8.24.2005

Tech and the Freedom of ideas

MIT's Technology Review is a recent discovery for me. I started picking through them at the girlfriend's house and have found a treasure trove of geeky info. First off, in the most recent edition, there is an article about the next "big thing" in media storage, in the form of holographic disks.

Here are some of the more interesting bits:

...The disc has more than 60 times the storage capacity of a standard DVD, while the drive writes about 10 times faster than a conventional DVD burner. That means the disc can store up to 128 hours of video content--almost twice enough for the full nine seasons of Seinfeld--and records it all in less than three hours. It's likely to be one of the first commercial systems to use "holographic storage," in which bits are encoded in a light-sensitive material as the three-dimensional interference pattern of lasers. Unlike CDs and DVDs, which store data bit by bit on their surfaces, holographic discs store data a page at a time in three dimensions, enabling huge leaps in capacity and access speed.

...Meanwhile, CDs and DVDs have already transformed how people listen to music and watch movies. But each of these storage technologies has drawbacks. The density of magnetic materials in hard drives is fast approaching a fundamental physical limit. Flash memory is slow, and a DVD is barely large enough to hold a full-length movie.

...Storing data in three dimensions would overcome many of these limitations. Indeed, the theoretical promise of holographic storage has been talked about for 40 years. But advances in smaller and cheaper lasers, digital cameras, projector technologies, and optical recording materials have finally pushed the technology to the verge of the market. And the ability to cram exponentially more bits into infinitesimal spaces could open up a whole new realm of applications.

By storing and reading out millions of bits at a time, a holographic disc could hold a whole library of films. Movies, video games, and location-based services like interactive maps could be put on postage-stamp-size chips and carried around on cell phones. A person's entire medical history, including diagnostic images like x-rays, could fit on an ID card and be quickly transmitted to or retrieved from a database."

In the June issue, copyright lawyers Lawrence Lessig and Richard Epstein (this link is a crapshoot, for no rhyme or reason as far as I could tell, but keep tryin') go toe to toe on issues surrounding software licensing, i.e., the open-source model vs. the propietary model. I find myself more sympathetic to Epstein's argument, which falls between the two, describing the distinct advantages to both models being in the marketplace.
"My qualified defense of proprietary software rests on my general approach to property rights. It may seem odd that I see land law as a place to begin thinking about copyright law in the digital age, but in the law, continuity counts for more than novelty. While we always have to tend to the differences among different forms of property, we are likely to make fewer mistakes by proceeding carefully from established understandings.

Every legal system in history has blended two separate property regimes: the private and common. Both are important to software and copyright. Private property confers on individual owners exclusive rights to the possession, use, and disposition (sale, lease, mortgage, gift) of some given tangible resource. Virtually all civilizations start with a decentralized system in which the person who first takes an unowned thing is entitled to keep it against the rest of the world. Providing a plot of land or individual object with a single, determinate owner facilitates its effective use. The farmer who sows today knows that she can reap tomorrow, without fearing the incursions of others. The ability to sell, lease, or mortgage property allows for everything from a simple transfer of land from person A to person B to the formation of complex cooperative ventures among multiple parties. The GNU General Public License (GPL) that Lessig so admires offers a shining example of how this last, iterative process works.

Any system of private ownership requires state enforcement, first, to protect private property from forced occupation, misappropriation, and invasion, and second, to enforce voluntary deals. But any theory of property rights that includes a key role for the state should also emphatically reject the use of centralized state power to determine who shall own what resource or why. Governments, for instance, should not pick technologies.

In all legal systems, however, a system of private property rests on an infrastructure of common property. The air we breathe, the roads we travel, and the language we speak cannot easily be reduced to private possession. They remain part of the commons because their separation impedes respiration, transportation, and communication. At the edges, we recognize useful exceptions. Although everyone may use the word "monopoly" to describe a market with a single seller, only Hasbro may market a board game with hotels and a jovial top-hatted mascot under that trade name. The private creation of a trade name pulls that name out of the linguistic commons for the limited purpose of identification."

Fascinating stuff if you're into this kind of thing.

p.s. If this interested you, check out Peter Suber's Open Access Blog, a masterful compendium of news focused on the movement to usher scholarly writing to the forum of peer review without the costly, and antiquated, "journal" as gatekeeper.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

As someone who develops software for a living, I definitely have my personal opinions on copyright issues which pretty much fall in line with Epstein. Simply waiting for someone to feel altruistic or curious about a problem isn’t going to get it solved within any time frame we’re used to. Open source software is cool stuff, but even its greatest contributions can’t hold a candle to its proprietary equivalents.

I see a lot of parallels between relaxing copyright laws and the push to nationalize healthcare. If successful both would greatly expand the accessibility of their respective products in the short term, but long term development of new products would be severely disincentivized. Does anyone honestly believe a cure for cancer or AIDS will come out of the EU?