monopoly

Prometheus Unbound Podcast

In episode three of the Prometheus Unbound Podcast, Matthew and I have a fantastic interview with the wonderful Jeffrey Tucker, editor of Laissez Faire Books. It’s a long one, about an hour and fifteen minutes, and we knew you’d be eager to listen to Jeffrey, so we wasted no time with chit-chat and got right down to business. We covered a number of topics ranging from LFB, intellectual property, and Jeffrey’s favorite fiction.

We started off by asking Jeffrey Tucker what it’s been like working for a commercial publisher and bookseller after having worked for a nonprofit educational institution, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, where he was editorial vice president, for so long.

Then we went on to talk about the business model of Laissez Faire Books and the role of the publisher in the digital age as a curator and service provider (curation as a service); the compatibility of open source and business; intellectual property; the nature of competition; how many entrepreneurs and businesses misidentify the source of their profitability and don’t understand why people buy their goods or services; how copyright has held back the publishing industry; and markets as institutions of teaching and learning.

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Prometheus Unbound Podcast

In episode two of the Prometheus Unbound Podcast, Matthew and I (Geoffrey) discuss libertarian speculative fiction and introduce the Book of the Month, Today’s Tomorrows Writing Prompt, and Fiction Forecasts segments of the show.

We break the ice with some brief chit-chat about what we’ve been reading before seguing into our discussion of libertarian spec fic. The Book of the Month is Coyote by Allen Steele. In Today’s Tomorrows Writing Prompt, we turn a speculative eye on the very real possibility of an intellectual-property dystopia. And in Fiction Forecasts, we talk about upcoming (at the time of recording) television shows, movies, and books.

What We’ve Been Reading

Libertarian Speculative Fiction

We covered a lot of ground in our discussion of libertarian spec fic, but we really only scratched the surface of this broad, deep, and no doubt controversial topic. I’m sure we’ll be revisiting many of the stories and issues we covered, and many more besides, in future episodes. So subscribe and stay tuned!

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the things we covered: what qualifies a work of fiction as libertarian; libertarian themes in science fiction and fantasy; why they seem to be more common in science fiction and why libertarians seem to favor this genre; our favorite works of libertarian spec fic; the Prometheus Awards; and probably more that I’m forgetting as I write this.

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Prometheus Unbound Podcast

At long last, here is the first episode of our new, original podcast.

First, Matthew and I break the ice by briefly talking about what we’ve been reading recently. I had just finished Kameron Hurley’s debut novel God’s War. Overall, I think it’s a good effort with an interesting story and world-building but is not without its flaws. Matthew had recently finished Live Free or Die by John Ringo. It was a 2011 Prometheus Award finalist, not a winner as I mistakenly thought while recording the podcast and, according to Matthew, didn’t deserve to be.

Our interview with Stephan takes up most of the episode. It’s around 53 minutes long and starts 9:40 minutes in. For those who don’t already know him, Stephan Kinsella is a patent attorney and prominent libertarian legal scholar. He is best known for his opposition to intellectual property.

We invited Stephan on the show to discuss the problems of intellectual property and piracy in the Digital Age. But first we had to ask him about his love of science fiction and fantasy. We got him to mention some of his favorite authors and books (see below for a list), and we even talked about the Hobbit movie for a bit.

Then, at about 23:15 in, we dove into the meat of the interview. Stephan explained the historical origin of copyright (censorship) and patents (government grants of monopoly privilege, which is what copyright is now too really), how intellectual property has shaped and distorted the film and publishing industries, including Hollywood’s move to California to avoid patent disputes, and why reform is not enough. We also discussed how the Digital Age — the age of the internet, smartphone, ereader, and globalization — is making the evils of copyright and patents more obvious and acute while at the same time undermining traditional business models built around intellectual property. And finally, we explore ways artistic creators might earn a living in a world without intellectual property laws.

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Worldcon banned by UStream for copyright infringement

If you tried to watch the livestream of the Hugo Awards event at Chicon 7 (Worldcon) last night, you were in for a rude surprise. The feed cut off, never to be restored, just as Neil Gaiman was giving his acceptance speech.  Why? i09 has the scoop, but fingers the wrong culprit.

Worldcon banned by UStream for copyright infringement

What happened was that the Hugo Awards showed clips from some Doctor Who episodes and a Community episode prior to Gaiman’s speech. UStream’s copyright enforcement robots detected this and shut down the feed, as they had been programmed to do. io9’s editor-in-chief, Annalee Newitz, lays the blame on UStream. Its copyright enforcement robots are too dumb to realize that not only did the Hugo Awards have permission to show those clips but that, even if they had not, showing them would have been fair use anyway.

Is it UStream’s fault that its copyright enforcement robots are unable to distinguish between illicit copyrighted content and copyrighted content the user has permission or a fair-use defense for airing? Should UStream spend more money on smarter robots? if it’s even possible to code smart enough robots to do this? I don’t think so.

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Government Failure by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady

Government Failure by Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon L. Brady

Michael Stackpole, a traditionally published author who was one of the early champions of self-publishing ebooks, has an interesting post analyzing the settlement agreed to by three of the Big Six publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster — involved in the alleged ebook price fixing flap. If he’s right, the Department of Justice is going to be imposing more injustice than just preventing a little self-destructive collusive fixing of high prices. This is yet another among so many many many examples of the state stepping in to prevent something only to impose that very thing itself. Yes, it looks like the DoJ is going to prevent price fixing of one sort only to impose its own brand of price fixing. But hey, it’s only a bad thing when non-state entities do it, right?

Here is Stackpole’s breakdown of the settlement  provisions:

  1. For a period of two years,
  2. Publishers will not be able to set a restricted retail price for their product.
  3. Retailers will be able to set their own price for an ebook, but they cannot discount the bookbelow their own discount. (In short, the retailer cannot sell ebooks at a loss.)
  4. Publishers cannot “retaliate” against retailers during this time.
  5. The “favored nation” status that prevented a publisher from selling at a lower price to one retailer over another is gone.
  6. The Agency Pricing discount of 30% off the top that retailers pay publishers can remain in place.
  7. There are compliance procedures being set in place (that I don’t bother discussing) so the government can make sure that the publishers are complying with the agreement.

That’s right. Provision #3 fixes an arbitrary minimum price —a price floor. Retailers like Amazon will not be allowed to sell ebooks below the price they pay publishers for them; they will not be allowed to sell at a loss. For two years. And apparently there is yet more intrusive bureaucracy being set up to monitor compliance with these new regulations for the ebook market. It’s another shovel-ready Obama jobs program!

The federal government is also going to prevent publishers from requiring retailers sell their ebooks for a certain price. In other words, it bans the agency model. Now, I’m no fan of the agency model, and I think it’s self-destructive for publishers to adopt it in order to screw their customers with high prices so that they can prop up their dead-tree book business model for a while longer. But I don’t think they should be prevented by law from doing so.

Stabilization is Chaos: “Monetary policy all over the world has followed the advice of the stabilizers. It is high time that their influence, which has already done harm enough, should be overthrown.”
— F.A. Hayek, 1932

The federal government is also going to prevent publishers from retaliating against retailers for the prices they set. Also, no more contracts that stipulate publishers can’t sell to other retailers at a lower price. In other words, the state is going to short circuit the market process by preventing publishers from putting any kind of meaningful pressure on retailers and vice versa. No jockeying for position in the ebook market. Forget letting consumers decide and the best business model win. The United States federal government prefers stasis — the maintenance of a status quo of its own making.

But wait, there’s more. Stackpole does the math and argues that far from preventing publishers from fixing high prices for consumers, the settlement will actually disincentivize both publishers and retailers from setting lower prices:

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Sharis Pozen

DoJ Assistant AG Sharis Pozen

Sharis Pozen
DoJ Assistant AG Sharis Pozen

Get this: The federal bureaucrat who last month started the litigation against Apple and book publishers for ebook pricing is the same person who, back in the stone age, represented Netscape in its lawsuit against Microsoft.

Recall that Microsoft was trying to give away its Internet Explorer to computer users for free. Netscape went nuts and got the government to clobber Microsoft for being so nice to consumers. It put the company through litigation hell and even demanded that Microsoft change its operating system code to untie it from IE.

The person’s name is Sharis Pozen, and she is acting head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division and a political appointee of the Obama administration. She claims that she is threatening state violence against Apple and publishers for pricing collusion — and that it’s her job to protect consumers.

Interesting. She began her career trying to protect the rights of an old-line company to rip off consumers. To her, a price of zero was unfair competition. She was sure that a browser should be a paid product. The progress of history flattens that argument. Today, dozens of companies beg you to download their browser for free. Browser use is all over the place, sort of like a free market. There is no Microsoft monopoly, contrary to the overheated predictions.

Given that history, one might suppose she would retire from public life and maybe go into flower arranging or something. Instead, she is still at it. Last year, she denied a proposed merger between T-Mobile and AT&T that would have improved your cell service. This year, she says that a deal between publishers and Apple is harming consumers, so she has to act.

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The Lorax

Anyone who read Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as a kid might dread the movie version. No one really needs another moralizing, hectoring lecture from environmentalists on the need to save the trees from extinction, especially since that once-fashionable cause seems ridiculously overwrought today. There is no shortage of trees and this is due not to nationalization so much as the privatization and cultivation of forest land.

And yet, even so, the movie is stunning and beautiful in every way, with a message that taps into something important, something with economic and political relevance for us today. In fact, the movie improves on the book with the important addition of “Thneed-Ville,” a community of people who live in a completely artificial world lorded over by a mayor who also owns the monopoly on oxygen.

This complicates the relatively simple narrative of the book, which offers a story of a depleted environment that doesn’t actually make much sense. The original posits an entrepreneur who discovers that he can make a “Thneed” — a kind of all-purpose cloth — out of the tufts of the “Truffula Tree,” and that this product is highly marketable.

Now, in real life, any capitalist in this setting would know exactly what to do: immediately get to work planting and cultivating more Truffula trees. This is essential capital that makes the business possible and sustainable through time. You want more rather than less capital. An egg producer doesn’t kill his chickens; he breeds more. But in the book (and the movie), the capitalist does the opposite. He cuts down all the trees and, surprise, his business goes bust.

The book ends with the aging capitalist regretting his life and passing on the last Truffula seed to the next generation. The end. However, the movie introduces us to the town that is founded after this depletion occurs. It is shielded off from the poisoned and depleted world outside, and oxygen is pumped in by the mayor who holds the monopoly on air and builds Lenin-like statues to himself. The people eventually rise up when they discover that “air is free” and thereby overthrow the despot, chopping off the statue’s head.

It was this line about how air is free that clued me in to the movie’s possible subtext. You only need to add one metaphor to see how this movie can be the most important and relevant political-economic drama of the season.

The metaphorical substitution is this: The Trees are Ideas.

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