Piracy and Copyright

August 23, 2011

Most people will be familiar with that annoying, unskippable anti-piracy film that makes inane and impertinent statements (you wouldn’t steal a car, &c) to make its point that piracy of films is stealing. Well, I wouldn’t steal a car, or a handbag, or even a movie, but this has nothing to do with piracy because contrary to the opinion of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which is the organisation that I believe made the film, piracy is not stealing.

The US Supreme Court, ruling in the case of Dowling v. United States in 1985 said that

…interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The infringer of a copyright does not assume physical control over the copyright nor wholly deprive its owner of its use. Infringement implicates a more complex set of property interests than does run-of-the-mill theft, conversion, or fraud.

The purpose of copyright law is to ensure that the originators of creative works profit from their labour and thus encourage the creation of such works. Piracy undermines that goal, and is therefore punishable in law. The problem faced by copyright holders in the digital age is that it is almost impossible to prevent people from making easy, cheap copies of their work, which makes copyright law extremely difficult to enforce.
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Euthanasia II

June 15, 2011

A couple of weeks ago Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. “Doctor Death”, died from complications of liver cancer. Today we have news that Terry Pratchett, the esteemed science fiction author of the Discworld series, is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and is campaigning for the right to end his life when and where he likes.

Jack Kevorkian

Well, why shouldn’t he? There seem to be two arguments against any individual choosing the time and manner of his own death: religious, and some variant or other of the “slippery slope”.

The religious argument is simple: only God can ordain the time of our death, and to pre-empt God is a mortal sin. Also inextricably tied into this argument is the notion that humans are fundamentally different to animals by virtue of the possession of a soul, and that what might be “humane” for animals must be rejected for humans on account of our special status.

The slippery slope arguments come in two broad categories. The first goes something like this: “If we allow people who are terminally ill to commit assisted suicide, then we’ll have people doing it who are just depressed or having a bad day.” The second is usually framed as the concern that relatives of the euthanasee might take the opportunity to bump off granny in order to get their avaricious hands on her chattels before she is ready to go, or that granny may feel she’s a burden to her family, so she undergoes assisted suicide as a considerate means of relieving that perceived burden.

I side with Kevorkian and Pratchett in this matter. Neither of the arguments mentioned above hold water, and even if they did they are trumped by a much more compelling moral argument.

The religious wish to impose the sovereignty of their god on everyone, whether or not they believe in that particular god. I do not believe in the existence of any gods, so obviously I must reject as absurd any attempt on the part of the religionists to impose their superstitions on any aspect of my life; and I must oppose as unconstitutional any laws that entrench religious ideals. I find the very notion that we assist animals to die painlessly when their pain becomes severe and call that “humane”, but refuse that same consideration to humans contrary to every tenet of morality, but that does not surprise me–the religious know very little about morality, and what they do know is distorted by the lens of their hand-me-down beliefs.

Slippery slope arguments can be disposed of quite easily simply by exposing the fact that they are straw men; they are objecting to matters that are not even on the table–no one is espousing murder, merely individual freedom of choice.

Which brings us to the clinching, in my view, moral argument. If we value the “right to life” as entrenched in the constitution, then we must acknowledge the concept of ownership of one’s life and body. Who owns your life and body? The church? Your neighbour? The state? Obviously not. You own it, and therefore you must be the sole arbiter of its final disposition. The corollary to this is that any law that attempts to prevent you from exercising your rights over your body is immoral and should be struck from the statute books, and the prosecution of those assisting others to die should be stopped immediately.

I see that the Catholic church saw it as “both ironic and tragic” that Jack Kevorkian did not himself resort to assisted suicide in his final days. Why? They miss the point entirely. He did not choose to do so, but he should have permitted to so choose if he wished. The religionists really don’t seem to able to get a handle on the logic of this argument at all.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License


June 6, 2011

The boarding school I attended when I was a small boy employed a Scottish matron to look after our medical welfare. She was rectangular, about four feet tall, had a broad lowland Scots accent, a face like a haggis and a loving heart, not that she would ever own up to that. Whenever we went to see her she would listen to our sad stories, then give us a large, round, blue pill. I always felt much better after this, and attributed the improvement to the pill. With hindsight, I’m sure the pill was nothing more than a multivitamin, and the talk conspired with the placebo effect to produce the improvement in mood. This is only tangentially relevant to my topic for today, which is illegal drugs and the relationship between their users and governments.

Judi Dench

Last week luminaries such as Judi Dench, Sting and Richard Branson expressed their view that the so-called war on drugs was a failure, and that use of illegal drugs should be decriminalised. Well, guys, thanks for pointing out the obvious–obvious to everyone, that is, apart from those legislators who persist in the delusion that they can legislate human nature.

The arguments for decriminalisation are practical: a huge amount law enforcement resources are diverted from fighting other crimes; outrageous profits on illegal drugs mean that the market is perfectly suited to exploitation by organised crime; the trade in illegal drugs cannot be regulated, so their consumers risk injury or death from poor quality merchandise; users are cast out of mainstream society and live dangerously, sharing needles and other kinds of risky behaviour.

In my view Dench et al don’t go far enough. Illegal drugs should not be decriminalised, they should be legalised. Apart from all the reasons given above for decriminalisation, there are compelling moral arguments for legalisation. The first is the lack of consistency in the law. There are no logical reasons why some drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco should be freely available to adults when less harmful substances such as cannabis are illegal. Secondly, there is the question of freedom: if you wish to have a free society, then adults should have freedom over their own bodies, which means the freedom to ingest any substance they like without being dictated to by the state. The function of government is to protect citizens’ rights against other people, not themselves. Free people must have autonomy over their own lives, and suffer government interference only when they infringe the rights of others.

Cannabis grow room (with rozzerette)

“But the the health system won’t be able to cope with millions of addicts!” critics will cry. This is simply untrue–the national fiscus takes in much more from taxes on the sale of alcohol than they expend on treating the fairly small proportion of drinkers who descend into alcoholism. Any drugs can be taxed in the same way as are tobacco and alcohol now, and the profits go to government (disorganised crime) instead of to the criminal cartels. Cynics or conspiracy theorists might make the point that government allows the sale of alcohol and tobacco because it saves a considerable amount of money; the best outcome for government is everyone dropping dead at their retirement parties, saving a fortune in pensions and geriatric care. A legal market in drugs can be regulated by health authorities, ensuring suppliers perform adequate quality control, and that users can be confident of the doses they are purchasing.

I’m sure that somewhere in the back of Richard Branson’s mind is the outline of the advertising campaign he will run upon the launch of Virgin Psychedelic, and the profits he will make out of marketing cheap, high quality product to an appreciative public.

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Smoke and Microsoft

March 9, 2011

Ms Charl Everton, Microsoft’s anti-piracy manager, says that running a pirated copy of Windows is tantamount to gun running, human trafficking and drug dealing. The same was said recently in a series of radio advertisements by British American Tobacco with regards to buying smuggled cigarettes.

Let’s examine these statements with a jaundiced, sceptical eye.

Microsoft is a mega-corporation that has been found guilty in both the European Union and the USA of anti-competitive behaviour, but this doesn’t mean it’s OK to buy counterfeit MS products. It doesn’t mean that those who pirate their products are rapists or genocidal megalomaniacs, either. We won’t go into the argument of whether or not the pirating of a software product is stealing; we’ll just accept for the purposes of argument that it is in some sense wrong, like copyright infringement.

The same can be said of smoking smuggled cigarettes—the smoker is depriving the national fiscus of the tax revenue that would have accrued had the cigarettes been legally imported.

So why do Microsoft and BAT make these absurd statements? What do they have in common?

Well, both Microsoft and BAT have a terrible public image. Microsoft is perceived in many quarters to purvey an inferior product that consumers are forced to buy because of Microsoft’s stranglehold on the PC software market. If you don’t believe me, just try to purchase a laptop computer without some version of MS Windows infesting its hard drive.

The cigarette companies sell a product that is known to be harmful to all who partake of it, and is fatal to a significant proportion of them, yet most of their customers are powerless to cease purchasing the product because one of its constituents, nicotine, is one of the most addictive substances known to man.

So, in order to divert attention from their own moral shortcomings, the companies must paint those who trespass upon their intellectual property as worse than they themselves are. They don’t want people to think, “Gosh, I know pirating software or buying smuggled cigarettes is wrong, but these guys are scumbags; ripping them off is a actually a public service, so I’ll go ahead and do it, anyway.” They want you to equate intellectual property infringements or petty smuggling as somehow akin to child rape—unthinkable.

There are perfectly legal alternatives, though. I stopped smoking, thereby saving my health and a stack of money to boot. I decided I would rather write with a quill and calculate with an abacus rather than buy another Microsoft product; I discovered Linux, which is superior to MS Windows in every respect and that there is a free office suite, OpenOffice, which is just as good as MS office.

Don’t pirate Microsoft’s rubbish and don’t smoke BAT’s rubbish, smuggled or not. But don’t buy the crap they purvey, either, or the crap they say.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License

Witchcraft Law

January 28, 2011

Shortly before midnight on March 2nd last year a Molotov cocktail was was hurled through the window of a house in the Western Cape. The resulting fire killed 22 year-old Yalezwa Phulwana and her 2 year-old daughter Liyema. Yalezwa’s two sisters managed to escape the burning house unharmed, but their mother, Nonjengezinye Matwa, was severely burned and hospitalized.


Two men, Kwanele James and Mzuvukile Thoswa, 24 and 25 years old respectively, were arrested and charged with murder, attempted murder, arson and three contraventions of the Suppression of Witchcraft Act of 1957. The reason for these latter charges is that Kwanele James’ mother had recently died, and a sangoma had told him that Nonjengezinye Matwa was a witch and had caused the death of his mother, providing the motive for the arson attack.

Well, I had no idea that such a law existed. Interested in learning what the law actually says, I searched for it on the Department of Justice web site, but found that it is not available for download, and is only obtainable by paying a stiff fee on a commercial website (or schlepping off to the DoJ and getting a hard copy of the Government Gazette, also at a non-trivial cost). There are some free download sites, but none that I have found are comprehensive; certainly none have this piece of legislation available.

To harp boringly on about how much harm irrational beliefs cause would just be depressing, so I won’t do it. Instead, I’m going to harp boringly on about how the hell a citizen is expected to obey the law when he can’t even find out what it says? “Ignorance of the law is no excuse”, but how is the average Joe to overcome his ignorance? And could the obscurity of the law really not be a defence in court? I have googled (although not binged) diligently in an attempt to find out just how many laws are currently on the South African statute books, but the only answer I can come up with is “very, very many”. Far too many for any citizen to have even a vague idea of what they are and what they allow or forbid. I suspect that most of these laws are moribund, in that they are not enforced or known about even by legal professionals. If I am right, isn’t it high time we had a vigorous brush-clearing of the statute books; get rid of the dead wood and allow the light to shine through and illuminate the laws that are useful?

And I have a brilliant idea for keeping superfluous laws off the statute books: carve each Act onto a stone tablet and make legislators carry a copy of them in a backpack wherever they go. When they make a new law, their burden becomes heavier; when they repeal a law, they get that much lighter.

Soon even ordinary people will know where they stand in terms of the law and there will be no need for so many lawyers.

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November 2, 2010

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A girl can be sued over accusations she ran over an elderly woman with her training bicycle when she was 4 years old, a New York Supreme Court justice has ruled.
The ruling by King’s County Supreme Court Justice Paul Wooten stems from an incident in April 2009 when Juliet Breitman and Jacob Kohn, both aged four, struck an 87-year-old pedestrian, Claire Menagh, with their training bikes.
Menagh underwent surgery for a fractured hip and died three months later.

Johannesburg – A man apparently chopped his dog’s back legs off because she “stole” food from a neighbour in a squatter camp outside Sabie.
The female Africanis dog lay helplessly for more than a week behind the hut of her owner, Alfred Maganzi, 65, before residents of the Fok-fok squatter camp called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Canis africanis

On the face of it these two news stories seem to have nothing in common. Half a planet apart, one a silly ruling by an overeducated first-world judge, the other a horrific act by an uneducated, unemployed third-world man; but at the root both made the same mistake: they failed to understand the nature of responsibility.

In order for responsibility to exist, the responsible agent must be able to understand that his actions will have consequences, and be able to make a reasonable assessment of what those consequences might be. In addition, to be held criminally responsible, he must make a conscious choice to perpetrate an act despite being aware that it will or may have adverse consequences.

Neither of those is true in either of these cases. Dogs’ and children’s brains are insufficiently advanced to be capable of anything but the most rudimentary reasoning, and to suggest that a four-year-old human or a dog is capable of performing a sophisticated analysis of cause and effect is ludicrous. When a dog is hungry its instinct will cause it to seek food, and if the only food available is in the hut of a neighbour, then it will take and eat it regardless of any human notions of ownership. (My dog Doofus, coincidentally also an Africanis, took and ate our Christmas chicken that was thawing out atop the oudoor barbecue. Scallywag and I had to make do with a Christmas meal of pizza and roast potatoes.) Similarly, children have very limited spacial awareness; they keep bumping into things and wandering around without looking where they are going. They surely cannot be held responsible for this—a characteristic of childhood behaviour.

However, it is reasonable to chastise dog or child for behaviour that we as adults would like to curb, in the interests of modifying future behaviour. We would like our children to know that running over old ladies with wheeled vehicles is not always a good thing, and we would like our dogs not to go around, like the Italian government, promiscuously gobbling up everything in sight regardless of where it is found. Mild rebuke is called for; suing and dismemberment are both grotesquely disproportionate.

I’m not familiar with the law in New York, but I presume there must be some legal guidelines as to the age at which a child becomes responsible (either in civil or criminal proceedings) for its actions, but I cannot believe that threshold would be as low as four, especially when they are deemed too immature to have sex until they are 18, or buy a beer until they are 21, or take marijuana ever. I don’t suppose we will ever know what caused the judge’s brainfart in actually believing that this child is responsible, but I’m quite sure his ruling will be overturned when, if ever, proceedings are initiated against the child, and no one will be the worse off. (The lawyers, as always, will be very much better off.)

The same cannot be said for the dog, which was put down after her week of agony. How any human being can be so devoid of empathy as to perform an act of such barbarism is beyond me—I do not have the mental equipment to understand it. I can only assume or hope that it is the result of mental illness, not an evil nature, and that Mr Maganzi receives, in either case, the treatment he deserves.

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