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.