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Weekly Column

Acts of Omission: Our Lives Have Been Molded at Lot By the Copyright Act of 1909

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

This week's NerdTV is a talk with Brewster Kahle from the Internet Archive. It's really a terrific conversation and I think you'll enjoy it. One of the things Brewster brings up is the genesis of the Open Source software movement from the Copyright Act of 1976, which codified the right to copyright software. We're not talking about patenting software (that's a very new concept), just copyrighting it. And understanding where people were coming from 29 years ago might give us a clearer understanding of how we got where we are today.

The 1976 act was intended to bring the U.S. into compliance with a couple copyright treaties it had signed as far back as 1955. Signing a treaty and then waiting 21 years to implement it sounds like a long time, but where there are battling interests, sometimes it takes a long time to converge on even a bad solution. The major idea was to bring copyright terms and conditions into accord with those generally held in Europe, which meant increasing the term from 56 years to the life of the author plus 50 (now 70, thanks to Sonny Bono and Mickey Mouse) years. The act also defined better some fundamental terms like what it actually means to "publish" something.

While 1976 seems a lifetime ago and certainly WAS a lifetime ago when it comes to things like media delivery (no CDs or DVD's, almost no home video, absolutely no Internet), the previous copyright act dated from 1909 and pretty much covered printed words on paper, ignoring radio, television, and movies, some of which weren't invented and none of which could have been called industries at the time.

The 1909 Act, for example, required that to be eligible for a copyright, words had to first be published (that is, printed and distributed), a copyright had to be applied for, and a copyright notice had to be attached to the work before it entered commerce. You couldn't protect expressions that weren't published, which is why the Screen Writers' Guild came up with their own system for registering scripts for yet-to-be-produced movies. And simple mistakes could lead to huge negative consequences. For example, in the Internet Archive's collection of 13,000 Public Domain movies that you can watch online is the mid-60s pseudo-Hitchcock thriller "Charade," starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. "Charade" is in the public domain because someone forgot to add a copyright notice to some of the theatrical prints (some prints WERE copyrighted, but it didn't matter because you can't be a little bit in the public domain). Imagine spending several million dollars to make and promote a movie only to find that what looks like a clerical omission suddenly means you own nothing at all! Well, that was one of the issues driving the Copyright Act of 1976.

But as Brewster points out, there were manifold repercussions from the new law. For the first time, software could be copyrighted, and that meant that in at least some form, the ideas it embodied could be owned. If something can be owned it can be sold, which is what MIT did, selling the original LISP Machine code to a couple companies, ignoring the aims or interests of the programmers who wrote that code, including Richard Stallman. Stallman's resulting crusade led to the Free Software Foundation, the GNU General Public License, and the Open Source software movement we have today.

Yes, I hope to get Stallman for a future episode of NerdTV.

Maybe it's just me, but I think it is fascinating that the current Linux-Windows battle is between forces that can both trace their lineage back to the same copyright act, because the shrink-wrapped software industry dominated now by Microsoft owes as much to the 1976 Act as does Linux. It's as though the two movements forked 29 years ago, yet have now turned around and are in a head-on collision.

This week's column is a bit of a mish-mash because I have several pieces of housekeeping to get out of the way. If you are expecting a follow-up to last week's column about Google AdWords, that's coming next week. It's just a matter of having enough time to get that much further into what is still an unfolding story. Next week's follow-up WILL include, by the way, a response from Google.

But speaking of Google, this week I spoke with Tim Tuttle, CEO of a video search company called Truveo that in one sense has Google in its sights. Tuttle, who is ex-MIT and Bell Labs, spent two years leading a team of developers trying to approach very differently the problem of finding and indexing video on the Web, and in doing so he exposes a flaw in most conventional search engines including Google's. That flaw is simply that what most search engines are looking for is text, and pretty static text at that, while video is about pictures, not words. What this means is that most search engines and their associated spiders are better for searching static, rather than dynamic, pages. Video is, pretty much by definition, dynamic, but this limitation can hamper a search engine's ability to find other kinds of data, too.

The Slashdot crowd, for example, fumes about the way links are handled on this very page you are reading. That's because most links on pages aren't direct URL links at all but links to little javascripts that, in turn, link to the target file or URL. I have no idea why we do it this way, but we do, and it is only typical of the kind of dynamic page issue that first keeps a spider from finding content and then -- even if the content is found -- can sometimes keep it from being correctly identified.

Back to Truveo, which, rather than parsing and analyzing the html of a page for clues, actually "uses" the page. There is a huge difference between analyzing html and actually creating a synthetic user who exercises the code itself looking for results, as Truveo does. Most search engines don't do this, frankly, because it takes a lot of computing power, but Truveo mysteriously claims to have solved that problem. Whatever they do, the upshot is they've found and indexed a lot more video on the Internet than Google or Yahoo even knows exist. Take a look (it's in this week's links). Fortunately, what Google and Yahoo don't have is easily available to them: just add money. Truveo hopes to broadly license its video search technology.

Finally, I want to point to a group that I think it doing good work -- work that we all have a chance to assist. DonorsChoose is a nonprofit organization that uses information technology to link donors with recipient teachers at schools in need. It works rather like a bridal registry. Teachers at participating schools submit a wish list of things they need to improve the learning experience of their students (supplies, equipment, ballet tickets, whatever). Would-be donors access the list and sign-up for only the pieces they'd like to support or can contribute in-kind. Donors choose, get it?

Legitimate needs are filled with efficiency, nobody makes a cent on the deals, and kids benefit.

The reason I mention this is because DonorsChoose is one of 10 finalists for the Amazon Nonprofit Innovation Award to recognize the most innovative charity in the world. The contest ends this week (end of the day September 30th), and whichever organization raises the most money from individual donors (capped at $1,000 per donor) will win the prize, which includes a matching grant from Amazon for up to $1 million. At last count DonorsChoose was in second place with a real chance for an upset, which is one reason why I made a donation.

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