[non-member submission] Another view of the dispute between Pathfinder and MIA

Jose G. Perez jg_perez at SPAMbellsouth.net
Mon Oct 9 12:06:16 MDT 2000


Fred,

    There are some sides to this you do not take into account in your post.
Before getting to that I want to express my agreement with your distaste for
the great deal of basically apolitical SWP-bashing that goes on in the
Marxism list. And I think it detracts from political understanding and
analysis to constantly harp on what is essentially a "great devil" theory of
party history, which is really nothing but cultism turned inside-out. That
said, on to the main points:

    First, the people involved in the Marxist Internet Archive should not
have been approached through a lawyer, but directly by politically
responsible people from Pathfinder in the first instance.

    The MIA comrades have said quite clearly that they will respect
copyrights. Such infringement as there may have been was inadvertent. They
perfectly well understand they are bound by the constraints of bourgeois
legality on what they can make available. There is, however, a genuine issue
of whether some of the articles are, in fact, copyright protected.
Periodical publications associated with the SWP always allowed reprinting of
their articles and I believe for quite a long time SWP publications were not
copyrighted at all, nor were internal bulletins. So if the Pathfinder
comrades want to make a determination based on strict bourgeois legality,
there will be a few of these things to sort out, and before going the lawyer
route, I believe the SWP should have relied on a comradely approach and
discussion. Only with a clear record of non-cooperation and non-compliance
by the other side could the SWP justify recourse to the lawyers, with the
implicit threat that entails of bringing in the bourgeois courts. Also, the
demand for financial records is totally outrageous when what is involved in
a volunteer web site being provided as a service to the working class
movement.

    But on a broader level, and this, I think, is JUST AS important as
keeping the working class and revolutionary movements clear of the bourgeois
courts in resolving differences, the SWP is being every bit as short-sighted
and narrow-minded as the music monopolies are in their war against Napster.

    Last month, thanks to the RIAA's campaign to make sure everyone in the
entire world, down to my 10-year-old daughter, finds out about MP3 files and
becomes a Napster user, there were 1.4 BILLION MP3 files swapped among
Napsterites. On average, more than 600,000 people were simultaneous logged
into Napster servers throughout September. That's a 24/7 AVERAGE. The number
of registered Napster users is now 32 million, up from 20 million in July
(and that is largely unique users, as the Napster program doesn't allow you
to change your nickname at will, it is difficult to do). Yet despite
Napster's explosive growth, and despite another round of outrageous price
hikes by the music monopoly Mafia, CD sales have actually been CLIMBING this
year.

    How could that be, you say? Quite simply, MP3 files are not (yet)
nearly as good as CDs, never mind analog reproduction (vinyl). You can only
play them on computers, by and large, and on a couple of DVD players (the
famous, copy-protection hackable Raite being one of them). The very first
"appliance" MP3 players are just beginning to come onto the market and to
use them you pretty much have to be a geek and know how to burn an ISO
(i.e., make a computer-type CD with MP3 music files which is compliant with
certain international standards, hence the name "ISO" which stands for
International Standards Organization). Napster has given people access to
all kinds of music which they had either not heard before or not heard for
the longest time, whetting their appetites. It is only logical that many
would choose to obtain the music in a more convenient and higher-quality
format than the MP3 files.

    I believe the same sort of thing also applies to books. What the MIA is
doing is what the SWP *should have*  been doing all along. Putting Trotsky's
writings on the Internet would not drive down sales, but increase them,
because it would increase their exposure and, quite simply because a
computer screen is not a convenient way to read a book, just like a computer
sound system doesn't necessarily make a high-end stereo system. But a
computer screen tied to the Internet IS a very efficient way to inform
people about the existence of a book, give them a taste of it, and give them
a chance to order it. And if the SWP comrades are afraid sales will plunge
with the posting of entire books, they can make just parts of the books
available.

    I think it is very important politically that at least a good bit of
material be there on the Internet. Young people today, and some of us older
folks to, AUTOMATICALLY  turn to the Internet whenever we get curious about
something. Trotsky needs to be there, on line, just like Marx, Engels,
Lenin, Fidel and Che, and NOT condemned to the narrow prison walls of paper
and ink. To not place at least a good selection of Trotsky's writings
online, if not the entire corpus, is just as silly and short-sighted as
refusing to sell to libraries because people will borrow the books from
there instead of buying their own.

    This is especially important for the Third World, where by and large
Pathfinder's books are a luxury beyond the means of most working people and
practically impossible to find. But people can, for modest sums, access the
Internet through an Internet cafe or a public facility like a public
library. And as a practical matter, just because the books are warehoused in
New York does not mean that they are available in Delhi or Manila.

    For the time being, and probably for quite a while, this will not hurt
but will rather drive the sales of books, until a suitable replacement for
the book as a physical medium can be devised. I do not believe that the
technology is yet anywhere close to that, I've seen the current generations
of electronic book reading devices and, frankly, they suck. I leave aside
that our benighted dinosaur media monopolies think they should charge as
much or more for the digital version of a book as for the hardback edition
(just as they're trying to charge $15-$20 for downloadable music albums and
$4 for singles).

    Eventually, though, computing, storage, bandwidth and technical advances
will make Internet digital versions of music just as good as or better than
CDs, and the electronic book or reading tablet just as good as or better
than the paper book.

    At that point people will just have to accept the fact that copyright as
we know it is dead. Copyright can only exist as long as the means of
producing copies can be monopolized. Once material enters the digital domain
of internetworked computers, that is no longer the case. All attempts at
watermarking, copy protection and everything else like that will fail, for
an obvious reason: the encrypted file needs to be decoded to plaintext for
the viewer or reader to have access to the content. And capturing the
plaintext data stream is just a matter of technique. Even creating
tamper-proof "black box" players where all the decrypting goes deeply hidden
within proprietary integrated digital circuits will prove to be of no avail,
as ANYTHING digital that can be engineered can be reverse-engineered. The
hackers are right, information wants to be free. THEY figured that out when
you and me were still in the Leninist-Trotskyist faction arguing about G-war
and the Leninist Strategy of Party Building. This tsunami which has finally
hit the rocky crags of Smolny-on-the-Hudson has been a long time building,
no amount of sandbags will prevent the content now safely locked up in the
vaults of 410 West Street from eventually being washed out with the digital
flood.

    Even if the RIAA succeeds in getting the courts to shut down Napster,
many of the best minds in hackerdom are feverishly working right now in a
concerted effort to design a whole new layer of protocols for the Internet
which will make file sharing of ALL types completely anonymous, untraceable
and unstoppable, as files will be chopped up, encrypted, and stored
redundantly in people's computers and even the individual computer owner
will not know just what files or pieces of files are in the storage area he
has ceded over to this collective Internet file bank. For the details on the
kind of thing they're doing, visit the FreeNet site
(http://freenet.sourceforge.net/). It will be, essentially, a completely
anonymous Internet-within-the-Internet.

    The ONLY ways to stop it is to pull the plug on the current Internet and
replace it with a proprietary system that will have electronic cops
patrolling every node and computer attached to it as a condition for access
[in other words, AOL]; or convince 99.9% of the Internet users to boycott
the system, so that it never reaches the necessary critical mass. Even
rounding up and shooting all the hackers won't do the trick, the guy who
wrote DeCSS --which breaks the media monopolies' price-fixing "regional
encoding" scheme for DVDs was a 16-year-old, the one who wrote Napster an
18-year-old. Nor are these exceptions. Linux was created by a college
student, and there are tons of other examples. The reason for this CAN'T be
that all of a sudden there's been a generation of computer geek geniuses
born unlike any previous generation of humans; it MUST be that these are
things that are inherent in the technology, there's all kinds of stuff out
there just waiting to be created.

    Even without that, the fact is that nothing digital on the Internet is
copyrightable in the old sense of the word. You're quite right when you
raise fundamental considerations of political economy but you do not take
them far enough. Digital files as such, abstracting from the medium they are
stored on, have no Value, as they embody virtually no work and the amount of
socially necessary labor time it takes to reproduce them by the score is
nil. Therefore they cannot be property in the bourgeois sense of the word,
they cannot be commodities so long as they can be accessed/copied freely.
"Content" in the digital domain of internetworked computers already has most
of the material prerequisites for communism, in other words, insofar as
copyrighted products find their way onto the Internet, and the web becomes
the preferred distribution medium, the commodity form in intellectual
property begins to wither away, and pretty damn quick, too.

    This drives bourgeois owners of intellectual property into a rage.
Commodity fetishists that they are, it seems to them unnatural that the
value of their merchandise should suddenly evaporate because it is in a
different format. In a hysterical panic, they are lashing out more and more
at technological advances, at free speech, at individual autonomy and the
right to privacy. The charge against Napster that it is guilty of "vicarious
copyright infringement" at bottom goes against the Internet as a whole. The
entire point of the Internet is to share information freely. Freeing
information from the costs associated with reproducing it in traditional
media forms, that's the "killer app" that's made the Internet what it is
today, that's been the whole POINT.

    Even what most people think of as the "Internet" i.e., the world wide
web, http pages, etc., are all simply file sharing mechanisms. In fact,
certain categories of literature have ALREADY largely disappeared in their
traditional commodity form, such as erotic literature.

    A couple of years ago one of the traditional publishers of "dirty books"
got out of the business, saying sales had completely dried up because many
authors were sharing their works freely on usenet news groups or on web
sites, and others had banded together to put up subscription pay sites. I
don't believe the demand has gone away, but it is no longer what bourgeois
economists would call effective demand, demand in the marketplace, for the
same kind of reason by and large there's no economic demand for air.

    I don't think this case is unique, the same tendency is at work across
the "content" field. Businesses that have relied primarily on their control
over the means of copying and distributing intellectual property "content,"
i.e., publishers, are royally screwed. In the case of the music industry,
they have used their control of reproduction and distribution to exploit and
oppress musicians, going so far as to make recordings of musical artists
"works for hire" by default, i.e., the "intellectual property" --the
recording-- belongs to the publisher, not the artist, unless the artist is
in a strong enough bargaining position to regain ownership through the
contract. But now, with the Internet as distribution channel, pure ones and
zeros as the "embodiment" of the content, and a service like Napster as, in
effect, program-it-yourself individual "radio station" through which you
sample music, there is damn little left for Universal, Sony, Time-Warner,
EMI or any other music monopoly to do, and a lot of opportunity for artists
to free themselves from the stranglehold of the typical recording industry
contract.

    There is, of course, an irreducible amount of socially necessary labor
time involved in creating the FIRST copy, i.e., the master, that will have
to be paid for in one way or another and everyone realizes that. The Napster
proposal is a subscription fee of about $5/month, which they have said quite
pointedly would be to compensate the artists and authors, although the
bourgeois media has missed the point, which is that the record companies
would NOT be compensated.

    In the larger picture, however, Napster itself is trivial, although it
was a cool idea and a great hack. But what makes file sharing over the
Internet possible is NOT Napster but the network itself, the growing
bandwidth of connections to it, the growing data storage capacity in the
hands of individuals, the growing capacity of personal computers to handle
the large data transfers and present the program content to the user.

    Applications to take advantage of those growing capacities to share
digital files -- whether they be programs, games, music, movies, or the
works of Leon Trotsky, are a dime a dozen. You have gnutella (created by AOL
division Nullsoft, which ALSO made everyone's favorite for playing "pirated"
MP3 files, Winamp) and its clones, gnewtella, gnotella, newtella and some
others; you have the "open nap" standard, a couple of different programs
that use the same protocols as Napster to do the same thing, except that
anyone can set up such a server, including in places beyond the reach of the
RIAA and the US legal system, and there are alternative Napster clients and
aids, such as File Navigator (formerly My Napster) and Napigator. Then there
are the programs that use already widespread Internet clients, such as
AIMster (which works with AOL Instant Messenger, although it is not an AOL
product), and the ongoing work around FreeNet. And if that weren't enough
then there's the guy who will sell you 10 CD Roms of programs at $7 each,
including (or perhaps especially) the "latest and greatest" releases from
Redmond, such as WinME, Office2K, Win2K, on CDs he burns himself. With the
price of recordable media down to a quarter of so per blank in bulk, and CD
ROM burners going for $120 at Tiger Direct, copying CD Roms is growing in
popularity, and will do so even more in the future, since Microsoft just
acquired what is probably a controlling stake (25%) in Corel, which is the
only one competing with it in the office applications market, which means
the deep discounts on office application suites that were available a year
or two ago are gone.

    I understand where you're coming from when you say this isn't MP3 and
Napster and so on. But there is a level on which it IS exactly the same
thing. That level is the ones and zeros where digital machines breathe and
live.

    So, for example, there's a little program called "Wrapster" that
disguises ANY kind of file as an MP3 file. Thus one of the things going on
with Napster and clones/substitutes/workalikes is that it is being used as a
conduit to share not just music files. Among the things I've seen on Napster
are ISO's (files ready to burn onto CD's) of Windows 98 second edition,
Windows ME, Office 2000 professional, Partition Magic, Norton Utilies, and
many other commercial programs. Also available just as files are a hacked
version of "elite," the code-name for the next generation Napster client
program (version 3.0), the four Harry Potter books, countless technical
books, hacking tools, the works. I've not yet seen any Trotsky or Cannon on
there, but if Pathfinder keeps it up, I'm sure I will.

    Monopolization and price-gouging are important factors in spreading the
technology and legitimizing it. People know that $20 for a CD that costs $1
or less to produce and distribute, and from which the share of the artists
and composers is perhaps $2 (from which the media monopolies will deduct any
advances and all sorts of costs in recording the CD and pushing it, so the
artists wind up with nothing beyond their advance), is a total rip off. And
from hearing musicians like Courtney Love and Roger McGuinn (of the Byrds)
state quite frankly that whether or not people pirate their
monopoly-published music through MP3 file sharing doesn't affect them,
because they never see any royalty money anyways, people know that the
consumer is not the only one being ripped off.

    And people know that Microsoft charging $400 for office, which is sold
in tens of millions of copies, the same price it charged when it was sold in
tens of thousands of copies, is a rip off. And when they hear about the
thousands of Microsoft "permatemps" --many of them women and immigrants,
BTW-- who were denied the same wages and benefits as "permanent" employees
doing the same work, and think about that being done by the richest company
in the world, which is sitting on a cash hoard of something like $20 billion
that it doesn't know what to do with, you put all that together and people
figure ripping the disk or downloading the file isn't piracy, it's payback.

    [Putting aside all sorts of differences, it should be noted that in the
narrow field of revolutionary publishing and especially the publishing of
Trotsky's works and those of some other revolutionaries (Malcolm, Cannon),
from the point of view of the consumer of these products Pathfinder is a
monopoly just as much as Microsoft is for the users of desktop personal
computers. This has even led some to believe that Pathfinder is engaged in
typical monopoly practices such as price-gouging to subsidize other SWP
operations, even though those of us familiar with the publishing business
realize that Pathfinder's prices are quite normal for the "quality
paperback" segment and even low if these books are viewed as specialty,
technical books, and given the low volume of sales, the publishing operation
must be heavily subsidized by the SWP, not the other way around.]

    In the case of the big capitalist monopolies, the rising tide of digital
copying is driving frenzied attacks on free speech over the Internet, and it
is a frenzy, although by and large we don't hear about it, because the news
media studiously refuses to cover the offensive. The big media monopolies
like CNN owner Time-Warner (soon to be AOL-TW), Fox, NBC (& partner in crime
Microsoft), Disney (which owns ABC), Televisa (which controls Univision),
etc., aren't about to cover stories like the one I posted on the Marxism
list a couple of weeks ago about the raid on the dorm room of a 19-year-old
University of Oklahoma student to seize the computer on which he (allegedly)
had 1000 MP3 files. Or the story that came out last week, that SEGA's
lawyers are forcing Internet bulletin boards of fans of that gaming system
to shut down because they COULD be used to discuss copying SEGA's "copy
protected" (Hah!  There's a joke!) CD-roms.

    The threat against the SEGAites have proven quite effective, too. These
are high school and college kids who've created the boards on their own
nickel. They get a threatening letter from some big law firm with a fancy
address. As individuals, they have no way to defend themselves against these
corporate storm troopers with law degrees and business suits, and are forced
to shut down.

    But collectively they CAN do something about it, and they ARE defending
themselves, by creating another layer of protocols within the Internet for
totally anonymous, encrypted, untraceable, unstoppable file and information
sharing. The routers and DNS hosts have no way of knowing what the traffic
is, it is all ones and zeroes to them. In that new environment things like
newsgroups and bulletin boards and FTP servers will eventually be created.
And if the corporate suits think the Internet TODAY is the wild, wild west,
they should wait a couple of years until FreeNet-type technology takes off,
which I think it will. By then broadband connections number in the tens of
millions, $100 hard drives will hold hundreds of gigagbytes, and $500
entry-level computers will be powered by gigaherts chips and have a gigabyte
of RAM. Your basic Cray II supercomputer on the desktop, suitable for
designing thermonuclear weapons -- or doing really cool stuff, like
collecting digital versions of every song recorded since the second world
war, or the complete works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg,
Gramsci, Mariategui, Fidel and Che.

    What should the stance of the workers' movement be? Should we side with
the rapacious monopolies that want to charge more for a software program
than the entire computer costs so that Bill Gates can add another zero at
the end of his net worth? Should we side with the monopolies that oppress
and exploit musicians, writers, actors and directors, and that are
responsible for the abysmal nature of most of  what passes for
entertainment? Or are we going to be with the hackers and the pirates and
the kids, who think information wants to be free and are doing their
damnedest to make it so?

    However legitimate the SWP's grievance against the archive may be, by
approaching the MIA comrades in THIS way the SWP has adopted a stance that
runs counter to the whole course of development and that coincides with the
kinds of attacks that the Murdochs, Gateses, Turners, and Ellisons have
launched against the right of the people to freely access the common
cultural and scientific heritage of humanity, and thus re-enforces them. If
nothing else, to address the same kind of
corporate-intellectual-property-lawyer cease-and-desist letter to the
Marxist Internet Archive shows the SWP is completely tone deaf. It should be
DENOUNCING such letters (as in the SEGA and Napster cases) in the Militant,
not getting lawyers to write such letters on its own behalf.

    Moreover, if there is any justification at all from the point of view of
revolutionary ethics for the SWP to maintain a Trotsky or Cannon publishing
monopoly, it is precisely that ONLY in this way can these valuable works be
kept in print for the present and future generation of revolutionists, and
that the SWP is doing everything it can to live up to the responsibility
this implies, which is to make as much of the material as possible as widely
available as possible. I do not believe even the harshest critics of the
SWP's policies would be justified in accusing the party of having failed to
live up to this responsibility, taking due account of the party's
limitations in financial resources and personnel.

    But with the rise of the Internet the situation is changing, and it is
incumbent on the SWP, which is the administrator of this important legacy
for all sorts of historical and even accidental reasons, to adapt to these
changes. I believe the SWP members who run Pathfinder Press have a moral
obligation to the working class movement to explore ways in which new
technologies make possible even wider and more effective distribution of
this material (and not just the SWP, I'd say this applies also to other
movement publishers).

    No longer being much of a fan of the idea of small propaganda leagues
proclaiming themselves "the vanguard," I do not think that, necessarily, a
small, workers party is OBLIGATED to be on the leading edge of this sort of
sea-change in property relations, although I think it would be to its
benefit to be there. Yet I think there soon will have been sufficient
experience with the Internet for one to be able to say that it is about time
that Pathfinder Press began using it more aggressively, to NOT do so will
start to become irresponsible.

    But I would go further, and add that what the SWP and Pathfinder ARE
obligated to do RIGHT NOW is NOT to make common cause with the media
monopoly dinosaurs that the evolution of technology is about to hit with an
asteroid. This is, in effect, what Pathfinder is on the verge of doing by
its implicit threat to turn to the courts to defend its monopoly in Trotsky
copyrights, however legitimate its claim to those rights may be under
bourgeois law. This is all the more uncalled for since the MIA comrades have
made it clear they are willing to amicably discuss and resolve the issue,
including on the basis of strict compliance with bourgeois legality.

    I hope the SWP would be clued in enough by now to realize that the MIA,
or at least the kind of thing it is doing, should not be viewed as an
obstacle but as an OPPORTUNITY. If I had any influence with the SWP, I would
urge the party to approach the MIA with an offer to authorize the posting of
certain, selected articles from the Trotsky, Cannon, Malcolm and the Cubans
in exchange for promotion and links to Pathfinder's site (if it has one)
where people can buy the full books. This is hardly innovative or
revolutionary, it is much the same thing that the SWP does when it prints in
the Militant excerpts from a book or a new introduction, accompanying it
with an ad for the whole book, which it has done innumerable times in the
past and as recently as a couple of weeks ago.

    This is the very minimum that individual left groups or publishing
houses who have wound up administering and being responsible for part of the
common literary heritage of the working class movement should be doing
vis-a-vis the Internet. This is TREMENDOUSLY more effective than limiting
oneself to printed catalogues and publicity material. And it goes with and
becomes part of the general flow towards using the possibilities opened up
by the new technology to weaken the capitalists' monopoly control over the
reproduction and distribution of "content," which is part of the material
basis for their ideological hegemony and thus is quite important.

    Of course, I understand the SWP may not want to be associated with this
particular archive --for good reasons or bad, it doesn't matter--, but it
should still do the same thing on its own, and the MIA comrades would just
link to those articles from their pages.

    However, I would urge anyone with the ear of the SWP to tell it not to
do this lightly just for group identity or group pride reasons, or what
bourgeois hucksters call "branding." That's because there is a lot to be
said from the end user's point of view in terms of search functionality,
ease of use, etc., and I believe it is also correct politically, to keep
especially the Trotsky stuff in  the company of other great Marxist
thinkers. Time-Warner's multi-million-dollar Internet toilet flush and
content aggregation portal (ironically also named "Pathfinder") is a clear
warning to ANYONE who thinks creating web sites to reflect some group's or
corporation's org chart is a clever way to build an Internet presence.

    Information ALSO wants to be free in this sense, free from org charts
and owners, it wants to hang out with other information it feels the closest
kinship to. MP3 files of Warner-distributed CD tracks don't want to be
cheek-to-jowl with cnn.com just because the same media conglomerate owns
them both. Nor do they want to hang out only on AOL, just because AOL is
buying Time-Warner. The MP3 files want to play on Napster and gnutella and
MP3.com, along with their siblings from other record companies.

    [The next big fiasco the record company dinosaurs are preparing for
themselves on the road to extinction violates this elementary rule. They're
all trying to launch paid-music sites for their own labels with
copy-protected formats and mechanisms that will be incompatible from one
site to the next. Remember a couple of years from now as you look at the
obits for the "pay big music, inc." sites, that you heard it here first.]

    Similarly, Trotsky's writings want to be with the rest of the great
Marxist thinkers and writers, that's where they belong. There need to be
strong and weighty reasons understandable to people outside the SWP and its
immediate orbit to disrupt the "natural" flow of material towards this one
central site. The SWP is got its head stuck up its behind if it thinks this
is "piracy" that competes with its publishing, it is not, that's not the
role it plays, it is PROMOTION, just as records being played on radio
stations over the air is not "piracy" but rather the main way the "big five"
monopolies steer the general demand for music towards their products.

José


----- Original Message -----
From: "Les Schaffer" <godzilla at netmeg.net>
To: <marxism at lists.panix.com>
Sent: Sunday, October 08, 2000 11:28 PM
Subject: [non-member submission] Another view of the dispute between
Pathfinder and MIA


[from Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net]

Well, I know many people are preoccupied with sitting shiva for the
Milosevic regime right now, buy I want to make a few comments on the
discussion carrying the highly premature headline, "Barnesites suing
MIA," the Marxist I nternet Archive.  This discussion is being carried
out in the calm, objective, fact-oriented tone that characterizes
discussions of matters that touch on the Socialist Workers Party in
the mailing llist ("Barnes is real scum."}.  I'm a former party member
and that definitely colors how I look at it.

<snip>







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