Clay Shirkey on Spectrum Reform

The Possibility of Spectrum As A Public Good

In the handling of spectrum, technological improvement is the philosopher’s stone, capable of turning one kind of material into another. Since the treatment of spectrum as property is an artifact of current regulatory structure, itself an artifact of engineering assumptions, changing the engineering can change what spectrum is, at least in a regulatory setting. This matters, because the inefficiencies and distortions arising from treating spectrum as property create obstacles to more economically efficient and flexible uses of wireless communication.

[…] The potential threat to spectrum holders is clear. We have a set of arguments for creating and enforcing property rights for things that aren’t actually property. We usually apply this artificial scarcity to intellectual property — patents, trademarks, copyright — and grant these rights to protect certain forms of abstract work or communications.

The rationale for all these rights, however, is to reward their creators for novel intellectual work. This does not offer much relief to spectrum holders seeking a justification for continued Government enforcement of scarcity. None of the current holders of spectrum have created any of it — a wavelength is a physical property that cannot be created or destroyed. If spectrum can be regulated without the traditional licensing regime, it’s hard to argue that the Government has a compelling interest in creating and enforcing scarcity.

And this is what makes the current fight so interesting, and so serious. There are simple arguments about interference, but the ramifications of these arguments are about essence — what kind of thing is spectrum? We have the opportunity to get a world where cheap but smart equipment allows for high utility and low coordination costs between users.

See also Slashdot’s Shirky on Spectrum Ownership

The FCC On The Prowl

Wiretapping the Web [pdf] [via Slashdot]

“All the trends are toward easier to tap,” says Kevin Bankston, an attorney at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.

[…] [NYU Assistant Professor Susan] Crawford says it’s time for the FCC, an independent government organization accountable to Congress, to engage in a public discourse if it plans on regulating the Web. “What we need right now is a national conversation about whether and how we’re going to regulate Internet services.” But even from where she sits, Crawford admits that the question of “whether” is already being answered in the affirmative. It’s the “how” that concerns her.

An Excuse To Post These Two Articles

Just took finding a theme — compare and contrast the notions of how technology influences and is influenced by human needs and desires:

  • A movie review of “Tom Dowd & the Language of Music: In a World of Singers, an Unsung Hero

    To hear the producer and recording engineer Tom Dowd describe his pioneering role in the evolution of studio recording, from monaural to stereo to multitracking to digital, is to begin to understand the degree to which machines, as much as performers, have shaped the changing sound of pop.

    Machines, of course, are useless without human engineers to operate them. And Mr. Dowd, who is profiled in Mark Moormann’s admiring documentary “Tom Dowd & the Language of Music,” comes across as a musically sophisticated sound technician whose respect for musicians always took precedence over his fascination with gadgetry.

  • And a discussion about the pending Summer Olympics coverage: Sing, Goddess, of the Stopwatch

    Watch the swimmers, runners, kayakers or canoeists on television, after all, and it’s hard not to be distracted by the advancing digital figures in the corner of the screen, the furiously mounting hundredths of seconds, the swiftly advancing tenths, the steady accumulation of the seconds themselves. (Actually, technology is capable of measuring performances to the thousandths of seconds.) In fact, the real race often seems to be between clocks: Will the climbing numerals of one achieve the world record total fixed on another before the actual athletes reach the finish line?

    Winning and record-setting are two different ambitions, and in an increasingly time-conscious era, for both athletes and spectators, it seems as though the records are now paramount. As a result, keeping track of them has come to supersede competition.

Digital Art History Education

For Art History Scholars, Illumination Is a Click Away

[A] vast digital library of world art has gone online with its first 300,000 images. The project — known as ARTstor and financed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — could eventually revolutionize the way art history is taught and studied. It is available for nonprofit institutions only.

[…] ARTstor is not the first attempt to satisfy those needs. Thirty-nine museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, now contribute to an online library of high-quality art images known as the Art Museum Image Consortium, or Amico. It now has more than 100,000 images online.

But Amico announced this summer that despite more than two million licensed users, it plans to close next year. ARTstor is paying Amico a fee and will acquire some of its intellectual resources.

[…] So far, Mellon has poured more than $30 million into ARTstor (, which became a free-standing charitable organization this year and has started to solicit paying subscribers.

[…] Mellon has found that putting journal articles online and putting art online are very different undertakings. The universe of art is far larger. Creating a searchable database of images is more complex. Image quality is more important. And copyright issues are more complicated.

[…] “Eventually we will probably take tons of contributions,” James Shulman, ARTstor’s executive director, said. “But right now we are trying to act strategically and keep the collection focused on what users need most.”

One gaping hole is modern art. Because of international copyright considerations, ARTstor has not yet put online many works created since 1924, while it negotiates with groups representing modern and contemporary artists.

[…] Although art is the main focus now, ARTstor officials say they may eventually offer collections in other disciplines, too. They are experimenting with botany and astronomy.