J. Neil Sark wants to rule the Grid

So, back in my old post wherein I disagree with J. Neil Schulman, Schulman himself has dropped by to publicly disagree with me. This is good, because that’s exactly what a comments section is for. Anyways, in the course of insisting that he is right and I am wrong, he reminded me that his preferred term, instead of “intellectual property”, is “media-carried property”, or MCP for short.

MCP… where have I heard those initials before?

Oh, snap! End of Line.

Now, I doubt that Neil intended to reference the tyrannical Master Control Program when he picked the term “media-carried property”, but, nerd that I am, I can’t resist making the connection. And there is a deeper connection, but it is one that Neil has consistently refused to acknowledge.

Neil does not talk much about how to enforce claims of MCP. In his first post insisting that copying is akin to identity theft, he has this to say on the matter:

The questions of how copyrights, trademarks, and patents are currently defined and enforced by States are an entirely separate issue from the arguments I have been making since the 1980’s about property rights in identity and information objects.

For now I would be entirely satisfied if libertarians and anarchists recognized my property rights in the things I create and respected my right to license copies, using no other enforcement mechanism than social preferencing.

And… that’s it. The end! But I am not satisfied. This tells us nothing at all about what happens when social preferencing fails. What then?

Neil’s theories on matter-based property do not suffer from this lack. In the event that someone does not recognize your property rights in the physical world, Neil says that you have the right to shoot them, and he suggests that you carry a gun. He wrote a whole book on the matter, called Stopping Power (I haven’t yet read it, though I expect that I’ll agree with most of what it says). This is good, because you can’t expect social preferencing to always work. You need a backup plan when people break the rules, and carrying a gun is a good backup plan.

But what about when someone takes your media-carried property? What if they break through your copy protection and make it available as a Torrent? What do you do then, Neil? But he has never answered this question. This situation has been presented to him many times, by both friends and enemies, and he hasn’t even acknowledged it. This leaves a big, gaping hole in his theory of property rights in information.

Of course, Neil is not the first person to claim property rights in information. Many people before him have set out to do the same thing, and they have come up with solutions to fill that hole. Solutions like digital rights management, trusted computing, broadcast flags, notice-and-takedowns, ISP policing, and copyright bots. These all work together to do two things: take away people’s privacy, and take away people’s control over their own machines. And this is where Neil’s MCP runs into Tron‘s MCP. The only way to complete Neil’s theory, and provide information owners a means to defend their claims, is to control all communication. The entire network must be monitored and controlled, and any break-ins must be shut down swiftly and decisively. The media companies have known this for a long time, and they have fought to establish that control over the World Wide Web. To a great extent, they have succeeded. Their copy-protection schemes have infected all of our devices, and their monitoring systems hover over their world, ready to cut off and punish anyone who shares information without their permission. Like the Master Control Program, they reach into systems and appropriate programs and insist that they can run things better than we can.

Every time you get a DMCA notice, just imagine it’s from this guy. You’ll feel better.

This is a massive problem for Neil’s theory, because all of these measures invade people’s property and reduce their control over their own lives. Worse, they all work through the mechanism of State power, and they increase the State’s control over us. We can’t accept any of this. But then how can owners of media-carried property protect their property from invasion? Neil’s theory makes no sense anymore, because there’s no way to implement it. It’s as if he were advocating for the right of self-defense but refusing to let people own weapons. How does it work?

And what of the fact that these controlling measures are all being implemented? Here in the real world, the MCP is winning. Copyright laws continue to get stricter, anti-piracy measures continue to get more invasive, and ordinary citizens continue to get squeezed, and J. Neil Schulman, proud libertarian, is silent. If Neil will not fight for our liberty, who will?

Luckily for us, some people are smarter than Schulman. Like Flynn and Tron, they work to create systems where all information is free and open. They create open-source software that will not betray its users to outside controllers. They support laws that protect our privacy and our right to communicate. They find ways to crack DRM and defeat broadcast flags. They give us the power to protect our liberties. They go by many names: copyfighters, free software advocates, cypherpunks, pirates, and so on. But they all have one thing in common: they fight for the Users.

Real programmers do not normally wear cool outfits like this guy’s. Sorry, everyone.

If these people win, no one will be able to control the network. Information will flow freely. And instead of being a glaring contradiction, Neil’s theory of MCP will simply be left incomplete – permanently, fatally incomplete, like a human body without a heart.

And that is why I keep ragging on Neil. He never acknowledges this problem with his theory (that is, that claims to MCP cannot be enforced without the aid of a total surveillance state). He seems to consider the question of enforcement to be totally irrelevant. Well, Mr. Schulman, you’re wrong. No matter how many nerd jokes I make, I still have to live in reality, and in reality, your claims to media-carried property fail. People do not naturally respect such claims, and even when they try, those who do not respect such claims always have the power to ignore them. Even in our less-than-free society, piracy is easy and rampant, in spite of the State’s best efforts to crush it. Do you think that people will just stop pirating when the State is gone?

If the future is libertarian, then it will run on Free Software and distribute Free Culture, all the better to serve free people. So come on, Neil. Get with the program. Fight for the Users.