20) En Passant

<— The Eternal Question 


… infinite bandwidth, storage and processing…
…TV on-demand? HAL-9000? no, lame clichés…
…it’s simpler than that. What am I missing?…


Back in 1999 I had the honor of playing chess against the world champion. I lost.

It was an epic battle. A genius and a collective genius battling it out in public. Each move openly considered, debated and reconsidered in complete candid clarity. The process was mesmerizing.

In the end, the game was lost deliberatively. There was not a single oversight or accidental material sacrifice. Yet no matter how deeply analyzed or anticipated, each move arrived with the impact of a revelation.

By contrast, it made the banality of the copyright combatants all the more irritating.


“Shut down Napster will you! We’ll put up a dozen more using OpenNap!”

“OK! We’ll sue a dozen more! Then we’ll call your mothers!”

Thousands of geeks had spent months in deep concentration. All for a chess game. They’d collaborated as if lives depended on their strategic brilliance, yet nothing was at stake. No chess title. No prize money. Hell, the loser wasn’t even fined!

Yet now, with one side fighting “for freedom itself!” The other “for the life of their industry!” With both citing billion dollar threats and ramifications. With all of our futures at stake…

Neither side can put together two coherent moves.


“Ha Ha! Gnutella has no central server! You have nobody to sue and no mother to call!”

“Woot! We’ll sue you all individually! As a group! In random states where you don’t even live! We’ll sue your mothers too! We’re lawyers! Just try and stop us!”

It was lawyers pissing into the wind, while geeks pissed uphill. I tried to stay out of it. Better to be pissed off than pissed on.

…it’s a simple limit problem…
…as bandwidth approaches infinity…
…WTF approaches what?…

Sure there was Freenet and a few other glimpses of brilliance. But each move forced an obvious, more devastating, counter move. “You’re going to let people copy kiddie porn to your machine without you knowing about it? That’s going to make an awesome press release. Wouldn’t want to be you!”


“Hey! We’re LimeWire! We see a bright future in P2P. You might kill Napster but you’ll never kill us! The only thing we host is advertising. We’re legit. We leave the infringing to everyone else! Call us, we want to do business!”

“Oh, you gotta be fucking kidding me!”

It was maddening! So many smart people making decisions so obviously detached from reality. The kibitzer in me screamed, “Fianchetto the lawyers! Offer a media gambit! Anything! Think outside the box!” But no.

…as bandwidth approaches infinity…
…that is the future…
…Crap! What the hell is it!…


“Woo Hoo! Suck that Napster! Shutting you down!”

“Appeal! Appeal! I want to appeal! You’re a big bad meanie! Wait till your kids hear what you did!”



“Na Nanna Nah Nah! Try a-a-gain! The judge has a-daughter! The judge has a-daughter!”

It was like watching kindergarden for clown school. On the other hand, there was no denying the whole circus was becoming disturbingly addictive.

…as bandwidth approaches infinity, something gets bigger?…
…as bandwidth approaches infinity…
…does anything go to zero?…

“Hey Bob! Can you email me a copy of the CORBA tutorial?”

“It’s too big for mail. I put it up on the server.”

…as bandwidth approaches infinity…
…what goes to…

“Oh, Kevin!”
“It plays OK over the network. Don’t bother to copy it locally.”

“Holy Shit!!!”

“You OK?”

…Crap! I said that out loud?…

“Sorry. Nothing. Just need to run out for a bit.”


“Pawn to king’s knight 4. Check!”

“You don’t want to do that,” Chip deadpanned.

“Yeah! *You* don’t want me to do that!”

I didn’t play chess very often but I was holding my own. At least Chip hadn’t slaughtered me like he’d bragged. It was a friendly game but both of us were playing slowly and deliberately. We’d only just met so neither of us wanted to embarrass ourselves.

“Don’t you see it? En passant.” He grabbed a pawn and faked a diagonal move behind mine.

“What game are you playing, Tegwar?” I teased.

“Ah, I thought you didn’t know. I didn’t believe it either when a kid pulled it on me in a tournament.”

“You played in chess tournaments?”

“Only once. I was twelve. I’d won two games and was three moves away from beating this ranked ten year old kid. I pushed out my pawn and he immediately took it. “In passing” he said. I was pissed. I accused him of cheating and tried to put it back. The arbiter came over and looked down at me like I was an idiot. “Pawn en passant capture. Article 3, section 7-d. It’s a legal move,” he told me.

I guess I looked stunned because the guy bent down and whispered in my ear.

“You entered a tournament without knowing the rules?”

I wanted to cry. After that the little kid slaughtered me.


No, that’s just stupid. The two concepts are orthagonal. What would that even mean? These goosebumps are freaking me out! Wait, stop pacing. Think deliberately, walk in one direction. Outside, the woods. Fresh air clears the head.
Inevitably gets smaller, sure. But to one? For everyone? Duh, obviously URL means universal. But web pages are tiny. It can’t possibly effect the right. Right? But how could it not? Wait, calm down.

Start from first principles…

Faster bandwidth means faster copies. Local copies provide instantaneous access.
Infinite bandwidth provides instantaneous local copies! Which… hum? …just unnecessarily slows initial access? Try again… Infinite bandwidth provides instantaneous copies/access, making local copies redundant. Better! A completely connected internet makes multiple network copies indistinguishable. Well, at least if access is universally fast. I’ll buy that.

OK. So as network bandwidth increases, the number of *required* copies tends toward one. Any other copies simply provide redundancy.

QED. *That* is the future. Woot!

But how can that possibly effect copyright? They’re orthogonal. One is legal, the other is physical. It’s as if by speeding up my car, the law of… Fuck me! Of course gravity still applies. It just loses its normal force!  (excuse the pun)

So, OK, once the first copy is published, the author retains the right to control copying. But, nobody else actually requires a copy. They simply read/access/play the existing copy in-place. Woot!

QED. That’s the future? How perverse?

I smiled realizing the mayhem this was going to cause certain, generally annoying, groups of industry copyright holders. It was a sarcastic kind of smile. Surely, other obscure bits of copyright law will claim to have something to say about that.

Of course, they’ll go after people who make their personal copies publicly available. The DMCA invented a mechanism just for that. But with so many laws and countries to choose from, every file will undoubtably find at least one self-interested host. That’s all it will take to wreak havoc.

My smile grew as I started ruling out dramatic changes like, say, shifting responsibility to the reader. Imagine being fined for reading a public board whose poster didn’t clear display rights. Or getting caught up in a class action lawsuit against all readers of a blog. Perhaps one alleging the author didn’t have a fair-use right to inline a Reuters picture of a White House bulletin board. Inconceivable!

I was feeling a bit smug as I passed Blockbuster. “Clink, thump, clink.” The father never noticed the blood drain from my face. “Clink, thump, clink,” the son followed suit. It wasn’t goosebumps moving up this time. It was cold chills moving down.

Such a simple act. Two tapes into the drop. I’d done it a hundred times. First with my father, now with my kids…

Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me!!!

It was never about the copyright owners.
It’s about the copy owner’s rights!

The cold chill was evil. Pure evil. Libraries, video stores, home recording… They are going to refight all the old battles!

If there is no need to make copies, there is no need to sell copies! Ever. Fuck! They’re going after first sale!

QED. Shit! It’s not the future. It’s now!

“Race!” I heard the boy cry to his father as he rushed behind me towards the car…

“No, I’m fine,” I said, as the father reached down to help me back up.

“No, It wasn’t his fault. He never even touched me. I must have stepped off the curb.”


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One comment.

  1. Howdy! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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