Archive for April, 2010

AOL Facebook

The first computer networks widely used outside of academia were things like CompuServe, Prodigy and then AOL. They were walled gardens: all you could access were the things they provided. With the wider spread of the Internet, they slowly granted increasing access to the Internet. Eventually everybody just used the Internet directly via an Internet Service Provider. AOL still exists, but it has fallen far from its glory days. The lesson I took was that walled gardens don’t work.

The success of Facebook belies that lesson. It seems clear that many people conduct a large portion of their Internet life entirely within Facebook. Facebook provides various different forms of communication—e-mail, chat, photo sharing, etc.&mdashbut it all exists only within Facebook. Sure, you can point offsite, but it’s hardly the main form of communication. Facebook is a newer and larger version of the walled gardens of yesterday.

I don’t myself find Facebook to be interesting or useful. I do have an account, but I only go to the Facebook site when I get some message from it. Typically it’s because somebody wrote something on my “wall;” why they didn’t just send me an e-mail message, I don’t know.

Widespread use of Facebook does not necessarily translate to revenue, but all the rumors these days are that they are making plenty of money. The introduction of games which people are willing to pay small amounts of money for was a brilliant idea in this regard—at least, I assume that Facebook gets a small cut.

So my lesson about walled gardens was wrong. Walled gardens works fine if they are compelling enough. That would be fine if Facebook takes its position as a platform seriously enough, if they work to provide neutral access to everybody. So far they do. Their history of trying different approaches is not too encouraging in this regard, but the economics support it. I just wish that I liked the site more.

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I was thinking recently about my visit to SCO back in 2003. Since then SCO has been through bankruptcy and their various court cases have collapsed several times, although they are still struggling on. Their argument was always very weak. I could see that at the time, although I was also scared that the court might come to the wrong decision anyhow. Fortunately that has not happened to date.

What I think most about was Blake Stowell’s question to me as I was leaving. Blake Stowell was at the time SCO’s Director of Public Relations. He asked what I would do if I owned some proprietary code that somebody else had copied, implying that SCO’s behaviour was not merely legally justified but was even morally justified. It was a long time ago, but the impression that I recall was that he sincerely thought that SCO was doing something which reasonable people would consider to be OK, and wanted to see whether I agreed. My answer at the time was not very good.

It’s a question which I now think brings us to the heart of copyright laws. If I write something myself, what rights do I have to prevent other people from making derivative works? If I buy the rights to something that somebody else wrote, do I have the same rights with regard to derivative works? Does it matter how those derivative works are being used? I’m raising these rhetorical questions not as a matter of law—the law is what it is—but as a matter of what we, as a society, ideally want to permit. SCO was acting as the copyright equivalent of a patent troll: they acquired the rights to something which they did not create, and attempted to gain revenue from other people using the same ideas. Should we permit that?

In considering issues like this, it’s very important to not mix up copyright with real property. It’s natural to start thinking that something that I write is like something that I own. If I own a car, it’s not OK for somebody to drive it without my permission. The issues with code are far less clear. Copyright is a balance between the rights of the authors and the rights of everybody else. Copyright does not last forever, unlike my ownership of the car. There are various exceptions to copyright, such as fair use. Even if we take SCO’s very best case, they were talking about a tiny percentage of code being copied from an earlier version of Unix into the Linux kernel. Did that give them the right to charge people for using the Linux kernel? If the code was removed from the Linux kernel, as did in fact happen later, would they still have the right to charge based on an expansive notion of derived work?

Intuitively I think that while the original author has considerable rights to control code that she or he writes, those rights tend to decrease with time and distance. It’s not obvious to me that control over an author’s work is something that can be sold or inherited. It also makes a difference whether the work is used in its entirety or whether a portion of the work is excerpted. It also makes a difference whether the work is used by itself or in combination with work by other authors.

Unfortunately these issues are all fuzzy. For law to be useful, the issues have to be spelled out, which is hard, and tends to give too much weight to the author at the expense of the rest of society. And the rules appropriate for books and music may not be appropriate for code.

A sane copyright law has to make it clear that legal assertions like the ones that SCO made claiming to own Linux are unsupportable. The remedy for minor code copying is to remove the copied code; it is not to grant ownership rights to the larger package into which the code was copied.

SCO’s actions were not justified. The fact that they appear to be failing is a triumph of justice.

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California Taxes

My blog used to have just two readers, and I wrote a lot of random stuff. These days I seem to have acquired some 30 readers or so, and I feel a bit of pressure to make these posts actually interesting. That tends to reduce the number of postings, which of course is not a bad thing for readers, but isn’t really what I want to do with the blog. So I’m going to continue trying to write more posts, even if they aren’t interesting. My apologize to those who prefer quality.

Anyhow, recently in Berkeley there were a lot of protests about cuts in the California university system. In the 1960’s California provided a free university education to state residents who met the entrance qualifications (as of course many European countries do). Tuition in the University of California system is now over $12,000 a year. That’s quite a change.

This change is due to the broken California budget process. Raising taxes in California requires a 2/3 majority vote in the legislature. To get around that, many politically desirable projects are implemented using ballot questions which call for issuing bonds to raise the necessary money. The money raised from the bonds can only be used for the specified purpose. The interest on the bonds is paid out of general tax receipts. The effect is that the general fund is split up more and more into specific projects, draining funds from other projects. The specific projects which are funded are the ones which can get a ballot measure passed. Votes on those ballot measures are weighing a specific good—whatever the measure is about—against a general harm—future restrictions on budgeting. There is very little thought given to weighing different choices. In effect the process short-circuits the point of a representative democracy, which is to vote for people who can take the time to make good decisions on these difficult choices.

Back in Berkeley, the protests generally argued that the tuition increases were unacceptable because of the harm to the education and to the student body. I can understand their anger and frustration. But I don’t understand their tactics. If there is not enough money for education, then you have to raise more money or you have to spend less money. At the state level there aren’t really any other options. The citizens of California have made choices over the years, through a series of ballot measures, which ensure that the amount of money available for education will fall over time. This was hidden for some years by the economic boom in Silicon Valley, and the revenue shortfall has been exaggerated by the recession, but I tend to think that the effect is real in the long run. Of course few people consciously thought that, e.g., restricting fuel taxes to only be used for transportation would have the effect of reducing spending on education, but it does.

It seems to me that a rational protest would have involved some attempt to adjust the way that the state handles funding. Instead, what I see on, e.g.,, is a quote like “if there‚Äôs money for wars, bank bailouts, and prisons, why is there no money for public education?” Setting aside the fact that no California state money is being used to pay for wars or bank bailouts, there is no money for public education because that is what the voters have chosen. It seems to me that useful protests should try to draw these connections for people, rather than just relying on unfocused resistance to the cuts.

I think it’s a shame that the University of California system is moving out of reach of many families. It’s a shame because everybody deserves access to a good education. It’s also a shame because U.S. economic success these days depends upon a well educated work force. But I don’t see any way to fix the problem without fixing a great deal more about how the state runs. I don’t think the state is going to get fixed short of a real crisis, and we’re not there yet. For now I think it’s inevitable that the University of California system is going to shrink, and I expect that the state will be paying for that indirectly for many years to come.

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