First, Viacom's Comedy Central has announced that it will allow YouTube to continue hosting clips from it's programs (like the Daily Show). This is an important step forward for a major copyright holder. Viacom is demonstrating that it may be developing a new understanding of the role of copyright: They are beginning to understand that copyrights are for making money, not for asserting control. In bygone years, control of the material was essential for making money. Bootleggers used to take a big bite out of author's revenues. In order to see a profit from their writing, Voltare and Jonathan Swift had to take extraordinary measures, such as writing in secret, hiring armed guards to transport manuscripts, and taking terrible financial risks by borrowing money to finance huge first printings. They knew that if a book was successful, the first printing would probably be the only profitable printing, and that bootleggers would quickly flood the market with poorly-transcribed counterfeits. The poor quality of the bootleg editions was often incorrectly attributed to the author -- most readers having never seen the original edition -- and so bootlegging was also a threat to critical success. Copyright gave authors very necessary legal means of protecting themselves from bootleggers, and without it, most literature would have been impossible.
Oddly enough, digital reproduction and distribution of media over he Internet has pretty much killed the bootleggers. The dynamics the publishing business has fundamentally changed, and the 18th century view of copyright, that profits are predicated on control, is becoming increasingly inappropriate. There is a lot of anxiety among copyright holders about this. Digital Rights Management and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are aimed at preserving the 18th century publishing business model. This is understandable, given how much wonderful stuff the system brought into the world by making it possible for authors to make a living by publishing their work. It makes sense not to want to abandon it.
However, it also doesn't make sense to hold onto an idea that is no longer operative. If Viacom is willing to let people share clips of its shows on YouTube, perhaps this is an indication that the company sees a different way of making money that doesn't rely on the assumption that profits are predicated on control. Hopefully, they are right, and this assuages people's anxieties about re-thinking our copyright laws.
The second bit of good news is that there are rumblings from people at Microsoft are growing unhappy with their relationship with the People's Republic of China. I've puzzled by the simple-mindedness of the arguments in favor of doing business in China. Yes, it's potentially a huge market. Yes, there are certain advantages bestowed upon the first business to enter a market. However, most of this "market" remains in desperate poverty, and is probably more interested in basic sanitation, education and nutrition than in buying our products. China is also governed by a brutal and occasionally genocidal dictatorship that is often openly hostile to American interests.
If I were the CEO of an American company, especially a technology company, it would take more than just the vague opportunity of accessing a large, untapped market to convince me to do business in China. I would be immediately skeptical of the opportunity on the grounds that most people in China still do not make enough money to pay even a small fraction of the the American price of my products. Unless I'm willing to sell my product for a tenth or a hundredth of the American price, my customers would be limited to city-dwellers, and of those, only the relatively elite. Most of China is, and will remain for a long time, an intermittently hostile third world country. I very much hope that things will get better for the people of China, but for now, the reality is that it's a tough place to find a profit.
So, the likely financial benefits are not so great. The potential downsides, especially morally and politically, are huge. I would remind Microsoft of the position in which IBM found itself in 1941, having done a brisk business with Germany for years. It was with IBM's Hollerith punch cards that Germany identified, tracked and ultimately murdered millions of people. Now, imagine that you are a programmer working for Microsoft. You learn that Microsoft Sales gave the Chinese intelligence services a great deal on five thousand licenses of the program you write. The licenses are for a new unit which uses your software to hunt down journalists and labor organizers, and have them imprisoned or executed.
That's not far fetched. That is actually happening. If I were that programmer, I would be very, very uncomfortable with my role in making life just that much more miserable for people unfortunate enough to live under the PRC. If I were the CEO, I would be very wary of the damage my company's reputation would suffer if it were seen to be enabling human rights abuses. Never mind the very real risk of prosecution if there was more than just a perception of enabling behavior.
So, if Microsoft is giving this some serious thought, I applaud them. When I was a sophomore in high school, the "hot idea" in the policy debate tournaments in which I competed was Constructive Engagement. It seemed plausible; we will influence China by cultural and economic means, and bring about democratic changes by these means rather than direct diplomacy or containment. The trouble was that Constructive Engagement has been used as blanket justification for any and all trade dealings with China. The other trouble is that China's leaders, however oppressive, are extremely smart, and have exploited the idea of Constructive Engagement to their maximum advantage. Which is to say, they've gladly accepted from us whatever strengthens state authority, and declined what would undermine it. It is also much more difficult for American culture to influence China to the extent that it has influenced other places. China has a very strong indigenous commercial culture which is much, much older than America's. McDonald's and Levi's don't have any ideas to offer that Chinese customers and businesspeople haven't known about for a hundred generations. The success of Constructive Engagement is predicated on the gradual replacement of aspects of their culture with aspects of ours. It won't work for the simple reason that China already has a culture, and they seem to like it just fine. The problem isn't Chinese culture; the problem is stupid ideas from 19th century Germany exploited by a 20th century genocidal maniac who is now idolized by 21st century totalitarian fuck-heads who are busily crushing the ambitions of a billion and a quarter ordinary people.
That's the problem.
The third bit of hopeful news is that Microsoft an Novel are forming a partnership. It's about time that Microsoft quit trying to rub Linux out of existence and start looking at it as a platform for which they could be selling copies of Microsoft Office. They haven't announced anything like Office for Linux, but this is one step closer.
That, plus the polls heading into the election, give me a bit of hope that maybe sanity will prevail after all, at least for a few things.