Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Anzac Day

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Friday, April 21, 2006

When is a War Over?

Over the course of the current war, I've often come across "objections" of the sort expressed here:
if the AUMF is equivalent to a declaration of war, then how will we know when we are no longer at war? Previous declarations of war have typically ended in a peace treaty of some sort. I don't see that happening in this case. I imagine at some point in the future the US will pull its combat troops out of Iraq. However, I don't expect a formal peace treaty to be signed at that time.
I shouldn't need to point out that "typically" is not exactly a term of constitutional significance. What happens typically has nothing to do with what is required.

But let's set that aside. OK, a war is over when a formal peace treaty is signed. Now tell me, o Wise One, when WW2 ended. Do you see a problem with that? Does it make WW2 somehow less legitimate?

For that matter, wars sometimes do go on for many years or decades. Heard of the Hundred Years War? Is there some guarantee in the constitution that wars the USA enters into may not last more than a certain number of years? I've never come across one.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Intellectual "Property"

There's no such thing.

Property is a product of scarcity. If there's only one of something, and we both want it, then we need a rule to determine whose it is. Air is readily abundant, and fungible (one bit of air is much the same as another), so nobody thinks of "owning" it; in a space colony this would not be the case. The common-law definition of "theft" is taking property with the intention of permanently depriving its owner of its use. If taking it does not deprive the owner of anything, then it cannot be theft.

If I write something, I own the piece of paper on which I wrote it. I may sell that piece of paper, or I may keep it locked away in a safe and not let anyone look at it, or I may destroy it. If you take it from me, then I no longer have it, and I can't do what I like with it, and so you are a thief. But if you make a copy of my work, on your own paper, that copy belongs to you. If I were to take it by force, I'd be a thief. As for me, the existence of your copy has not in any way deprived me of the use of mine, so nothing has been stolen from me.

What, then, is intellectual property? It's a metaphor. In the USA, as in most countries, the legislature has decided to grant to artists a limited-term monopoly on profiting from their creation. In principle this is no different than any other government-granted monopoly. If the city grants my company an exclusive license to run taxis, and lets me transfer that right to anyone I like, then I can metaphorically call that right my "property". After all, it behaves in many important ways just like property. But if someone defies my monopoly, and illegally drives a taxi in "my" town, may I properly call him a thief? Of course not. He may be earning fares that I ought to have earned, but the fact is that I did not earn them, and they are not mine. Until the passenger has been conveyed from A to B, the fare belongs to her, and afterwards it belongs to the person who took her there. I have a legitimate claim against the interloper, but theft isn't it, because he has taken no property of mine.

Now, what is the purpose of copyright? Why has the USAn congress chosen to grant it to authors? The constitution gives us the only possible answer. Congress is only authorised to grant copyrights for one purpose: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts". Patents and copyrights give inventors an incentive to invent, writers to write, and artists to art. Devote your time and energy to creating useful and interesting works, Congress says, and if it makes any money within so many years that money will be yours. It follows from this that when considering any possible infringement of copyright, the relevant question to ask is whether, had the artist known that this could legally happen, she might not have bothered to create her work.

In Europe, a new concept has lately become popular – that an artist has "moral rights" in her work. In France, for instance, if I buy a painting, and I decide to destroy it, the artist may prevent me from doing so. I may own the canvas, paint, and frame, but the artist, it is thought, "owns" the artistic way they are arranged. IMHO that is a perverse concept. I do not recognise any such moral principle, and, thankfully, in the USA not only does the law not recognise it, but the law can not recognise it, because the constitution precludes it from doing so.

And now we finally arrive at the Bill Hobbs cartoon reproduced below. Mr Hobbs has deleted it from his web site, and has protested at my putting it up here. I do not recognise the validity of this claim. Mr Hobbs, as the creator, is entitled to any income stream that comes from the cartoon (for the limited but absurdly long period provided by Congress). But he is not, IMHO, entitled to hide it from the world, and prevent anyone from seeing it. The copy that resides on my computer is mine, not his, and the copy that is displayed by your browser is yours, and we may do what we like with it. Since the purpose of copyright is to encourage the creation and dissemination of works of art, using it to suppress a work and prevent its dissemination directly contradicts that purpose, and is therefore not a legitimate use of copyright.

I should also mention Fair Use, since that is an exception Congress has made, even to legitimate uses of copyright. Indeed, it had to make such an exception, since without one copyrights would be incompatible with the first amendment, which of course takes precedence over the original constitution. Fair Use is a fuzzy concept, but it seems to me that Mr Hobbs's cartoon is, in its entirety, an object of public interest and concern, since it's the centre of a news event that has attracted a fair amount of reportage over the past week or so. To understand the news event it's necessary to see the cartoon. My post comments on the cartoon, as well as on Mr Hobbs's attempt to withdraw it, and thus seeing it is essential to the substance of my comment. No mere excerpt or description would suffice. IANAL, but I think this satisfies the Two Live Crew criteria, and is thus legitimately covered by the Fair Use exception.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Mohammed Blows

Having been off for the holiday, I missed the whole Bill Hobbs controversy, and am still reading up on it. However, it seems that Hobbs has lost his job for telling the truth. Oops, sorry, for being "insensitive" to Mohammed, and to the billion or so people who think he was a prophet. Well, tough. Hobbs has taken down the cartoon that started this, and I understand why, though I wish he hadn't. So I'm posting it here:
Not particularly artistic or skillful; pretty crude, in fact. But so was Mohammed. Amid all the Voltairian "I disagree with what you say, but defend your right to say it", I think it's appropriate to point out that portrayals of Mohammed like this are actually right. I don't think there's any doubt that if Mohammed were alive today, he'd get on fine with Osama bin Laden, and have contempt for those "moderate" Moslems who think there's something wrong with blowing people up. He was a slimeball, and it's appropriate not to let that be forgotten.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Detroit Emergency

Thinking of moving to the Detroit area? This won't exactly fill you with confidence.

Actually, though, similar things happen elsewhere. I used to know someone who had a very similar experience in Melbourne, Australia. Her street address was the same as that of a major hospital, but in a different suburb, and when her mother collapsed the emergency dispatcher who took her call thought she was playing a prank.

Exact Change, Please

Eugene Volokh comments on this story from AP, about a Malaysian man who got a phone bill for RM 806,400,000,000,000.01. Yes, that's eight hundred and six trillion and four hundred billion ringgit, and one sen. Or, in old money, eight hundred and six billion and four hundred thousand million ringgit, and one sen; that still sounds like quite a lot.

But I'd really like to know about that one sen. You'd think on a bill that size, they'd do the generous thing and round it down to a whole number of ringgit. But no, the greedy telco demands its pound of flesh, right down to the very last sen. And will no doubt be adding compound interest as the customer refuses to pay.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest...

...and nobody hears it, did it really fall? These people learned the hard way that it does.