Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Beck, Record Labels, DRM and Copyright

You don't have to be Harold Innis or Marshall McLuhan to recognize that digital media are impacting on both society and art. One artist on the front lines is Beck, who is exploiting new digital technologies by creating continuously evolving versions of his work. Guero, his latest album, is already on its fourth official version, in addition to countless fan mash-ups.

In a fascinating interview in the latest issue of Wired, Beck expands on his artistic approach, as well as providing this insightful tidbit on the changing role of record labels:
Record labels definitely aren't going to go away, but it'll be really interesting to see how their role changes. Some of the guys in my band recently started a side band just for fun. At their first show, kind of as a joke, they told everyone to check out their MySpace page – which they hadn't even set up yet. As soon as they got offstage they signed up for an account and put some live recordings online. A couple of days later, they checked back, and a bunch of people had visited and heard their music. Obviously, this was all without a label – without even an album out. It kind of blew my mind.

Beck's comments are particularly apropos given recording industry attempts to lock up their content, even to the extent of preventing fair use copying by their customers, let alone the creative transformations of the material by artists experimenting with the new media. With new copyright legislation expected in the coming months, the Harper government will need to be vigilant to ensure they do not inadvertently close off new forms of creative expression that new technologies unleash.

In my view, it would be an absolute disaster to enshrine DRM protections in the new legislation, as has been requested by the recording and motion picture industries. Of course, creators (and their surrogates) deserve to be paid, but the rights of users must also be respected. Moreover, society benefits greatly from the spread of ideas and knowledge.

Let's hope the policy makers come up with some creative approaches that encourage both the development of new ideas and their widespread dissemination to the public. When knowledge is power, the worst thing we can do is ration it. The ball is now in Bev Oda's court.

Note: Michael Geist provides an excellent overview of the key issues behind DRM and copyright reform in Canada in his ongoing series 30 Days of DRM, It is definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Changing the "game" of war

I'm an economist, not a war strategist. But it seems to me that war strategists in the western world have yet to adapt effectively to the enemies they now face. Terrorists do not behave like conventional armies. In particular, they embed themselves into the local population knowing that western armies would be loathe to attack them for fear of civilian casualties. Clearly, the incentives of war are different than in the past. It is time to change the game.

Babbling Brooks' recent post Kill 'em all and let Allah sort 'em out got me thinking. Unfortunately, I am not a "team member," so I could not leave a comment on his blog. Here is the comment I tried to post:

Ditto for Israel.

There would be no quicker way to get the terrorists to stop hiding in the mosques and the cities than to refuse to fall for that gambit again. The first time might be tragic, but after that, if a terrorist wants to be your neighbour and you do nothing about it, you know what to expect.

The rules of war are being rewritten as we speak. It is absolutely stupid to fight a war with one hand tied behind your back. By changing the terms of war, citizens would no longer be collateral damage. Let them volunteer for martyrdom if they wish, but it will be their choice.

Update: It seems Damian (of Babbling Brooks) is on holiday and, while he is gone, his comments are turned off.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A kick in the shins

What is wrong with people?

After attending a "meet and greet" with the prime minister in North York last night, I met one of my neighbours and her boyfriend while waiting for the elevator to get up to my apartment. I was carrying a couple of shopping bags of stuff I had picked up on the way home so she asked me if I had just got back from shopping.

"Actually," I replied, "I just got back from meeting the prime minister." She looked a little puzzled, so I added, "you know, Stephen Harper."

Her boyfriend then piped in, "I hope you kicked him in the shins."


Selling out Canada

If Globe and Mail headline writers (and its readers) are to be believed, those pernicious Conservatives are at it again. They have put up a great big sign: "Canada is for sale."

Ottawa urged to push foreign takeovers
Outside investment has a 'net benefit,' internal files suggest


OTTAWA — Federal officials have told Industry Minister Maxime Bernier that Ottawa should encourage more foreign takeovers and other investment from abroad, despite public concern that corporate Canada is being gutted by a flurry of acquisitions.

Not quite.

Internal government documents, prepared earlier this year for the Harper government, say takeovers and other foreign investment provide "net benefit" to Canada and that the government should consider further reducing restrictions.

This may be too fine a point for Simon Tuck and his editors, but there is a world of difference between removing restrictions on foreign investment and encouraging the foreign takeover of our industrial base.

It does beg the question, however, as to why federal bureaucrats would even suggest such a thing, particularly when it was the previous Liberal administration to which the report was initially presented.

Foreign-based multinational corporations are on average more innovative, invested in new technology and focused on cross-border trade, say the documents, obtained through federal access-to-information legislation.

Contrary to the myth of the "hollow out" left by foreign takeovers, the government officials argued, multinational giants also tend to pay better than domestic companies and offer advantages in trying to create better trade ties with China and other emerging markets.

But don't let that give you the wrong impression. These companies are not innovative because they are foreign owned, they are innovative because they are open to the world.

Some parts of the documents were blacked out by government officials before they were released, but the Jan. 11 document concludes that Canada needs more multinational corporations, whether they're foreign-owned or not. One document cites a recent OECD study that found that Canada has the second-highest level of foreign ownership restrictions among the group's countries, after Iceland.

Clearly, the economic policies that have coddled Canadian business and insulated them from international competitive pressures have not served us well. What we need is more multinationals – foreign and domestic – that can compete with the world. It must be a refreshing change, then, for federal economists to actually have their analysis and recommendations taken seriously.

To be sure, given the tone of many of the comments on the thread, a virulent undertone of anti-American (and anti-Conservative) sentiment will be a big obstacle to introducing some sense into this debate. But tell me, does it really make any difference if your telephone or internet provider is Canadian owned? What is the point of preventing foreign telcos such as British Telecom or Verizon from selling their services in Canada? What are we really afraid of?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

To the Barricades

Barricades, the journal of Beryl P. Wajsman's Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal, is now available online. It is definitely worth a look.

My heart fails to bleed by George Jonas is an especially good read.

On democracy, Jonas writes:
Contrary to how most Western political leaders, academics, or editorialists use the word, "democracy" doesn’t mean peace, freedom, equality, prosperity, secularism, security, or justice. The D-word simply means a method of governmental succession. It denotes a system in which governments succeed each other by being elected, usually for a fixed term, by a majority of qualified voters. That's all.

On freedom…
Are Western societies still freer than outright theocracies or dictatorships, like Cuba or North Korea? Unquestionably, yes. Are they FREE, though? No, not really. They aren't free, not just compared with some mythical absolute, but with their own past.

The world had a one-night stand with freedom. She came in the late 19th century and went in the early 20th. Even the citizens of semi-constitutional monarchies, such as Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany, were freer in the pre-World War I era than the income- and consumption-taxed inhabitants of the European Union are today. They were certainly freer in terms of individual expression, enterprise, and mobility than the photo-ID'd, hate-crime-muzzled, gun-registered, dog-tail-length-regulated, smoke-freed and body-searched citizens of the interventionist democracies are our times, Canada included.

The modern liberal state has its own dogmas, sacrileges, holy things, taboos, which it guards as jealously and enforces almost as rigidly as the Taliban used to guard and enforce its version of Islam.

Exaggeration? You decide. In the year 1300, in what we call the Dark Ages, a pig was tried for blasphemy in France. In the year 2000, two hundred years into the Age of Enlightenment, on the eve of the 21st century, in the United States, when a six-year-old boy kissed a six-year-old girl, the authorities charged him with sexual harassment.

With the past to guide us, Canada's future is bright...
I came to Canada 50 years ago. It wasn't a perfect society perhaps, but compared to the rest of the world, it was a society of prosperity, liberty, and sanity. To me it seemed magical. When people disapproved of something, they shrugged and said: "Well, it's a free country." When was the last time you've heard that expression?

My heart bleeds for that free country of 1956. I suppose that makes me a bleeding-heart conservative. I'm not a pessimist, though. I think Canada's future is bright, but it's accessible to us only through the yellow brick road of Canada's past. The rest are blind alleys.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Bono buys piece of capitalist rag

The New York Times reports (registration required) that Elevation Partners, a private equity group controlled by U2 singer Bono and a group of venture capitalists, has bought a 40 percent plus stake in Forbes for US$250 million to US$300 million.

For the last 25 years, Bono has stayed atop a fickle business by embracing the latest technology in order to build global reach, constantly renewing the creative product and engaging in public stewardship along the way, including work on trade issues and global poverty.

Of course, Bono's investment in a magazine that celebrates wealth and consumption is bound to raise eyebrows. But Mr. McNamee said the stake in Forbes did not necessarily clash with his politics and his rhetoric, saying, "The way you solve poverty is giving people the tools to overcome it." Bono could not be reached for comment.

Saving the world will have to wait. There's money to be made.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

No love for Canada

Keith Richards reveals the real reason the Rolling Stones rehearse in Canada:

"The whole business thing is predicated a lot on the tax laws. It's why we rehearse in Canada and not in the US. A lot of our astute moves have been basically keeping up with tax laws: where we go, where not to put it, whether to sit on it or not."

Similarly, Toronto no longer holds the same attraction it once did for Prince. It is probably only a matter of time before he puts his Bridal Path mansion up for sale.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Heather's latest pick: Stephen Harper

The news that "Liberal power couple" Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz are now backing Stephen Harper should come as no surprise. They can read the writing on the wall. The Liberal Party is toast and destined to remain in the political wilderness for years to come.

In an e-mail to friends, Ms. Reisman applauded film producer Robert Lantos's statement at a weekend rally that he would "hereby take off [his] life-long federal Liberal hat."

"I [am] right there alongside Robert. . . . after a lifetime of being a Liberal, I have made the switch," Ms. Reisman wrote. "Feels strange, but totally and unequivocally right."

A recipient of the e-mail confirmed that Ms. Reisman, who was the Liberal Party of Canada's policy chairwoman in the 1980s and who worked for Pierre Trudeau in his first election in 1965, had sent the e-mail to several friends, and that she has told others the same thing.

"She has told her friends in person and in e-mails that she is supporting the Conservatives under Stephen Harper this time," a close friend said yesterday. "She thinks that his position on the Lebanon issue is the right one."

Ostensibly, the switch to the Conservatives is about Stephen Harper has taken a principled stand in supporting Israel's right to defend itself against terrorist attacks by Hezbollah in Lebanon. In contrast, it is hard to say what the leaderless Liberals stand for. They are all over the map. With even Michael Ignatieff, the supposed hawk among the leadership candidates, calling for a ceasefire, the Canadian Jewish community's disenchantment with the Liberal Party is understandable.

Yet people with a lifetime of involvement in a party don't switch to the other side over a single issue. Something more is at stake: their very ability to influence the government to support their business interests>

My take is that Reisman and Schwartz realize that whatever IOUs they may still hold for raising and donating bucketloads of cash to the Liberals in the past now have limited value. The Liberal Party is out of the game for at least another election. But it is always handy to have friends in high places when, say, you want to monopolize the book-selling business or take another run at a national Airline.

Since they can no longer cut a $50,000 cheque to the party in power, they must now make their presence known in other ways. Hence, the high profile defection. They even managed to get a story about it on the front page of Canada's "national" newspaper. Kudos to their public relations team.

Now the Conservatives owe nothing to such fair-weather friends. In fact, having such friends is the last thing this government needs, given Reisman's history of censorship.

So while Stephen Harper may be Heather's pick today, it is important to keep in mind that power is to Canada's parvenu what shit is to flies. They will always be buzzing around government looking for something. We can certainly indulge Heather on Israel as a matter of principle. But if she expects more, just give her a swat. There aren't any other more promising piles she can fly to. And she knows it.