Jeremy Allison Column Archives

The Low Point — a View from the Valley — Column 11

The Land of "Nothing for free"

On the map, Laguna Niguel looks like a beautiful Pacific coastal area south of Los Angeles, a little like one of my favorite spots Monterey, south of San Francisco. But I forgot; this is Los Angeles, where the brown haze of the air lies like a thick blanket over the insane sprawl of "Generica". It's an endless landscape of McDonalds, strip-malls and gas stations familiar to anyone who has seen the movie "Ghost World". Nothing is free here. You pay for parking (nothing but valet available), driving on toll roads, access to much of the beach (private). If they could figure out how to charge for the air I'm sure there'd be meters every block or so. It's a fitting home for the entertainment industry.

I was down there to give a talk on "Open Source Business Models" for a conference. Also represented were entertainment industry lawyers, "Big Telecom" management, and a smattering of software people. Microsoft was there of course. You can't hold a church fete with "Open Source" on the banner these days without Microsoft turning up and requesting representation. At least we also had Bruce Perens on our side to help make up the balance. The venue was an unbelievably expensive hotel. Even though I was on expenses I balked at asking the company to pay for a room there and found something cheaper (not by much) a few miles down the road.

Along with the collection of apologists for the "ultimate evils" (tm) of Hollywood and Telephone companies there were some very interesting presentations. A Japanese telecoms researcher made all the software people jealous by describing the idyllic state of broadband in Japan, where providers vie to sell gigabit fiber-optic pipes to the home. Yes, you read that right, Gigabit. The obvious question was asked; "what do people use all that bandwidth for" and the less than obvious answer was that they use it for all the same things people in less bandwidth-friendly countries do, they just do more of it. I could see a collective shudder pass through the entertainment industry people. They knew what that meant.

A keynote by Lawrence Lessig made the point even further. He showed a series of "mash-ups" of copyrighted material which were incredibly creative and funny. All completely illegal and currently being hunted off the Internet by entertainment industry lawyers. One of the most amusing asides was from a Walt Disney legal reply to a parent requesting "fair use" rights to use some clips from a Disney movie to put in his home video. He pleadingly promised them it was meant only for family viewing. "We currently deny all requests to use our material....". Even if you are impudent enough to ask, the answer is always no. At least one of the other studios replied that the current commercial rate was $700 to use a 30 second clip. I can see that being popular amongst parents making home movies. He also covered the current patent quagmire. A very interesting fact from his talk was that the total unit cost for a Chinese manufacturer to build a DVD player was around $26. However the total royalty fees they have to pay to western companies for the patent rights to build a player is $21 per unit, thus completely eliminating any profit they might make. No wonder the Chinese are currently creating their own digital video standard, completely incompatible with Western ones. It's the only thing that makes economic sense for them. This is almost certainly behind the Chinese refusal to use the new WiFi standards for wireless devices also.

I ended up making myself unpopular by publicly attacking the Washington-based economist who'd advised the Clinton Administration on "Intellectual Property" issues. It's a very personal issue for me as it affects my everyday life and work, so when he made the statement that "strengthening the patent system leads to more innovation for everyone" I saw red. He doesn't write software of course. I tried to explain later in private that it would be like people being able to patent economic theories in his line of work. That began to hit home, but he explained that the problem in Washington is that patents are heavily pushed to the politicians by the Pharmaceutical Industry. "These guys say they're going to cure cancer, what are you going to do for us ?" is the request that anti-software patent lobbyists have to learn to counter.

My panel was rather uncontroversial, Microsoft, Bruce Perens and myself being on our best behavior. The only sparks that flew where when Microsoft made it abundantly clear that they would use their patent portfolio to prevent the spread of GPL software. Section seven of the GPL (the implicit patent grant of the license) now looks like the most prescient writing Richard Stallman has ever done. If you're not familiar with it I'd suggest you read it and understand why using the GPL to protect your Free Software is so important.

Fireworks only exploded in the session on business models in the Internet age for entertainment industry products (music CD's mainly). This was even before the horrendous vandalism perpetrated by Sony on Windows users by propagating a rootkit as part of a digital rights management product on Sony CD's. Let's be clear, these people hate the Internet. If they had a single-use time machine they'd rather use it to go back in time and kill everyone responsible for creating TCP/IP than prevent the Second World War. The movie industry sees what has happened with CD's, looks at the gigabit bandwidth available in Japan and they know they're next. They will do anything to prevent it, pass any law, remove any civil right or fair use provision that gets in their way. I began to understood this when I had a discussion with a lawyer who was arguing that "we just need stiffer penalties, we need to make an example of people swapping files on the Internet". To which I responded, "why don't we just execute people who break the speed limit ?". Does anyone remember the slogan that used to be printed on vinyl records, "Home taping is illegal and is killing music" ?

When enough people decide that an activity is legal, in a democracy such a thing eventually becomes legal. Look at the way the drug laws have changed in Europe. It's a sign of how damaged American democracy has become that the same thing hasn't happened here. The Internet is a massive threat to some people, and if we don't fight to keep it, we deserve to lose it. I'll end with a "fair use" quote from one of my favorite 70's bands, Hawkwind which seems appropriate somehow, and append one line of my own :

Welcome to the land of "Nothing for free".