On pasta and music and copyright

I love food. I love cooking. I use the analogy of food to learn about information: in fact, I’ve nearly finished writing a book that looks in detail at information as if it were food. One of the foods I love is pasta. Glorious pasta.

[I’m attributing this to Red Giraffe, though I came across this elsewhere without any attribution.]

Nobody quite knows precisely where pasta comes from, where and when pasta began. The web is a rich resource for satisfying any curiosity you may have on the topic; suffice it to say that most of the stories involve thousands of years, a lot of dead people (usually Greeks, Romans and Chinese) and even the odd saint or two. Marco Polo doesn’t quite make the cut, but that doesn’t prevent the Chinese having a stake in the ground millenia earlier.

Some of the stories are more recent and more enjoyable (albeit slightly less credible) such as this one, harvested from the Alexandra Palace Television Service over fifty years ago:

Some of the stories may be hard to believe, but nevertheless people agree on a number of things:

  • Pasta has been around since the year dot.
  • Pasta is made by mixing ground kernels of grain, usually wheat,  with water or egg; while Italian pasta tends to be made of durum wheat and no other, other types of grain are in use elsewhere.
  • Pasta used to be made by hand (or more precisely, foot); since 1740 or so machines have also been used to make pasta.

[attributed with thanks to Donovan Govan]

Pasta comes in many shapes and sizes and forms; if you’re interested, read the wikipedia article. If you want to delve deeper, there is probably no better book than Oretta Zanini de Vita’s Encyclopaedia of Pasta.

[Attributed with thanks to FoodieSteve’s blog]

Pasta proclamations, even patents, have been around for a long time, perfidious and pusillanimous attempts to pervert people’s creativity. There have even been designers who’ve tried their hand at new forms of pasta:

Giorgio Giugiaro’s Marille pasta

Philippe Starck’s Mandala pasta

Think about pasta. Today, anyone can make pasta. Kafkaesque bureaucracies can make up rules about the nature of the grain used, the water used, the egg, whatever, but basically every human being has a right to decide what to make pasta out of. You can buy machines to make pasta. But you don’t have to. You can buy “readymade” pasta made by someone else, or even try and make similar pasta at home yourself. You can even go to the extreme, and buy not just the pasta but the love and labour that goes into making and serving a dish with pasta: you can go to a restaurant and pay a chef to do that for you, pay waiters to serve it to you.

Basically, you can do what you like with pasta, starting with the wheat and water and ending with the cooked meal. At each stage, you have the choice of whether you want to pay someone else to do something or not. Someone else can make the pasta for you. Sell you a machine to make pasta. Write a book and tell you how to make the pasta. Or the meal itself. Someone else can cook it for you, amateur or professional. There are a million ways people can participate in the design, making, cooking and eating of pasta, a million ways people can make money with pasta.

Wonderful, isn’t it? The freedom and creativity that has given us over 1300 types of pasta over centuries, shared and enjoyed by billions.

But you know something? It would take very little to screw all this up, to make a complete codswallop out of pasta. Imagine this scenario:

  • Step 1: Patented genetically modified durum wheat begins to displace “organic” wheats. Over time, all the durum wheat grown in the world is covered by patent. People continue to share recipes and cook and eat at home, and in restaurants.
  • Step 2: The GM wheat manufacturers do deals with pasta machine manufacturers (also patented, of course). You cannot use the machines except with official durum wheat. [This is called putting the DRM in durum, which then gets trademarked as DuRuM]. People continue to share recipes and cook and eat at home and in restaurants. Some people have the gall to build their own machines, some don’t even use machines; they knead the dough with their feet.
  • Step 3: The pasta and pasta machine manufacture and distribution industry does not like this, so, under the guise of public safety, lobbies and gets legislation passed that outlaws all wheat bar non-GM wheat, as happened for a while with mustard oil in India. While they’re at it, home manufacture of pasta is also banned. People continue to do what they’ve been doing for thousands of years, and the legislation isn’t taken seriously.
  • Step 4: The internet arrives, Moore’s Law continues to march, and the digitisation of the pasta world continues. 3D printing becomes reality. People don’t just share recipes with their friends and neighbours any more, they now use the internet to share recipes with people they don’t even know, people living all over the world. Even worse, people start making their own pasta machines even though this is “illegal”. RepRap pasta machine cells spring up everywhere.
  • Step 5: The pasta and pasta machine manufacture and distribution industry, which had been going so well since the middle of the 19th century, is distraught. They find all this modern technology so unfair, despite the irony that they themselves disrupted an entire industry as a result of technological advancement 150 years ago. So they lobby government for even more law, to declare sharing of recipes illegal, to declare 3D machines illegal, to declare the transport and distribution of such recipes and machines illegal. Up goes the cry, the pasta bandit must be stopped. Billions at stake, millions of jobs lost, all because of the pasta bandits.
  • Step 6: Government is so busy looking for WMD in Iraq, looking through their expense claims, looking for oil, looking for lucrative post-government book deals, speaking assignments and suchlike, that they don’t have time to worry about all this. Their noses may have been deep in the trough, but they know what to do every time they hear words like “bandit”. Bandits? We can’t have them. Thieving uncivilised louts, we need to put a stop to this forthwith.
  • Step 7: And so the pasta “bandit” is born. And over time, five thousand years of eating pasta comes to a halt.

Don’t worry, none of this could happen in a civilised country, we have nothing to fear. Especially in civilised countries like the UK, the USA and France.

Think about pasta. And think about music. Think about laws that require you to take down a home video of people singing Happy Birthday to You. Think about laws that require people’s internet connections to be cut off for alleged acts of music “piracy”, somehow seen as criminal theft while being at best, and that too only if proven sufficiently in a court of law, civil offences of copyright infringement. Think about laws that make it impossible to provide free wifi.

Think about the freedoms that are being traded. Yankee Doodle, as the song says “put a feather in his hat and called it Macaroni”.

Soon we won’t have the right to call anything Macaroni. Forget calling a feather macaroni, at the rate our freedoms are being traded we will soon not have the right to call macaroni macaroni. Not unless it was made out of GM durum wheat made using licensed machines on licensed premises, using officially endorsed recipes.

The Digital Economy Act is not about thieves or bandits. It’s about preserving 150-year-old business models that prevent human beings from enjoying 5000-year-old freedoms.

8 thoughts on “On pasta and music and copyright”

  1. Pasta = music? Maybe. But what about Parma Ham, Camembert de Normandie or Champagne, and all the other items protected by the EU's Protected Geographical Status protocal http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protected_Designat… What is being defended here? It's something to do with the historic, specific nature of these regions' culinary techniques, which they want to use as branding that can help them maintain a reputation for quality and consistency in global food markets. There is something about these situated, regionally-“authored” cultures of production that the European polity feels needs some kind of “content” protection. Perhaps the vision is to help sustain the economic regional diversity of a continent which could easily become homogenised by corporate agribusiness. But under this system, it's certainly the case that a regulatory body has the power to stop some dude in a curing house in Peckham calling his proscuittio “Parma Ham”.

    As a consumer, do I like the idea of Parma Ham being verifiably 'authored' in this way? Yes. Do I like the idea that a portion of my cash will go towards the preservation of a unique style of production? Yes again. To some degree I can go with the pasta-music analogy: no-one “owns” the Western musical scale, the grace-notes in a JB breakbeat, the melismatic potentials in gospel music – these are the basic recipes (others have their own) that help me to compose my own menu of songs in every album. To that extent, music-as-folk-tradition and 'fair usage' will always subtend any particular moment of composition – the 5000 years you're talking about.

    But if we can economically defend, say, a 1000-year old regional food tradition for its intrinsic quality, is there no conceivable economic defence for (to be personal about it) a musician whose quarter-century of composition and recording is unique – at least, in terms of his capital-R Romantic motivation to make it in the first place?

    I agree with everyone that the DEBill tramples over a general human right (access to the internet) in favour of a particular commercial interest (return on IP), and also threatens civil liberties in a direct and worrying way. But I think we should maintain some link between authorship and recompense in digital content, IF – and I accept that might be an 'if' – we want to live in a mixed economy. The EFF's Voluntary Collective Licensing proposal still stands up well for me http://www.eff.org/wp/better-way-forward-volunt… – and I note that Richard Stallman was recently reminded of his own 1992 “DAT Tax” in the Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/… – a similar combination of torrent licensing and surveying (which organisations like Big Champagne are effectively doing for P2P). If the originator of Free Software wants to find a way to “support the arts in the digital age without impeding sharing”, I'm with him.

    I don't know a musician who doesn't revel in Spotify as a constant source of inspiration, an 'omniversal pasta' of possibilities from the music archives of the 20th century. But I also don't know one (particularly independent rights-holders like me) who doesn't angst about the appalling rights deal that enabled it in the first place.

    As I say, all this is a concern if we want a mixed economy. But as it came up in my Dark Mountain discussion with Vinay and Dougald, it's possible that we are moving into a post-carbon, post-consumerist age, where sharing and participating in a 'digital folk culture' becomes our primary compensation for the end of buying trashable stuff, solid/discardable positional goods. That might be what we have to do to save the planet. But if so, we need transitional strategies to get us there: and surely one of those has to be a cultural-industries equivalent of the 'service-and-flow' model suggested by William Macdonough in Cradle to Cradle. We need 'hybrid' legislation in the same way as Lessig called for 'hybrid' enterprises in Remix.

    It feels like there should be a lot more collective discussion around the DEBill: let's see where we all are after the Election.

  2. This is all about the money.

    You don't see artists themselves exerting this kind of pressure on copyright in most cases – for nearly all artists, obscurity is the real problem, not piracy. The few who are losing substantial coin to piracy are generally too rich to personally care.

    But the music and film industries are basically investment banks which exist to manage billion dollar capital pools by _investing in artists_. And at that actuarial scale, with that much money to protect, putting political pressure on the system to stop losses make sense, and free speech etc. is just a place to which they can externalize costs. Mining companies dump the toxic byproducts of their business into the oceans. Copyright companies dump the toxic byproducts of their business into our civil rights and the internet's basic functions.

    But somebody has to keep investing in talent, or we're going to stop seeing some of the artforms we've become accustomed to. I think the trick here is to separate the *goal* – protect capital investment in creative works – from the *mechanism* – copyright. I think if we put our heads together, we could come up with a new instrument – part copyright, part patent – which protected capital investment in creation without restricting the creative rights of others. The trick is to separate the *protection of capital* from the *control of ideas*.

    This is not an easy challenge, but it's within the domain of operations that gave us things like the GPL or Wikipedia – smart people could figure this out and create a new legal instrument which solves the problem for all parties, enabling creation.

    I've already had to face a lot of the problems of protecting creative work with the Hexayurt Project. I couldn't form a legally protected commons because patents were just too expensive, and copyright doesn't cover equipment. So we're literally running unprotected hoping that we've defensively published enough that we're not going to get the hell patented out of us when the project seriously begins to make an impact. This area is going to be the bane of open hardware / 3D printing – ringfencing community creativity with patents because big companies have access to the machinery of the patent system for each little thing they dream up, and individual innovators don't. Patents cannot steal what has already been put into the public domain, but they can steal the future development of that work very easily.

    We need deep rethinking, and systemic overhaul – “the price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative” – we need to make concrete proposals which we think will work better than the existing systems, and then we need to get buy-in from people who are creating value. There is an alternative to a “printcrime” future, but we have to create it!

  3. There are other business models for the exchange of intellectual work, other revenue mechanisms that enable a musician's thousand fans to offer money in exchange for the release of a new music recording, e.g. 1,000x$10=$10,000. Unfortunately, no-one wishes to fund these new mechanisms (such as I've been working on, like http://contingencymarket.com ), because too many people still believe there's life left in the 18th century privilege of copyright (a monopoly in copies granted to the Stationers' Guild).

    Until people give up the idea they can sell copies that cost nothing to make by prohibiting anyone else from making them, the enforcement legislation as directed by ACTA will get ever more draconian.

    I can tell you how to sell your intellectual work to a large number of people for a lot of money, but I can't tell you how to sell copies of it, given people can produce copies themselves for nothing (irrespective of any compunction about infringing a copyright holder's 18th century monopoly).

    The other thing I can't explain is why lobbying for ever more draconian legislation to prohibit unauthorised copies is so much more attractive to wealthy publishing corporations than investing a fraction of the effort in developing facilities to exchange intellectual work.

    If intellectual work is expensive and valuable, why are so few working on how to sell that, instead of copies of it, that (as we all know) we can make millions of for nothing? It appears that manufacturers of copies only know how to make, distribute, and retail copies. They certainly know how to buy intellectual work, but they haven't got a clue how to sell it.

  4. Thanks for your comments. Three strands of argument stand out. One, the current system is broken, and incumbents are loath to invest in fixing it. They’d rather try and sustain the broken model. Two, there is value in encouraging and enhancing local culture and tradition, and this will need some sort of protection against “passing off”, more trade mark than copyright. And three, in the end it appears to be about money.

    I think there’s a lot of overlap between what I’ve been writing about re #DEAct and what is covered in The Power of Pull. More of this later.

  5. The people who have the money aren't interested in changing copyright law because thats what protects them.

    Look at Disney trying to get a grip on Mickey Mouse every X number of years when the original copyright should have died years ago. It's embarassing to anybody who follows the situation.

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