For years, Congressman Rick Boucher of Virginia wandered the desolate wilderness reserved for lawmakers who speak sensibly about copyright and the Internet. Well, given that criteria, the desolate wilderness was reserved for Rick Boucher. He’s been in Congress since 1983 and self-identifies as a techno-geek. Boucher is a different kind of politician—ours—loyal to a technology community few other representatives know exists. He has worked to legalize crypto export, expand rural broadband, support net neutrality, and has pushed back on copyright maximalism.
Boucher went so far as to say, “The recent extension of the copyright term by the Congress was wholly unjustified,” in a Slashdot interview in 2001. That’s right—Slashdot interview. Even Cory Doctorow described him as “the closest thing to a copyfighter in Congress.” (Boucher did vote for telecom immunity, confirming that no one is perfect.)
Usually, I don’t write about Google, because googling it is so hard. But ambiguity isn’t enough to thwart my interest in Google’s recent movement in the world of books. Google Books (originally Google Print) has come to a settlement with publishers that will, in essence, make it the default collecting society for out-of-copyright books—with no congressional oversight.
It’s the result of 1337 legal hacking. In 2004 Google announced plans to scan in-copyright books that were part of university holdings, something no other book scanner had talked about doing. In 2005 the publishers and authors sued Google in a move that sent waves of not shocked at all through the copyright community. It was closely watched by sad copyright wonks (moi) as possibly defining fair use online.
Google skipped all that and instead suggested amassing a library no one could duplicate and selling the books. The publishers went along for a cut of the action. Thing is, because Google settled, it’s a deal only Google gets.
Whew, that was quite an election, but my hope muscle is hopelessly strained and my change gland is exhausted. So I’m turning to a new pastime: second-guessing the Obama administration’s next moves.
I’m long on questions. Will his new trade representative continue forcing DMCA-like laws on our partners? Will his appointees to the Department of Justice prioritize IP cases? What legislation will he support regarding copyright terms, patent reforms, orphan works, and DMCA reforms?
Since childhood, I’ve bitterly wondered why I don’t have a jet car, or my own robot assistant and constant companion. I would call it Sally, and Sally would keep me organized and help me fight crime at night.
Part of the reason my future has failed me is abuse of the patent system, the part of IP that protects and fosters technological innovation. You can’t copyright an idea, but patents give you a limited time to develop and grow an idea yourself. However, the patent system hasn’t changed much in 300 years, leaving it flawed and exploitable. Nobody exploits the system better than patent trolls.
With a presidential election around the corner, let’s look at how people pervert copyright law to squelch speech. Copyright takedown notices were never meant to stifle whistle-blowers or detractors, yet that’s become a popular use for them. Individual critics are likely to go broke even if they win a case, so people and ISPs tend to back down at lawyer point.
It's a cruel and efficient tactic, of which more after the jump.
Not very long ago, in a land not at all far away, there was a little company called Blueport. It held the copyright on a piece of software that the US Air Force liked using for logistics. Blueport protected its software with a time bomb—a bit of code that made the software self-destruct when the license expired. That date was approaching, and Blueport wanted to negotiate a new license with the USAF—and you know, get paid.
Instead, it got a bit of the ol’ shock and awe. The Air Force not only didn’t pay up, it paid big contractor SAIC ($2.5 million in lobbying in 2007) to reverse engineer Blueport’s program and disable the time bomb. The Air Force also paid SAIC to rewrite the program, and by rewrite I mean simply cut and paste any of the original code that seemed useful.
Who doesn’t love a Caribbean island? Imagine yourself on a beach in Antigua with a drink that comes in a hollow coconut. Beautiful women walk by. The sun begins to set, and you’ve just finished importing your DVD collection to a hard drive. It's good to be free from the DMCA.