Exhuming McCarthy

Bill Gates turns 50 this year. He’s become the elder statesman in the industry and has stepped aside on a long of things Microsoft in favor of Steve Ballmer. Nevertheless, he is still capable of creating controversy and pushing his luck. This time, instead of antagonizing Scott McNealy or Larry Ellison, he has irked the likes of Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford Law Prof and erstwhile hero of the Creative Commons License. You see, Bill made some comments about the challenges of digital piracy. Specifically, he said:

There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises. They don't think that those incentives should exist.

Lessig was less than complimentary when he titled a blog response about Gateswhat a total (intellectual) disappointment this man is”. Wow, I thought Microsoft was arrogant. Lessig blogs: “the people I've met at Microsoft are miles beyond this sort of silliness. Does Mr. Gates not even talk to them?” That’s followed by several feedback posts from readers disparaging Gates and talking about all the “yes men” that surround him. Hmm, Microsoft a “yes man” culture? That’s not the company that signs my checks—not even at the Gates level (the executive battles that I have heard about are stuff of legend).

But let’s focus on the Gates vs. Lessig debate. Gates implies that there are “modern-day communists” out there. Lessig, whose father was a CIA agent in the Cold War, was quoted in Wired News as saying “Stalinist purges; the Berlin Wall; tanks in Budapest -- that's communism.” Hmm. Let’s look to dictionary.com for their definition of “communism”:

A theoretical economic system characterized by the collective ownership of property and by the organization of labor for the common advantage of all members.


There’s nothing about genocide, symbolic barriers, or warfare. Granted, a literal definition doesn’t conjure connotations that those who grew up in the cold war would think of, but when I first read the Gates interview, I knew his intent was literal (part of why he used the term “modern-day communists) and agreed. Looking at that definition, what part of it isn’t at least somewhat reflected by those that promote file-sharing of digital content or argue that Microsoft should open source all of its software. In that article, Lessig says “I know he can't be talking about Creative Commons, I'd be interested to know whom Gates is talking about” That may be true--the Creative Commons licensing is a voluntary measure and anyone who signs up for it does so under his or her own volition. The question is: does Lessig believe the financial incentives should exist or is everyone subject to the Creative Commons for all work? I believe Lessig is on the side of the former. As I understand his stance, people should choose Creative Commons as appropriate and select from the menu of license to suit their needs (heck, we’re even planning to experiment with it later this year). However, the Richard Stallmans and Eric Raymonds of the world believe the latter and I believe that (along with the BitTorrents and Kazaas of the world) is who Gates was targeting As I mentioned in an earlier post, authorized co-mingling of creative works can create result in something exciting, but we seem to de-value it when the authorization occurs. Alas, Jay-Z and Linkin Park were guilty of capitalism by trying to profit off their own work. To understand the dangers of a digital free-for-all, I would look not to Bill Gates, but rather to another outspoken critic who took a lot of flak: Lars Ulrich of Metallica. Years ago, on Capitol Hill, he did a great job testifying against Napster back when Napster was a free-for-all (just like BitTorrent, Kazaa, etc. still are today). While the whole testimony is recommended reading and a valuable lesson in why BitTorrent et al requires concern, I will borrow his quote of NY Times columnist Edward Rothstein:

"Information doesn't want to be free; only the transmission of information wants to be free. Information, like culture, is the result of a labor and devotion, investment and risk; it has a value. And nothing will lead to a more deafening cultural silence than ignoring that value and celebrating...[companies like] Napster running amok."

The idea of labor, devotion, investment and risk reminds me of another dictionary.com definition:

An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.

That is the definition of capitalism. Perhaps Gates is an intellectual disappointment to a Stanford Law Prof (he did drop out of college, after all), but as the world’s premier capitalist, he knows his economic systems and he sees what is going on and I agree with him. Does this make me a “yes man”? No, just someone who values labor, devotion, investment and risk for those who choose to profit from it. In other words, an aspiring entrepreneur…

{Nirvana – With The Lights Out}