Land of Wizards

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From: Tom Sweetnam (
Date: Fri Aug 25 2000 - 05:24:12 PDT

We have many budding entrepreneurs in this forum with very bright ideas for new and innovative products and processes. How many of them I wonder, have ever considered contacting the FBI for permission to use our national police agency logo on products or processes in order to convey a message of threat and intimidation to the people who buy those products or processes? The implied threat being, that if you, the customer, illegally copy my product or process, you will answer to the FBI...maybe even to one of their snipers.

I know of no industry that has resorted to such heavy-handed psychological thuggery other than the entertainment industry, the same people who produce the videos we rent and buy -the same products that flash this FBI warning on every showing, and the same people coincidentally who run the lion's share of the recording industry. These are the people suing the Napsters of this nation, and like the carpenters union of the 1890's that struck to keep electric tools out of the workplace, so too has the entertainment industry fought archaic ally and vehemently against every technological innovation they might possibly construe as a threat to their bottom line.

I've written FBI Director Louis Freah on two occasions complaining of this shady liaison, asking that the FBI rethink its policy of allowing a for-profit business clique like the Hollywood entertainment industry to use the FBI logo to project a message of threat and intimidation against the American people. This practice is reminiscent of Soviet intimidation under the KGB, and not the free market democracy that I want to live in, and it should cease immediately. Yet this is the one subject of many on which I've written FBI Director Louis Freah, when I've never received a reply from anyone in the bureau. The FBI has always written back in the past, yet our national police agency obviously didn't want to acknowledge this particular subject. I wonder why that is?

The fact that the entertainment industry plumbs the depths of such unethical sleaze in the promotion and protection of their own product and process is nothing new, yet the fact that this same industry projects itself as the darling of every liberal cause and liberal politician seeking its endorsement is epic hypocrisy. All one needed do to reinforce this autocratic reality lately, was to listen to the tunnel vision monologue of Senator Diane Feinstein during the Senate subcommittee hearings on Wednesday, far and away the single member of the Senate investigating committee most hostile toward Napster and IT innovation in general, and a California liberal politician of the old school clearly in the back pocket of the entertainment industry...the pocket where they keep their wallet. Is there a Democratic politician in Washington who would dare speak out against the entertainment industry I wonder?

Why now, I have to ask? Why is the purported theft of intellectual property so in the limelight now? After all, Microsoft's losses to intellectual property piracy dwarf any loss the entertainment industry is currently whining about, yet Microsoft has never enjoyed the hubbub of victimhood in which Hollywood currently basks. "Why" is an anecdotal question of course, since everyone knows the reason for all this commotion is that the entertainment industry, married to the music industry and the national media -all of them infamous for their colossal greed- now perceive that extended family as a potential victim of intellectual property piracy. Goliath is trembling in his sandals at approaching shadow of David -the software engineer in the new millennium. So political chits and IOUs are called in, and Senate telephones ring off the hook, and the half dozen Senators actually equipped to receive e-mail do so at 1.2 kps, and hearings are eventually called.

I remain very cynical. Back in the late 70's, Tom Wolfe wrote a seminal essay called 'Land of Wizards' which addressed the problem of theft of intellectual property from the little guys of America, people whose brain waves are born in basements and garages and not in group-think corporate research labs. One of these people who Wolfe chose to illustrate was the man who invented the Microfiche (amongst many other inventions). He invented the Microfiche because he was tired of spending weeks on end researching mountains of hard copy US Patent Office records, a laborious task for inventors who must insure that their ideas have not been previously patented. So he sat down and invented the Microfiche and then submitted his blueprints for a patent. He didn't get it however, because the US Patent Office stole his plans, subcontracted a manufacturer to build Microfiche machines, and became the first institution on the planet to use the new technology. Tom Wolfe painted an eloquent and damning picture of this institutional piracy, long orchestrated by our federal government, the military, and American industry almost as a matter of policy. Years later, PBS would air a documentary dealing with very much the same subject, only the locus of their piece was the number of senior bureaucrats in Washington who are employed in agencies that are supposed to be protecting American intellectual property interests, but who in reality, hold these jobs simply as a stepping stone to far more lucrative lobbying jobs with Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese concerns; foreign interests all, who suffer no conscience pangs whatsoever in pirating any good idea they might stumble upon from America's vast warehouse of inventors and creators. The sad reality about our federal government is that legions of Washington bureaucrats hold jobs that are diametrically opposed to their ambitions, and are at odds end with American interests. Hence the thesis in both the Wolfe and PBS essays, that our own federal government, in one way or another, whether directly or by collusion, is the single most egregious thief of its own citizen's intellectual property.

I see the current debate as an evolving battle of semantics. The single noun most often hackneyed during the intellectual property/Napster Senate hearings on Wednesday was "balance". Everyone spoke of the "balance" that must be struck. Hollywood's idea of balance however, has always been an elephant sitting on one side of a teeter-totter, representing themselves, and a mouse sitting on the other end, representing Napster, MP3, and all their emerging soul mates present and past. Small wonder Napster has never approached the recording industry with the prospect of negotiating licensing fees. Of course to do so would be an admission that such fees are forthcoming in the first place. Should they be forthcoming? My brother the trial lawyer tells me to let the courts decide. Guys like him are big on semantics. In the meantime, I imagine Warner Brothers or one of the other biggies currently suing is probably in secret negotiations with Napster at the same time for movie rights to their story. I'm sure Napstergate or the Pirates of No Penance or whatever this flick will be called, will be a smashing success, grossing maybe $100 million at the box office in its first twelve weeks. Yet by the time Warner Brothers' chief bean counter gets through with his fiduciary alchemy, the bad news will have to be broken to Napster that the movie didn't make any money, and that's why Napster won't get any royalties. Napstergate will go on to win an Oscar that year however, for special effects in accounting, which will induce the studio to do 8 more Napstergate sequels, none of which, unfortunately for Napster, will ever make a dime.

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