Cerf Warns Of A 'Lost Century' Caused By Bit Rot; Patents And Copyright Largely To Blame

from the and-he-should-know dept

According to his online biography, Vint Cerf is:

Vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. He is responsible for identifying new enabling technologies and applications on the Internet and other platforms for the company.

That suggests someone whose main job is to look forward, rather than back, and with a certain optimism too. But an article in the Guardian reports on a speech he gave in which he is not only concerned with the past of online technologies, rather than their future, but is also issuing an important warning about their fatal flaws:

Humanity’s first steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians, Vint Cerf told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, warning that we faced a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” through what he called “bit rot”, where old computer files become useless junk.

Of course, he’s not the first person to raise that issue — Techdirt wrote about this recently — but Cerf’s important contributions to the creation of the Internet, and his current role at Google, lend particular weight to his warning. That said, the Guardian article seems to miss the central reason all this is happening. It’s not that it’s really hard to create emulators to run old programs or open old files. The real issue is tucked away right at the end of the article, which quotes Cerf as saying:

“the rights of preservation might need to be incorporated into our thinking about things like copyright and patents and licensing. We’re talking about preserving them for hundreds to thousands of years,” said Cerf.

The main obstacles to creating software that can run old programs, read old file formats, or preserve old webpages, are patents and copyright. Patents stop people creating emulators, because clean-room implementations that avoid legal problems are just too difficult and expensive to carry out for academic archives to contemplate. At least patents expire relatively quickly, freeing up obsolete technology for reimplementation. Copyright, by contrast, keeps getting extended around the world, which means that libraries would probably be unwilling to make backup copies of digital artefacts unless the law was quite clear that they could — and in many countries, it isn’t.

Once again, we see that far from promoting and preserving culture, intellectual monopolies like patents and copyright represent massive impediments that may, as Cerf warns, result in vast swathes of our digital culture simply being lost forever.

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Comments on “Cerf Warns Of A 'Lost Century' Caused By Bit Rot; Patents And Copyright Largely To Blame”

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21 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Preservation of culture in spite of the law

My thoughts. But even the pirates have limits. I’ll store what meets my interests and tastes and both my life and my storage space are limited. The space prevents me from keeping everything that I would if I had unlimited storage and when I die my collection may be simply scrapped by my heirs who may not share the same interests or may not be into file-sharing. Pirates may help save a few decades or even 1 or 2 hundred years worth of content but it takes timeless institutions like libraries or museums to actually do the heavy-lifting.

Jotunbane says:

Re: Re: Re: Preservation of culture in spite of the law

Got you covered. (http://c3jemx2ube5v5zpg.onion/ and http://xfmro77i3lixucja.onion/)

But the problem of longevity remains, we have yet to see a service go through a generation shift, but I think this will follow the same lines as code base inheritance in free software.

And in storing for posterity you cant use hard-disks anyway, the technology is simply too young, and nobody want to offer the kind of guarantee a library would ask for.

I would not worry too much about it, the stuff that is interesting will get preserved somewhere. It may not be available in any official manner, and you may need to search hard to find it, but that is part of the fun.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Preservation of culture in spite of the law

As tech improves the storage space issue will likely become more and more minor, and with the vast number of people with different tastes, collectively I’d imagine most things that can be saved will be.

Piracy may not be able to handle the cultural preservation on it’s own, but hopefully it’ll at least lessen the losses until a better solution comes along.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Preservation of culture in spite of the law

when I die my collection may be simply scrapped by my heirs who may not share the same interests or may not be into file-sharing

Maybe not explicitly scrapped, because your old hard drives won’t have any value compared to the larger ones of that era (except as a way to get some free neodymium magnets). It will probably be easy enough to drop the files in a directory on a new drive. More likely, the data will just be forgotten—it’s too labor-intensive to go through that and find what’s worth keeping.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Preservation of culture in spite of the law

It wouldn’t be the first time that “pirates” were the ones responsible for preserving culture that would have been lost forever if the rules were followed. It’s just that instead of it being an interesting wrinkle that’s notable because it’s rare (e.g. Nosferatu or Doctor Who episodes), it becomes the norm. That’s a very sad state of affairs.

The sycophants will be along any time soon to explain why corporate rights are more important than cultural preservation any minute now though.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Preservation of culture in spite of the law

A lot of those retro games are on the Internet Archive now, even playable in a browser.

While Nintendo claimed for years (and still does) that it’s illegal to use game copiers, re-releases of their old NES games on newer systems include copier headers (“iNES headers”). Whether they used a copier themselves or just downloaded the ROMs online is unclear.

hij (profile) says:

Patents are indecipherable

This is an argument that patent applications should be written in a form that is actually readable. Patent writing seems to be an arcane art with little regard to reading. It is nigh impossible to reproduce an implementation after reading the patent, and sometimes it is not even easy to figure out what the patent does. Some of the technologies in question can be lost simply because the records for their implementation are so hard to figure out and are a second form of trade secret.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Patents are indecipherable

Patents aren’t just unreadable, they’re often simply lacking enough (or any) detail to allow reimplementation. Many are just ideas, which enough references to computer hardware thrown in to obscure this fact. (They’ll describe the setup and the result while glossing over the core algorithm–because algorithms are, in theory, not patentable, but “a machine that performs $VAGUELY_DESCRIBED_STEPS” seems to get past patent examiners.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Future historians

Much more likely: and thus we have to rely on archaeology for the entirety of history before the earliest recordings appear in the 23rd century. And while they seem to have had the technology to preserve knowledge digitally for at least a century, why we have no recordings from that time have been lost.

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