Friday, July 2, 2010

Traditional definitions in the copyright debate.

On social issues I consider myself a pretty liberal parson, and am OK with people being whoever they want to be. My limits come when those activities harm others: your right to swing your cane ends at my nose, and all that.

After being told I represented the "copyleft" so often by folks associated with Access Copyright, I decided to do some thinking (and writing) on that. Far from being a redefinition of an existing term, it is a new term that turns out to be useful for understanding some of the conflicts between creators in the copyright debate.

One thing I get frustrated with, however, is when people abuse language by redefining terms to fit their temporary purposes. There are terms that are very heavily loaded that should be used in their dictionary meaning, or not at all. One of those terms that is all too loosely abused is calling people anti-Semitic, often levelled at people who think the country of Israel should be treated as and critiqued like any other, and who ignore the non-secular nature of that country.

During the G20 protests I ended up hearing another abuse, but not from someone associated with those protests. John Degen discovered after many months he had been barred from the Fair Copyright for Canada (York Region Chapter) by the administrator for that forum, Independent Journalist Jason Koblovsky.

To try to rally the troops for those who support his particular political philosophy (See the "copy left" discussion and you'll see John represents a conservative creators' rights philosophy), John started to make up a fiction that he had been censored.

I'm getting used to disagreeing with John on policy, and we each seem to believe that the policies that the other one is promoting is harmful to the interests of professional creators. I could not, however, abide by his abuse of the term "censorship" to refer to the manager of a forum not allowing him to participate in that managers forum. While free speech demands that people have a right to say what they want to say, within some limits (such as defamation/etc), there is no right to say this wherever you want. The managers of discussions forums are within their right to manage membership in their forums any way they want, and they don't need to have a reason at all to disallow anyone from participating. In this case the manager even offered to let John back in if he wanted, with the request that John behave.

So, rather than behaving, John posts a few articles to his BLOG and tries to draw attention to government officials of his non-censorship.

Frist, he posts how fair is Fair? how balanced is Balanced?.

In this rant he includes some things I have said about him: "a non-techie who doesn’t understand software, a copyright maximalist," ... ", a “creator of the past,”"

These are of course taken out of context, and if put into context it would be hard for John to disagree.

The first is an observation: that while many of us in the debate have decades of technical experience, including as software authors, John is not one of them. That is not an insult, and in this observation he is in the majority of citizens who are not technical people who have spent the time to understand cryptography and other such technologies. Most people who don't understand something will find trusted experts to rely on. While I am clearly not trusted by John, I am an experienced professional in this area.

The second is also an observation, not an insult. I have heard John say many things over the years that essentially amount to: some copyright is good, so more must be better. Making copyright "stronger", meaning tilted more in favour of existing copyright holders, does not automatically help creators. Those who believe that stronger copyright is better copyright are quite accurately called "copyright maximalists". I'll let John decide if he wants to respond and say that he doesn't agree that "stronger copyright is better copyright", given this is the essence of the policies he has promoted over the years I have known him.

The third comment is in the context of Lawrence Lessig's s presentation from 2002 where he said:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

If one looks at the policies that John promotes, it is clear that he's more focused on policies that would benefit existing copyright holders rather than those that would most benefit new copyright holders building on that past creativity. This is tied to the "copyright maximalist" observation, given more copyright favours existing copyright, while more creator-focused limitations and exceptions (fair dealings for follow-on creators) benefit the next generation of creators.

But, he wants to try to turn these observations of the different viewpoints in this political debate into insults: anyone who disagrees with his political philosophy are doing so not because they want to protect the rights of creators, but because they want to insult John.

As he tries to attack the credibility of Fair Copyright for Canada which includes a near full spectrum of creators and non-creators interests in copyright, he is also trying to promote the Balanced Copyright for Canada group that only represents a narrow potion of the conservative side of the copyright debate. (Please read Is there a copy left vs copy right?. I don't mean conservative in the same way as the Conservative party, or social conservative, or fiscal conservative. Conservatism in the copyright debate is a different thing).

So, we have one group that is bottom-up organised and includes the centrists and the left of the political debate, and another group that is top-down organised primarily by the incumbent record labels that represent the remaining minority political philosophy in copyright. And John, who seems to have self-identified himself with that far-right conservative copyright philosophy was removed from a forum because the manager thought he was part of a smear campaign against that larger set of constituencies (and Michael Geist in particular).

In the article John says, "Consumer advocate and occasional law professor, Michael Geist".

Mr Geist is a law professor who has a centrist creators' rights philosophy. He has gone out of his way to expand his educational roll beyond the classroom and into the general public, trying to educate people about current law and interpretations of proposed laws. He has been a great ally for creators in this debate.

While some adherents to conservative copyright views have rejected him as helping creators, I suspect a majority of fellow creators would disagree with that assessment. In fact, I consider John's usage of that language in his blog to be part of the smear campaign that John often claims he is not participating in.

Why was I not surprised that someone had barred John, or that people were concerned with his motives, given the language he uses to describe people who have different ideas than him on how to protect creators' rights?

The beginning started quite typical for our conversations recently: an accusation by John against others (sometimes Geist, sometimes myself, sometimes someone else entirely), and then my snide remark back. In this case it was Fair Copyright for Canada being attacked, a group that I support even if I'm not an active member (I'm not a big Facebook person, and rarely log on).

John: how fair is Fair Copyright? I've been kicked out of a populist copyright discussion group for defending artists 3:46 PM Jun 24th via web.

Me: @jkdegen We will continue to disagree that the policies you are promoting are a defence of the interests of artists.

John: @russellmcormond thanks for your support for my freedom of expression - sheesh

Me: @jkdegen Stating publicly that I disagree with your policies and your smere campaign against Geist doesn't harm your freedoms.

Things turned worse when John tried to claim that his being removed from a chapter forum was somehow censorship. He went further to use @mentions to cabinet ministers Moore and Clement about this fake censorship. Clearly ministers of the government had better things to do that weekend then be distracted by false accusations of censorship, especially since this was during the G8/G20 meetings.

There is no "blame the victim", as John was not a victim of anything. There was no censorship, and John is a very aggressive promoter of his political philosophy who can't claim he is a victim when people respond to his public comments and disagree with his political philosophy.

His interactions with creators' rights activists who have different political philosophies have been dismissive, largely suggesting that his political philosophy helps creators while everyone else is wrong. I've observed him many times partake in the "he who shall not be named" smear campaign against Michael Geist, along with fellow conservative creators.

When someone accused him of being unfriendly towards Fair Copyright for Canada participants, and being part of a smear campaign against Michael Geist, I didn't need to join yet another forum and read new examples of these themes . I had already seen them at Copycamp and other discussion forums for a few years now.

So, John aggressively promotes a political philosophy that creators in Fair Copyright for Canada disagree with, and then he feels he is a victim when people don't just let his views stand idly without comment.


When the above discussed rant didn't go as planned, John then added attack of the tweets - "Fairness" strikes back. I'm not sure what John's intent is here, but I feel the right to respond given he copied some of my tweets into the article.

@jkdegen I am blaming you for belittling the concept of #censorship by abusing the word! @FreeTheInternet @TonyClement_MP @mpjamesmoore

@jkdegen @jkoblovsky @TonyClement_MP @mpjamesmoore And even then you can't tell #censorship from a manager/proprietor asking you to leave?

@jkdegen As you continue to misuse the word #censorship , you only help clarify why you were removed from that forum by its Creator/manager.

Anyone with a dictionary (to look up the word "censorship") and the time to look at the times on the tweet streams will not agree with John's version of events in his blog article. After being as aggressive as he has been, he is now trying to get sympathy. I can only believe it is aimed at fellow conservatives, and is under the hope that they are true conservatives that won't look up the entire discussion and find out what other creators are saying.

I've been asked in private more than once why I still participate in conversations with John given we have so much we disagree with. I believe I learn more by communicating with people I disagree with than those I agree with. I don't want to be stuck in a bubble. Unlike other conservatives in the copyright debate who just like to broadcast their views one-way, John is quite willing to engage in pubic conversation. I have learned from and through him quite a bit about why I believe the things that I do. It is just unfortunate that I often learn what I believe will help Canadian creators by realising that I am disagreeing with John.

My having these conversations in public is also potentially helpful for other creators who hadn't yet thought about what type of political philosophy they subscribe to. They want policies that help creators, and may not have realised that there is not "one true way" to do this. They may also realise that some of the people who conservative creators claim are anti-copyright, "babyish" or "extremists" are in fact centrist or liberal creators' rights advocates who may better represent their views.

Side-note: An irony for those who read this blog. John Degen has been reading and posting quotes from Jaron Lanier's book: You are not a Gadget. Why am I not surprised John and Jaron share ideas? *smile*


Anonymous said...

I personally find this whole situation quite comical, and that some creator groups are so dispirit to bring attention to their positions and claim censorship from being booted from a facebook group. It's a facebook group for crying out loud, get over it!

If creative groups feel banning someone from a facebook group is censorship than I would very much like to see these groups take facebook to court on this issue to amend their policies on group administration. I would be very surprised if a judge in our court system would actually hear a case like this since it's so full of BS.

John has been in no way "censored" from the issues presented as the term defines, I think the courts would agree with this. John has a blog, and has actively posted a link to his blog over the past 2 years in FCFC-YR. It is in my belief that most of the members in FCFC-YR are also members of the Nation Chapter in which John has been active in, and still has the ability to post. John also has the respect of local media to share his views, in which has more readership in his region than he would get at FCFC-YR. The courts would see this, and it would be lucky to even be heard imo.

This is yet another failed public relations and smear campaign on the part of those who are using PR to push for stricter reforms that attack the public voice, rather than respect it.

If they were smart, than they should be working on their public image, and get behind something the public would actually support rather than consistently putting consumers information, the consumer voice, and financial security of the public at large at risk because of an extreme socialist view on copyright in which our main socialist party won't even support.

I can understand how some might feel their voices are not being heard because of the lack of support on their positions. I think that's a matter more of image these groups have within the public, and claiming censorship on an admin decision in a facebook group and trying to spin it as such, goes to the credibility and image of this group and just how weak their positions have become in the public's view and that with respect to law makers.

Anonymous said...

It's also important to note that as a facebook member, John is fully able to start his own group and administer it himself. To my knowledge this hasn't been done by John.

Now back to my day off ;)

Anonymous said...


I don't agree with the political terminology you've used here. I think the terminologies used are based on Gaylor's film, and he used it to basically describe the 2 sides to copyright.

The correct political ideology:

Conservative -> Non market interference or very little. markets will regulate themselves. The extreme side of this would be no copyright.

Socialist -> Total Market interference, believes in heavy regulation and sanctions. Determines what consumers buy and do with their products within law. The extreme here would be the 3 strikes law, consumer penalties, and DRM as currently written.

Liberal -> Balanced, between both conservative and socialist policies. Regulation needed, but to ensure a fair and balanced approach to the market usually based on independent information to avoid market tipping or interference.

Either way you are still liberal in my view. Most are.

Russell McOrmond said...

@Jason K

There are different responses to your last comment.

One is to note that I was trying to make sense out of language that was already being used by a different group of people. There are numerous people associated with Access Copyright, a collective for various types of written works, (and the Creators Copyright Coalition, and the Creators Rights Alliance -- although these groups are very linked) that have been using the terms "copy right" and "copy left" to refer to two different political philosophies in copyright. If you look at the policies that the people who self-identify with the "copy right" are proposing, they are all about preserving existing institutions -- and the further 'right' you go, the more they believe that these institutions should be preserved at all costs.

Those that this "copy right" group refer to as the "copy left" are people like myself, Cory Doctorow and others who propose policies which are institutional neutral, and which enable a full spectrum of methods of production, distribution and funding. It's not that we reject all existing institutions, we just don't consider them all that important (or sometimes helpful, as in the case of the recording industry) when it comes to protecting the interests of actual creators.

That's one way to look at that article: It was all about me trying to make sense of the labels that John Degen, Susan Crean and other gave to me in a way that was informative rather than derogatory.

The other is to repeat the observation that in order to make sense of politics you need to realise that there are multiple axes of liberalism and conservatism. I identified axes of social policy, economic policy, and ecological policy. It is possible for someone to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal, and we used to call them Progressive Conservatives (or more narrowly, Red Tories). We have also seen people who could be labelled as fiscally liberal and socially conservative, with examples of people in the NDP who were kicked out for defying the party whip on specific social policies.

I'm suggesting Copyright is one of those policies that can't be mapped directly onto economic policy like you did. You took a legal definition of copyright as a government created monopoly -- a clear example of state intervention in the marketplace -- and looked at the left-vs-right of that.

First, this would put John on the left of me, something that is not compatible with how John is using the term. That would mean it isn't a useful axis to understand how John is using the word.

Second, it doesn't explain how it tends to be more conservative countries and governments that push for stronger enforcement of so-called "Intellectual Property". True, this is partly because of confusion around the use of the term "property" rather than "government granted monopoly that can be bought/sold". But to ignore this is to use language that isn't helpful in understanding peoples behaviour/etc.

Hope this helps/etc. Great discussion. And far better on blogs than on Twitter....

Russell McOrmond said...

Wow. Google having odd problems tonight. I posted the comment. Then Google told me it was too big, so I split it in two. Then I saw 4 comments: the correct one, a previous edit, and the two split ones.