Month: November 2006

…meanwhile, 95 years later

When you create something in artistic format such as a piece of writing or music, you automatically get protection to use that creation how you wish without anyone necessarily being able to use it without your permission. This protection is known as copyright and allows the author to exploit their hard work and try and make money from it. The format that you create the piece of work determines how long the protection lasts for – it is not forever – and this duration has been at the heart of some quite strong discussion recently.

Looking specifically at music, to quote the Patent Office website:

Copyright exists in your original music composition or score for your life plus 70 years from the end of the year of your death. The same length of time applies for the lyrics, whereas the sound recording only lasts for 50 years from the end of the year in which it was made or, if published in this time, 50 years from the end of the year of publication. If not published during that 50 year period, but it is played in public or communicated to the public during that period, then copyright will last for 50 years from when this happens.

A socialist might ask why is there a duration at all whilst a capitalist would ask why is it not longer? The two extremes, whilst not really a fair description of the representatives of the two sides of the arguement, do allow some form of reasoning to be applied to a) why there is a duration at all and b) why the number of years is set as it is.

Let’s look at the two points of view:

The extreme socialist in my analogy above believes that everyone is equal and everything should be owned by the state. Ignoring the realities of communism, this could be said to mean that anything created is owned by everyone – it is in the public domain. If I take a photo then I should release it and let anyone use it however they like. And equally, I can use anything anyone else creates. This helps innovation because I could take a piece of software, improve it and then release the better version for the greater good. Or I could edit a movie to change some part of the production quality to my tastes, then release it as another version. Clearly, this would result in better or differentiated works being made available. It encourages creativity and competition.

On the other hand, the extreme capitalist would want to know what they would be getting out of their hard work. If I go to the effort to write a story and come up with some brilliant ideas, it is only fair that I should receive some form of compensation for that work. It is unfair if I go to all the trouble of writing some software only to have someone else take it, improve it and then sell it themselves. I want to be paid for my work so that I can live comfortably.

You can see here that we have two extremes – the one that fosters creativity and innovation and the other that sees authors rewarded for their work. Unfortunately, in reality it is not so simple. It could be true that the incentive of payment for something I create inspires me to work on it thus resulting in creative works being created anyway. On the same lines, I might see an idea for some software and think I can do it much better, and write it in a completely different way. Here I have derived the idea from existing work but the expression of that idea is different and, I would hope, better.

So to solve this problem, as with much of law, we need to come to some form of compromise – an equilibrium. It is this level that we have now. In the case of music, I can publish a recording and control the use of it for 50 years before it enters the public domain and anyone can do what they like with it. This appears to have worked quite nicely until now.

Suddenly, the music industry have realised that some major works were recorded nearly 50 years ago and in a few years their source of revenue will expire. It is this sudden comprehension that has prompted the music industry to start lobbying the government to extend the duration to publication + 95 years for music, thereby securing their own revenue for many years to come.

The capitalist says “fair enough – I would like some more money”. The socialist says “hold on one minute, I was going to use that in my own creative work”. Once again we are faced with an issue of paying money to the publishers or allowing someone to adapt and create something new.

One might say “ahh, it’s already 95 years in the USA and they’re doing fine”, but my response would be “but are they really?”. Is it not true that all the best and most famous musical creations have come from the UK? The likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Muse, Oasis, The Verve, Coldplay, and many more. How many extremely successful groups are American? But that is a moot point, subjective to person tastes. And I’m biased towards the UK anyway!

Basically, innovation/creativity verses profit.

The corporations do pay a lot of tax but should it be at the expense of creativity – creativity which has seen a lot of very good British artists make a lot of money? Do we want to stop artists from the beginning of the musical revolution of the 1950s from earning any more money at the possible expense of new work? So what does the government do? What is does best – it set up a committee!

At the Enterprise Conference on 2 December 2005, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that, as part of the Pre-Budget Report 2005 package, he had asked Andrew Gowers to lead an Independent Review to examine the UK’s intellectual property framework.
– HM Treasury Press Release

This review called for evidence from a wide range of people and organisations from all sides of the discussion. It has looked at all aspects of the structure of intellectual property in the UK but what I am concerned with in this blog post is the recent comments on copyright term extension.

The Open Rights Group, of which I am a Founding Member and part of the Technical Team submitted evidence (to which I contributed) with many of the arguments and points I have mentioned above. As the issue became more and more important in the eyes of the media, ORG also set up a campaign to help raise awareness. This included a talk from Professor Jonathan Zittrain who is a Professorial Fellow at Keble College Oxford and Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation and the Oxford Internet Institute (listen to the speech here).

On Monday the BBC News website featured an article which stated that the Gowers Review would:

recommend the terms are not extended, a well-placed government source has said. This outcome would mean the report had “missed a great opportunity” to support the music industry, the chairman of the British Phonographic Industry claimed.

This is great news for the ORG campaign as well as for artists in the UK. It means that protection will continue to exist but more popular work will start to become publicly available which should foster new creativity.

But there is a catch.

The Gowers Review is not binding on the government. It is there to advise and the government could easily ignore it. With this news, the pressure from the music industry is going to get massively greater and I imagine they will do all they can to influence the final decision. I would, however, hope that the government doesn’t ignore the Gowers Review, which has far more expertise in the area and can be expected to advise the government correctly.

How likely is that though? We shall see

Petition the PM

Today I was impressed by the government. It doesn’t happen often, but today it did. What was impressed by? I was linked to an online petition through the Open Rights Group I am a member of, hosted by the Downing Street website. I went on to discover that the website is running a trial of an online, automated petition system that allows any British Citizen to submit a petition to Downing Street and let any other British Citizen electronically sign it.

Petitions have long been sent to the Prime Minister by post or delivered to the Number 10 door in person. You can now both create and sign petitions on this website too, giving you the opportunity to reach a potentially wider audience and to deliver your petition directly to Downing Street.

The system is run by mySociety and the software used is open source and can be downloaded by anyone.

It also states that:

Once your petition has closed it will be passed to officials who work for the Prime Minister in Downing Street, or sent to the relevant Government department for a response. Every person who signs a petition via this website will receive an email detailing the Government’s response to the issues raised.

Ignoring all cynicsm for a moment, I think this is a great idea. It is very easy to send out an e-mail to people to ask them to click a link and fill out a quick form to add their support to a petition and this service allows that petition to be delivered directly to Downing Street.

Of course, the main issue is whether this will be more effective than delivering a paper petition in person or not, but still the principle is there and making it easier to get your voice heard can’t be all bad, particularly if you’re guaranteed a reply.

A week of morality

David Mytton is having a kind of themed week on his blog. On Monday, today and Friday he is posting a discussion/analysis of certain moral questions interspaced by two posts yesterday and tomorrow with business advice.

On Monday the topic was:

Is there any difference between lying to someone and withholding something from someone?

and today the post is:

If a friend did something illegal, would you inform the appropriate authorities?

Thoughtcrime

The latest post by Geeklawyer, specifically the first paragraph, caused me to think about the differences between inciting hatred and violence.

Geeklawyer is glad that the ultra right wing extremist British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin was acquitted of charges of using words or behaviour intended to stir up racial hatred. He is of the view that only speech which incites, or is genuinely immediately likely to do so, violence & discrimination should be unlawful. If hating $(todays_unpopular_group) is lawful, and even this government is not proposing to make it illegal to hate Muslims, then inciting hatred should not be an offence either. Inciting violence yes, inciting opinions no. Criminalising incitement because it makes it easier to prevent violence is not the answer since it has knock on effects on free speech.

What is basically being said here is that hate is a feeling and/or opinion – it is not something physical and is many cases results in no detriment to the hated object so far as physical action is concerned. In the UK we have the right to free speech and so we can enjoy hating whatever or whoever we want without fear of being arrested. Even when the hatred is voiced it still counts as opinion and we still have the right to freely say what we want.

However, it is when that hatred is expressed as violence that a line is crossed. Here, Geeklawyer is saying (and I completely agree), is where the law should come into play – violence is illegal. But, then, why is it also an offence to incite racial hatred when all you are doing is expressing your opinion?

Until I read this particular paragraph by Geeklawyer, I assumed that inciting racial hatred and inciting violence are one and the same. Indeed, that is probably what was assumed when the case against Nick Griffin was started. However, they are actually very different.

Hate is opinion. Violence is action.

On that basis, is incitement to racial hatred is just extended thoughtcrime? If that is illegal then why stop there? What is the difference between me saying “I hate [racial group 1]” compared to “I hate [political party 2]”? In both cases people might be offended? To go even further, what is the difference between a group of my friends saying the same thing? In the former I would be breaking the law by expressing my opinion to a group of friends whereas in the latter I would not just because one group is categorised by race and the other by political alignment. Do we really need to protect the general public from offence, as suggested by Gordon Brown:

Any preaching of religious or racial hatred will offend mainstream opinion in this country.

If we do, (and as you probably have gathered, I do not think we do) then there should be a blanket rule and not one based on race. That’s discrimination.

 

The God Delusion

…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;

This is an interesting quote from a treaty with Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797 (the first president and vice president respectively) because the common perception is that America is perhaps the most religious country in the world. This may or may not be correct, but as the BBC reported:

A survey done in 2001 by the City University of New York Graduate Center found that 85% of Americans identify with some religious faith. In contrast, in Canada and the United Kingdom, two societies often perceived as quite similar to the United States, only 28% and 17% respectively described religion as similarly important in their lives.

This clearly presents us with a paradox – despite the founding of the USA as a secular country, religion has far more of a part in daily life than in England where the entire constitution is based around a central church, a monarch as head of state and religion influencing many aspects of society including law and education.

Over the last few weeks I have been reading the latest book by Richard Dawkins, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Previously, I have read The Blind Watchmaker which goes into great biological detail about evolution, with the specific intention of countering creationism – and it does a very good job. So based on my experiences with that title, I immediately purchased a copy of The God Delusion which takes aspects from all of his books and presents them in a logical format in order to completely disprove religion.

My use of the word “disprove” above is worth elaborating on. This is best explained using a part of the second chapter of the book:

Begin quote

Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously, and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty. The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones along the way:

  1. Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, “I do not believe, I know.”
  2. Very high probability but short of 100%. De facto theist. “I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
  3. Higher than 50% but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
  4. Exactly 50%. Completely impartial agnostic. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
  5. Lower than 50% but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. “I don’t know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.”
  6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
  7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.”

End quote

The important distinction here is that many religious people will place themselves (or be placed) in category 1 whereas most atheists will actually be in category 6, not 7. Science can only suggest something beyond reasonable doubt and with that you cannot say that “I know” because there is always a chance that you are wrong, just as there is always a chance that a theory, no matter how many experiments support it, might be disproved. It is also this difference that marks extremism – extremists will not change what they “know/believe” even in the face of absolute proof whereas atheists will always be open to change their view if a persuasive argument is provided or evidence is found to suggest what they believe is wrong.

If you suggest that “beyond reasonable doubt” is not sufficient – despite what science might say there will always be a chance that God exists – then that’s fine, but then you must also apply the same logic when looking at legal cases and by that same logic you must find every single criminal case in favour of the defendant. All criminal cases (at least in England) are concerned with proving “beyond reasonable doubt” that the defendant is guilty and if you throw aside that level burden of proof then you must also throw aside the legal system we have today.

Equally, just because something cannot be disproved does not mean it exists. For this we use the teapot parable by Bertrand Russell:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existance of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as sacred truth every Sunday, and installed into the minds of children at school, hestitatation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of psychiatrists in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

This is just part of what is covered in The God Delusion. Not only is scientific proof presented that clearly disproves God “beyond reasonable doubt” but logical and sensible theories are put forward for counter arguments such as:

  • If there is no God, why be good?
  • What are the roots of our morality?
  • Where does religion come from?

And perhaps one of the most difficult to defend against – “What’s so wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?”.

This book is good. Extremely good. It is written with a level of arrogance on the part of Dawkins, but unlike the Bible or any other religious document, sermon or teaching, the arrogance is almost completely justified by scientific reasoning. Before reading it I would have considered myself able to engage in an intellectual discussion with a religious believer up to a certain point, but I now feel confident in being able to counter any point raised in favour of religion. I can now say without doubt:

I am an atheist.

 

Expression

In English Language A Level you look at various aspects of the English language, one of which being comparing the types of form – i.e. spoken and written language. This includes looking at the features of each and comparing them. One of the “advantages” of written language that is highlighted during any comparison is its permanence in the sense that when something is spoken, unless you record it, it is lost, but something written is usually pretty permanent.

I enjoy writing and the written form is my favourite method of expressing myself. I find it easy to write down something – a description, a commentary, an answer to a question or my thoughts about something. I find that it allows me to logically transcribe what I’m thinking and arrange my ideas and thoughts effectively.

Usually, when I write something such as a blog post or an essay, I will sit and think for a few moments about how I want to start the first paragraph and then I will start writing. I rarely plan – I just start writing and the rest of the text just flows naturally. After I have written out the first draft, I will reread it several times adjusting phrases, updating grammar and perhaps rearranging a few sentences or adding some additional detail. Despite not planning I don’t find that I need to rewrite anything. I can only remember one or two instances where I have written something out for a blog post and then not posted it at all, and those were on a different blog about personal topics.

This ability to “just write” has been particularly useful under test conditions. I know people who have to plan out an essay structure to get a good mark in an exam (particularly in English or History exams for example), but I have found that I don’t need to. I look at the question, work out how to start and just write. Having revised beforehand, the knowledge I have is converted into a structured essay as I write it down. Occasionally I’ll think of something that could fit in later and I’ll jot down a single keyword, but the only time I remember doing that was in my Business Studies A Level exam.

One thing I will always remember is when I got full marks on a Business Studies A Level module exam and my teacher asked me to tell the rest of the class how I write my answers. When I explained what I said above – that I don’t plan and just write – she was not too pleased! But it works for me. It won’t work for everyone, or even most people. It takes time and experience to discover how you learn best, and then how to express that in an answer to an exam question.

My ability to do this, coupled with the fact that I really enjoy writing, led me to choose Law as my degree subject. In my opinion, you cannot get any more advanced than legal prose. The complex structure – particularly grammar but also lexis – makes any legal document difficult for most to understand. Being able to fully comprehend such documents makes the legal profession quite elitist, and rightly so. Legal language is the very peak of the use of the English language and something I regard very highly. It is not easy to do.

I didn’t (necessarily) choose law to go on to practice as a lawyer, I chose it because I wanted to both improve my ability to write and to understand the complex system that is pretty much at the heart of society in the developed countries in the world, if not all the countries. What started as a handy ability to answer exam questions progressed into actually writing a blog (or two) for fun and will hopefully develop into something I can use in a future career, whether it is in the law or not.