Electrocuting Modern Elephants

Even as a member of the IEEE, an Institute whose origins date back to Thomas Alva Edison's work as a visionary inventor, I must admit the guy had some very serious issues when dealing with business. He stole, cheated, bribed but one of the most impressive things I learned about Edison was that he electrocuted animals in public. He would do so to exemplify that Alternate Current, a new development at that time that promised cheaper electricity for wider areas, was extremely dangerous and could kill humans (he later supported the idea of the electric chair for the same purpose), and he would do that because he had almost full control over Direct Current distribution in the United States at that time, so he really wanted to keep people away from AC. This was called the War of Currents and a notable killing of that time was that of Topsy the Elephant, which was even caught on tape and remains as a shocking proof of this period of industrial evolution.

Topsy the Elephant after the electrocution

Topsy the Elephant after the electrocution

Satanizing AC was solely a business method. Edison knew there was nothing fundamentally wrong about AC but some quirks that could well be fixed. He could have adapted to the emerging business of DC - his company was the lead in electricity at that time after all - but he just didn't want to let go his technology, and he was clearly willing to do anything to stop the competition. Now, if you look around you'll noticed it didn't turn out so well: AC supplies electricity to most modern houses and buildings, and we are even starting to send data through the electricity connections; moreover, even when AC is widespread, batteries supplying DC in small devices are still widely used too, so at the end both technologies found their market and coexist in our modern era.

Now, lately we have been reading all over the web about some new legislations that are designed to protect the business of companies that are threatened by piracy. The very fact that I'm using the word piracy is a byproduct of a whole media campaign that has been put around an emerging technology that has brought tons of changes to the world we know: the Internet. I'm, of course, talking about our friends ACTA, PIPA, SOPA, DRM, and any other acronym that threatens the web and the freedom of users.

The explosion of the Web has made millions of bytes readily available to each and every desktop around the world, and information can circle the entire planet in seconds, bringing little to no boundaries to the transmission of ideas and media. This is, of course, very good: it's actually what Gutenberg once tried to accomplish using methods significantly slower. And now that we have achieved this level of communications, we have been convinced of the fact that using it is a crime.

Wake up! What companies like Sony, Microsoft and Apple are really trying to do is keep a market that they already lost before the technology. Sony had their time, when it was extremely difficult to let people listen to your music because the distribution media was expensive and required global logistics to reach every interested audience in the world. Nowadays, you can upload just about anything to Youtube (as crappy as it can be) and you will have a worldwide audience making you famous in a matter of days. Sony is, therefore, out of the equation these days, and alternatives like Creative Commons licenses are the modern way to deal with multimedia. That is because CC licenses start off by the (obvious) fact that everything can be shared in this modern world, and they focus on letting you control how to share your digital media.

Microsoft is supporting just about any idea to stop piracy. Of course! They don't need it anymore. There were easy tricks back in the 90's to stop the widespread usage of illegal copies of the MS Office suite, but they were intelligent enough to let it run in the wild, spreading proprietary formats and making adicts out of users that are left with no remedy but paying for licenses now that they are "serious" against piracy and have come with some very clever ways to stop illegal distribution of copies. If they were honest enough, they would step up and tell fellow companies "hey, this is just the way things work: people are going to share illegal copies, but you can still make business out of this as we did".

And as fast as hardware technology grows, DRM is contaminating every invention out there, backed by companies like Apple that really think that if they are going to sink in their old fashioned business methods, the rest of the world must sink with them. We now have cables that are capable of blocking you from watching your own media, ala Terminator. If the transmission of bits and bytes are illegal, we could very well start pursuing people with any type of cables in the streets: LAN cables, USB cables, those are all dangerous potential criminals.

Finally, the one argument that has always looked stupid to me, is that old rhyme that says "Piracy money supports terrorist, ergo, all pirates are terrorists". Heck, the truth is that, if flowers were better business, terrorists would be selling flowers, thus making flowers illegal, and florists would turn into terrorist - makes sense?

This is all very much like if back in the days when the commercial flights started to be popular, ship companies tried to make people believe that boarding airplanes was illegal. That just wouldn't work and nowadays we have clear markets for both technologies and people even travel on cruise ships for pleasure. If any given company, as large as it can be, is not willing to adapt to a new technology, that has nothing to do with the general public. Creating laws to defend these dinosaurs, cuffing users for exercising their freedom to use technology,  is just insane. We have been led to believe that sharing copyrighted things is illegal, but little has been discussed about the nature of the laws that declare that illegal: do they even make sense in modern days?

So I'm clearly standing against these laws and treaties, but my cause is not to defend piracy: it's recognizing this whole intelectual property system as obsolete. We should start over from scratch and think of a law system that can coexist with the technology we have in our hands now and only then can we speak about breaking the law.

2 comments for this entry

  1. Robert says:

    There is a single vital question that must be raised: What legitimate justification is there for the utterly non-essential entertainment industry to wield grossly disproportionate influence over government?

  2. Norbert Kamp says:

    Imaging the inventor of fire or wheel had this whole system of licences, laws, lawyers, licence fees and so on. I think we still would walk and freeze in winter or our vehicles had wooden wheels or heating would still be designed like in stone age: like a camp fire in the middle of our living room.
    Stupid idea? Look at all this inventions which were hidden in some drawers because wealthy companies bought them and because these inventions could do harm to their business they never used them...
    Why are electric cars on a development level of beginning 20th century whilst fuel driven cars are still beiing under develoment and it goes further and further?
    Public transport is like in the 1950th. Probably in the 50th public transport was better...

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