Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Ignore her, Barack

It’s over. Period. Obama’s vote totals in both North Carolina and Indiana came in better than polls predicted even the day before the election. Unless some truly bizarre revelation surfaces in the next month, something on the order of confirmed accounts of recent pederasty, the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is in the bag.

Over the last couple of months Obama has faced real challenges, with Jeremiah Wright¬† demonstrating his absolute lack of sense and Clinton going for the jugular, but last night’s results show he has the legs to get past that. Both these elements put Obama on the defensive, and distorted the message that put him in the lead. That cost him significant momentum, momentum that will be needed later in the year. It’s time to get back on track.

It doesn’t matter how far out of contention Hillary is, she’s a pit bull and isn’t going to drop out until the last primary is over, if then. But it takes two to tangle, and I recommend that Obama consider the nomination his and get on with the real campaign, defeating John McCain. I see no reason for Obama to spend ten more seconds dealing with the Clintons.

If invited to a debate, he should accept only if McCain will be present. If Clinton attacks, he should simply ignore her. Yes he should continue campaigning in the remaining primary states, but only with his core message. His staff should start mapping out his national strategy, logging time in the big states he didn’t win, such as California, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, because he’s going to need them in the election a lot more than he’s going to need any of the remaining primary states. Wisconsin and Florida have a lot of voters, and he hasn’t campaigned there yet.

Mr Obama, you have an election to win. It’s up to you to set your priorities, and now that you have beat Hillary, she isn’t be one of them.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Orphan Works

There are creative people, and then there are exploiters. On behalf of two senators, and presumably their corporate sponsors, the Copyright Office has drafted what’s known as the Orphan Works Bill so that when someone wants to publish something that includes a piece of art that he did not create he can proceed without fear of being sued for damages. I believe that the duration of copyrights, as dramatically expanded by our congresscritters at the behest of the likes of Disney in the last century, is a travesty, but I don’t think eliminating all protection for individual artists is the way to address the problem.

There are bills in both the Senate and House, currently in the Committee on the Judiciary at this point. None of the Washington delegation is on the committees currently considering the bills, but I wanted my views known before a bill is reported out. In past years, most of the creative community was opposed to the bills, now at least one photographic trade group is willing to accept the House version. It is better than the Senate version, but that is to damn with faint praise. (Imagine, if you will, a law that allowed murder by firearms compared to one that allowed it unless the gun was of small caliber and very high rate of fire.) Specifically, the House version does not exempt infringement in the case of purloined creations involving “infringements resulting from fixation of a work in or on a useful article”. That is, you couldn’t take advantage of the new rules to put the stolen art on a coffee mug. Therefore, one section of my broadside needs to be changed depending on whether it is going to my representative or one of my senators.

The two bills, with links to the full text on Thomas:
Senate: Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008, S.2913
House: Orphan Works Act of 2008, H.R.5889

Feel free to adopt as much or as little of the text below to communicate with your congresscritters, particularly if they are not the same as mine. (Rick Larsen, Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell)

I am writing today to urge you to vote against (insert name of bill), and to communicate your opposition to the Judiciary Committee through personal contact or your staff as seems appropriate.

I believe that a thriving society depends to a great extent on its creative community: authors, artists, and inventors. The framers certainly were of like mind, and were clearly aware of the contract between society and its creative members when they wrote Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8: “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”.

This contract exists to encourage as much creative effort as possible to be exerted, with the results entering the public domain for all to use after allowing the creative person the right to first commercial rewards. Although I think the current copyright terms have been stretched far beyond any reasonable interpretation of “limited Times”, the Orphan Works Bill would go too far in the other direction, eliminating all copyright protection for many artists.

The Berne Convention, by establishing copyright at the moment of creation without requiring the individual artist to take specific legal action, extended this protection to myriad individuals without the legal savvy, or legal budget, to go through the expensive and time-consuming steps of registration and eventual renewal. For commercial ventures, and for established artists, these steps are trivial. For those starting out, those who might hope to sell a photo for $25, a sketch for $100, or a small art quilt or oil painting for $300, the requirement of registering every piece was onerous and the terms of the Berne Convention welcome when the US became a signatory thereto in 1989.

Under the terms of the draft bill, artists would once again be required to register every creation with a central registry. The details of this registry are not clear, as none currently exists and the bill does not create one. Rather, the bill would leave that function to the private sector, which obviously means that the artists would be required to register their works and presumably pay a fee. Moreover, by not designating a single registry, this opens up the possibility that the artist would have to register each new work with multiple registrars for full protection. Even then, the technology of image recognition that would allow searches of these registries simply doesn’t exist today, although some vendors assert progress.

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Use one of these, not both:

House version:

Given the current quality of digital cameras, a firm that wanted to include in their product an artist’s work can simply walk up to the work, snap a picture, perhaps obscure the artist’s signature, and submit it to the image registry. If there is no match, they are free to go to market with the misappropriated art without fear of penalty. I fail to understand how this could be seen as a significant benefit to our society.

Senate version:

Given the current quality of digital cameras, a firm that wanted to sell coffee mugs or T-shirts featuring an artist’s work can simply walk up to the work, snap a picture, perhaps obscure the artist’s signature, and submit it to the image registry. If there is no match, they are free to go to market with the misappropriated art without fear of penalty. I fail to understand how this could be seen as a significant benefit to our society.

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If an artist discovers an infringement, the limit of compensation is set at the amount a reasonable buyer and seller would have agreed to before the infringement occurred. Eliminating any penalty for innocent infringement may be an appealing feature, but the expense of discovering the infringement and the legal costs in securing relief are likely to be far greater than the actual value that would have been negotiated in advance. Thus the infringer has the a dramatic advantage over the individual artist. At least some infringers would become very casual about their “qualifying searches”, knowing that most artists would simply lack the resources to even attempt to claim their rightful compensation and none would be able to recover legal fees or damages.

It is my considered opinion that the benefits of the Orphan Works Bill, specifically the immediate release into the public domain of works that are truly abandoned by their creators, do not come close to equaling the costs that would be borne by the artistic community, and most specifically those that are young or otherwise new in their careers, or those not yet willing to step out and take up art as a full-time occupation.

Far better that those artists put the same money into promoting their work, filling their gas tanks, or buying a bag of groceries while they are protected by the current law.

(A signature to rival John Hancock’s will be affixed here, but without all that “your obedient servant” nonsense. I’m sending it to those who are pledged to be my public servants, after all.)

John Adams

I published a selection of quotes from Thomas Jefferson on his birthday (13 April) in Quotes of the Day. For all his warts, Jefferson is among the founders I esteem most highly. Several readers challenged me as to why I didn’t use John Adams quotes instead. Well, it wasn’t John Adams’ birthday, to start with, and Adams has not been among my favorites. Specifically, my short list of the three most offensive and abusive actions ever taken by the US government starts with the Alien and Sedition Acts. (The others are Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and Roosevelt’s internment camps.) The Sedition Act was designed to imprison those that published attacks on Adams, it was written by his party, and he signed it into law.

In general I make sure the themes for QOTD change regularly, but there are exceptions. I always feature Christmas quotes on 25 December and Jefferson and Shakespeare quotes on their natal anniversaries. Never before had readers complained. The proximate cause turned out to be an HBO miniseries on Adams, based on David McCullough’s biography, which a lot of folks apparently watched. I’m not about to sign up for cable so I could watch the series, but I did buy the book, finishing it last night.

I feared I was reading a hagiography in the early parts of the book, but by the time McCullough covered the ineffective efforts to secure support from France and Holland for the American Revolution, during which Adams and Franklin were squabbling with each other at Paris, it was clear that the history was being played straight. Alas, the story is not told with any enthusiasm and relies too heavily on long extracts from letters between John and his wife Abigail. Interesting details emerge, and the character of Mr Adams is certainly clear, but the story deserved more narrative elan. I don’t think it will spoil it for you to say that Adams and Jefferson had completely reconciled with each other and were the best of friends by the time both of them died on the same day, the putative 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence which Jefferson wrote and Adams pushed through the convention. (According to McCullough, Adams considers the second of July the proper date, not the fourth, but both Adams and Jefferson routinely appeared at celebrations on 4 July for many years.)

I hesitantly recommend the book. I’m glad to have read it, but it’s no page turner.

Exponential Illiteracy

Just a few moments ago I read an other-wise helpful piece about recording formats, extolling the “exponential improvement” of CDs over cassette tapes as part of the background to the main story of HD-DVD vs BlueRay. It was the third time this weekend I’d come across similar usage, and the royal tummy churned each time. Am I the only one left that knows what the word means? Exponential changes are those that recur over time, with the same proportionate change in every time period. Compound interest at the bank is one, Moore’s Law (transistor count doubles every 18 months) another, and so is radioactive decay (half life).

Exponential is not a synonym for really, really, big. No one-time change can possibly be exponential, no matter how dramatic. If the proportion changes from one period to another (as in your assets being eroded by inflation) it isn’t exponential. That passbook savings rates are at absurdly low levels doesn’t change the fact that the pathetic balance is the result of exponential growth. If I Were King, educators who fostered the error would be picking lettuce and students would learn to use the word correctly, incidents like the ones I encountered this weekend would decline exponentially. Slowly, to be sure, but exponentially.