Sunday, March 19, 2006

Optimal Copyrightability

One can regard copyright as an agreement between the state and producers where the state grants the producer a time-limited monopoly of distribution, enforces that monopoly with a police force and judicial system, and thereby provides a monetary incentive to produce arts and enrich our culture. This justification may be a little iffy, but the U.S. Constitution and many others, including me, use this line of reasoning. But there are three issues which makes the agreement rather suboptimal for the state.

Firstly, when applied to typical shrink-wrapped off-the-shelf computer programs, only the executable binary, not the more significant source code, will eventually fall into public domain. So perhaps in 2056 one would be free to distribute binary copies of the first MS Windows, but people still couldn't see how they were implemented. The source code will remain a trade secret forever, and hence enrich our culture much less than the legislators initially intended. This deficiency could be solved by requiring the source code of programs to be escrowed before the state granted it copyright, but I guess nobody believes the legislators would have the balls to require that.

Secondly, if the producer defaults in distribution, then it should become legal to copy and distribute the copyrighted work freely. For example, according to Lawrence Lessig's database of 18 million books, almost 90% of copyrighted books are out of print.

Thirdly, and most evidently, it seems copyright times are much longer than is really needed to guarantee an economical incentive for producers. To study this a little closer, I fetched the list of all 15980 accreditations granted by RIAA, deduced from them as well as I could the sales figures and release dates of all music albums, and computed some statistics. I know there are many deficiencies with this approach - for example not all artists bother to apply for accreditations or apply decades later - but it was still the best long-term statistics I could get my hands on.

Based on these statistics it seems that on average albums reach 90% of their final cumulative market share in 30 months, and 95% in ten years. I would, however, tend to claim that revenues from bargain sales of more than a few year old records are far less profitable, and hence almost all profit will be made within the decade. The only notable exception is occasional revivals of old very popular hits - for example the musical "Mamma Mia!" clearly boosted sales of two decades old ABBA hits.

Profit figures for record labels were harder to come by, but for example according to the Canadian record industry association, record label profits are around 7% of the VAT-free street price of a CD - profit ratio of the company would be much higher than that. So even given these probably very conservative profit estimates, these companies would still make profits even if the copyright period would be dropped dramatically. Absolutely no data justifies the current 3-4 generation long copyright periods.


I had a little fever and was feeling awkward, so I took a nap on my couch. Some moments later I woke up feeling a strong vibration in my chest. For a few twilight seconds I thought I was suffering a heart attack, until I realized I had forgotten my new small mobile phone with an exceptionally strong vibration alarm in my chest pocket. Found this so hilarious my laughter nearly suffocated me.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Allez, Allez!

Suppose Lance Armstrong would sit on his bike and start accelerating at a constant acceleration of 1 m/s^2 (roughly 10% of earth's gravity). In ten seconds he would reach a good cycling speed of 36 km/h, or some 20 mph, but suppose he would continue to press on. What would happen? Here's my guesstimate.

From over one to two minutes later, around a speed of 300-400 km/h, typical cycling clothes would probably be torn apart by the air resistance. But assume Lance doesn't care, or happens to wear a super-adhesive fig leaf.

Roughly four minutes after start his bike wheels would break under the centrifugal forces. This may have happened sooner or later depending on the surface, the structure of the wheels, and whether they start wobbling. Lance has lost his tires far earlier.

Less than six minutes after starting Lance reaches Mach one. Gradually air resistance would begin to heat him up. Burn marks would begin to appear starting on his forehead, hands and knees, but for philanthropic reasons we assume that Lance is indestructable. Fourty minutes later his kinetic energy exceeds that of his weight of TNT. It will become increasingly difficult to see Lance's face as he begins to be surrounded by glowing plasma.

In two hours and twelve minutes after start, having traveled 75% of earth's circumference, Lance will have trouble to stay on ground as earth's gravitational pull no longer compensates the speed at which earth curves downwards under him. Poor Lance begins to spiral into space.

Eight hours later Lance would reach the moon, in less than a week the sun, and five weeks later he would reach Pluto. Gradually relativistic effects will creep in, and Lance will see the stars in front of him change their colors towards blue, and behind him towards red. After nine years of pedaling (?), or ten years and three months on earth, Lance reaches the nearest stars. His speed has exceeded 70% of light speed, and needless to say, should he pedal through a planet, he would cause a mass extinction of whatever life forms happen to live on that planet. Even more spectacular effects - clearly observable also back on earth - would occur should Lance pedal through a neutron star.

Duh, a side note to myself: I need to stop playing with my pocket calculator.

(Thanks to an alert reader who wishes to stay anonymous for pointing out a error regarding equivalence of kinetic energy and TNT in the original post.)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Hash the DNA

Last year seven EU member countries, including Finland, agreed to share access to DNA, vehicle, and fingerprint databases, and I've heard several suggestions to construct a DNA sample database of all Finns. This worries me.

Gathering DNA is typically justified by referring to 9/11 or the relatively small threat of global terrorism, but the logic and evidence behind this justification is as solid as the plans of evidence ... ooops!, I mean evidence of plans of WMD in Iraq. But it is definitiely true that DNA, just like fingerprints, is a valuable forensic tool in identifying the victim, the suspect and connecting him physically to a crime scene. Not only is DNA a tool for positive evidence, more importantly it has been used in several cases to redeem a falsely convicted person.

But there is a significant distinction: DNA carries much more information about the person than fingerprints, surveillance camera footage, etc. Based on DNA one can, or will in future be able to, determine much of one's pedigree, race, health, appearance, personality, physical and mental capabilities, among others. Most of this has very limited forensic value, but is more interesting to for example companies hiring employees, selling life insurance, or marketing departments trying to find customers most easily addicted to a given product. This is a much bigger threat to Joe Average's everyday life than occasional acts of terrorism. And there's little doubt security agencies share their information with private companies - in fact economic espionage in its various forms was the primary task of many security agencies from the end of the cold war at least up to 9/11, now it's probably the second most important task.

I suggest we could reconcile the desire of privacy and the need of evidence by sharing cryptographic hashes of DNA instead of the actual genome data. The hash would still serve for identification, but would be of no value to anything else. In fact, storing identified DNA data of any other human except yourself (and possibly your immediate family) should be outlawed as comparable to having, say, child pornography or downloaded music on your hard disk.

I know there's a technical challenge: DNA data is rarely perfectly correct and complete, and hence traditional cryptographic hashing is not possible. If that turns out to be impossible, the second best alternative would be to never ship identified DNA data - instead evidence would be shipped to few trusted repositories for identification, and destroyed immediately after a positive match has been found.