07 August 2004

Interlude: Information Doesn't Want Anything

One of the things I do in my practice is read things that disgust me. Constantly. Six months of the year, for example, have publishing categories attached to them; during those months, I require myself to read bestsellers that reflect the current thinking in the publishing industry. This June, for example, I read the latest Dani311e St331 novel; in September, I have to read a political/spy thriller.

All of this, in a roundabout fashion, leads to some of the "anti-copyright" blogs, blawgs, and other sources that I constantly review. Some of them are well-thought-out, even if I ultimately disagree with them; Cory Doctorow's Boing-Boing (link in the right-hand column) is an example. Some of them are not, and constantly prove that Mencken was right: nobody could go broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public. (If nothing else, the sheer amount of dreck in the blogosphere—and even the blawgosphere—should demonstrate the futility of most self-publishing and virtually all vanity-publishing efforts.) Some are in the middle, such as Kevin Heller's Tech Law Advisor. Mr Heller has an agenda that seriously colors his thinking, as do virtually all of us on the web. Unfortunately, his work is prone to some serious logical flaws. Consider this example, referring to Congressional ire at overpriced scientific journals:

I'm confused here. You mean they want information to be free? I wonder if these articles are available on P2P Congress [sic]? Would Congress outlaw p2p then?

"Copyright Bad for Open Access to Scientific Info" (06 Aug 04).

Sorry, Mr Heller, but you've just made some unwarranted leaps in this passage that undermine your position and credibility.

  • Information doesn't "want" anything, unless we're returning to Greek mythology and postulating a muse for scientific data.
  • Presuming that information could "want to be free," this is the paradigmatic example of the information/expression dichotomy. As I've discussed previously, this entire controversy results from misuse of WFH by the commercial publishers of academic journals (all of which, by the way, contain extensive advertising, which leads to other interesting questions…). "It's the data and conclusions, stupid!" What scientists want—and, frankly, given the crappy writing and atrophied reading skills prevalent in the scientific community, is about all they're capable of (as a group) anyway—is the data and conclusions. They're not interested Jacqueline duPre's subtle phrasing at the beginning of Elgar's Cello Concerto; they're not even interested in the sheet music; they just want to know whether e minor is a valid key for a cello concerto, and the entire concerto is an experiment to prove or disprove that.
  • Even granting those rare instances in which exact formulation does matter to scientists to an extent that the exact formulation is sufficiently original and nonutilitarian for copyright protection, the leap to P2P networks as an unvarnished good is completely unjustified. It's sort of like justifying a pawn shop that is a front for a fencing operation by pointing to the small proportion of legitimate business that the pawn shop does, while ignoring the vast bulk that is not.

I'm rather disappointed and somewhat dismayed: Mr Heller's work ordinarily is, and absolutely should be, better conceived than this. I'm all for sniping at hypocrisy, but this particular sniping seriously undermines his previously stated position.