ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Cleverness Cash —

Bear with me on this one. It gets weird and tangential fast.

A number of times when giving speeches and writing essays about my Documentary and the whole issue of “pirating” it, I talked about something that was, but never called, a “Piracy Spectrum”. The description went something like this.

The users who currently interact with media, especially in the modern era where duplicating media is pretty simple, tend to fall along a spectrum. On one side are people who would never think in a million years of duplicating or copying media. On the other side are people who would be morally offended if they actually had to pay for a piece of media. The problem with most laws and protection schemes is that they end up alienating and angering the people on the “pay for it” side of the spectrum, while doing very little to prevent the folks on the “never pay for it” side. A lot of schemes, laws, dragnets and busts are intended to drive the weight of the spectrum in the “pay for it” direction, but the collateral damage increases as you increase this pressure.

Taken further, the spectrum breaks down in the middle for people who have no particular moral code one way or another, with regards to “pay for it” and “not pay for it”. They just want “it”. If their iTunes gives them a song for a buck and it goes in smoothly onto their iPod along with a pretty picture, that’s A-OK. And if a bittorrent gives them a movie in less time than it would take to find which theater is playing it and get out there, that’s A-OK too. Refusing to pay an “exhorbitant rate” or not buying something because of “the draconian measures of the HDMI standard” isn’t really part of the equation.

Subsequently, I saw the negatives to enforcing draconian copyright restrictions; launching some sort of “anti-piracy” rant/campaign/position with my own film was a ludicrous idea. First, I’d have no real way to enforce any such measure, instead launching into a life-sucking “John Doe” lawsuit against random persons as it got my gander to go after them. Large content firms have enough cash that they can afford to throw a few million in the direction of being insane jerks, because not enough people make noise about them being insane jerks in that way. A single person is not so lucky in that regard. Second, I would be quickly thought of as “that asshole” quicker than the usual methods I employ to be thought of as “that asshole”… with no personal gain in the process. Finally, a work of the length I was releasing, released in the Creative Commons license I chose, and with a statement that I was fully cognizant of what I was doing, was unique and rare. This was marketable and a way to turn the realism of the situation (I could never prevent unauthorized copying, where I to “unauthorize” it) into a benefit (I see my stuff go far and wide, that 1000 mile round trip I took to record David Terry of PC-Board Fame was worth it, fan mail would come pouring in, etc.). This guess (and it was a guess) turned out to be a good choice: I made a ton of money. I still make a ton of money from it. Not stop-working-forever money, but an amount that would make most suburban families jump up and down like maniacs on a game show. This works for me.

Readers of the ASCII weblog have heard this all before. Now let’s go weird.

Throughout life, it’s possible to get something easier or cheaper or with less blowback if you show cleverness about it. The cleverness could be direct, that is, you yourself are clever, or it could be social, like, you hang with clever people and get the benefit, hopefully by being someone or something worthwhile to the clever people. For example, there might be some huge-ass multi-hour line to get into something, but you, the Clever Person, figured out that the line can be skipped if you phone in your reservation the day before. You therefore get in, and the person accompanying you benefits from your cleverness and ostensibly provides you with something worthwhile for your indirect cleverness, that is, oral sex.

This happens all the time; people who get copies of stuff before it’s out, people who get into the backstage, people who acquire better sushi or proper engine repair or any of a number of services and goods that come from them implementing a level of thoughtfulness, analytical prowess, or even just the sense to ask a couple questions firmly before committing to the crap trough. Naturally, if people just pass along basic info like “Demand option 5” or “Use the side door” or “Tell them you found a railroad spike in your burger”, these exploits quickly dry up and new ones have to be found, again, using cleverness.

What people are doing, basically, are trading in a different currency, which I call Cleverness Cash, a coin of the realm of smarts, where you are substituting money or time investment with intelligence, so that you find a better way of achieving the same goal without paying for it.

Here’s the thing, however. Cleverness Cash is pretty much non-transferable. It has a dismal exchange rate, doesn’t accrue with time, and it certainly can’t be turned around and traded for its worth in gold. Forget the “gold standard”.. Cleverness Cash can’t even hold up to the Smell Test.

Piracy, and by Piracy I mean the duplication of stuff that is for sale without the permission of the people who are selling it, is incredibly easy, almost to the point of losing any relevance to the original term of “Piracy”, which at least implied some amount of effort, skill, or risk. Going down for being a “pirate” in the modern age is an event akin to a house fire or a driving accident; a horrible event for the person involved, but a totally logical set of circumstances leading up to it and not so rare that it makes the front page. Contrast this with, say, a plane crash, which gets immediate and distinct worldwide attention, is rare enough to make front pages, and has resulting pain in dozens, sometimes hundreds of families for generations.

Content providers want Piracy to be thought of with the fear of a plane crash. But in a way, Copyfighters want the actions associated with content protection to be thought of as a plane crash too. Neither gets their way. And there is a lot more attention spent heralding the stupidity and backwards thinking of the content providers and their silly copyrights and their draconian copyright push than the stupidity that is shown in the other direction.

Maybe that’s as it should be to some people. I don’t like it, and it irks me.

It irks me when I see people who are copyfighters who are so filled with a sense of hubris, such a sense of having earned Cleverness Cash by the truckload that they think it transfers to another discipline, like business administration and economic analysis. “Here is what the [companies] need to do to get back on track”, they blort from their weblogs and comments, as if it was merely a matter of yanking a few levers and pressing some buttons to fundamentally shift a 70+ year business in a fundamentally different direction. They assume that because a lot of people use Limewire, those people buy into the political/social structure of free culture, anti-copyright, and pro-creative-whatsis. In point of fact, Limewire isn’t a vote, Limewire is a very simple-to-use music download service, devoid of a loyalty test upon usage to any tenets of any position on what represents ownership in a digital age. They’re at best free-floating agents, sway votes, but they’re not signed up and ready. They’ll abandon Limewire for whatever’s next in a heartbeat, and have a dozen times before.

There is no Cleverness Cash in the acquisition of music online for the last seven years. If you can install a program, you can get music. If you can run a browser, you can get music.

There is some Cleverness Cash available for things like hacking hardware (although that era/outlet is coming to a close thanks to magazines like Make and a rebirth of advancement in electronics education thanks to internet-based teaching). There is some in the realm of doing really whacky, actual law research, as the EFF is doing and which a bunch of law students and people are doing. The painful act of tracking legal precedent and encountering legal battles and challenging bad law – that’s action, that’s earning you some C-Cash right there. Weblogging about it, bringing to bear your completely-made-up theories of what companies “should” do and what laws “should” do is actually worse than no action at all, because it is anti-action, action you are taking that convinces you that you’re making a difference in where the world is going. It’s pushing rocks around in a back lot while acting like you’re farming.

I rush to clarify, however, that I am not against people outside of an industry analysing that industry; we’ve produced an awful lot of engineers as a race at this point and it’s a preferable idea to have them figuring out how to make the world in some way “better” than figure out how to project pop-up ads into the eyes of unborn children. Huzzah to the outside observer, dispassionately adding up the numbers and saying “so, what the dilly-o with you claiming you bring in X and lose Y but I show you bring in X^5 and lose Y/2?”.

More of that, seriously. But at the end of the say, the organic nature of the world and of the minds of human beings, actual human beings that think, fear and love, are more than a rounding error in the calculations. That is, more often than it should be, forgotten.

I say all this knowing that I am guilty and have often been guilty of these same crimes, even within this entry; I weblog on my little site here about matters universal in nature as if I was in the room when they were first conceived. I certainly act, in most cases, like I am the first to come up with an approach or an idea. This is my failing, and i am quite aware of it. I suspect I will fail often and frequently in the future.

But I do know this, at this point: that the assumption that all those staring at you agree with you, that your position is a depression in a bowl of opinion that all minds will roll naturally to if given enough time, is a bankrupt theory. And no amount of Cleverness Cash will make up for that deficit.

Spend wisely.

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One Comment

  1. The value of Cleverness Cash took a nose dive with the arrival of the Internet.

    The way I see it, there are two sources of Cleverness Cash: you either come up with something on your own, or you pick it up from somebody else. The first group always has and always will be infinitely smaller than the second. For every one person who has actually cracked a piece of software (the first group), there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people out there who have then copied that cracked program.

    Of course, not everybody belongs to the second group. There still exists a certain amount of knowledge that is required in order to use someone else’s Cleverness Cash. For example, let’s talk about copying DVDs. A very small group of people (three, I believe) cracked the original DVD copy protection. 3 people … those are the guys creating their own Cleverness Cash. To spend someone else’s Cleverness Cash, you’ll need a bit of knowledge and maybe some tools (a DVD ripping program and a DVD burner, for example). Obviously this kind of second hand Cleverness Cash is only worth pennies on the dollar compared to someone who can print their own, it’s still worth something to those who deal in such currencies, and it’s better than not having any pennies at all. To those with no Cleverness Cash at all, those second hand dealers look pretty good.

    If you think about it, the enemies of Cleverness Cash are time and exposure. Cleverness Cash is most valuable before it’s spent. Sticking to our old school theme, let’s use “c0dez” as an example. c0dez, or stolen credit card/calling card numbers, were their own form of currency back in the BBS days. You could trade working c0dez for access, games, accounts, or other c0dez. However, the minute you gave out a c0de, it became worthless. Why? Because now that someone else had the c0de, you had lost control of it. They might use it, abuse it, trade it again or give it away. The more people that new about it, the less value it had. And it wasn’t just c0dez; accounts were the same way. Back in the day I had thousands of network accounts on hundreds of different systems. They were valuable to me as long as they were unmolested. The minute I traded one to someone else I marked it off my list. Another example could be software — if you were the first person among your circle of friends to get a new game, it was worth something. The minute you traded it to someone else, its value began to decrease. As the program spread its value dropped until the point where everyone who wanted it had it, and it’s trade value became zero.

    So, back to BBSes. Except for the big commercial boards, 99% of the places I called (at least up until the mid 90’s or so) were single line boards. Communication was slow, things took a while to spread. Some things never did spread. Some scenes were purely local. I remember a post on a local hacker bulletin board about a short series of numbers that, when dialed on a payphone, caused the phone to “reboot.” The numbers still work. In 25 years I’ve never reposted those numbers because it’s a neat parlor trick that’s lasted a long time. In a way it’s kind of like magic tricks. There is really nothing less magical about pulling your own thumb off than levitating. But pulling your thumb off is a dumb trick because everybody knows the secret, while the secrets of levitation are slightly less widely known. Time, and exposure.

    Speed and exposure is what the Internet’s all about. Anybody with a curious mind and a first-grader’s command of Google and/or YouTube can now learn how to pick locks, build explosives, and levitate people (all before lunch). The cat’s out of the bag; those things no longer have any Cash value, at least not to anyone online. If the fact that knowledge of such things are available at even children’s fingertips makes you worry, don’t. The problem’s never been with things with no value. It’s the secrets that you don’t know about that are worth something. That’s the Cash worth hanging on to.