May 26, 2024

We're Back

Well, we’re back on the air after a three-day interruption of service. The interruption was due to bogosity at SpamCop, which I’ll explain more fully in the next post.

Fuzzy Language, Fuzzy Thinking

One of the things I’ve learned in working with lawyers is that the language you use to describe something can powerfully shape your listeners’ ideas about it. Unless you’re very careful, you can fool yourself in the same way.

Many have remarked upon the rhetorical trick of using the word “piracy,” which denotes a type of violent crime long hated and feared – and still too common – to describe a lesser infraction. Calling infringement “piracy” makes it sound worse than it is.

But the use of “piracy” hides yet another rhetorical trick. The meaning of “piracy” is vague and expansive, while the more accurate term “infringement” has a precise and limited meaning. “Piracy” is often used even when no infringement is taking place; in these cases “piracy” really just means “any activity that makes a copyright owner unhappy.”

All right then; you may admit that “piracy” is an inaccurate term. But it is a colorful term, and like it or not, it is in common use. So, you might ask, what’s the problem with using it?

The problem is that fuzzy language leads to fuzzy thinking, and you may be fooling yourself by using fuzzy language. Fortunately, there is an easy way to tell if you’re falling into this trap. Try expressing your ideas using the precise term rather than the fuzzy one (e.g. using “infringement” rather than “piracy”). If your ideas still make sense, then you’re in good shape; but if your ideas sound weak when expressed in this way, then the fuzzy term has clouded your thinking.

This method works, but it’s a hassle to keep applying it to yourself. There is an easier way – use precise language. Don’t say “piracy,” say “infringement.”

[More posts on inaccurate terminology to come.]

Microsoft Does The Right Thing

Microsoft has decided not to try using the DMCA to censor a paper by former MIT student Andrew “Bunnie” Huang about security mechanisms in Microsoft’s Xbox videogame console. (See this announcment.) Good for Microsoft! If more companies behave like Microsoft did in this case, the DMCA would do less harm.

Let’s not forget, though, that the DMCA created a situation where Huang essentially had to ask Microsoft’s permission to publish the paper. He had to withhold his paper for a period of time and he had to spend sizable lawyer resources to get what the Constitution is supposed to guarantee him – his right to free speech. The DMCA is still a problem, but Microsoft kept it from being a bigger one.


I’ve been reading recently about the history of technology. That history is filled with lessons for policy-makers now. Here is one:

One of the reasons we should be wary about banning technologies is that it’s often very hard to tell what a new technology will be good for. It might take a decade or more for the true significance of a new technology to emerge, and even when we can guess at one application of a technology we’ll probably miss other important ones.

The telegraph is a case in point. When the telegraph was new, it was easy to see how the instantaneous communication it enabled would affect fields such as news gathering and finance. But the telegraph had a surprising number of applications.

Example: The telegraph enabled weather prediction. Previously, all you could do was watch the horizon for storms and wait for old-timers to sniff the wind and say, “Reckon it’ll rain.” With the telegraph, you could find out about current weather conditions in other places, build a weather map, look at the patterns of wind and pressure, and figure out what tomorrow would be like. This had a profound impact on people’s lifestyles, not to mention its benefits for agriculture and for safety.

Every new, general-purpose information technology has unexpected, valuable applications. If we ban such technologies or hamper their development, we’ll never know what we’re missing.


Lawyers use the term “self-help” to refer to all of the little steps people take to protect themselves. Locking your bicycle is self-help – even though it would not be necessary in a world where everyone obeyed the law, it’s a good idea in the real world. Fences and burglar alarms are self-help too.

Self-help is often a cheaper way of protecting our rights than relying on the legal system. Rather than having an army of cops to watch all of our bicycles, it’s cheaper for each of us to buy and use a lock. But self-help is only allowed in defense of your own rights – you can’t put a lock on my bike.

Some of the recent anti-tinkering laws claim to be nothing but self-help for copyright holders. That’s what some people say about the DMCA, and about the Berman-Coble bill. If those laws merely allowed copyright holders to enforce their legal rights, there would be no problem. But they go much farther.

Glenn Otis Brown, in an article in The New Republic Online, offers a helpful analogy:

Let’s say you extend the fence that runs around your yard across your sidewalk. If little Jonny hops that fence, you can’t call the cops on the pretext that he might steal your lawn furniture. The principle is simple: you can’t make an exclusive claim, through technology, on a public good (access allowed by the sidewalk). But the DMCA seems to say that the rules in the digital context are different. If little Johnny decrypts your DVD so he can watch it on a different kind of computer–something that ought to be protected under fair use–you can call the cops on the pretext that he might pirate your movie.

The analogy is an interesting one. If you fence off the real sidewalk, society will let Jonny off the hook for jumping the fence (as long as he stays on the sidewalk). But society will do more – it will condemn you for building the fence, and it might even send the sheriff to cut it down.

Some people like to argue that “intellectual property” is just exactly like real property and should have the same protection. Let’s all remember that the law protects the sidewalks too.