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 dead.net 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.

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