The Digital Economy Bill: The Power of Not Being Elected

Gordon Brown, the UK PM, will be calling for a general election very soon; he may even become the first to make that call in the Commons.

This is happening at a time when trust in the parliamentary process is low, perhaps even at an all-time low; my perspective is clouded by reports about expenses and second homes and cash-for-questions, cash-for-honours, cash-for-lobbying, cash-to-protect-oil, cash-for-something-or-the-other.

Against this backdrop, it would seem prudent to surmise that one of the issues this election is likely to be fought on is that of trust.

Trust. I’ve always seen trust in the way I see beards. It takes a long time to grow a decent beard. And minutes to lose the beard. So it is with trust.

Which is why I find the behaviour of our elected officials bizarre in the extreme when it comes to the treatment and passage of the Digital Economy Bill. If you want to know more, read Cory Doctorow here.

Did I say “elected officials”?

My mistake. I shouldn’t have said “elected officials”. Because when it comes down to it, many of the players in the Digital Economy Bill are anything but elected officials. Let’s take a look at who’s pushing the Bill and some of the key people involved in the debate.

Lord Mandelson. Unelected. Appointed. Powerful friend of  the Powerful. Friends include Lucian Grainge (Universal) and David Geffen (Asylum, Warner, Dreamworks SKG). Lord Birt. Unelected. Appointed. On the Supervisory Board of EMI. Lord Triesman. Unelected. Appointed. Chairman of the FA.  Lord Clement Jones. Unelected. Appointed. On the board of a company that makes its money on intellectual property law, and publicly showing himself to be of the opinion that civil breaches are similar to criminal offences.

A bunch of unelected officials. With clear ties to vested interests in music, film and intellectual property rights.

I’m used to bias. We all have bias. I think it was Einstein who said that common sense is the collection of prejudices we build by the time we’re eighteen. We all have masks and anchors that frame what we think and say.

But this is not about bias alone. Because, besides being unelected officials, we need to look at the way the Bill is being bums-rushed through Parliament. With no time for a proper debate. With a complete disregard for all the debate that has taken place earlier, proper or not.

Major amendments being put through in the days before Easter, in the days before the calling of a general election. Major amendments that would give presidential powers to ministers with scant regard for law or for human rights. Major amendments that would not stand the close scrutiny and heated debate that would normally take place. Major amendments being relegated to the horse-trading of wash-up, at a time when many of our elected officials are too busy thinking of a precious break away from it all, at a time when many of our elected officials are preparing to fight to be re-elected.

So we have unelected officials. With clear and present bias. Driving a process that is as far removed from trust as it is from democracy. Hoping people won’t notice.

People are noticing. And people will notice. There are many people who will make sure that people will notice.

The Digital Economy Bill now represents a wonderful opportunity for would-be next-Parliament MPs. Show us why we should trust you. Show us that you will stand in the gap and uphold democratic rights and due process. And think before you alienate a good slice of your electorate.

I guess dinosaurs have to be allowed their ritual dances as they exit the evolutionary stage. And this Bill, flawed as it is, may still become law. Because of clever timing, apathy. And the Power Of Not Being Elected.

But there will be consequences. You cannot tax salt.

Thinking about monkeys and engineers and copyright

I just love this. First, take a folk song popular in the 1960s, written by someone born in 1896.

Once upon a time a engineer had a monkey and everywhere he go why he’d take the little monkey along and so the monkey would watch everything the engineer would do so one day the engineer had to go get him something to eat and so the monkey got tired of waiting so he thought he’d try out the throttle and down the road he went.

Once upon a time there was an engineer
Drove a locomotive both far and near
Accompanied by a monkey that sit on the stool
Watchin’ everything that the engineer move

One day the engineer wanted a bite to eat
He left the monkey settin’ on the driver’s seat
The monkey pulled the throttle, locomotive jumped the gun
And made ninety miles an hour on the main line run

Well the big locomotive just in time
The big locomotive comin’ down the line
Big locomotive number ninety nine
Left the engineer with a worried mind

Engineer begin to call the dispatcher on the phone
Tell him all about how is locomotive was gone
Get on the wire, the dispatcher to write
Cause the monkey’s got the main line sewed up tight

Switch operator got the message in time
There’s a north bound limited on the same main line
Open the switch, gonna let him in the hole
Cause the monkey’s got the locomotive under control

Well the big locomotive right on time
Big locomotive comin’ down the line
Big locomotive number ninety nine
Left the engineer with a worried mind
Left the engineer with a worried mind

It’s not just any old folk song, it’s a Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller song. [Do read about him, he’s a fascinating character].

Then, take that song and make it even more popular: make sure that the Grateful Dead play it regularly. In fact make sure they play it 31 times. For good measure, make sure that Bob Dylan also plays on it with them.

My thanks to for the wonderful photograph of Jerry above.

To make it a little more interesting, make sure someone, David Opie, writes an award-winning book about the song.

So now you have the song. The lyrics. The book. Some dead people. And some Dead people. And some alive people.  Make sure someone makes a video about the song/book/whatever it is by now. In fact go one better, make the video using Lego pieces.

Then get your children to draw what they see.

Song. Book. Video. A bit of Lego thrown in. More people involved than you can shake a stick at.

I think the Copyright Police should try and work stuff like this out every day. Because they’re going to have to.

Thinking about food and music and climate change

I think about food. A lot. In fact I’m perennially hungry, have been that way ever since I can remember. So it should come as no surprise that every now and then, I try and view things from the perspective of food.

Take music for example. Recorded music. Music that has been bottled or canned or preserved.


The ability to preserve music in this form is fairly recent in human history. And without this ability, the whole argument about downloads and ripping and  format transformation rights and I don’t know what else falls by the wayside.

So when I look at this diagram, and read this report, I begin to wonder. Incidentally, there’s a worthwhile series of posts on the subject here and here, dealing, for example, with the winner-takes-all bias in some of this.


I know how I feel about preserved food. About preservatives in food. About additives and e-numbers and what-have-you. I know how I insist on using fresh herbs and spices when I cook, even though it takes longer and it’s more expensive.  I know how I dislike frozen food, how much I dislike frozen food. I will not knowingly eat something that has been microwaved if I can avoid it. These things I know.

There was a time when there was no such thing as frozen food. In the history of food the ability to freeze food and reheat later is fairly recent.

There is a cost to freezing and transporting and heating frozen food. That cost will soon become more apparent to people, as awareness of carbon footprint in the food transportation and processing business grows. And more people will start eating local produce again.

And maybe we’re going to see something similar about music and film and sport. If this whole DRM and downloads and intellectual property rights debate continues to get out of hand, criminalising entire generations and seeking to corrupt and destroy the value of the internet, then we’re going to see a revolution.

We will see a renaissance of live music, of live performances, of live sport. Local teams supported. Local farmers supported. Local playwrights and poets and authors supported.

We will see a renaissance of travelling bands, of authors and poets on roadshows reading their own works.

We will see a renaissance of people paying to see artists perform, rather than paying for the right to perhaps maybe one day hear something recorded, canned and preserved, something they have to climb DRM Everest to hear, and even then it may not be possible.

DRMers and dreamers. Which one are you?

The customer is the scarcity

Every economic era is characterised by certain abundances and by certain scarcities; these change over time; yesterday’s abundances become today’s scarcities and vice versa. When I was a young child in India, cotton was plentiful and polyester scarce. People valued the scarce thing over the abundant thing: so the rich wore Terylene shirts and the poor wore cotton. Even though the Terylene shirts were overpriced uncomfortable non-absorbent non-breathable stick-to-your-back sweat producers.

Most of the time, the abundances and scarcities are natural, caused by explicable imbalances between supply and demand. So cotton was cheap in India and expensive in the UK, while polyester was cheap in the UK and expensive in India.

Sometimes the imbalances are artificial: monopolies and cartels and market power abuse and price-fixing and market-cornering are examples of such artificial imbalances. Most of these have been seen for what they are, and consequently declared illegal in most countries.

Not all artificial scarcities have been termed illegal as yet: the most glaring example is that of “intellectual property rights”, where something is made artificially scarce using the power of the state; no other rights depend exclusively on state intervention. Strange, that.


The digital age has given rise to more and more artificial ways of creating and assuring scarcity. Computer ports are a classic example: when all the ports were hardware ports, scarcity was easy to understand. When the ports in question were software ports, the concept of scarcity was less easy to establish.

Analogue things are usually scarcer than digital things, since the cost of digital reproduction and transmission is extremely low. As Kevin Kelly said, the internet is one great copy machine. [if you’re a fan of KK, do take a look at some of his other essays in related areas: Better Than Owning is well worth a read, for example.

Two other Kevin Kelly essays stand out in this context: People Want to Pay and Why People Pirate Stuff. I quote from the Pirate essay:

[Game developer Cliff Harris asked the online world “Why do people pirate my games? And in the answers, …] He found patterns in the replies that surprised him. Chief among them was the common feeling that his games (and games in general) were overpriced for what buyers got — even at $20. Secondly, anything that made purchasing and starting to play difficult — like copy protection, DRM, two-step online purchasing routines — anything at all standing between the impulse to play and playing in the game itself was seen as a legitimate signal to take the free route. Harris also noted that ideological reasons (rants against capitalism, intellectual property, the man, or wanting to be outlaw) were a decided minority.

Similarly, one of the key points made in the Want to Pay essay is this:

People buy stuff, but what we all crave are relationships. Payment is an elemental type of relationship. Very primitive, but real.

There are some caveats in this urge to pay.

Paying has to be super easy, idiot-proof and frictionless. There can’t be hurdles. The easier it is to pay, the more eager people are to pay.

The price has to be reasonable. That means it has to be reasonable in relation to similar stuff that is free!

The benefits of paying have to be evident and transparent. This takes creativity to produce and work to convey simply. Unless the benefits of paying are obvious, paying is made difficult.

Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. Port vulnerabilities will be exploited, as Microsoft users have found out to their cost. DVD players will be “chipped” to overcome the insanity of region coding on DVDs (which, by the way, is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen done). Music and film and book DRM will be hacked, as Jon Lech Johansen showed elegantly.

When I was a child, “English” films (which included those of both US as well as UK origin) tended to come out a year to eighteen months after release abroad. Not surprising in an analogue world, with very high production and distribution costs and a scarcity of copies as a result. Today, when there is an artificial gap between US and Indian or Chinese release, the artificial abundance kicks in. Piracy.

Protecting artificial scarcity is an expensive proposition, and ultimately a losing proposition. More and more people will volunteer time to help correct artificial scarcity, because they see it as path pollution, the desecration of core values by profane behaviour.

People see DRM as something that is an irritant, a pollutant, a time waster. They want to pay, but not at the price of artificially imposed inconvenience. There is also a key trust issue here: similar to the issues related to identity, privacy and confidentiality, there is a pervasive belief that those who use DRM will act more and more unreasonably.

Take Amazon. I like much of what the company does and stands for. The recent incident with Amazon and 1984 may not dent the company’s reputation overall, but many people will not buy a Kindle as a result. And I am one of them. Remotely-managed deletion of electronic copies of 1984 from people’s Kindles, copies that were legitimately paid for, is a monstrous thing to do. Incidents like “1984” will spur the pushback against DRM even more.

This post is not about the 1984 incident; although we will see consequences, the incident will pass. This post is about something far more important.


[My thanks to Bergen Moore for the photo above.]

This post is about the customer. Customers are creative people who transform scarcities and abundances in strange and beautiful ways. If two-wheelers are abundant and four-wheelers are scarce, then a way will be found to make a two-wheeler behave like a four-wheeler.

As Dan Bricklin pointed out wonderfully in his book Bricklin on Technology, we must always remember that the role of the technologist is to build tools for people to use, not to constrain them from doing things. [incidentally, Dan’s partner-in-crime during the VisiCalc days, Bob Frankston, is an excellent source of learning as well. I have had the joy of listening to him on many occasions, count both him and Dan as personal friends. If you get the chance, do read Bob on Zero Marginal Cost and on Assuring Scarcity.

People are incredibly creative. If you plan for ten uses of a tool while designing it, you can rest assured that they will find an eleventh use. Take cooking as an example. And the concept of recipes.

Recipes are tools for the transfer of cultural enjoyment. They show some classic opensource behaviours, to the extent that NEA applies. For most recipes you can say: Nobody owns them. Everyone can use them. Anyone can improve them.

I love cooking. I speak to chefs regularly in order to find out how to make what they made. Sometimes they have cookbooks, and sometimes I buy the cookbooks. Why? Because it is convenient, and I am happy to pay for that convenience, for that service. Content is a service business, as Andrew Savikas points out eloquently. Sometimes I get the book signed by the author, triggering some of Kevin Kelly’s Better Than Free generatives, especially those of authenticity and embodiment and patronage.

But what happens after I get the recipe verbally, or after I buy the book? I’ll tell you what happens. I do it my way.

I change things. I experiment with the ratios and quantities in the recipe; add ingredients, drop ingredients. Change the way it’s meant to be cooked. Pass on my learning, the comments of my guests. And learn from others as they do the same thing.

Can you imagine being told that you can’t share recipes with others? That you can’t change ingredients or quantities? That you can’t enrich, augment, mutate the ideas involved? In many ways that is what DRM and IPR is designed to do, prevent us from being creative. [Pharma and IPR is a whole separate subject, yet essentially related. I will cover that in a post on some other day].

Customers want to be creative, to experiment with things, to change things, to share what they learn, to learn by sharing.

We are fast approaching an age when many analogue things will become virtual, digital, easily copied.

We can choose to invest time and effort in making digital things harder to copy: we can choose to create artificial scarcity, and lose.

Or we can choose to invest time and effort in making digital things easier to consume, to share, to enrich. And to pay for.

The customer is willing to pay. If we get the consumption model, the paying model, the sharing model, right.

The customer is the scarcity. Let’s focus on valuing that scarcity, on giving the customer what she wants when, where and how she wants it. With the right consumption and payment and sharing models.


Sitting comfortably? Take a look at this excerpt from what appears to be a manual written maybe sixty years ago:

Do you identify with any of it? Recognise those behaviours from anywhere?

Stay seated. Now take a look at the cover page of the manual in question:

Yup. Simple sabotage, as practised and trained for by the OSS. Yes, folks, many large enterprises have been OSSified. Of course it’s not happening in your organisation, or in mine. Of course you don’t recognise any of those behaviours. Of course the shoe’s on the other foot.

And of course that shoe’s made of wood.

My thanks to Sean for pointing this out, for transporting me to Euan’s post before I’d got to it in my feed reader. [And thanks as well to Michael Walsh for sending the link to Euan in the first place.]

I’ve taken a long hard look at the manual in question. Looks genuine. Take a look for yourself, Euan links to it. If it does turn out to be a forgery, in these days of Photoshop, at least it’s a good one.