The Digital Economy Bill: Thinking about Banana Ice Cream

My thanks to Victoria Bernal for Larry’s Ice Cream,, itself a riff on Picasso’s Guernica.

Imagine there was a little tinpot dictatorship somewhere. Let’s call it a Banana Ice-Cream Republic. You know the kind I mean. Colourful stamps, country and capital going through ritual name-change on a regular basis, no rule of law, no civil liberties, a bunch of officials wandering around with grand titles and grander uniforms, with “President-For-Life” just the table stakes, and Grand Panjandrums 2-a-penny (not to mention Chief Scientists!).

Imagine you lived there.

Imagine you lived in a town where a lot of people ate banana ice-cream. Imagine that this ice-cream was available a number of ways: you could go to the shop and buy the ice-cream; you could go to a restaurant and order some; you could send off for ice-cream via phone or mail or suchlike; you could even make some yourself, or, if you’re very lucky, have others make the ice cream for you.

Imagine some people stood in front of the shops and restaurants asking you to try their wares, and they gave the ice cream away for free. So that you would be tempted to come in and spend a lot more money on a lot more things.

Imagine you could also buy ice cream from vans that passed by your house. [Have you ever bought ice cream from a passing van? I have. Many times. And I hope to do so again, many times.]

Now imagine that some people held up the vans and stole the ice cream and gave it away for free to everyone. This would be wrong, wouldn’t it? Of course. No one would argue that stealing is right. Even in a country without rule of law, this is usually understood.

So let’s imagine a little more. Imagine that some of the ice cream distributors got upset about all this stealing, and started trying to convince the local council that Something Has to Be Done About It. [An important point to remember; the distributors were the ones getting upset, because they were the ones making the money, not the guys who created the delicacies]. Imagine that some of the ice cream distributor big cheeses got together with some of the local council big cheeses, and they went for a boat ride on the town lake. And imagine that when they all came back, the councillor announced, completely coincidentally, that he was going to introduce a law to Stop This Stealing.

Imagine he came up with such a law. Imagine a law that went like this:

1. All people living in houses in any area where ice cream stealing was even suspected would be banned from using the roads. Any roads. No proof was needed.

2. All people living in houses in any area capable of storing stolen ice cream would also be banned from using the roads. Any roads. No proof needed. The house itself would be cordoned off.

3. If people were suspected of having bought the ice cream and then having used it to make an ice cream based dessert, this would also qualify for a ban on road use. No proof needed.

4. The people looking after the roads had to make sure that anyone in any house suspected of stealing ice cream, or harbouring stolen ice cream, were prevented from using the roads. Again, no proof needed. Failure to do this would mean the road-looker-afterers would also be fined.

5. If asked, the people looking after the roads would also have to report on the movements of the people who lived in the houses. Which roads they used. When. To do what.

6. Anyone providing maps or similar tools that could be used to find houses that may be suspected of harbouring people who steal ice cream, or of storing stolen ice cream,  would also be prevented from making those maps available to anyone. Again without proof.

7. Axe murderers were to be allowed to use the roads. Child molesters were also to be allowed to use the roads. The only people banned were those suspected of stealing ice cream or handling stolen ice cream.

8. The councillors had the president-for-life power to amend and extend this Ice Cream Law at will.

If it happened where you live, that would be horrible, wouldn’t it? People use roads for so much more than banana ice cream. There are so many ways to get banana ice cream. Some people even give it away for free, they make their money selling the spoons and cups and napkins. Some banana ice cream makers have lost faith with the distributors; so they now make and sell the ice cream themselves, telling passers-by to pay whatever they like, only if they like it. And people pay.

People use the roads to learn and to teach. People use the roads to take children to school. People use the roads to take the elderly to hospital. People use the roads to go shopping. The town is an open town, many people use the roads just to get from A to B. People use the roads to keep the town clean, to make sure that everyone gets what they need. Some people even use the roads to walk to council meetings.

In fact people use the roads for many many things besides banana ice cream.

Which is why the change in the law made so many of the townspeople very angry. They didn’t believe that banana ice cream stealing was going on at the levels that are claimed. They didn’t believe that the banana ice cream industry was losing as much revenue to stealing as the industry claimed. They didn’t believe that ice cream vans had much of a future, they thought that there are better ways to make and deliver ice cream. Some of them didn’t think that ice cream distribution was all that important anyway.

Aren’t you glad you don’t live in a Banana Ice Cream Republic?

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

WH Auden, The Unknown Citizen.

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.

The Digital Economy Bill: A taxation on salt

Regular readers will know how I feel about these things: if you don’t know, then please read The Kernel For This Blog and About This Blog, it will give you some idea of where I’m coming from.

For many years now, I’ve been putting forward the notion that artificial scarcity is something to be abhorred, and that every artificial scarcity will be met, at the very least, by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. In fact, a search of the term “artificial scarcity” in my own blog yielded over 20 hits. The Customer Is The Scarcity. We would do well to remember that.

The internet is a wondrous thing, God wot. It can be used to make scarce things abundant, as Kevin Kelly posits in Better Than Free. It can also be used to make abundant things scarce, as Rupert Murdoch would like us to believe.

People have tried to make abundant things scarce since time immemorial; all they need is to be able to control the factors of production and the supply chain. That’s all. So people have tried to hoard things, to corner markets, to create cartels, to act in concert. Thankfully, society hasn’t always allowed them to do so. Many of these things are seen as abuse of market power and are considered illegal in many places and at many times. Nevertheless, it hasn’t stopped people trying.

And sometimes they succeed. Because they’ve been able to control how something is made, how it is priced, how it is distributed. They’ve been able to control supply.

When you don’t control the supply, your ability to sustain artificial scarcity weakens somewhat. If you think about it, that’s what the Dandi Salt March was symptomatically about, although its symbolical value went much further. I quote from Wikipedia:

The Congress Working Committee gave Gandhi the responsibility for organizing the first act of civil disobedience, with Congress itself ready to take charge after Gandhi’s expected arrest.[12] Gandhi’s plan was to begin civil disobedience with a satyagraha aimed at the British salt tax. The 1882 Salt Act gave the British a monopoly on the collection and manufacture of salt, limiting its handling to government salt depots and levying a salt tax.[13] Violation of the Salt Act was a criminal offense. Even though salt was freely available to those living on the coast (by evaporation of sea water), Indians were forced to purchase it from the colonial government.

Gandhi’s choice of the salt tax was met with incredulity by the Working Committee of the Congress,[14][15] though Gandhi had his reasons for choosing the salt tax. The salt tax was a deeply symbolic choice, since salt was used by nearly everyone in India. It represented 8.2% of the British Raj tax revenue, and most significantly hurt the poorest Indians the most.[16] Gandhi felt that this protest would dramatize Purna Swaraj in a way that was meaningful to the lowliest Indians. He also reasoned that it would build unity between Hindus and Muslims by fighting a wrong that touched them equally.[12]

People who are currently debating the Bill should learn from history. Remember the Salt Tax. Deeply symbolic. Used by nearly everyone. Hurting the poor the most. A means of dramatizing a message. Building unity by fighting a wrong that touched people equally.

Unlike salt, which occurred naturally, digital music does not. Someone has to place it there. And you know something? If the music industry went and avoided the use of the internet altogether, then things might have been different. But once they chose to make music digital and accessible on the net, they waved the genie goodbye. And he took his bottle with him.

Now some bands have done just that, they’ve kept off the web. And there’s anecdotal evidence showing that piracy related to those bands is relatively low as a result, because any availability of digital tracks from those bands lights up like a christmas tree and can be dealt with quickly.

In some ways, it’s worth thinking of the internet as a sense, similar to sight and hearing. There are limit cases where some human beings are able to tell other human beings to shut their eyes and ears: parents are able to say to to small children. But in the main it is not possible to tell someone that she can’t use her eyes and ears.

If you didn’t want someone to see something you covered it up.

If you didn’t want someone to hear something you quietened it down.

And anyway, what was heard and seen was done in real time, there were no persistent copies. All you had were memories.

The problem is, we’ve all grown new eyes and ears, external eyes and ears. They’re called mobile phones. And they have persistent memories. So while the music industry worried about tapes and CDs and what-have-you, they weren’t prepared for the flash memory onslaught.

The mobile phones have gotten smarter, and they’ve gotten connected to the internet. So now memories of what you hear and see can be persisted and shared.

I’m one of those people who likes going to concerts, watching people play music live. And it’s been quite instructive watching what happens in concert halls nowadays. Years ago it was no cameras. And it was easy to police because cameras were big and bulky, and indoors meant you normally had to use a flash. Nowadays, cameras have gotten a lot smaller and better, mobile phones have excellent cameras in them, and the rule has become very hard to enforce. In fact in many places the rule has been discarded, with a replacement saying “no flash photography please”.

The mobile phone is a sensor. The internet is a sense. As natural as seeing and hearing. And it comes with a memory. And makes sharing easier.

People share narratives, stories. Sometimes these stories are embedded with things they saw and heard. The things that we can see and hear and share are now abundant.

There’s a simple way to make sure that something remains secret. Don’t tell anyone. There’s a simple way of making sure something is not shared via the internet. Don’t put it there.

The internet was built for sharing. That’s fundamental, and will not change.

MPs have the opportunity now to take the Digital Economy Bill in wash-up and do just what a wash-up implies: clean it out. If they don’t, and if lobbies like BPI get their way, we’re in for a satyagraha.

Music is about performance, not constipation. Performing bands have tended to do well in many respects, including merchandising. There is growing evidence that there is a high correlation between downloaders and buyers. There is growing evidence that digital music has a high price-elasticity of demand. There is growing evidence that people are happy to pay the artists, they’re just not happy with having to pay monopolist intermediaries. There is growing evidence that digital music is cheaper to produce and sell, and for that matter produce sustainably.

This is actually not about free or paid. It is about artificial scarcity. A dangerous thing. With dangerous consequences, corrupting the basis of the internet.

Otherwise who knows? We may see the equivalent of a Dandi Salt March as the beginning of real civil disobedience, as people fight for the freedom of the internet.

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.