Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Wednesday 19 December 2012

Three unrelated stories drew my notice this evening:

PATH service has resumed to Hoboken. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—I lived in Hoboken, N.J., the birthplace of Frank Sinatra (really) and baseball (not really). I took the Port Authority Trans-Hudson train almost every day when I worked in SoHo, and about every third day when I worked in Midtown. Having experienced other ways of commuting to New York—in fact, the switch up to 53rd and Park finally got me to return to Chicago, after my commute stretched to an hour and 15 minutes and required three transit changes—I have a lot of sympathy for the people living in Hoboken and Jersey City who have had to make their ways across the Hudson without the PATH.

In the first days after 9/11, both the PATH and the MTA worried that the Twin Towers' collapse would breach the "bathtub" (the Towers' foundation) and flood both the PATH and the New York subway. No one knew how bad the damage would be, and were thankful when it didn't happen. Eleven years later, Hurricane Sandy showed everyone.

So reading today that the PATH Hoboken to 33rd St. line reopened after seven weeks made me smile. Not as much, I expect, as the thousands of people whose commutes can now return to tolerable lengths.

I'm visiting New York in a few weeks; I'll make sure to post a few photos in homage of the PATH.

Facebook's change to Instagram's terms of service has rightly outraged everyone paying attention. Instagram, a photo-sharing service that Facebook bought recently for $1 bn, this week published new terms of service that allow them to use posted photos any way they want, any time they want. Their goal, not surprisingly, is to make money. The people who use Instagram just want to share their photos with their friends.

The Times quoted Santa Clara University Law Professor Eric Goldman saying, "The interest of the site is never 100 percent aligned with the users, and the divergence inevitably leads to friction. It’s unavoidable." Well, yes, because Instagram's users are not Instagram's customers, as they are just discovering, because the customer is the one who pays you. If you use a service that is free to you, you are not the customer and therefore have nothing to say to the service's owners. I find the flap about Instagram's TOS so interesting because it seems as if none of their users has realized this key point yet.

Instagram swears up and down that the users continue to own their own photos. Of course they do. And of course you keep ownership. But if you post on Instagram, "you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content, including without limitation distributing part or all of the Site in any media formats through any media channel...." So they don't own your photos, exactly, but they can act as if they do.

Under U.S. copyright law, the creator of a work owns it, unless he has signed away the creation right explicitly. (Example: I work for a great software company. I write software for them, under a work-for-hire agreement. Therefore, except for some explicit, written exceptions, all the software I produce that has commercial value is owned by my employer. If I write code in one of my employer's client's applications that makes 10th Magnitude a billion dollars, I don't own it, 10th Magnitude does. That's the deal I made when I took this job. I trust, however, that if I made my boss a billion dollars, he'd share.)

So if you take a photo on your phone, you own it. It's your photo. And Instagram's new TOS says, yes, of course you own it, but we can sell it if we want and pay you nothing.

Now, I've experienced a variety of contractual arrangements in my life as a creative person, so I'm not shocked when someone wants a piece of my income as a fee for finding the income-producing gig. As a software contractor, I've routinely signed away 25% or 30% of my earnings off the top, in exchange for someone else doing the legwork to find the income-producing gig on my behalf. (It's really hard to find gigs while you're working full time on one, it turns out.) And, as someone who hires software contractors now, I expect they'll agree, too. We call this a "commission," as have people in other professions for millennia.

Instagram, effectively, demands a 100% commission off your work. Not only that, but if Instagram finds that one of your photos makes Ansel Adams weep, they can market the crap out of it. You'll never see a dime. Why would someone license the rights from you, when Instagram is selling them cheap? And you can't stop Instagram from destroying the market for your work, because you consented to it by posting your photo.

Let me put it another way. Instagram is saying, "You own your car, of course. But if you park it in our garage, we get to use it as a taxi, without paying you a dime."

To sum up: the people railing against Instagram's new TOS are exactly right. It sucks. And I will never, ever post any of my intellectual property there, even if they change the TOS in response to the approbation they've received, because (repeat after me) I am not their customer.

Finally—and I assure you, this is not related to Instagram—I recoiled in horror at the latest religious stupidity, that the Taliban have started killing anti-polio workers in Afghanistan.

Full disclosure: I was a member of Rotary International for a few years, and I wholly support the organization's amazingly-successful efforts to destroy polio the way we destroyed smallpox. Polio is a sufficiently complex organism that it can't evolve as quickly as we can kill it, making it an ideal target for eradication (like smallpox). But you have to get immunized, and sufficient numbers of your neighbors do, too, or it will keep spreading.

So, these idiot religious fundies, who subscribe to any number of irrational fantasies already, have apparently decided that the people trying to keep their babies from dying of an entirely preventable disease are, in fact, American spies. As the Times reports, "the killings were a serious reversal for the multi-billion-dollar global polio immunization effort, which over the past quarter century has reduced the number of endemic countries from 120 to just three: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria."

Does anyone else see a coincidence between the three last outposts of a crippling, preventable disease and religious nuttery? Part of Rotary's success, by the way, has been in reassuring local populations that eradicating polio is no more and no less than it seems: a humanitarian effort to end a horrible disease forever. Wars have stopped to allow Rotary and the Gates Foundation to conduct immunizations. But the Taliban do not believe in reason. They would rather have hundreds of their children dead or crippled than accept the possibility that some American- (and British- and French- and Japanese- and South-African- and Namibian- and Saudi- and...) funded organization wants to prevent their children dying or becoming crippled.

Three countries still have polio. They also have air travel. Not everyone in the OECD has polio vaccinations today. So, if I can mention the self-interest of everyone able to read this blog post, who must therefore speak English and have an Internet connection, the religious nutters killing health workers who, but for being shot, would have eradicated a disease that has crippled millions, have made your life more perilous.

</ rant>

All right. Time to walk the dog.

PS: You may need to subscribe to the New York Times to read the linked stories. I apologize if this inconveniences you, but I recommend subscribing anyway. For $15 a month you not only get the entire newspaper online (and on any tablets you own), but you get to feel good about yourself. You also get to live Kant's categorical imperative, by behaving in such a way that the behavior could be universal. Isn't $15 an incentive worth aligning?

Tuesday 18 December 2012 22:04:18 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | Religion | Business#
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David Braverman is a software developer in Chicago, and the creator of Weather Now. Parker is the most adorable dog on the planet, 80% of the time.
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