Poptechlaw Report

Two months ago, I ordered a pile of books on tech law. They all fell into the category of “things I should really have read by now.” I don’t actually feel as though I’ve made any progress—new books landed on the list at least as quickly fast as I got through the old ones—but my bookshelf tells me that I’ve made it most of the way through that order. Here, then, are my thoughts, in size order.

Yes, size order: I didn’t see any more compelling reason to read one or another urgently, so I went through them roughly in the order they were on the shelf. And since size order is an attractive way of shelving books (by publisher and by color also work), there you go.

  • Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: A bit lightweight but entertaining. For the minimal number of hours invested in it, it was well worth reading. I can’t really say that it justified the price, but hey, you could easily get through it in an afternoon at the library (or the bookstore) and still have time for high tea and a workout. Ignore the analysis, savor the anectotes, and walk away with a decent historical understanding of the rise and fall of the telegraph. Nerdly lawyer fun: he cites to a Supreme Court case on the liability of telegraph operators for mistakes in transcribing coded messages. This turns out to have been a major subject of litigation in the 19th century. Start with Primrose v. Western Union Tel. Co., 135 U.S. 1 (1894). (This is the sort of book that doesn’t provide citations of its own.)

  • Michelle Slatalla and Joshua Quattner, Masters of Deception: The Gang that Ruled Cyberspace. Oh, for the days of yesteryear, when the hackers were just a bunch of teenagers and didn’t really cause that much trouble. This book reads fluidly (the authors are magazine journalists and it shows) and is psychologically vivid. Whether their portraits are true, I’m not qualified to say, but you definitely walk away with a real sense that you understand their misfit bunch of kids and their moth-to-flame attraction to fancy computer systems. The parts I know, they got right. You do not do not do not want to get caught in the crosshairs of the feds. To paraphrase Blade Runner, “Everybody pleads.” MoD has aged well.

  • Steven Levy, Crypto. Another book by a magazine journalist. This one was showered with enormous praise when it appeared, mostly earned. The book’s one significant downside is that it flirts with more detailed technical explanations and then backs away. I can understand that they might have frightened the reading public and that it’s better to make that sale than to get the details down. Still. As for the history, the business, and the politics, fine fine stuff. In particular, I have never seen a better telling of the Clipper Chip story. (Levy’s skill in explaining the exploit Matt Blaze found demonstrates why I wish he’d given other technical details further treatment.) Now I want to go off and read David Kahn’s The Codebreakers, which has inspired so many others.

  • David Brin, The Transparent Society. I already knew the thesis of this book going in. It’s better to watch the watchers than to blind everyone. I regularly have experiences in which a book at first bothers me and then swings me around to recognizing the stregnth of some of its ideas. (Fear and Trembling is one; The Lathe of Heaven another; Code a third.) This book is one of them—except that I had my conversion experience before actually reading it. I’m not sure how or when. But I did; though I don’t agree with many things in the book, the core idea is sound in many contexts. I therefore missed out on the dawning “aha” of deciding there was something there. WIthout it, the book felt long and repetitive, and irksome in the way that only nonfiction by science-fiction writers can be. Still, if the idea sounds odd or wrong to you, you probably would enjoy at least grappling with it. Finally, I’m still not sure how the copyright chapter fits in. I think about these things a lot, and the restrictions on copying involved in copyright are just a different animal than most of the privacy topics he discusses elsewhere.

  • John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information. I’ve already said most of my piece on this one. I have memories of thinking that I disliked the book and its ideas when it came out. When I read it, though, most of the themes seemed like inoffensive triusms or observations that, while perhaps controversial, were clearly right. I suppose this is a testament to the strength of their arguments that the social contexts of technology dominate its purely technical features—they were right, and they were right earlier than I was. All the same, though, I’ve seen it done better elsewhere since then. This one was published by a business school press and I can see why; it’s a translation of real ideas into a form that businesspeople can digest.

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan, Copyrights and Copywrongs. I’m also—surprise, surprise—late to the party on this one. I’m already too steeped in copyright arguments for the thesis to be substantially new; I really should have read this back in 2001 when it came out, to get the full impact. The Mark Twain chapter was nice and involved some interesting readings of Twain’s correspondence and public positions. Most of the rest, though, was frustrating for me as a lawyer, probably because Siva isn’t a lawyer. He reads cases and arguments as literature, not unlike the source materials copyright regulates. Nothing wrong with that, except that it’s not how I put arguments together and, as I said above, I’m already clued into the kinds of readings (and indeed, to many of his particular readings).

  • Paul Goldstein, Copyright’s Highway. Law professors can be quite slippery. They’re extremely good at never quite letting you know what they think. Goldstein talks about copyright “optimists” and “pessimists” in what reads like an extremely evenhanded way. Like a good advocate, he loads his dice in extremely subtle ways. This is actually the second book of his that I’ve read; the other was his casebook on IP. Both are excellent reads, in large part because he has both a great ease with his writing and a real talent for selecting good examples. I can’t think of a better place to start if you want a gentle introduction to how copyright got to be the way it is today. Read it together with Siva’s book to start forming your own opinions about where copyright out to go.

  • Nick Montfort. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. An elegant monograph, what more monographs should be. A new generation of gamer academics is taking seriously the experiences of gaming. Montfort gets the subtleties and pleasures of text adventures in a deep way, and this book is a real contribution. (It takes a particualr talent to translate the interactive and temporally extended activities of gameplaying into a static text.) He hooks in to the emotionally rich experiences I had with many of these games in an analytically precise and useful way, which can’t have been as easy as he makes it look. The IF community also makes a nice test case for all sorts of questions and theories.

  • Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. I’ve already raved about this one. I learned a lot of reasonably specific information in a chronologically grounded way. I got a good sense of what the challenges and solutions were; and I got a much better sense of how the Internet got from point A to points B, C, and Q. Another book by journalists; it did its job right, in that it gave me a sense of the whole while also making me want to read more academic discussions of the same topics.

  • John Battelle, The Search. Now we enter the hardbacks. Battelle is an academico-journalist, with the virtues of both. I follow search fairly closely, so I knew a lot already. The parts I knew, he got right; the parts I didn’t, I was glad to learn. He’s particularly good in setting forth the timeline at an industry-wide level; search is more than just Google, even as Google casts the longest shadow, and he makes that dynamic vivid; his descriptions of vertical and local search, click fraud, and sponsorship bias, are each alone worth the price of admission.

  • William J. Mitchell, City of Bits. This is a book about how architecture is being and will be transformed by the Internet. What does it say about the Internet that I found the most interesting part of this book to be the architectural drawings of various famous buildings? What does it say about this book? Mitchell nails the “code is law” meme early (1995) and well, but much of the rest just sailed right by me. Eh. (To be fair, I was stuck in a room in which the TV was showing the Tony Danza show, which didn’t help my ability to think deep thoughts about the future of the physical and the virtual.)

  • Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds. This is the overview book on the subject for the time being. If you want to know about virtual worlds and you don’t know much, start here. Who plays in them? What are they like? How are they changing and interacting with the real world? Economics, sociology, law, politics, culture, terror: Castronova covers all the bases. This was 90% old material to me, but he was significantly better in going over familiar ground than some of the other authors I came across in this binge.

  • Bruce Sterling, The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. Another standout. This is the good kind of science-fiction author nonfiction. The force of his fiction-honed prose keeps the book hurtling along, the various metaphors that do the work of technical explanation are particularly well-chosen, the analysis is penetrating, and the narrative is compelling. This book all but begs to be read together with Masters of Destruction (they’re roughly contemporaneous, and some of the same figures appear in both). This is a great book, but it also made me appreciate that MoD was a good book.

  • Bruce Schneier, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. I didn’t really need to read this. I know the Schneierian way of thinking, having read his previous Secrets and Lies (not to be confused with the movie of the same name) and having followed his online writings for some time. I just needed to snarf this one quickly so that I could know what was in it and where for footnoting purposes. Pretty much any time I have the occasion to write about security, something Schneier has said is likely to be on point, so I expect to be citing him with some regularity. I recommend Schneier highly, but you don’t really need to read both this one and Secrets and Lies. Computery types should read the latter; the general public this one. Also, if you get a chance to see him at a reading, you should go, because his signature is most interesting.

  • J.D. Lasica, Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation. I have to like a book that cites me. Not necessarily the book I would pick to introduce people to the copyfight, but the reporting is excellent. I don’t know how he got his interview with the MPAA-backed pirate, but it’s a great set-piece. This fellow spends his days trawling the net pirating movies as a double agent for the MPAA—not so they can catch specific other pirates but so they can understand how the scene works. At the end of the chapter, Lasica asks the man’s daughter about piracy; she sees nothing wrong with filling her iPod with music from the file-sharing networks. It’s a great moment of landing the story. (I’m also curious how the pirate, whose online identity Lasica pseudonomizes, managed to stay hidden, given how many other details Lasica reveals.)

  • William W. “Terry” Fisher, Promises to Keep: Technology, Law, and the Future of Entertainment. Maybe Fisher’s idea that file-sharing should be legal and creators compensated through a tax on bandwidith and storage media is brilliant. Maybe it’s crazy. (I’ve seen some extremely cogent analyses of the hackability and gameability of such an “alternative compensation system.”) In truth, the idea isn’t this book’s main contribution. Instead, Fisher explains the current system of audio and video licensing in a remarkably lucid fashion. He traces the money; he traces the flow of licenses; he puts everything out on the table clearly. I have on multiple occasions failed to explain compulsory licenses, the AHRA, the collection societies, and other features of our media copyright system to laypeople. Fisher does about as good a job of it as one could do.

  • T.L. Taylor, Play Between Wolrds: Exploring Online Game Culture. There are a fair number of good books in my pile; this is the only beautiful book. It’s good, too, indeed far more than good. Taylor goes inside the world of EverQuest and reports on the culture that its players are creating there. I have read so much tripe about cyberspaces, online communities, and virtual worlds, that it’s all the more refreshing to read a book that gets things profoundly, profundly right. Participants in these gamespaces build identities that mingle the “real” and the “virtual” freely. They create rich and subtle social cues of interaction; they fashiion identities and friendships that cannot be described either as here or there. She undermines at least a dozen claims that many people take for granted. I have never read anything better on how the “meaning” of a game is constituted by its players. Much in this book is applicable in other contexts; it is, as I have said in another context, what a monograph should be. If you read only one book on the strength of my recommendations here, make it this one. It’s grab-you-by-the-lapels-and-shake good.

  • Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World. Wu and Goldsmith are cyberspace anti-exceptionalists. They think that terrestrial governments both will and should regulate the Internet. They have a lot of evidence on their side. They make a fair case that every latest-and-greatest hope for exceptionalism has been subjected to national control, to some extent or another. I didn’t find much to disagree with. And yet, I felt that this book was too easy, that it involved a willingness to jump on easy arguments and an avoidance of more interesting possibilities. The authors acknowledge the importance of Code—but in a sense, almost everything they say is wrapped up in Lessig’s idea of “dual presence,” that when we go online we are both here and there at the same time. (This is, of course, a central theme of Taylor’s book, as well.) Given that observation, much of Who Controls the Internet? is just a matter of filling in the details. They also make things easier on themselves by choosing examples that link back to the real world. Of course, eBay’s dispute resolution systems will require real-world support; most of the things traded on eBay are physical items that exist in the real world. (Indded, eBay regularly takes down auctions for many suspect classes of purely virtual resources.) By so doing, they sidestep the cyberspace exceptionalist argument that life online can be fairer and better than life offline, that we will reshape the bonds of our affiliations to associate with online communities that transcend local boundaries, and that the locus of life itself will shift online. This argument’s truth is not inconsistent with the involvement of terrestrial governments in controlling the Internet (as I have argued elsewhere), but it requires other responses than the ones Goldsmith and Wu offer. An interesting book, but by no means the end of the matter.