemic collapse of significant portions of the American political discourse…

Whether intended or not, the impossibly high paywalls of academic publishers only serve to keep scientific information out of the population’s hands. What makes this even more discordant is that the people being prevented from accessing the information are often also the taxpayers who helped fund the research in the first place. 

By framing the debate about Sci-Hub as one concerning property rights, both advocates of Elbakyan’s site and its detractors fall afoul of what John Gall called the “operational fallacy.” In his book The Systems Bible, Gall defined the operational fallacy as a situation where “the system itself does not do what it says it is doing.” In other words, what a system calls itself is not always a reliable indicator of its true function. In this case, the name of the “academic publishing industry” implies that it is supposed to be involved in the dissemination of scholarship. But the effective function of the academic publishing industry as it actually exists is to prevent the dissemination of scholarly work. 

Given the example of Sci-Hub, the easy logistics of internet publication, and the funding structure of academic research, it seems clear that in the absence of the academic publishing industry, scholarship would be more widely available, not less. If the academic publishing industry did not exist, scientists could still do their research—in fact, it would be easier to do so as more people would have access to scholarly literature. The peer-review process could still function normally—though there are good reasons to change that as well. And the resulting papers could simply be posted in a place where anyone could read them. 

When we explore the actual function of the academic publishing industry—restricting access to scholarly research—we see that these publishers have little in common with the companies that have opposed other file-sharing sites. When several record companies sued Napster in 2001, they could make the legitimate case that the economic well-being of the musicians, producers, and all the people who were needed to distribute recorded music was at stake. No such parallel exists in the case of Sci-Hub. Scientists are not paid by the publishers. Peer reviewers are not paid by the publishers. Distribution itself, as proven by Sci-Hub and its more law-abiding brother arXiv, is cheap enough to be provided to the public for free. It’s not surprising, then, that polls reveal that scientists overwhelmingly support Sci-Hub…  

Eminently worth reading in full– the civic tragedy of academic publishing: “A World Without Sci-Hub,” from Jason Rhys Perry (@JRhysParry) in @palladiummag.

Sid Meier

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As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1970 that the Public Broadcasting Service– PBS– premiered, when it took over (most of) the functions of its predecessor, National Educational Television.

Unlike the five major commercial broadcast television networks in the United States (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and The CW) PBS is technically not a network, but rather a program distributor that provides television content and related services to its member stations. Each station sets its own schedule and programs local content (e.g., local/state news, interviews, cultural, and public affairs programs) that supplements content provided by PBS and other public television distributors.

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“Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly”*…

But surely, argues Jonathan Zittrain, it shouldn’t be that way…

Sixty years ago the futurist Arthur C. Clarke observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The internet—how we both communicate with one another and together preserve the intellectual products of human civilization—fits Clarke’s observation well. In Steve Jobs’s words, “it just works,” as readily as clicking, tapping, or speaking. And every bit as much aligned with the vicissitudes of magic, when the internet doesn’t work, the reasons are typically so arcane that explanations for it are about as useful as trying to pick apart a failed spell.

Underpinning our vast and simple-seeming digital networks are technologies that, if they hadn’t already been invented, probably wouldn’t unfold the same way again. They are artifacts of a very particular circumstance, and it’s unlikely that in an alternate timeline they would have been designed the same way.

The internet’s distinct architecture arose from a distinct constraint and a distinct freedom: First, its academically minded designers didn’t have or expect to raise massive amounts of capital to build the network; and second, they didn’t want or expect to make money from their invention.

The internet’s framers thus had no money to simply roll out a uniform centralized network the way that, for example, FedEx metabolized a capital outlay of tens of millions of dollars to deploy liveried planes, trucks, people, and drop-off boxes, creating a single point-to-point delivery system. Instead, they settled on the equivalent of rules for how to bolt existing networks together.

Rather than a single centralized network modeled after the legacy telephone system, operated by a government or a few massive utilities, the internet was designed to allow any device anywhere to interoperate with any other device, allowing any provider able to bring whatever networking capacity it had to the growing party. And because the network’s creators did not mean to monetize, much less monopolize, any of it, the key was for desirable content to be provided naturally by the network’s users, some of whom would act as content producers or hosts, setting up watering holes for others to frequent.

Unlike the briefly ascendant proprietary networks such as CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy, content and network would be separated. Indeed, the internet had and has no main menu, no CEO, no public stock offering, no formal organization at all. There are only engineers who meet every so often to refine its suggested communications protocols that hardware and software makers, and network builders, are then free to take up as they please.

So the internet was a recipe for mortar, with an invitation for anyone, and everyone, to bring their own bricks. Tim Berners-Lee took up the invite and invented the protocols for the World Wide Web, an application to run on the internet. If your computer spoke “web” by running a browser, then it could speak with servers that also spoke web, naturally enough known as websites. Pages on sites could contain links to all sorts of things that would, by definition, be but a click away, and might in practice be found at servers anywhere else in the world, hosted by people or organizations not only not affiliated with the linking webpage, but entirely unaware of its existence. And webpages themselves might be assembled from multiple sources before they displayed as a single unit, facilitating the rise of ad networks that could be called on by websites to insert surveillance beacons and ads on the fly, as pages were pulled together at the moment someone sought to view them.

And like the internet’s own designers, Berners-Lee gave away his protocols to the world for free—enabling a design that omitted any form of centralized management or control, since there was no usage to track by a World Wide Web, Inc., for the purposes of billing. The web, like the internet, is a collective hallucination, a set of independent efforts united by common technological protocols to appear as a seamless, magical whole.

This absence of central control, or even easy central monitoring, has long been celebrated as an instrument of grassroots democracy and freedom. It’s not trivial to censor a network as organic and decentralized as the internet. But more recently, these features have been understood to facilitate vectors for individual harassment and societal destabilization, with no easy gating points through which to remove or label malicious work not under the umbrellas of the major social-media platforms, or to quickly identify their sources. While both assessments have power to them, they each gloss over a key feature of the distributed web and internet: Their designs naturally create gaps of responsibility for maintaining valuable content that others rely on. Links work seamlessly until they don’t. And as tangible counterparts to online work fade, these gaps represent actual holes in humanity’s knowledge…

The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone: “The Internet Is Rotting.” @zittrain explains what we can do to heal it.

(Your correspondent seconds his call to support the critically-important work of The Internet Archive and the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, along with the other initiatives he outlines.)

* Roger Ebert

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As we protect our past for the future, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Hormel introduced Spam. It was the company’s attempt to increase sales of pork shoulder, not at the time a very popular cut. While there are numerous speculations as to the “meaning of the name” (from a contraction of “spiced ham” to “Scientifically Processed Animal Matter”), its true genesis is known to only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives.

As a result of the difficulty of delivering fresh meat to the front during World War II, Spam became a ubiquitous part of the U.S. soldier’s diet. It became variously referred to as “ham that didn’t pass its physical,” “meatloaf without basic training,” and “Special Army Meat.” Over 150 million pounds of Spam were purchased by the military before the war’s end. During the war and the occupations that followed, Spam was introduced into Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and other islands in the Pacific. Immediately absorbed into native diets, it has become a unique part of the history and effects of U.S. influence in the Pacific islands.

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“It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom.”*…

 

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ONE, Inc., was one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States. It was founded in Los Angeles in 1952 with money and leadership from U.S. groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, as well as Swiss magazine Der Kreis. That same year, a 7.2 earthquake shook Southern California along the White Wolf Fault, and the Emmys were awarded to shows made across the U.S. for the first time (before that, the awards just went to L.A. studios). Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz hosted the show from the Cocoanut Grove Lounge. The following year Dwight Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, which said gays and lesbians were perverts, criminals, mentally ill, and must be blocked from any kind of federal employment. So much was hopeful, but at times everything felt broken and hopeless too. The digital archive of ONE, the monthly magazine published by ONE, Inc., reflects the contradictions of the time. It’s a record of endurance, legal and emotional labor, new and inherited trauma, tenderness, and joy.

The magazine was mailed internationally in unmarked brown envelopes. For safety and longevity, ONE’s all-gender board of editors often used pen names, and always depended on other jobs for food and rent. Even so, within a few months of the first ONE, the FBI identified everyone and wrote their employers, calling all staff “deviants” and “security risks” in a middle-school-style attempt to destroy health and security. Luckily, the employers largely ignored the notices, which surprised the FBI so much they shifted public attention elsewhere, for a while…

More at “ONE: The First Gay Magazine in the United States.”

Shortly after the organization’s founding, in January of 1953, the first issue of ONE Magazine was produced. ONE Magazine remained a staple of ONE, Inc., published every month and read across the nation. ONE, Inc., was the “first national, legally sanctioned organization dedicated to the promulgation of information on homosexuality,” and ONE Magazine was core to that mission. The subscriber count of the magazine peaked at around 5000, although as with many homosexual publications in that era, copies moving from person to person made up a great deal of their readership that went uncounted…

From the introduction to ONE Archives at USC Libraries, where one can browse the publication.

Remembering that Playboy debuted in the same year (1953) as ONE, your correspondent will give Somerset Maugham the last word:

My own belief is that there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror…

* Harvey Milk

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As we love and let love, we might recall that it was on this this date in 1598 that The Merchant of Venice was entered on the Stationer’s Register.  The copyright regimen was strict in Elizabeth’s time, as is now.  But back then, copyright was literally that, the right to make a (first) copy:  the Queen, concerned with sedition and determined to keep a tight rein on any and all published material in her realm, had decreed that no work could be printed in England without a license from the Stationer.

Shakespeare had written the play sometime between 1596 and 1598 (when a performance is mentioned by Francis Meres).  It wasn’t actually printed until 1600– in the First Quarto– by which time (the title page suggests) it had been performed “divers times.”

If you prick us, do we not bleed?  – The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1

Title page from the First Quarto (source)

 

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine”*…

 

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Article I Section 8 | Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution provides that “[The Congress shall have power] To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”  And so that family of protections/rights in the intangible things that we now know as “intellectual property” was enshrined at our nation’s birth.  But has that affordance gotten out of hand?  More specifically, is the concept of “intellectual property” itself a problem?

The grand term ‘intellectual property’ covers a lot of ground: the software that runs our lives, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to. But also the credit-scoring algorithms that determine the contours of our futures, the chemical structure and manufacturing processes for life-saving pharmaceutical drugs, even the golden arches of McDonald’s and terms such as ‘Google’. All are supposedly ‘intellectual property’. We are urged, whether by stern warnings on the packaging of our Blu-ray discs or by sonorous pronouncements from media company CEOs, to cease and desist from making unwanted, illegal or improper uses of such ‘property’, not to be ‘pirates’, to show the proper respect for the rights of those who own these things. But what kind of property is this? And why do we refer to such a menagerie with one inclusive term?

The phrase ‘intellectual property’ was first used in a legal decision in 1845 and acquired formal heft in 1967 with the establishment of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialised agency of the United Nations that represents and protects the commercial interests of holders of copyrights, patents, trademarks and trade secrets. The ubiquitous use of ‘intellectual property’ began in the digital era of production, reproduction and distribution of cultural and technical artifacts. As a new political economy appeared, so did a new commercial and legal rhetoric. ‘Intellectual property’, a central term in that new discourse, is a culturally damaging and easily weaponised notion. Its use should be resisted…

Samir Chopra (@EyeOnThePitch) argues that copyrights, patents and trademarks are all important, but the term ‘intellectual property’ is nonsensical and pernicious: “End intellectual property.”

[Image above: source]

* “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”                    — Thomas Jefferson

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As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Wallace Carothers, a chemist at DuPont, was granted U.S. Patent #2071250A for “Monocomponent artificial filaments or the like of synthetic polymers; [and the] Manufacture thereof from homopolycondensation products”– or as we know the product in question, nylon.

Nylon was the first commercially successful synthetic thermoplastic polymer.  It’s first commercial use was in a nylon-bristled toothbrush in 1938, followed more famously by its use in women’s stockings or “nylons” which were shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and first sold commercially in 1940.  During World War II, almost all nylon production was diverted to the military for use in parachutes and parachute cord. But these wartime uses of nylon (and other DuPont-patented plastics) greatly increased the market for the new materials– and thus, for DuPont’s patents– in the post-war era.

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Carothers in his lab, stretching a sample of nylon fabric

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 16, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Widespread public access to knowledge, like public education, is one of the pillars of our democracy, a guarantee that we can maintain a well-informed citizenry”*…

 

Top Row (left to right): André Breton; Buster Keaton; László Moholy-Nagy   Middle Row (left to right): Gertrude Stein; H. G. Wells; Frank O’Hara; Alfred Stieglitz   Bottom Row (left to right): Evelyn Waugh; D. T. Suzuki; Paul Nash; Mina Loy

Via Public Domain Review

Pictured above is our top pick of those whose works will, on 1st January 2017, enter the public domain in many countries around the world. Of the eleven featured, five will be entering the public domain in countries with a “life plus 70 years” copyright term (e.g. most European Union members, Brazil, Israel, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, etc.) and six in countries with a “life plus 50 years” copyright term (e.g. Canada, New Zealand, and many countries in Asia and Africa) — those that died in the year 1946 and 1966 respectively. As always it’s a varied gaggle who’ve assembled for our graduation photo, including the founder of the Surrealist movement, a star of the silent film era, the Japanese author behind the popularisation of Buddhism in the West, two female writers at the heart of the Modernist scene, and one of the “fathers of science fiction”…

More on each of the “graduates” at Class of 2017.

* Scott Turow, attorney, author, President of the Author’s Guild

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As we share and share alike, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III).  He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends (inventions he shared rather than patenting). But he is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) The Botanic Garden, a poem that anticipates the Big Bang theory in its description of an explosion, a “mass” which “starts into a million suns,” and Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles… all of which are in the public domain.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 12, 2016 at 1:01 am

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