Why programmers are concerned about copyright law [Addendum]

As we saw in the last edition, programmers are concerned about copyright law because the only way to universally enforce copyright law would be to take away all universal Turing machines and make sure that we cannot control them. How bad would that be?

The previous episodes focused on laws of math (generality of computation) and physics (quantum mechanics makes it easy to build general purpose computers). Now we concentrate on laws of economics in the industrial age. In the beginning of the industrial age, factories lowered the cost of goods dramatically from before — a textile factory is much more efficient than a tailor making suits, and so it is much cheaper to clothe ourselves. However, as factories evolved, it became more and more important to drive the cost even lower — whereas before the competition was with other tailors, now the competition was with other factories. So, economies of scale and efficient production lines developed. Soon after that, supply chain management and moving factories to the most cost-efficient places were developed.

Let’s say that you want to make T-shirts with political slogans. You’ve got your slogan writers, huddled and coming up with good slogans. They’re a sunk cost — you’ll pay them the same no matter how many T-shirts you make, or how much they cost. Now you build a big factory to make T-shirts, and print slogans on them. The company next door specializes in T-shirts with band logos. They build a big factory to make T-shirts and print logos on them. Someone realizes there is money to be made in this scenario — build a factory to manufacture T-shirts, and send them in large crates to places that will print stuff on them. Because their factory is bigger, their cost for making T-shirts are lower, and they pass some of the savings onto you, the political slogan company. In turn, you pass some of the savings onto your customers, and everyone is happier.

Lesson: When economies of scale hit, you want to try and buy standard components for the product you manufacture.

Now suppose you build a car. The anti-lock brake system need to figure out when the car is sliding, and start “pumping” the brake. You can build a system that will contain gyroscopes that attach to some handle that pulls a wire that pumps the brake. Or, you can

  • Buy an accelerorometer
  • Buy a general purpose chip
  • Write software for this chip, based on input from the accelorometer
  • Connect this software to a motor that controls the brake

Note that in this scenario, we source some standard parts. Even though the parts are more complicated, it turns out that we save a lot of money by using standard chips and accelerometers. Note that putting the software on the chip is just copying it to some standard storage device — extremely cheap. ABS brakes become cheaper, and people die less. Overall, a good thing.

The same sort of logic causes a lot of things that used to be done with handles, levers and pulleys to be done with a general purpose chip and some software. Your car is full of them. Your microwave has some. Your television has some. Each of those devices is basically a computer connected to some strange peripherals (brakes, microwave-rays or screens). In a world with strong copyright regulations, those devices’ software are locked to us, even though we own the device. Where darkness goes, evil deeds covered by the darkness soon follow. The police in Evil Regime Country wants to make sure nobody can run from them. They mandate all cars sold in ERC must have, in their software, a special switch that when a certain bluetooth signal is sent (many cars nowadays have computers connected to bluetooth receptors), the software controlling the automatic gear system makes sure the car will not go over second gear. If the ERC police are smart about using this signal, nobody will ever know.

In a world with strong copyright protection, big corporations control your life — and they are corruptible, and if darkness holds, corrupt.

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