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TPB AFK: a Documentary

A look (devolving into ranting about copyright) at TPB AFK, a documentary on The Pirate Bay.

Today I watched TPB AFK, a film about the Swedish website The Pirate Bay. You can read some background on the website on Wikipedia: Wikipedia: The Pirate Bay.

Basically the website is a clearing house for BitTorrent file sharing offerings. BitTorrent is a protocol (a set of conventions for computer network traffic) that allows you to share files in a distributed manner. This means multiple people can facilitate both the sending and receiving of the files.

A crucial point about the way the website works, it never actually sends or receives any of the files. It only announces other people who say they will send them.

But there comes a problem: what if people share files they don’t own the temporary rights to. And the result has been a lot of legal fuss and political fuss aimed at stopping this from happening.

That is what this film is about: the ad hoc owners of some of the files, along with Swedish authorities, prosecuted the people running The Pirate Bay.

The main question is, of course, not the one being asked by authorities or the custodians of the content. The main question is what shape of custodial rights works in the digital era? Their question, instead, is how do we maintain the status quo?

And so they try what they always tried before: sue them, prosecute them, “disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” them. They sue over the most minimal infringements, including cases of Fair Use (the doctrine that some unlicensed uses of temporarily held works are not infringement, due to the nature of the use).

This is a doomed effort. They freely admit this, for the temporary custodians of the world’s content have asked the governments to act by passing new laws they have drafted and treaties they have negotiated in secret.

In some ways it is akin to the foster parent that loves the child so much that they don’t want the child to return to the natural parents when they are located. But in this case the foster parent also makes quite a lot of money off of the newest children, and a few of the older children, but neglects the rest.

But The Pirate Bay has a unique culture. They take offense at the status quo, and ridicule it at every turn. Their original claim to notoriety (other than the name of the site) was the posting and mocking of barking letters (letters sent by lawyers that carry no legal authority, but are nonetheless meant to intimidate the recipient into action).

The film drives this attitude home repeatedly. At one point it recounts the creation of a website where people were encouraged to rate the dumbness of American soldiers for how they died in the United States and coalition invasion of Iraq.

This is the culture of the Darwin Awards and dead baby jokes. But it is a revolt or reaction against the poisonous reverence that drives humans to ignore vast hypocrisies in their cultures and politics.

That’s your keyword: reaction. The Pirate Bureau is created as a counterpoint to the government/industry Anti-Pirate Bureau. The widespread adoption of BitTorrent is at least partly a reaction to the establishment dismantling centralized file sharing protocols.

But the biggest reactions are yet to arrive. The prosecutor’s language you will see in the trial as filmed in the documentary tells all you need to know. The prosecutor asks a question, what if users of the website share copyrighted materials? Ah, but excepting the occasional work that has returned to the public domain, all works are copyrighted.

Not just all intentional works. All works. The way your plate looks after you finish your breakfast is your unique creation, and you hold a temporary, but legally enforceable right over that depiction. The arrangement of the refuse in your wastebasket are your copyright. If I throw something away there, assuming I have permission, I am now your collaborator in a unique work.

But instead of being clear, saying something like, “copyrighted work shared without permission and where the custodian reserves their rights,” we are left with this convenient notion that copyright serves the big man, never the little man.

Anyway, go check the film out. It is under a Creative Commons license (the main film is CC:BY-NC-ND, meaning you can share it but not profit or edit it; there is another version that allows editing). And yes, you can download it from The Pirate Bay.

This tended off on a tangent, because copyright is a mess. And the people arguing that it is immoral to download the latest pop album have yet to waste their breath to challenge the greater immoralities of copyright.

My understanding there is simply this: if you value the work, try to pay for it in some way. If it’s nothing but a way for you to pass the time, consider finding something better than the creation of people who would like to see you in jail and in debt for life for not paying for their waste of time. In the latter case you will be better off anyway.

Internet Police to become ISPs

It used to be that copyright lasted roughly from birth to high school. Over time that became from birth until your grandkids are dead.

Or: How the Biggest Pirates of All Will be Reading Your Emails in the Near Future

Let’s start with a history of copyright.  Okay, a very brief history.  It used to be that copyright lasted roughly from birth to high school.  Over time that became from birth until your grandkids are dead.

Let me repeat that.  Over time, the protection of copyright went from a useful institution to one that stole from your parents, your grandparents, and is now stealing from you.

The number of works that people download illegally every year (talking individual works, not the number of times they are downloaded) dwarf in comparison to the number of works that the content industry and government have stolen from us.  The cost to society lost to actual theft of works (as opposed to downloading and other forms of mere infringement of illegitimate laws) is astounding, and yet there is no attempt to actually moderate the law.

Indeed, were the tail of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America properly worded, these extensions to copyright would undoubtedly be unconstitutional.  The people have not been given just compensation for their public property taken for private use.

And so we find ourselves approaching a world where the Internet Police will soon become the ISPs.  They have every reason to do so, of course.  They control vast media interests that make money off of limiting competition, harming the future of our economy by blocking countless avenues of competition.  Were they properly regulated, this conflict of interest would be damning.

But this world is improper, and the impropriety reaches to the highest offices of the land.  The Republicans are legless when it comes to arguments favoring competition, as they support the highest barriers to entry in the political realm.  They campaign to make the barriers even higher, with voter identification laws to block even the suffrage of the poorest among us.

That probably is unconstitutional, given the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.  But that language only punishes by loss of representation proportionate to the disenfranchisement.  Given that elections can be decided by very narrow margins, the loss of less than a percent of the ballots in some cases, they can see themselves affording a paper-only loss of representation before congress (and that’s if the law were even enforced).

So what do these dinosaurs have in store for these digital adding machines we find ourselves using for so much?  They intend to watch it all through a looking glass, hoping to scare up a glimpse here and there of some infringing packets of information.

But is there any doubt that for a $100 fee you can skate and infringe to your heart’s delight as you can now circumvent security at the airports for such a modest sum?  It seems all too likely.

And whose copyrights will be protected by these new efforts?  Only the biggest, baddest mamajammas need apply.  Independent artist?  Get bent.  Academic?  Screw.  Don’t appeal to a Western audience?  Take a hike.

But all of that’s secondary.  Primary is the fact that it won’t work.

It will work in some acute cases.  I have no doubt they’ll bust a few wary users here and there, make them scared enough to do something stupid like bullies always tend to do at the cost of society.

The big picture will show a failure.  As spectacular as the failure of the War on Self-alteration of Blood Chemistry, if not quite as well funded, and with less guns.

We will see virtual tunnels spanning the Internet to match the real tunnels spanning borders.  We will see more encryption.  Greater privacy.

If you increase the barrier to safely infringe copyright, you end up with the same situation with drugs: people will step up their game.  You would hardly have seen the advent of heroin and cocaine (much less crack) were it not for the black market (though some amount of concentration of the active ingredients in the natural plants did occur with the advent of patent medicines, it wasn’t as amplified as the black market pushed it to be).

If it takes more effort (and possibly money if you have to buy access to an encrypted tunnel) to infringe, the average person will start wanting to make sure they get their effort’s worth and money’s worth, and infringe with more regularity than they do now.

I wouldn’t be surprised if enterprising law firms set up honeypots for the ISPs, as a means to sue them for everything from tortious interference to breach of contract to false advertising.  Even if not, they will be more than happy to sue on behalf of those that lose their access and their business (even their lives if they have VOIP and can’t get emergency services due to being cut off).

This is just a bad plan.  Private policing has known deficiencies beyond the few I’ve already mentioned, including selective enforcement.  As mentioned already, the people paying for the police will be getting the protection, but they’ll also be choosing who their protection is enforced against.  They won’t be hounding lawmakers or their families.  Their own instances of infringement will be allowed to continue unabated.  In short, the inconsistencies and corruptions of such a scheme are unworkable.

This is going to cost the ISPs money unless it turns out to be nothing but a charade.  That’s possible: they want to scare people without taking any real action.  But if they take action, it will be costing them money, and it also breaks from the wisdom of running a business: that you should not bog yourself down with concerns that don’t appeal to your bottom line.

The objection there is that they do want to make money off content, that conflict of interest I mentioned before.  But it’s not really a conflict if they had their MBAs on straight.  In a new world, where the dinosaurs of content finally go to sleep, the media distributors pay less money for more content.

Competition does earn less money in the short term, but it also costs less money.  It gives the ability to make short-term gains quickly, as well, as minor competitive advantages in markets with strong competition mean the market can fluctuate rapidly.  But it also means the market is much more stable and adaptable in the long term, and more submarkets can emerge and extinguish to fit the changing needs of the customers.

Enough ranting, just remember that the ISPs don’t know what they are doing, keep your friends and family safe from them.  Private police tend to become very corrupt very quickly.

The Price of the Sun

All this copyright business makes me wonder how screwed we would be if the same sort of business practices could easily be applied to things like that star over there that’s responsible for keeping this planet going. If, one day, there’s a sun tax, how big could it grow. How much could an institution get away with before people rebel?

All this copyright business makes me wonder how screwed we would be if the same sort of business practices could easily be applied to things like that star over there that’s responsible for keeping this planet going. If, one day, there’s a sun tax, how big could it grow. How much could an institution get away with before people rebel?

Note the term institution there, because it’s common knowledge that institutions are the problem unless you’re a Republican, in which case only two types of institutions (government, then often only at the federal level, and unions) are the problem. Unless you’re a democrat, in which case it’s just the businesses (and sometimes state governments) that are the problem.

But if you’re not tattooed with silly farm/circus animals, then the problem is the institutional structure, clearly. Some will maintain that individuals are the problem, that the human animal is a dumb beast ready to screw up everything from the Garden of Eden to microwave popcorn (take that both as levity and dead seriousness, as you may recall that the chemicals in the butter actually do nasty things, particularly to the factory workers). The problem there, its equivalence to saying any tool is bad, rather than pointing to its poor use in practice.

It’s plain to see the institution of copyright has become an untended Garden of Nod, and that in many respects the lack of gardeners has rendered its ground of only minimal use except to those most giant machines capable of uprooting the giant brambles, those with the industrial-strength pesticides capable of warding off the myriad critters in the global marketplace of content slobbering for fresh plant meat.

But the question posed can be abstracted to any informational system. When does dysfunction lead to adaptation? When does disequilibrium require reequilibration?

The answer may be hard to get at. All systems constantly reequilibrate. If you add salt to water, or change altitudes, the boiling point changes. But it doesn’t wait until you’re three kilometers above sealevel to drop the boiling point approximately ten degrees Celcius. It’s a continuous shift.

So why does sentiment bubble over at some given point? Why will we await the collapse of copyright before we fix the problem?

Namely because externalities only become internalized when all other pressure releases are exhausted, either artificially or naturally.

That is, if you have a faulty drain system, it only overflows when the total inflow exceeds the total outflow, which means a slow drain won’t back up if the amount of water in remains low enough and/or its blockage isn’t too severe.

And that’s why my surmise is that the actions of the content industry are merely pushing toward a complete erosion of copyright, which will result in a situation far worse than they expect. Every new law that increases the criminalization and increases the term lengths, blocks the drain the more. And the Internet and technology are adding to the inflow to the drain more than ever. They are pushing the whole damned system toward overflow.

Which is what you would get if the sun started to cost money. The fees would start small, but build over time, and you would get so-called sun pirates that would seek to avoid the excess cost of sunshine. Just as you get people bootlegging booze and tobacco products. Just as you get people ordering drugs from foreign countries, medical tourism, etc.

The fools in the content industry shouldn’t be pushing to block the drain entirely, for they cannot swim for long upon overflow. But the first losses will be the small artists that can’t swim at all.