February 2005

Brief clarification on Orphan Works issue

I may have given the wrong impression with my side comment about the DMCA in my original post on orphan works — it’s important to understand that the Orphan Works issue is only tangentially related to the whole issue of fair use, agressive copyright enforcement and corporate ownership of our culture. Orphan Works is specifically about works where you would happily pay the copyright owner for a license, and the owner would gladly give permission, if only you could discover who the owner was.

For me, the reason for separating this specific problem from the more general issue of indefinite copyright extension, erosion of fair use, etc. is tactical — this is one area that could create a whole lot of good for society in terms of online libraries and the like without entering the rat’s nest of whether fair use is “stealing from the mouths of artists” and the like. I almost said “without going head-to-head with the Copyright Cartel’s moneyed interests,” but that’s not quite accurate. The big media companies still have a huge interest in limiting media that’s available to consumers to their own new releases, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of position they take on the orphan works issue. The nice thing about limiting this particular debate to orphan works is it steals the Cartel’s biggest moral shield, namely artist’s compensation, since in fact many artists would gain from more frictionless licensing, and the few that would lose would be those who never cared enough to renew their copyrights anyway.

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“Sea of children lost in the supermarket” works

I actually got a glimpse of the orphan works problem from the other side just a few days ago, when I was contacted by the MIT OpenCourseWare program and asked if I would be willing to grant permission for them to use some of my material in a course they were posting online. In this case, the material was a single PowerPoint slide from a single lecture in the course. I hadn’t made the slide, but it quoted a single sentence from one of my papers and included a photo of me a friend had taken while I was still in grad school. I happily printed out the two-page license giving them the right to use the material, put it in a stamped envelope and mailed it back to them. The license file was slightly over ten times as long as the material I was licensing.

I suppose I can’t call this an orphan-works problem per say, since the slide had my name on it and it’s pretty easy to track me down online — perhaps this was just a child-lost-in-the-supermarket problem. Or in MIT’s case, a whole sea of children lost in the supermarket, each needing individual attention. (As Downward Battle points out, this is the same problem that has kept works like Eyes on the Prize out of the public eye for the past 10 years.) My heart goes out for two (and soon three) intellectual-property coordinators who are trying to dot all the i’s that make up even a single course.

And yet, though I didn’t think of it until after I sent back the forms, even I can’t be quite sure that I owned the rights to that material. It was a friend who took my photo, and we certainly didn’t talk about copyright issues at the time. More significantly, I can’t recall off the top of my head which of my papers the slide quoted from, and whether that was one of the journals or conferences that required me to sign over total ownership of the copyright to them before they’d publish. Should I have consulted my lawyer before giving MIT permission to talk about my work? I don’t have time for that kind of shenanigans, and besides, I’m a researcher — the whole point of my writing papers is so that what I’ve learned can be passed on to others.

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Unlocking the orphans

EFF and Public Knowledge have just set up Orphan Works, an organization dedicated to finding a way out of our current mess where works may have been out of copyright for years, but there’s no way to know because nobody (including the Copyright Office) knows who to ask:

What are orphan works? Orphan works are — broadly speaking — any copyrighted works where the rights-holder is hard to find. Because the cost of finding the owner is so high, creators can’t build on orphan works, even when they’d be willing to pay to use them. In many cases the works were abandoned because they no longer produced any income. In most cases, rights holders, once found, are delighted to have their work used.

The Copyright office is asking for public comment on the orphan works problem until March 25th (you can fill out the form at orphanworks.org). Even if you’re not an artist or filmmaker or the like, this issue probably affects you more than you’d at first think. Here’s the comment I just sent in:

My story is simple, but I expect it’s a common one. I’ve been learning to play piano and I love old music. My uncle gave me a photocopy of sheet music for a 1934 parlor piece that my grandfather used to sing, I found copy of Scott Joplin’s original 1902 score for The Entertainer, and a friend who collects old music gave me a photocopy of her antique sheet music to a 19th-century music-hall song. I’ve scanned them all on my home scanner and I’d like to put them on the Web for others to download, but I’ve no way of knowing if these are actually out of copyright. Plus, copyright holders are so aggressive these days that I’m afraid even if these pieces are in the public domain someone might convince my ISP to shut down my account under the DMCA, and if that happened there’d be no good way for me to prove I was in the right. So instead, I just gave up and have kept these scans to myself. It’s just not worth the risk to share with others.

Update: Larry Lessig has some pointers on writing comments (e.g. be nice, these guys are overworked) and stories people have submitted over at eldred.cc.

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Is ABC’s Primetime Live fleecing the sick and dying?

While I’m on the subject of skepticism, James Randi has posted an infuriating article about ABC’s recent Primetime Live program Is ‘John of God’ a Healer or a Charlatan? Searching for Hope and Health in a Remote Brazilian Village. João Teixeira, AKA John of God, is a very successful faith-healer — successful in the sense that he makes lots of money and fame by performing standard carney tricks to con desperately ill patients with nothing to lose, not in the sense that he actually heals anybody. As you might guess from the subtitle, ABC’s spin is along the lines of “Wow, this is really amazing stuff, and while we can’t know for sure we’ll bend over backwards to make you believe it’s all true.”

I’m usually mildly pissed off by junk like this from the press, but something about Randi’s commentary really boils my blood this time. Maybe it’s the fact that ABC so clearly wanted to interview Randi not to give their audience real insight, not even to provide balance (as if it was appropriate for a so-called “investigative report” to give equal weight between a con artist’s lie and facts). They clearly wanted Randi just to provide cover, so they could tell their story and yet still claim to have interviewed a token skeptic (you’ll note that Randi doesn’t even appear in the print version of the story I link to above.)

Then again, maybe it’s Randi’s brief description of the personal tragedy con men like this cause that brought it all home:

It must be easier just not to care, but I can’t manage that. I must care when I know that John of God will claim more victims, and that I couldn’t stop it. Though I earnestly wish it could be different, based on what we know to be the hard facts, David Ames will not recover from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Lisa Melman will most probably die of breast cancer because she’s decided to forego legitimate surgical help. Mathew Ireland’s brain tumor will still be there and will probably kill him, too. But Jo?o Teixeira will continue to flourish and be worshiped as a god.

Folks, I was in Mexico City on the plaza outside the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe when a young peasant father crawled by me along the rough pavement with an obviously dead infant in his arms, swaddled in a tiny white serape. There were twin tracks of blood behind him from his bleeding knees. He was seeking a miracle. Through the adjacent barred window in the basilica I could hear the coin-sorting machines packaging the money that was pouring into the offering boxes inside. I turned away and wept.

In a St. Louis auditorium I stood in the lobby as paramedics treated a heavy elderly woman who lay in a fetal position on the carpet, white-faced and moaning in agony. Moments before she’d been seized in ecstasy in front of faith healer “Reverend” W. V. Grant, leaping up and down in an adrenaline rush that made her temporarily oblivious to the bone spurs on her arthritic spine that were cutting into her muscle tissues and bringing about internal bleeding. The attendants got her onto two stretchers and into an ambulance. I wept.

Outside an arena in Anaheim, California, my camera crew approached a tiny, thin, Asian boy with twisted legs on worn crutches to ask him if he’d been healed by Peter Popoff, the miracle-worker who he’d told us two hours earlier was “gonna ask Jesus to fix my legs.” When he turned toward us, we saw his tear-streaked face and anguished eyes. The cameraman lowered his camera. “I can’t do this,” he said, and we both turned away and wept.

I’ve had my share of tears and sleepless nights, wondering what I might do to keep people from chasing this chimera. I had another chance in New York City on January 25th, 2005, and I tried.

Rather than expose a fraud, ABC wanted to share his limelight. How many more poor, desperate people will go to Brazil because a “reputable news organization” made it sound like a good idea? How many more head of cattle will João Teixeira be able to buy from what he fleeces off the world’s most unfortunate? How many more rating points will ABC gain from their complicity in his con game?

ABC has blood on its hands — if they were a responsible news organization they would try to undo the damage they’ve done.

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How do you tell when you’re being spun?

An two-year-old speech by Michael Crichton that came across a mailing list I’m on slams scientists for being “seduced by the… lures of politics and publicity,” bringing its skepticism to bear on the growing scientific consensus on global warming. One person on the list asked the obvious question after reading it, namely who is the layman to trust?

My response was that it’s not really that hard (though I should have added it’s a skill that needs to be learned).

Start by being skeptical of anyone who wears being a lone skeptic against a vast sea of consensus as a badge of honor, especially when he’s not an expert in the field he’s criticizing. One in a million really is the genius he thinks he is, but most of the time there’s a good reason everyone else thinks he’s full of it. Then be doubly suspicious of any explanation of an idea or study given by someone who opposes it. (I’m reminded of a born-again Baptist friend of mine in high school who kept trying to explain to my Catholic girlfriend what “Catholics believe” — as described in some Catholic-bashing pamphlet her church was handing out.)

Next, see what parts of what they’re saying you do know something about, or can find out through a quick Web search. I can’t speak to everything Crichton’s complaining about, but I do know he’s wrong that SETI isn’t science (regardless of whether they’re barking up the wrong tree), he’s either wrong or highly selective on second-hand smoke and he’s wrong when it comes to lack of scientific debate about the existence of global warming (there’s been plenty of debate over the years — I gather he just doesn’t like which side is coming out on top). He’s also wrong in his defense of his fellow lone wolf, Lomborg. Lomborg wasn’t attacked for coming to the wrong conclusions, he was attacked for “selective use of data, misuse of data, misinterpretations, inappropriate precision, [and] errors of fact.” I’d say the fact that he was shouted down in the scientific community, in spite of economic and political pressure on his side, is a sign of something right with science. (Crichton’s insinuation that Lomborg’s critics don’t substantiate their attacks in detail is nonsense — see the above-linked review for one of many examples.)

As a side-note, Crichton’s comment that “to predict anything about the world a hundred years from now is simply absurd” is strange coming as it does from a science fiction author. It’s also yet another straw-man — computer models don’t make predictions, they assign probabilities based on our best guesses and based on different choices we might make. It’s impossible for anyone to predict whether a fire will start while I sleep, but that doesn’t stop me from upgrading old electrical wiring and getting fire insurance based on my best guess at the likelihood of a fire. Ray Bradberry once said the function of science fiction is not to predict the future, but to prevent it. In this case, that’s probably a good function of science fact as well.

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