Category Archives: Intellectual Property

Why Have You Not Signed Up For BIL Already?

I’m sure you’ve heard of TED, which is a really expensive, really exclusive annual conference at which famous and/or accomplished people give lectures to wealthy and/or lucky people. Surprisingly, despite my fame, accomplishments, wealth, and luck, I have never been invited to attend or lecture. (Actually, it’s not that surprising, given that they once gave their TED Prize to Karen Armstrong, my mortal enemy, and that they seem to like Nathan Myhrvold, my other mortal enemy.1)

Luckily for me, there is a non-union, Mexican equivalent an open-source equivalent, the BIL conference, which costs only $50, and which is open to pretty much everyone. Three years ago they were kind enough to let me give my “Your Religion Is False” talk, and then two years ago they didn’t firm up the date until it was too late for me to make travel plans, and then last year they let me give my lukewarmly-received “How To Be Funny” talk.

This year I plan to outdo them all with my balanced discussion of intellectual property: “Hitler Loved Patents”. Although I have spent the majority of the past 10 years arguing on the Internet about intellectual property with various weirdos and libertarians and weirdo libertarians and libertarian weirdos, it has only recently become acceptable to express my views in public. And what better way than through a profanity-laden speed-talking Powerpoint presentation?

There will, of course, be a large number of other talks, many of which will be almost as entertaining and/or compelling as mine. There will also be, I’m told, a “sex-positive boiler room”2 and some sort of lockpicking workshop, one or both of which certainly addresses your hesitations about attending.

If it’s anything like last year, there will also be interesting breaks between sessions, where BILders socialize and where crazy people grab the empty mics and perform spoken-word-poetry-ish rants about free energy and capitalism, all the while people chuckle nervously and wonder whether this is a scheduled part of the performance or simply the result of too little security. There might be coffee too.

There will certainly be a huge assortment of burners, transhumanists, futurists, cryonicists, libertarians, anti-libertarians, polyamorists, monoamorists3, objectivists, subjectivists, artists, crossfitters, politicians, entertainers, hosts of invention-related television shows, hackers, humorists, Paul Grasshoffs, atheists, and doers and makers of all types. Many of them are my good friends, and many more will be by the time the weekend is over. (Also, many of them will be my enemies by the end of the conference, since you can’t exactly tell people that the industry they’ve dreamed of working in their whole lives is morally on par with the death gulags without alienating a few folks, but such is the price of progress.)

In addition, the whole event takes place on a boat, which has some sort of giggly significance that is lost on me but probably has something to do with some creepy anime that everyone except me downloads and watches illegally.

Anyway, Long Beach really isn’t that far from wherever you are, and $50 is less money than you’d spend buying a dozen Original Six Dollar Burger®s at Carl’s Junior, so why have you not signed up already? And in the event you need burgers that badly, Simone gave me this code for 20% off the registration, which will save you $10, which means you’ll still be able to buy two of those tasty, tasty Original Six Dollar Burger®s4 and have the conference weekend of your life.

So I guess I’m not really sure what your objection is at this point. Sometimes I hear “Joel, you’re biased because the whole event is organized and produced by your friends,” and sometimes I hear “Joel, surely you’re on the take from the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau and/or Carl’s Jr.,” and still other sometimes I hear “Joel, you recommended that I attend the Libertarian National Convention in Anaheim in 2000, and that really sucked,” to which I can only respond, “were you at the same Libertarian Convention I was at, because I guarantee you that that was the most fun that anyone’s ever had in Anaheim in the history of mankind.”

So can you just go ahead and sign up already?

1. I’m only ten and I already got two mortal enemies.
2. No, I have no idea what this is either, although I suspect it has something to do with high-pressure stock trading.
3. Monoamorists. It’s a word. Look it up.
4. Six-dollars is what you put on your tax return, but the cash price is closer to $4.

What Part of Your Oath Do You Not Understand?

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to something something anymore!

It all started with Wil Wheaton1, who used to be the bartender (I believe) on “Star Trek”, but who is now some sort of Twitter celebrity. I myself have zero tolerance for Twitter celebrities, but one of the “data scientists” I follow “retweeted” the following into my newshose:

The SOPA/NDAA, in case you have more important things to do than follow politics, is the latest power grab by the content industries, and would allow the President to use unmanned drones to assassinate you and/or the Internet without a trial if he suspects you’re selling counterfeit handbags or illegally downloading Hall & Oates MP3s or waging jihad. It is indeed an abomination, which is why it is only supported by heartless, baby-killing monsters like record company executives and United States Senators. And it certainly seems plausible that a President who signed such a bill would be in violation of his oath to “defend the Constitution.”

You know what else is in violation of his oath to defend the Constitution? JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING HE’S EVER DONE. Invade Libya without declaring war? NOT IN THE CONSTITUTION. Illegally traffic guns to criminals in order to drum up popular support for eviscerating the Second Amendment? NOT IN THE CONSTITUTION. Override state medical marijuana laws? NOT IN THE CONSTITUTION. Force people to buy private health insurance? NOT IN THE CONSTITUTION. And so on. If it takes the NDAA to get you to care about Obama’s oath to defend the Constitution, then either you’ve been living in a cave in Pakistan for the past 3 years, or YOU DON’T ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT THE CONSTITUTION.

As it happens, I’m not one of those libertarian types who pounds the table about what is and what isn’t in the Constitution. Of course I’d rather the government lived up to its promises not to quarter soldiers in my condo, not to take away my guns, and not to censor my XXXXXXXXXXX. But they don’t, and no one seems to care that they don’t, and in fact most people are quite happy to let the government quarter soldiers in their condos as long as it gets them something they want, like endless war in Afghanistan, or patents on being aware of medical best practices, or subsidized pharmaceuticals for wealthy old people. In any event, I don’t treat the Constitution as holy writ, or think something is necessarily a good idea because it’s in the Constitution or necessarily a bad idea because it’s not, or consider it a good use of anyone’s time to yell “READ THE CONSTITUTION!” to people who don’t particular care about what’s in the Constitution.

But I will pound the table when some Obama-endorsing, juvenile-name-calling Twitter celebrity suddenly starts chastising people as if in this one case the Constitution is the most important thing in the world. You don’t get to do that. If you didn’t care about the Constitution back when activist judges insisted that deep in its penumbrae one could divine secret rights to funnel taxpayer money to politically-connected banks and carbuilding unions, then no one is going to take you seriously when you pretend to care about it now. Oh, they’ll pretend to care about your pretending, and maybe they’ll even mention to their friends that “that bartender from the Starship Enterprise had some great tweet where he pretended like he cares about the Constitution, and he used #hashtags and everything, and it was really such a stellar example of pretending to care about the Constitution that I favorited it and retweeted it and @replied to it, so you should check it out!” But they know that you’re posturing and that you know perfectly well that the President and the Congress perfectly well understand their oath to “uphold the Constitution”, they JUST DON’T GIVE A RAT’S ASS ABOUT IT, and they also know that 364 days out of the year NEITHER DO YOU.

What’s extra-sad is that this guy had a particularly unpleasant run-in with the TSA last spring:

You’d think that might have indicated to him that the “teabaggers'” fear of government power was maybe not so off-base after all. The bartenders at the places I hang out certainly would have noticed this, so maybe it’s that all the cosmic rays in space kill brain cells.

All that said, the NDAA and SOPA are both horrible laws and we’re worse as a society for passing them (or for being about to pass them) and the people defending them are heartless, baby-killing monsters who you should probably go out of your way to spit on if you encounter them. But they’re also perfectly predictable consequences of having the kind of busybody government that you’ve been loudly clamoring for your whole life. It wasn’t so long ago that you were blogging a stupid “CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN” graphic and telling people to vote for this jerk. To the extent you care about preventing the next SOPA, you might consider next time listening to the libertarians instead of just calling them vulgar names and putting sugar in their gas tanks.

1. Technically, it started when I read the article about Sheila Jackson-Lee stopping a SOPA hearing so they could discuss whether someone had insulted her on Twitter, and I realized that I was the one with the “crazy” politics for not being eager to subject myself to thousands of pages of laws written by emotional preschoolers.

How Megan McArdle Is Ruining the Future of Entertainment

Megan McArdle has just returned from a time-machine visit to the year 2000, and she’s worried about a new scourge called Napster:

People have been pirating intellectual property for centuries, but it used to be a time-consuming way to generate markedly inferior copies. These days, high-quality copies are effortless.

Possibly she met with Jack Valenti when she was there, because she’s returned with his trademark pessimism about the ability of markets to find common ground between buyers and sellers.

Maybe it’s time to admit that we may never find a way to reconcile consumers who want free entertainment with creators who want to get paid.

Such a narrow defeatism! Along similar lines, can’t we also admit that we may never find a way to reconcile workers who want high wages with employers who’d prefer low? Where’s the Atlantic column complaining about this?

Or maybe McArdle is just talking her book?

Can the market evolve fast enough to keep up with the expectations, and predations, of Generation Free? Even if the music industry manages, what about all the other businesses that depend on intellectual property—including (gulp) my own?

“Sure, the internet has brought to the fingertips of billions of people an unimaginable wealth of information, a cosmic jukebox, texts and videos that otherwise might have been lost to the ages, a free encyclopedia, tool-assisted speedruns of old Nintendo games, and the greatest marketplace the world has ever seen, but won’t someone please think of the Atlantic bloggers?”

I wonder if the loom-smashers wrote similar columns.

But the broader music industry, like other entertainment fields, has always worked on a tournament model: a lot of starving artists hoping to be among the few who make it big. What happens to the supply of willing musicians when the prize is an endless slog through medium-size concerts at $25 a head?

Always? Really? I suspect Mick Jagger might disagree, although he probably doesn’t know as much about the music business as McArdle does.

Because the band (“Atlanta’s Best Party Band!”) that my sister hired to play her wedding certainly wasn’t starving, and they didn’t seem to have their sights set any higher than being Atlanta’s Best Party Band. My friend who put out a Facebook message to recruit for her would-be lounge band doesn’t dream of anything more than playing a few shows, nor does another friend whose cover band plays at Rock Bottom Brewery once a month. My other sister writes songs and puts them on her website with no motivation other than entertaining people who download them.

Quite possibly most musicians hope to make it rich. Almost everyone hopes to make it rich. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that motivates them, and it certainly doesn’t mean they’ll quit what they’re doing if their lottery ticket up and vanishes.

As for the publishing industry, a year is a long stretch to spend typing without some prospect of financial return.

Isn’t it? Well, here’s a subject I happen to know something about, because a year is just about how much time I spent writing Your Religion Is False. Of course, the whole time I had “prospects” of financial return, but I certainly didn’t have any guarantees. No one promised me I’d make a single dollar, and no one promised me I’d sell a single copy. That’s why I didn’t quit my day job. (Until much later, when I quit my day job.)

Most musicians have day jobs. Most writers have day jobs. Most actors have day jobs. McArdle is astoundingly fortunate that someone pays her a salary (I assume) simply to write blog posts all day. But this makes her a fantastic outlier.

All artists want to get paid for their art. I want to get paid for my art. And of course I’d rather someone pay me for a copy of my book than read it for free. But if the choice is between “someone reading it for free” and “someone not reading it at all,” I’ll take the former 100 times out of 100. And if the choice is between “lots of people reading it for free” and “no one reading it at all,” it’s a complete no-brainer.

For without the internet and what it enables, I never could have written Your Religion Is False. I never could have published it, I never could have effectively promoted it, and I never could have sold the number of copies that I have. I never could have quit my job to try to make a living as a writer, and the world would never get to enjoy the multiple (awesome) books that I’m working on.

Perhaps the internet hurts the business model for McArdle’s creative output. But at the same time, it makes possible the business model for mine, and for countless others like me. Shouldn’t someone who calls herself “Jane Galt” have a little more appreciation for the essential-to-capitalism process of creative destruction?