The year isn’t even a day old, and yet I have only one day at home before I have to fly somewhere for work. Tuesday’s flight to Las Vegas for CES will mark the 25th time I’ve begun that pilgrimage; this, as they say, is the business I have chosen.
The early read on Gov. Kathy Hochul signing a bill that had passed the legislature six months earlier was that it represented a major win for the “right to repair” movement, but the governor’s last-hours amendments of the Digital Fair Repair Act significantly weakened some of its force, and I’m glad I took a little time to look into this story before writing this post.
After more than two decades of covering intellectual-property policy, writing about the arrival of a new year’s worth of works into the public domain has been a real treat the last few years. The latest edition of this staple gave me a chance to give a shout-out to the first movie to feature a robot leading character, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; I have yet to see it, but now I can watch it without paying for it or feeling guilt about not paying for it.
Updated 1/2/2023 to add a mention of the Patreon post.
Weather permitting, Monday morning will see me resume my annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas to cover CES. I expect to see a much smaller version of the usual gadget show, thanks to all of the exhibitors that have opted out of a physical presence; for once, CES traffic may be tolerable.
After writing about the overdue expansion of the public domain for Forbes at the end of 2020, I had to revisit the topic for PCMag on the eve of a new crop of creative works entering the public domain. This piece led to one of the more amusing correction requests I’ve ever gotten: The piece as posted envisaged a literary mashup of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in which Pooh and Tigger would journey to Hemingway’s 1920s Paris to indulge in some drunken debauchery, but multiple readers noted that Tigger doesn’t make his entrance until Milne’s The House on Pooh Corner, which won’t enter the public domain for another two years. I regret the error.
I’m beyond tired of seeing companies shove a mass password reset on their customers without explanation, and this time I had an opportunity to quiz one company briefly about what led to this kind of customer-hostile move.
The one thing you can say about any tech-policy dispute involving Facebook is that the ensuing discussion will take a while. Witness this week’s blowup in Australia, where the imminent passage of a bill (“News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code”) mandating a scheme of payments from the largest digital platforms to government-registered news publishers led Facebook to respond Wednesday with a news blackout. Now Australians can’t read or share news links on Facebook, Australian publishers can’t share their stories there, and Facebook users in every other country can’t share Australian news links either.
After writing about that fracas at Forbes on Wednesday, I spent too much time over the next day and a half in what may be my longest-ever tech-policy Twitter discussion. That left me feeling worn out–but also wishing I had taken a little more time to make my views clear. So for future reference, here are several things I think about this entire debate over what, if anything, tech platforms owe news sites.
Link taxes don’t make moral or economic sense. Not only does nobody need permission to link on the Web, a pointer to a news site–whether it’s a Google search result, a Facebook post or the blue text here–does not take from that site in any meaningful way. Well, not unless the nut of the story comes across in the headline and lead image, in which case the same story would likely go unread if seen on a newspaper’s home page. I’ve said this in various ways over more than a decade: the Washington Post in 2009, the Disruptive Competition Project in 2012, at Yahoo Finance in 2018, and at Glitch’s blog Glimmer last spring. (DisCo is a project of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group that counts Google as a member; as you can see, my judgment didn’t change before or after my one year contributing to its policy blog.)
The vast reach of Facebook and Google is a legitimate cause for nervousness. I think both companies exercise more influence over our online lives than is healthy and have written multiple how-to stories (see, for instance, these stories from 2017, 2018, and 2020) to get people to spend less time at each. And I’ve practiced what I preach, including the defaults in my own browsers and the setup of this blog. Yet people keep sticking with Google, even though it’s trivial to change your search site. My WordPress stats show that of the 291,315 search-engine referrals to this blog since its April 2011 launch, 277,850 came from Google. Y’all couldn’t try making DuckDuckGo or Bing the default in even one browser on one device?
Online advertising is a big part of the news industry’s problem. The more I look at the machinery behind the online ads that supposedly prop up news sites–meaning the display ads programmatically inserted to match a reader’s perceived interests–the more I hate it. We’ve built a system that requires extensive tracking of people across the Web, somehow involves the work of a large set of intermediaries yet still winds up dominated at multiple levels by Google, struggles to keep out bad actors, and winds up delivering too little money to publishers. You know what doesn’t even touch this problem? Demands for link taxes.
If digital platforms can build new businesses with publishers, that’s not wrong even if it happens under political duress. Google has responded to demands like those in Australia and in Europe with something called the News Showcase, an enhanced news-search site that takes readers direct to stories and pays publishers. It’s ugly and sad that Google is doing this to pay off publishers who would otherwise try to break the open Web, but if it gets money to newsrooms more reliably than digital ads, I’ll take it.
Updated 2/21/2021 to note that the Australian bill would have the government determine which publishers qualified for these payments, a deeply problematic provision in its own right, clean up some tangled syntax, and to add a paragraph about antitrust that should have been in this post yesterday.
I had meant to write last year about the overdue reopening of the public domain after 21 years of its expansion being closed off because of the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. But my friend Glenn Fleishman beat me to it with a terrific story for Smithsonian. Fortunately, Congress refrained from passing yet another retroactive extension of copyright terms, allowing me to celebrate the impending unlocking of 1925’s creative works for reuse and remix–and explain how we haven’t seen the old intellectual-property-policy script get yet another remake in Washington.
This was my first Easter spent in the D.C. area since… sometime in the mid 1990s? I would like to know a more exact date, but those years passed when I still used paper calendars that I lost in a prior millennium.
My second post for the Web-creativity shop Glitch’s equivalent of an inflight mag covered how copyright law should treat works created by artificial intelligence. I haven’t had a chance to get into the weeds about intellectual-property policy like this since I was last writing for the Disruptive Competition Project seven years ago; I’m glad there’s still a market for that sort of wonky work.
4/12/2020: Using apps to trace COVID-19, Al Jazeera
I could have had two other items on this list–Thursday, two different news networks asked if I could comment on camera about Yahoo’s data breach. I told each booker that as somebody who writes for a Yahoo site, it would be just a bit awkward for me to opine on camera about that issue. (Besides, it’s not like I had much free time that day in the first place.)
I filed this piece–a sequel of sorts to a post I did in 2012 for the Disruptive Competition Project about Europe’s doomed dream of getting search engines to pay newspapers for showing snippets of stories in search results–from the Online News Association’s conference Friday afternoon of the prior week. That scheduling seems to be the only consistently reliable way for me to get a post up on a Monday morning.
I made my debut on Finance’s 4 p.m. “The Final Round” live show not to talk about the stock market, but to discuss the legal prospects for self-driving cars. I’m on from about 5:00 to 8:00 in the video, talking to host Jen Rogers about things like who might be likely to sue whom when one autonomous car hits another.
I wrote about half this story on the train up from D.C., with the remaining half done after watching a panel of lawyers debate this topic at the MarketplaceLive conference in New York. Because I was in Yahoo’s newsroom, I could go over the edits the old-fashioned way: by sitting down next to my editor instead of bouncing messages back and forth in Slack.
For much of this week, I took notes from a seat in a room while somebody else stood before me and others to deliver a lecture about one subject or another. It was a bit like college–except I used a laptop instead of paper, I was never unplugged from the outside world, and there was the prospect of getting paid for what I wrote about those talks instead of Mom and Dad paying for me to attend them.
For the past couple of years, I’ve talked about pitching a SXSW panel about nothing other than the weird performance art that is participating in a panel discussion. I finally went ahead and wrote up a proposal, featuring me as well as ACT | The App Association’s Jonathan Godfrey and Tech.Co’s Jen Consalvo. Please vote for it, if you’re so inclined; if it gets a spot on the SXSW program, you’re welcome to show up in Austin and ask a question that’s more of a comment.
I’ve had “write a post about the intellectual-property implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal” on my to-do list for a while, and the leak of a much more current draft gave me a reason to turn that into an actual column. Something tells me this won’t be among my most-read stories this month, but it’s a post I had to write.
I spent most of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the USENIX Security Symposium in D.C., which gave me a chance to attend Jeremy Epstein’s entertaining and enraging autopsy of the incomprehensibly insecure voting machines on which I cast my ballot for over a decade. This post got a spot on the Yahoo home page over the weekend, in case you’re wondering how it racked up 665 comments.
I came up with the photo illustrating this column last of all: As I was about to file the thing and stick my editor with the job of finding some stock art, I thought that a photo of OS X’s Calendar app showing “2014” with the setting sun in the background might work just as well.
Not for the first time, I used my USAT Q&A to revise and extend remarks I’d first made here. Your reward for reading to the end of a column that might otherwise seem too familiar: a tip about an OS X feature that Apple doesn’t seem to have documented.
That’s not news. But if you talk to some of the people whose images wind up in BuzzFeed’s endlessly clickable and heavily clicked-upon photo galleries, you may have your expectations overturned, as mine were: most say thanks for the exposure.
BuzzFeed at first looked like an appropriator that took value without returning it, irritating professional photographers who find their work both increasingly valued and increasingly used without compensation. But on closer inspection, BuzzFeed may be finding its way toward a safer course — a careful combination of conventional licensing and curatorial selection.
The good thing about driving home from Thanksgiving on a Monday is skipping the Sunday traffic. The bad thing about that strategy is giving yourself a four-day week when five days is the legal minimum to catch up on everything that got shoved aside in the previous week. And then I had to burn half a day on a solid-state-drive upgrade for a laptop that remains unfinished… but I’ll save the ugly details for later.
It had been a few years since my last rant about the illogical and unfair royalties charged to Web radio outlets (as compared to satellite and, especially, FM and AM), so I was already due. Then a few weeks of seeing Pandora demonized in ads and Congressional testimony further set me off, resulting in this essay about the inanity of intellectual-property absolutism. Fortunately, I’m not the only one thinking such subversive thoughts.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, something else irked me: Yet another round of uninformed panic over a proposed change in Facebook’s terms of service, this time featuring Facebook users sharing copied-and-pasted gibberish asserting their rights under the nonexistent “Berner Convention.” I hope this post didn’t make me sound like an apologist for a company I don’t trust completely.
A reader wrote in to ask about putting Windows XP on a Windows 8 computer, which my editor and I thought a bit out there. (Seriously, about XP: Let it die already.) But we did see sufficient interest in a piece about getting a new computer with Windows 7. The column wraps up with an item about Windows 8’s backup options, which are sufficiently complicated that I may have to revisit them at greater length later on.