Category Archives: Cinema

Film: Haywire

7.5 (8.5 for genre). Stylish with an excellent lead performance (its pared down presentation and plot had echoes of the classic Point Blank).

Though lacking in any great substance (cf, to say, The American) it consistently held one’s attention from the very first shot to the closing credits — something to be said of very few films of this kind.

The Tree of Life

8.5. Beautiful, allusive and moving. As with Malick’s other work, sparing use of dialogue, fragmented scenes, and powerful images combine to a whole that is both complete and skeletal, suggesting, like all great work, much that lies above and beyond the limited canvas.

Source Code

6/10. One of those films that I would probably rate more highly if the reviews hadn’t been so positive. This isn’t bad, and it does a lot with its premise — in no small part due to excellent central performances — but there isn’t a huge amount there.

The Social Network

6.5. Fincher does a great job to weave the variegated strands into a film that is engaging throughout. However, as with his previous Zodiac, one wondered what the point was – a problem made worse here by the lack of a single character who can elicit our sympathy.

Film: Inception

5/10. Beautiful but completely empty, without significant emotional or intellectual substance and very little of the crucial ingredient for any thriller: suspense.

The conception was neat, and executed with much visual flair but the key elements of plot and characterisation that would have served to involve the viewer more deeply seemed to have got lost in the visual pyrotechnics and the addition of yet another dream layer to the already convoluted plot.

Most significantly from a plot/character perspective the key emotional story related to Cobb’s (Di Caprio’s) wife never convinced. In part this must be considered due to the story itself but Di Caprio’s acting didn’t help — deep anguish was conveyed by a constant pained expression indicative of a recent toe-stubbing incident. Di Caprio, one feels, is always hampered by the fact that he continues to look about seventeen — a blessing probably in any other context — but which means it is particularly hard to believe him in these sorts of roles (cf. the Aviator).

Similarly the the ‘extraction/inception’ team, though filled with talented actors, never really got the plot or character space to develop into something the viewer could care about — or, perhaps even more importantly, that the viewer could believe the team members caring about! Why is Ariadne (Ellen Page) willing to risk her life/sanity on this mission with Cobb whom she has barely met? Is Cobb’s need to rescue Saito (Watanabe) from limbo driven solely by self-interest or is there something more? What’s the background and ties between between Cobb and his right-hand man Arthur (Jason Gordon-Levitt)? etc

In summary: a film that is visually extraordinary but has got so carried away in its visuals that the basics of of plot, character and (even) suspense have been neglected — aspects that ultimately are far more important than the visuals to making a great movie.

Asides

Extraordinary continuity/plot mistake: Cobb and his wife lie down on the railway tracks for their mutual dream suicide in their thirties when, earlier, we have been told they grew old together in their dream world and we’ve been shown shots of golden oldies walking hand-in-hand. Have I missed something here?

Policy Recommendations in the Area of Innovation, Creativity and IP

I was recently asked to put together a short document outlining my main policy recommendations in the area of “innovation, creativity and IP”. Below is what I prepared.

General IP Policy

Recommendation: IP policy, and more generally innovation policy, should aim at the improvement of the overall welfare of UK society and citizens and not just at promoting innovation and creativity

Innovation is, of course, a major factor in the improvement of societal welfare — but not the only factor, access to the fruits of that innovation is also important.

IP rights are monopolies and such monopolies when over-extended do harm rather than good. The provision of IP rights must balance the promotion of innovation and creativity with the need for adequate access to the results of those efforts both by consumers and those who would seek to innovate and create by building upon them. A policy which aims purely at maximizing innovation, via the use of IP rights, will almost certainly be detrimental to societal welfare, since it will ignore the negative consequences of extending IP on access to innovation and knowledge. As such, IP policy is about having “enough, but not too much”.

This basic point is often overlooked. To help minimize the risk of this occurring in future it is suggested that this basic purpose — of promoting the welfare of UK citizens — be explicitly embedded within the goals of organisations and departments tasked with handling policies related to innovation and IP.

Recommendation: Move away from a focus on intellectual property to look at innovation and information policy more widely

IP rights are but one tool for promoting innovation and often a rather limited one. The focus should be on the general problem — promoting societal welfare through innovation and access to innovation — not on one particular solution to that problem.

Provision and Pricing of Public Section Information

Background

Public sector information (PSI) is information held by a public sector organisation, for example a government department or, more generally, any entity which is majority owned and/or controlled by government. Classic examples, of public sector information in most countries would include, among many others: geospatial data, meteorological information and official statistics.

While much of the data or information used in our society is supplied from outside the public sector, compared to other parts of the economy, the public sector plays an unusually prominent role. In many key areas, a public sector organization may be the only, or one among very few, sources of the particular information it provides (e.g. for geospatial and meteorological information). As such, the policies adopted regarding maintenance, access and re-use of PSI can have a very significant impact on the economy and society more widely.

Funding for public sector information can come from three basic sources: government, ‘updaters’ (those who update or register information) and ‘users’ (those who want to access and use it). Policy-makers control the funding model by setting charges to external groups (‘updaters’ or ‘users’) and committing to make up any shortfall (or receive any surplus) that results. Much of the debate focuses on whether ‘users’ should pay charges sufficient to cover most costs (average cost pricing) or whether they should be given marginal cost access — which equates to free when the information is digital. However, this should not lead us to neglect the third source of funding via charges for ‘updates’.

Policy-makers must also to concern themselves with the regulatory structure in which public sector information holders operate. The need to provide government funding can raise major commitment questions while the fact that many public sector information holders are the sole source of the information they supply raise serious competition and efficiency issues.

Recommendation: Make digital, non-personal, upstream PSI available at marginal cost (zero)

The case for pricing public sector information to users at marginal cost (equal to zero for digital data) is very strong for a number of complementary reasons. First, the distortionary costs of average rather than marginal cost pricing are likely to be high. Second, the case for hard budget constraints to ensure efficient provision and induce innovative product development is weak. As such, digital upstream public sector information is best funded out of a combination of ‘updater’ fees and direct government contributions with users permitted free and open access. Appropriately managed and regulated, this model offers major societal benefits from increased provision and access to information-based services while imposing a very limited funding burden upon government.

Recommendation: Regulation should be transparent, independent and empowered. For every public sector information holder there should be a single, clear, source of regulatory authority and responsibility, and this ‘regulator’ should be largely independent of government.

This is essential if any pricing-policy is to work well and is especially important for marginal-cost pricing where the Government may be providing direct funding to the information holder. Policy-makers around the world have had substantial experience in recent years with designing these kinds of regulatory systems and this is, therefore, not an issue that should be especially difficult to address.

Copyright Term

Background

The optimal term of copyright has been a very live policy issue over the last decade. Recently, in the European Union, and especially in the UK, there has been much debate over whether to extend the term of copyright in sound recordings from its current 50 years.

The basic trade-off inherent in copyright is a simple one. On the one hand, increasing copyright yields benefits by stimulating the creation of new works but, on the other hand, it reduces access to existing works (the welfare ‘deadweight’ loss). Choosing the optimal term, that is the length of protection, presents these two countervailing forces particularly starkly. By extending the term of protection, the owners of copyrights receive revenue for a little longer. Anticipating this, creators of work which were nearly, but not quite, profitable under the existing term will now produce work, and this work will generate welfare for society both now and in the future. At the same time, the increase in term applies to all works including existing ones — those created under the term of copyright before extension. Extending term on these works prolongs the copyright monopoly and therefore reduces welfare by hindering access to, and reuse of, these works.

Recommendation: Reduce Copyright Term – And Certainly Do Not Extend It

Current copyright term is significantly over-extended. Calculations performed in the course of my own work indicate that optimal copyright term is likely around 15 years and almost certainly below 40 (the breadth of the estimates here are a direct reflection of the existing data limitations but this upper bound is still (far) below existing terms).

Even a simple present-value calculation would indicate that the incentives for creativity today offered by extra term 50 years or more in the future are negligible — while the effect on access to knowledge can be very substantial, especially when term extensions are applied retrospectively (as they almost always are).

It is also noteworthy that recent extensions, such as that for authorial copyright in the US (the CTEA) and the proposed extension of recording copyright in the EU, have been opposed well-nigh unanimously by academic economists and other IP scholars. Policy-making in this area should be evidence-based and designed to promote the broader welfare of society as a whole. Policies that appear to reflect nothing more than special-interest lobbying will only perpetuate the “marked lack of public legitimacy” which the Gowers report lamented, discouraging those who wish to contribute constructively to future Government policy-making in these areas, and making enforcement ever harder — effective enforcement, after all, depends on consent borne of respect as well as obedience coerced through punishment.

The Knowledge Commons is Different

I was looking again recently at “Understanding the Knowledge Commons” which I had perused previously.

While reading the introductory chapter by Hess and Ostrom I came across:

People started to notice behaviors and conditions on the web-congestion, free riding, conflict, overuse, and “pollution” — that had long been identified with other types of commons. They began to notice that this new conduit of distributing information was neither a private nor strictly a public resource.

I think they are absolutely right to consider the analogies of “knowledge commons” with traditional commons. However, and at the same time, I think it essential to emphasize that “knowledge commons” are also fundamentally different.

The key difference here is in the nature of the underlying good that makes up the commons: in traditional cases the good is some physical resource — seas, rivers, land — to which usage is shared (either de facto or de jure), while in the knowledge case, well, it’s knowledge!

Now physical resources are by their nature ‘rival’ (or ‘subtractable’ as the authors put it), that is your usage and my usage are substitutes — your usage reduces the amount available for me to use and, when we are close to capacity, is strictly rival — either I use it or you use it. Knowledge, however, is a classic example of a non-rival resource: when you learn something from me I’ve lost nothing but you’ve gained something.

This means, for example, that the classic ‘tragedy’ of the commons where overuse leads to destruction of the resource is simply not possible for a knowledge commons — in fact, knowledge is like some magical food from a fairytale where the more its used the more of it there is!

The more useful ‘commons’ analogy for knowledge is not in relation to use but to production and the ‘free-rider’ problems that can arise where something must be done by a team or community. The issue here is that a separation appears between your effort (private) and the resulting outcome (shared) which may lead to an under-supply of effort and ‘free-riding’ on the efforts of others (if there are ten people on guard duty late at night, one can probably take a nap endangering the city but if all ten of them do it then it could be disastrous).

Postscript

1. Before any misunderstanding arises I should make clear that the authors also acknowledge the role of rival/non-rival distinction — Ostrom, in fact, was one of the ‘coiners’ of the term rivalry. However, the article’s overall focus is on the analogies with the traditional commons.

2. Jamie Boyle has talked about the “second enclosure movement”. Though interesting to make this analogy I think references to the original enclosure movement is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it reinforces the mistaken analogy between knowledge and physical goods. Second, the evidence that the original enclosure movement was bad isn’t very compelling (in fact, it probably delivered net benefits).