Boston Chapter 9: When Guatemalans and Nature Attack

We had a plan, honest we did.

It was a simple plan, too. There wasn’t any of the “When NATO realizes the futility of resistance, they will peacefully turn over control of the free world to me” complexities of most of my plans. Our simple plan was to leave St. Louis and head toward Cincinnati, where we would meet with the pet lesbians late in the evening. From there, we would…

Okay, let me back up a bit.

zaiah and I have a pair of pet lesbians. We met them a couple of years back, as regular readers may already know, when they were couch-surfing their way down the West Coast. Owing to an unfortunate (for them) or very fortunate (for us) confluence of events, their plans in Portland had fallen through at the last moment, and a mutual friend had phoned me up and said “There’s a couple of people who really need a place to stay for a night or two, can you give them crash space?”

They are, it is fair to say, two of the most adorable people currently alive today. In fact, they are so adorable that, rumor has it, when nobody’s looking they turn (in some quantum observer-locked loop kind of way) into a pile of kittens. I mean, just look at the two of them! This level of awesome should not be attempted by anyone save trained professionals.

So zaiah and I have unofficially officially adopted them, kinda. When they heard about our cross-country trip, they offered us crash space in Cincinnati, and since spending time with them is something that’s awesome under any circumstances, I jumped at the chance.

So it was with sadness but also joy that I left St. Louis behind, knowing that as each passing mile brought us farther away from City Museum, it took us closer by the same degree to Cincinnati. We had planned to stop for dinner in Louisville, Kentucky, before reaching our destination, and to linger the following day, taking in the delights of Cincinnati in the company of two of the most delightful people I have ever met.

I have but one picture of Louisville. My memories of the place extend scarcely beyond this; for all I know, Louisville itself extends scarcely beyond this. Perhaps it is not even a real place; perhaps it exists in a kind of limbo, a psychological space where one’s companions are carried away by Guatemalans, a psychic residual trace left after the actual memories are erased. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Fate, it seemed, had other plans.

The first wrinkle was Hurricane Irene, also heading toward Beantown and scheduled to arrive about when we did. The second was the Guatemalans.

Irene demolished our plans in her wet and windy way. It started when we hit Louisville, where we arranged to meet with some friends of our traveling companion Erica. We decided to eat at The Old Spaghetti Factory, which was perhaps our undoing; never trust decisions made at any establishment which features non-working replicas of trolley cars prominently in its decour, as my dear old grandmum used to say.

The first sign that trouble was afoot came when Erica excused herself to receive a telephone call. She returned after a considerable delay (and the arrival of our food, which anyone familiar with The Old Spaghetti Factory’s general level of service is no small measure of time at all) with news that her parents feared for her safety in the face of the oncoming hurricane and wanted her to abandon her odyssey with us at once. The arrival of her friends, a pair of mild-mannered and agreeable Chinese-speaking Guatemalans, happened at approximately the same time, such that they, too, were aware of her family’s proclamation.

They had, apparently, at least to the best of your humble scribe’s ability to put together a cohesive narrative from three separate conversation threads, one of them being made by a person quite visibly upset, journeyed themselves from Nashville to Louisville just for the purpose of dining with us. The notion that Erica was to cease her travels with us forthwith posed something of a logistical dilemma, as it left her with no means for returning home from that particular place.

Her friends offered to help with the logistics by giving her a ride with them back to Nashville, which would take her some small distance, I suppose, back toward Portland, but not by so much as to make a significant difference, logistically speaking.

She discussed this possibility, or at least I infer that she discussed this possibility, with them at some length. As the discussion took place largely in Chinese, a language which is, I fear, entirely opaque to your humble scribe, I do not feel entirely comfortable vouching for the contents of the conversation. They could, for all I know, have been talking about nuclear fusion, which is something I’ve been meaning to write about in this very blog, or anime, or indeed even the cost of hiring a professional assassin on the open market (something which I also must confess to having entirely no knowledge of at all), or automotive repair, or d├ęcoupage, or just about anything else, I reckon.

The meal progressed, bills were settled, and our traveling companion bade us farewell with the news that she would be taking up the offer of a lift to Nashville in the company of her friends.

I am not sure, to this very day, quite how that went, as the two of them had arrived in a two-seat car. My knowledge of geography is almost as limited as my knowledge of spoken Chinese, so I can not venture a guess about the practicality of traveling from Louisville to Nashville on the lap of a Guatemalan gentleman. Some weeks later, well after the conclusion of the journey through which I am so laboriously making my way, it came to my understanding that she had in fact returned to Portland, though I can not speak to the hows of this. At this point, as we bid our goodbyes in the parking lot, her path diverged from ours, and she passed from this story.

Our stay with the pet lesbians was to be similarly impacted by Irene, but that will wait for the telling of the final part of our tale.

Call out for information: Web shopping carts

I have a Web client who runs an online store. This client has a merchant account and is using a self-hosted Web site and self-hosted ecommerce package/shopping cart called Zen Cart.

Unfortunately, Zen Cart sucks balls, for a number of reasons. It’s slow to be updated (it’s currently at version 1.5, the first update in two years; the progress report on Version 2.0, “Beta Release Postponed Indefinitely,” was made on May 27…of 2009.

My client has gotten fed up with the limitations of this shambling mound of shit and is looking for a new shopping cart solution. The requirements in a new shopping cart are:

– Open source and free or reasonably priced. Shopping carts such as Magento that are priced on a “you must pay this much per year” are not acceptable.

– Must be able to work with Authorize.net and Virtual Merchant as credit card transaction processors

– Must work with PayPal

– Must have a robust and easy-to-use templating system. A system where the template is a complete HTML file with special tags for “insert content here” is preferred. (Seriously, what’s up with all these Baroque, piecemeal templating systems that so many ecommerce and CMS packages use?)

– Must have a very flexible coupon code system that allows great versatility in coupons. For example, “This coupon takes $120 off Product A and/or $160 off Product B,” “This coupon gives you $50 off when you buy Product Z, Y, and W together,” and “This coupon gives you $50 off your total order plus free shipping if you buy Product K plus two accessories.”

– Should be background scriptable. For example, I should be able to click on an “Add one to basket” button on a static HTML page that is not part of the shopping cart, and have the product added to the user’s cart without leaving that HTML page.

– Should allow a user to check out without creating an account, if she desires.

– Must allow for a wide variety of shipping methods (including USPS and FedEx real-time shipping), shipping to many international zones, and by-unit or by-weight shipping prices.

– Must allow ease of updating. Here’s a tip for software designers who need to be smacked: If your upgrade instructions say “In order to update and preserve your customizations, first download a distribution copy of your version of the product and run diff on it to make a list of all the differences between your installed version and the distribution version. Then, open the files in the new version, and…” You. Suck. This is actually the reason so many OS Commerce storefronts are trivial to hack: installing security patches is a protracted nightmare that makes getting a double root canal without anesthesia sound downright attractive.

– Must pass PCI/DSS compliance.

– Edited to add: Integration with SugarCRM would be really, really nice too.

So, any takers? Anyone got a self-hosted cart you like? Shopping carts (other than Zen Cart and the wretched pile of hyena vomit called OS Commerce) to avoid?

Polyamory: Some Thoughts on Rules

I generally am not a fan of rules-based relationships, particularly in polyamory. I have found, throughout all of my relationships, that they tend to work best when not governed by a codex of regulations that would make a bureaucrat blush.

Often, when I say that, folks will look at me as though I’ve sprouted an extra head. “How can you have a relationship without rules?” I’ve been asked by poly folks. “I mean, sure, that’s all well and good if you just want anarchy, with people running around doing whatever they want with no commitment, but you can’t build real relationships that way!”

Which is a bit of a head-scratcher to me, because it sounds quite a lot like a monogamous person telling a poly person “How can you have a relationship without monogamy? I mean, sure, that’s all well and good if you just want anarchy, with people running around shagging whoever they want with no commitment, but you can’t build real relationships that way!”

It’s a normal human thing, I suppose, to see the world in polar terms: if there is no monogamy, then that means promiscuity and indiscriminate shagging; if there are no rules, then that means anarchy and chaos. But that isn’t really the case.

What do you mean, that isn’t really the case? Rules are how we set out boundaries. Without rules, there’s nothing to keep people from stomping all over us!

I tend to see a big difference between “rules” and “boundaries.” To me, a rule is something that a person imposes on another. “I forbid you to have un-barriered sex with any other person” is a common example. It is a statement of intent to assert control over the actions of another.

Boundaries are things we put on ourselves. “In order to protect my sexual health, I reserve the right to discontinue having sexual intercourse with you if you have unbarriered sex with any other person” is an example.

They might have the same outcome, but theiy’re very different in philosophy. To me, the key difference is the locus of control. With rules, I am assuming control over you. I am telling you what you must do or setting out what you are forbidden to do. With boundaries, I outline the way your choices affect me, without presuming to make those choices for you, and let you make your choice accordingly.

But without rules, how can I make sure that my partner will do what I need him to do in order to feel safe?

You can’t.

With or without rules, you can’t. People can always make their own choices. Rules, as anyone who’s ever been cheated on knows, are only as good as a person’s willingness to follow them, which means rules are only as good as the intent of the person on whom they’re imposed.

If a person loves you and cherishes you, and wants to do right by you, then it’s not necessary to say “I forbid you to do thus-and-such” or “I require you to do thus-and-such.” All you really need to do is communicate what you need to feel taken care of, and your partner will choose to do things that take care of you, without being compelled to.

On the other hand, if your partner doesn’t love and cherish you, and doesn’t want to do right by you…well, no rule will save you. The rules might give you an illusion of safety, but they won’t really protect you.

So what? Isn’t it enough that a rule makes me feel better? What’s wrong with that?

There is, I think, a hidden cost to rules, which doesn’t often get discussed in the poly community: the effect those rules have on other people.

Often, people in polyamorous relationships–especially people just starting in polyamory–seem to embrace the idea that whatever happens, as long as the original couple survives, the relationship is being successful. Regardless of its effect on anyone else who may be romantically involved with one or both of the original couples. Because of that, the rules tend to be created only between the original couple, with little or no input from anyone else, and more imprtantly, little or no thought to the impact on those rules on others. The viewpoint of any third parties is rarely considered.

Because of that, there’s seldom an acknowledgement that any rule which forbids person A from doing X is potentially a rule which deprives newcomer C from activity X. You see this most strongly in rules such as “I forbid you to have sex with any new partner in the Monkey with Lotus Blossom and Chainsaw position, because that’s my favorite position” or “I forbid you to go to Clayton’s House of Clams with any other date, because that’s the restaurant where we had our first date” or “I forbid you to sleep over at a partner’s house because I never want to have to give up sleeping beside you.”

Each of these is made without any thought to what it costs a third person–what if a new person happens to be quite fond of the Monkey with Lotus Blossom and Chainsaw position, or Clayton’s House of Clams? Why should the new person always be forced to give up sleeping with a partner simply because person A never will?

Because that’s the way it is! Why should some new person be allowed to trump my needs and stomp all over me? Why shouldn’t a new person respect my needs?

Ah. And there we get down to the heart of the matter.

People pass rules because they feel that those rules are necessary in order to meet their needs. Rules don’t get passed at random; I have yet to meet a person who makes up rules by rolling dice or drawing words out of a hat.

Whenever someone proposes a rule, I make it a habit to ask myself three questions:

1. What is the purpose of this rule?
2. Does the rule serve the purpose it is intended to serve?
3. Is this rule the only way to serve this purpose?

I can’t overstate enough how valuable it is to think about this.

Often, in my experience, people use rules as indirect, passive ways to try to get their needs met. Instead of clearly articulating the need, such as “I have a need to feel special and valued by you,” they will think of something that makes them feel special and valued, and then pass a rule to say “I require you to do this thing” or “I forbid you to do this thing with others.” We in the poly community often talk about “communicate, communicate, communicate,” but to me, communication requires the willing to discuss difficult issues, such as the direct needs that we have, rather than just second-order issues, like “Forbidding you to do this is important to me.”

Let’s take a non-hypothetical example of a rule that I’ve seen some poly folks do: “I forbid you to take any date to Clayton’s House of Clams.” And let’s look at it within the context of these three questions.

1. What is the purpose of this rule?

If Alice tells Bob “I forbid you to go to Clayton’s House of Clams with anyone else,” what is she actually saying? It could be “I feel like my value to you depends on exclusivity.” It might be “I am afraid that if you do the same things with someone else that you do with me, you won’t need me any more and you will abandon me.” Chances are pretty good, though, that Alice, in making this rule, is feeling so overwhelmed by her fear that her needs aren’t being met, she hasn’t spared any thought at all for Cindy, who she’s now denying the Clayton’s clam experience to.

2. Does the rule serve the purpose?

If Alice is right, if Bob doesn’t truly value her and there’s nothing special about her, then forbidding Bob to go to Clayton’s House of Clams with his date won’t actually ensure that Bob doesn’t abandon her. If Cindy turns out to be “better” (whatever that means) than Alice, then Bob’s gone, clams or no clams. If Bob genuinely DOESN’T see value in Alice, the relationship is doomed and no rule will save it. By saying “I forbid you to go to Clayton’s House of Clams,” Alice is–at best–buying herself a false sense of security that is masking her underlying fear of abandonment, preventing her from confronting it directly.

3. Is this rule the only way to serve this purpose?

If Alice is actually afraid that Bob doesn’t value her and will abandon her if he does the same things with a new date that he does with her, then it seems to me that Alice is actually better served by confronting that fear directly, and asking directly for Bob’s help in feeling valued. There might be a lot of ways that can happen…by spending more quality time with Alice for instance, or by letting Alice know how he values her, by setting aside “date nights” with Alice, all sorts of things. The underlying need actually has nothing to do with clams at all.

So what? I was here first. Why shouldn’t a new person respect my rules, even if there are other ways to do things?

“Respect” is a slippery, tricky word. It’s kind of like “freedom”–everyone thinks they know what it means, but when the rubber meets the road, few folks actually agree on a definition.

To me, respect has to be mutual. If Alice is demanding respect from Bob’s new sweetie Cindy, that can only come if Alice in turn respects the notion that Cindy is a grown adult with her own needs and desires, and she, too, deserves a shot at having a voice in the relationship. Imposing rules by fiat on other people and then demanding respect from those people is all the rage (I hear) among leaders of North Korea, but can feel a bit yucky when we’re talking romantic relationships.

But more pragmatically, because I try to be pragmatic, setting up a situation in which one person imposes rules which another person is expected to follow is often a setup for failure. At best, it leads to rules-lawyering; “Well, we didn’t actually eat AT Clayton’s House of Clams, we ordered our clams to go and then ate out on the lanai!”

At worst, it sets up a relationship with a certain amount of tension and conflict baked in. If you see your partner’s other partner as a source of stress, if you set up rules to govern that other person’s behavior, then already you’ve started out on a basis of conflict–because you’ve created an environment where if you want the newcomer never to eat at Clayton’s with your sweetie and the newcomer’s desire is to get down with those tasty, tasty clams on a date with your sweetie, there’s an irreconcilable difference there. Someone’s desire is going to get trumped, and you’re playing the “respect” card to try to make sure it’s not yours.

By talking directly to needs rather than rules–“I need to feel valued and special by you”–we create a framework where competition is less likely. If it’s about feeling valued and unique, and it’s not actually about the clams at all, leave the poor clams out of it!

Now, some cases are more clear-cut than others. Rules around safe sex practices are extremely common in poly relationships; in fact, I’ll warrant that exceptions are pretty thin on the ground.

But even there, it pays to be careful. Open communication is important, because sometimes, even seemingly clear-cut rules with reasonable, necessary purposes can mask deeper things.

For example, let’s look at a rule “No unprotected sex with other partners.”

1. What is the purpose of this rule?

If Alice tells Bob “I don’t want you to have unprotected sex with anyone else,” most likely there’s a pretty good reason for it. The purpose of this rule is plain on the face of it: to protect Alice’s sexual health, as well as the health of everyone Alice is involved with.

2. Does the rule serve the purpose?

Yes. The data on disease transmission and barriers is unambiguous.

3. Is this rule the only way to serve this purpose?

Oh, boy. Now we get into a pickle.

There are other ways that this goal can be achieved. STD testing is an effective one. Sexual health is not an issue if the people involved have no STDs to begin with; they don’t spontaneously appear out of thin air.

But sometimes, folks may insist on barriers not entirely because of STD concerns, but also out of a feeling that it’s a mark of exclusivity, or because they feel more special if they are the only fluid-bonded partner. And sometimes, concerns about STDs can be a cover that masks those feelings. (This isn’t a hypothetical example, by the way. It’s actually happened in my romantic network.)

It takes a lot of courage to admit things like this. Talking openly about what’s really going on below the surface is scary, and hard, and involves making ourselves vulnerable.

But we poly folks talk all the time about how important communication is. It’s even more important that we actually do it. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

And sometimes, letting go of the notion that rules are important is a way to do that, as scary as that sounds.

Boston Chapter 8: A Rooftop Made of Awesome

By this point in our trip, as we lingered in St. Louis, I believed I had seen the most awesome thing ever. Perhaps not the most awesome thing that could exist, mind you; but certainly the most awesome thing that did exist.

That was, I must confess, a failure of imagination on my part. I was, even now, still a little bit naive. We had not yet, you see, gone on to the roof of City Museum.

We also had neglected, in our eagerness to explore the awesome candy bar made of awesome (metaphorically speaking), to notice that our traveling companion Erica was not to be seen–a harbinger, as it turned out, of what awaited us in Louisville. But more on that later.

At some point–I think it might have been when we were exploring a tunnel made of mirrors whose entrance was an enormous clockwork bank vault door about twelve feet across–we got a text from our wayward traveling companion.

That tunnel is pretty cool, by the way.

So is the snack bar, which includes among other things a set of chairs made out of old bumper cars, and a lot of secluded little cubbyholes with unexpected furniture in them..

But I digress.

We met with her downstairs, between the gigantic fish sculptures whose mouths opened into tunnels up to the ceiling and the main entrance whose walls were decorated with antique circuit boards, and after some discussion, we decided to check out the wonders on the rooftop.


The roof to City Museum is accessed via an elevator whose shaft is filled with windows, which you get to via an entrance flanked with nude statues of women supporting the world atop their heads. (On these, I have little to say, as I had always been led to believe that that role was filled with elephants riding on the back of a great turtle…but I digress.)

Peering over the edge of the rooftop is an interesting experience. It is not often that one sees an airplane and a bus protruding from the side of a building, with tunnels made of rebar extending both around and through them.

Peering around the roof is even better. There’s a Ferris wheel, bolted to the highest point of the roof; and an enormous slide which towers from the platform with the giant metal praying mantis on it, that swoops down to the fountain that spits water at passers-by. The slide has a tunnel atop it, so those who eschew prosaic things like staircases can, if they wish, climb back up the hard way.

We ended up riding the giant slide by the praying mantis several times. It’s a mind-bogglingly terrifying climb up, at least for anyone with even a residual trace of the ancient fear of heights which lurks in the recesses of our dim collective unconscious. Which means, naturally enough, that it’s a total blast to do.

It’s so high that even sitting at the entrance to the slide can induce a bit of virtigo.

I have video of myself sliding down this slide a speed somewhere between “ridiculous” and “insane,” which I have not yet found the time to upload to YouTube.

We also spent quite a lot of time on the ferris wheel, which in addition to being bolted to the top of a skyscraper had also, apparently, been modified to spin rather faster than is traditional for this particular variety of carnival ride. Again, hella fun.

The view from the top is quite lovely.

The rest of the roof is decorated in a kind of “industrial wasteland meets Disney World” motif, only cooler. We scampered about for a time, like visitors in Kubla Khan’s domain.

Alas, our taste of the bliss which awaits the righteous in the world beyond was all too brief. We still had a lot of ground to cover, and the pet lesbians to reach before nightfall. So we made our reluctant departure. On the way out through the parking lot, I looked up, nothing with some sorrow an array of fascinating structures we hadn’t had the opportunity to explore.

We returned to the car and resumed our journey to Boston, on our way toward our next milestone with the pet lesbians and, before that, the Guatemalans who would abscond with one of our party. That story will be told next time.

Of Puppies, Favorites, and Why I Suck at Monogamy

A couple of nights ago, zaiah and I were feeding puppies.

This is something we do every night. And every afternoon. And every morning. And…well, pretty much all the time, really. They hunger, you see. They have appetites, and their appetites must be sated, else our sanity will be destroyed, its shattered slivers sucked into the maw of the great dark beyond.

On this particular evening, she was making fun of me. Every time I took a puppy into my lap, I said, “You know, I think this one might be my favorite.” And meant it.

We’ve been calling them by the color of their collar. (We debated naming them after computer programming languages–“Here, Java! C’mere, Perl! Good boy, Python!”) but zaiah made the point that we don’t want to give them names which might unduly influence whoever adopts them.

And they are all my favorite puppy.


Purple is absolutely my favorite of the whole bunch of them. She is lovely; we’ve informally started referring to her as “sweet face,” because she has such a nice face. She’s affectionate and loving, nuzzling into you when you hold her. She gazes soulfully into your eyes when you feed her. For the first couple of weeks, she would sing herself to sleep after she ate.

My real favorite, though, is Blue. He’s the largest of the bunch, a gentle giant who is gregarious and outgoing. He responds strongly to people, coming over with his tail wagging whenever anyone walks near. He’s filled with energy and enthusiasm, and joy just radiates out of him.

But my favorite out of all of them would have to be Yellow. He is by far the most playful of the bunch. He enjoys rolling the ball around his pen, which is incredibly cute, and he likes playing with his imaginary friend, which is even more cute. He’s smart and companionable and loves wrestling with people.

When it comes to my favorite puppy of the litter, though, that would have to be Pink. She’s quiet and sweet-tempered, a cuddly and affectionate little girl who loves reaching up to kiss your nose. She is absolutely heart-melting in her trusting devotion to the people around her.

Though, to be honest, I think my favorite might be Green. He’s smart, strong-willed, and opinionated. He bounds around the pen wrestling with his brothers and sisters, and any human who will show him attention–“C’mon! I can take you! Let’s go! Arooorooroo! Isn’t this FUN?”

My favorite puppy would doubtless be Red. She is mercurial, one minute playful and the next minute snuggly. She also loves to gaze into your eyes while she eats, and her favorite thing in the world is to fall asleep with her head on your arm. She’s a master of the game “I’ve Got Your Nose,” which she plays with Blue, Green, Yellow, and any person who gets close enough.

And finally, I’ve saved my favorite puppy for last. Orange is sweet-tempered and loving; she bonds easily with people, to the point that she often prefers scritches and snuggles to food. Ever since the day she was born, one of her favoritest of all things is to snuggle into the crook of your neck and fall asleep there, making contented little noises the whole time.

This is, you see, why I’m rubbish at monogamy. Pick just one? Really? When there is a whole world out there, full of joy and love and life? Why would someone want to do that?

Signal Boost: Hellbender Media

A bit more than a year ago, a very good friend of mine, edwardmartiniii, started a project to write a new horror short story every week for a year. The result appeared in a blog he called Tales from the Blinkspace.

He is, and I say this without reservation, one of the best horror writers I’ve ever read. His stories are quirky, unpredictable, occasionally Lovecraftian in feel if not in subject, and very often brilliant. Quite a few of them made me think, one of them gave me nightmares, and I even appear in one as a character (no, I won’t say which one, you’ll have to find it yourself).

And now it’s a book.

I highly, highly recommend this book for anyone who’s a fan of quality short stories. You can see more about it on his Web site, Hellbender Media, here or find the book on Amazon here.

Purity Bear: a creepy talking animal that preaches abstinence

I wish I could say tat this is a parody, but it’s not. The folks behind the “Day of Purity” have released an unsettling video in which a creepy bear tells a kid “She may be cuddly, but look at me! I’m cuddly too!” to get him to say “no” to going in the house with his girlfriend.

Will the day ever come when these folks realize that preaching abstinence doesn’t work? How high do the rates of teen pregnancy have to get in the Bible Belt before folks figure this out?

Personally, I’m waiting for the inevitable: a newspaper runs a story involving Purity Bear being caught on videotape doing the nasty with PedoBear in some seedy Detroit motel bathroom.

Some thoughts on SOPA and Copyright

Anybody who’s tried to use the Internet today is no doubt aware of the “SOPA strike.” A lot of major Internet sites, including places like Wikipedia, WordPress, and Reddit, are blacked out in protest of proposed US legislation called the Stop Online Piracy Act. this legislation, which has been intensely lobbied for by powerful interests such as the Motion Picture Ass. of America and the Recording Industry Ass. of America, propose to stop copyright infringement by non-US sites and protect rights holders. It and its companion the Protect Intellectual Property Act were drafted by people with little technical understanding of the Internet in ways that circumvent normal due process of law. Each contains provisions by which purported rights holders can order the wholesale removal of sites from the Internet, without judicial oversight or review, and each requires ISPs, content hosts, and Web site owners to police user-generated content and remove it if they believe it might infringe on someone’s intellectual property rights.

Needless to say, both pieces of legislation are deeply flawed. They amount to prior restraint on expression, which is not permitted by the US Constitution, and they threaten to undermine the domain name system that’s central to how the Internet works. All that is a given.

The Recording Industry Ass. of America and the Motion Picture Ass. of America have both demonstrated themselves to be clumsy, arrogant, and hamfisted in their approach to copyright. The movie and recording industries are both firmly wedded to business models that are rooted in last century; neither has shown any inclination to change as technology changes. (The Motion Picture Ass. of America has, rather comedically, published a statement in which they say that anti-SOPA protests are a “gimmick” that will “turn us all into corporate pawns.”)

Robert Heinlein perhaps put it best when he said, “There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.”

But… but… but…

In all the debate about SOPA, there is an elephant in the room that nobody is talking about.


The elephant in the room is that people who create things deserve to be rewarded.

The current crop of Internet users is in many ways incredibly entitled. There is a very deep vein of hatred for the idea of intellectual property throughout the Internet generation. A surprisingly large number of people seem to feel that if someone created it, they deserve to be able to have it.

I have often made the mistake of wading into Internet conversations about copyright, and been astonished by the viciousness and entitlement that I see there. A lot of the arguments are based on a profound ignorance of what copyright is, but even more arguments are based on a hatred of the entire concept of intellectual property that seems to be rooted in the notion that anything I want, I should be allowed to have, as long as it isn’t made of physical atoms. It’s amazing, terrifying, and sad in equal proportion. And I can see why content creators get exasperated.

For example, in a recent debate about copyright on Facebook, one person made the assertion that a person whose work is copied without pay should be flattered by it, and “enjoy the fact that what you have written/drawn/painted/shot has moved so many people that they wish to pay you the compliment of forwarding your work to others to enjoy.” Another person made the even more astonishing claim that “copyright is a tool of privilege” that “keeps art away from the poor,” an opinion he followed up with “Art shouldn’t be sold, it should be shared and traded.” He then followed up with the notion that “talent is a birth-given privilege,” artistic ability and creativity can not be learned, and selling an artwork or a song is inherently a tool of oppression because it’s a way for privileged creative people to exploit those who lack the ability to create by denying them art that can improve their lives unless they pay for it.

The amount of entitlement these arguments reveal can scarcely fit in a double-decker bus. It turns the idea of privilege on its head (what of the poor, disadvantaged person who has invested a great deal of time and effort in learning a skill; should she not be allowed to be rewarded for that effort?); it demonstrates a breathtaking level of entitlement (if I like some bit of artwork and I think it makes my life better, I am entitled to have it no matter what it cost to produce and no matter how much work went into its creation); it relegates the production of art to only those wealthy enough to do it as a hobby, and that any creative person who isn’t wealthy should, I don’t know, work at McDonald’s or something rather than creating; it spits in the face of the notion that people whose work benefits society deserve some measure of benefit themselves; and it cheapens and degrades the considerable effort that artists put into acquiring and building their skills.

And this is, amazingly, not an isolated opinion. It’s a worldview I see reflected again and again and again, everywhere the subject of copyright comes up.


People who hold these ideas can not, I think, be persuaded otherwise. A person who feels entitled to something will construct rationalizations about why his entitlement is justified, whether it’s by imagining creativity as some inborn thing like race or sex, or inventing a moral system whereby anyone who does something that could make another person’s life better like create a painting or, I don’t know, haul away garbage is ethically obligated to do so for free. Such people will often spout platitudes like “True artists do it for the love of art, not for money,” setting up a false dichotomy that ignores the fact that creative people also have to eat. This argument also creates a system whereby an artist’s merits are judged not on her technical proficiency or her ability to illuminate the human condition, but rather on how much stuff she gives the speaker for free.

Other arguments against copyright are based on simple ignorance of what copyright is.

Some of these are as inevitable as arguments like “Oh, so I should tell my partner every time I take a crap?” which I have heard, without fail, every single time I’ve ever seen a discussion about whether or not willfully withholding information from a lover is lying, or “So if someone asks me if her butt looks fat in these jeans, I should say yes?” that crop up as sure as night follows day in any conversation about the value of honesty. I have, to date, never once seen any conversation about copyright in which some person doesn’t say “Well, you better not use the word ‘copyright’ because I have a copyright on it!” or “There’s no such thing as an original idea.” These people don’t understand even the most basic principles about copyright; they simply don’t know that a word or a sentence can not be copyrighted, or that copyright covers only a particular expression of an idea rather than the idea itself.

Other ideas about copyright that are just as common and just as wrongheaded include such notions as “If it’s been posted in a public place, that means it’s legal to copy it,” which is approximately as inane as believing that if a car is parked in a public lot, that means it’s legal to drive off with it; and the idea that as long as you credit the person who made a particular piece of art, it’s permissible to copy and redistribute it at will.

These ideas are the Creation Science of copyright. They’re firmly woven into the fabric of beliefs held by a very large number of people, and they’re absolutely bogus. An emergent view that comes from these mistaken ideas is the smug, self-congratulatory notion that by copying someone else’s work, the person copying it is doing the creator a favor; after all, it’s giving the creator more exposure, right? (One has to wonder what good it is to have this “exposure” if we accept the notion that it’s wrong for someone to want to be rewarded for creating things of value, but that’s a subtle argument that’s generally lost on the caliber of debate one normally sees surrounding the idea of copyright.)


People who create things of value deserve to be rewarded for that creation, no less than people who build cars or make computers or cook McDonald’s burgers. This is a fundamental axiom without which there is no benefit in creation for any purpose save as a hobby. If we do not accept that idea, then what we are doing is we are saying that as a society we do not want the contribution of talented, creative poor people who can not support themselves in some other way; only the independently wealthy with plenty of time on their hands and the means to support their creation need apply. If I intend to invest in a camera, or canvas and paint, or studio recording equipment, I better do it without any expectation that my investment will be rewarded in any tangible way, and so I’d better have enough money to do so without the expectation of return. This idea is, I think, self-evidently horseshit.

Copyright matters. Intellectual property is important. This is not something that will go away, and because of it, the issues that drive dismal piles of misbegotten dreck like SOPA and PIPA aren’t going to vanish tomorrow.

SOPA and PIPA are at this point almost certainly dead in the water, and that is as it should be. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Internet is swarming with poorly-informed and entitled people who sincerely believe they have the right to have other people’s work for free, and so we can reasonably expect to see proposals for more legislation like SOPA and PIPA to appear tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. This. Is. Not. Going. Away.

It is absolutely, undeniably true that there is more than a little hypocrisy at work in the attempts of organizations like the MPAA and RIAA to take the moral high ground about copyright while lobbying for legislation that does an end-run around protected speech. It is unquestionably true that, to a large extent, the copyright problems they face are a monster of their own making, the result of hanging on to antiquated business models that simply no longer apply. It is also true beyond a shadow of a doubt that both of them, the RIAA in particular, have long histories of treating the actual creators they employ very poorly indeed, giving their artists only tiny dribs and drabs of money while executives profit obscenely on their work. All of these things are true.

But not one of these observations is an argument against the idea that people who create novel things deserve to be rewarded for them. We would not say that an inventor, a creative person who applies her talents to solving practical problems, should do so merely for the love of inventing, nor that “true” inventors would never charge for their inventions; and most of us would probably find it quite laughable if someone were to say that an inventor who sold her invention was an oppressor, using her innate privilege to deny other people of things that can benefit their lives unless they pay her.

So why is it that we are willing to accept these ideas when they are applied to someone who uses her talent to create photographs or paintings instead of widgets?

SOPA sucks. But the notion that people are entitled to benefit from others’ work for free also sucks. We are, or we should be, on the same side here; our lives are made richer by the artistic expressions of others, and so we should want to encourage creative people to create. Even if they’re not independently wealthy.