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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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 19 Feb 2015 @ 11:20pm

    Preservation of culture in spite of the law

    And of course the punchline to the whole thing, is that if these bits of culture are to be preserved, it will likely fall to the pirates, those who ignore the insane laws, to do it, since the legal route to do so are so incredible difficult, expensive, or flat out impossible.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 20 Feb 2015 @ 1:21am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        eaving (profile), 20 Feb 2015 @ 1:33am

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

        The obvious solution, Librarians Pirates. Sailing the digital seas with a cutlass and a quiet sign.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Jotunbane, 20 Feb 2015 @ 2:28am

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Ninja (profile), 20 Feb 2015 @ 7:50am

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

          Well played, sir. Well played.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 20 Feb 2015 @ 1:38am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2015 @ 7:54am

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

          Storage space for current software, absolutely. However, software has a habit of expanding in size to match the size of the computers available.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2015 @ 6:31am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 20 Feb 2015 @ 2:41am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 20 Feb 2015 @ 3:06am

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

        Well of course, after all, corporate profits are the main, nay, only purpose behind copyright law, 'enriching and expanding culture' has nothing to do with it. /s

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Pragmatic, 20 Feb 2015 @ 5:18am

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

        ...because property, and because they say so.

        It's this erroneous conflation of intellectual output with property rights that's causing all the problems in the first place. We need to keep calling it out every time we see it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2015 @ 3:16am

      Re: Preservation of culture in spite of the law

      It worked for Nosferatu and countless retro games.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2015 @ 6:25am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2015 @ 3:32am

    Abolish IP

    It's the only way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    hij (profile), 20 Feb 2015 @ 5:06am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2015 @ 6:21am

      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.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2015 @ 6:44am

    Future historians

    And thus we remember the dark ages of the digital world in which abusive and restrictive self interest laws prevented the preservation of a rich cultural early digital history.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2015 @ 7:58am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Feb 2015 @ 2:22pm

    Another Misleading TechDirt Headline

    Hi Glyn,

    Is there a reason you make it seem like Vint Cerf is espousing your opinion? Are you afraid to let your arguments stand on their own merits?

    xoxo, Anonymous

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    limbodog (profile), 23 Feb 2015 @ 10:25am

    Hundreds of years from now, this century will be known as a "dark age" due to the enormous wealth of information about it that has been lost. I doubt any but the most diligent of historians will have any clue as to why.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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