back to article Jaron Lanier: Big Tech is worse than Big Oil

Intellectual property isn't just vital to human dignity. It might be the only thing that can save your kids having a job, thanks to today's robber barons, like Google. So says virtual-reality pioneer and musician Jaron Lanier, who's come out swinging harder than ever at the Silicon Valley. Big Tech is seriously worse than Big …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm glad the tide is turning against big tech. With their slick, geek friendly PR most hadn't realised there was a big tech. Especially since it plays into the American narrative that Google is still a cute little start-up that 'don't need no guberment regulation'.

  2. Palpy

    Employment: well, yes and no.

    I think some people have the idea that industrial automation means no people are needed.

    That's wrong.

    Every automated valve, actuator, widget and gadget needs maintenance and repair. Every sensor needs calibration, periodic checks, and then replacement as it reaches retirement age. Every automation network needs techs to set up and maintain. And upgrade. And expand. Thousands of electro-mechanical devices in an automated refinery or factory need ongoing adjustment, repair, etc.

    Every PLC needs a special friend who knows how to stroke it's ladder logic in that, erm, special way.

    I have never seen any industrial installation of any complexity which was human-free, humming along in antiseptic self-sufficient autonomy. There's always people fiddling and fixing, adjusting and rebuilding.

    Just my insignificant opinion.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

      And just how many people do you think have mechanical abilities let alone advanced ones?

    2. el_oscuro

      Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

      They have been trying to get rid of DBA's like me for 30 years. Case tools, Query builders, FOCUS, you name it. Every fad. And all it has done is make my job harder, and there are more of us DBA's then ever.

      1. h4rm0ny

        Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

        But Amazon might finally be making in-roads to get rid of even you. RDS is coming for your job sooner or later.

    3. ksb1972

      Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

      Automation usually means fewer people not no people.

      Fewer people working still means more unemployment = civil unrest and other social ills. Not unless we come up with a way to feed and house the masses without them having to work.

    4. FatGerman

      Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

      True, but it takes 10 people to maintain an automated factory that does the work of 200*.

      (*Numbers pulled out of my arse to make the point)

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

      I say we scrap the alarm clocks so that the knocker uppers can have jobs again.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

      I think some people have the idea that industrial automation means no people are needed.

      I doubt many people thought that. Most, I would posit, believe that automation means far, far fewer people are needed. Orders of magnitude fewer. And they're right. Nissan recently declared that they had beaten the level of 100 cars per employee per year at their Sunderland plant. That's not because car's are simpler to build or have fewer parts, it's down to automation (and automation of the process engineering). The same applies to everything from food processing to sewage treatment, with processes that can operate automatically and be monitored by machines. Places that formally buzzed with employees can now operate without the lights on.

      You're right that when maintenance is needed or things go wrong, the machines have to call a meatsack. But looking at the trends, for how much longer?

      Western countries foolishly outsourced their industry to China is a bid to save money and pretend they didn't pollute. The outcome has been fewer jobs, and vast volumes of debt (where these Western countries consume more than they create, and have to borrow the difference). Now, the same idiot governments are looking to "embrace automation", and get rid of even more jobs without thinking whether this is a good thing. A balanced level of automation is a really, really good thing. But who, for one moment thinks we'll see balance?

      I work for a company that operates a lot of call centres. These are expensive and customer satisfaction is low. The solution all call centre operators have is on-line self service - automate the process, get the customer to do it themselves. That's process automation. But what of the one million UK call centre employees, and the quarter of a million that support them? They won't be writing SCADA code, or maintaining machines. What will they do for a job?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

        But what of the one million UK call centre employees, and the quarter of a million that support them? They won't be writing SCADA code, or maintaining machines. What will they do for a job?

        hopefully they'll eat each other, solving both problems.

    7. Filippo

      Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

      I don't think most people think that industrial automation means no people are needed. That's patently false. But industrial automation does mean that less people are needed. Otherwise, factory owners would not automate.

    8. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Employment: well, yes and no.

      True. But they're mostly skilled jobs or professional ones, and automated factories employ orders of magnitude fewer people. Especially in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.

      The suggestion is that computers are coming for the semi-skilled jobs in offices next. I'm not sure how much I believe that though, but I guess automation making things easier/quicker should mean fewer people needed to do the same amount of work.

      Obviously we need to improve education. Then we'll have more skilled people, with better options. But also to change attitudes over the prioritisation of academic learning over practical. Otherwise we risk leaving a bunch of people out of what should be a richer future.

      Until we've got the robotic capacity to make everything for virtually free, and can become The Culture or Star Trek, we're going to need jobs.

  3. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Copyright & US Constitution

    Lanier should read the US Constitution, I have my doubts about his reading comprehension though. Copyright and patents are envisioned very limited monopolies for the promotion of overall public welfare. The idea is give the creators a limited monopoly to make some money so they can eat and pay bills. It was not envisioned as a quick-buck, eternal, defraud the public scheme. SV's position is actually closer to the original intent.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Copyright & US Constitution

      You have a valid point, but... they want to deny even that.

  4. DougS Silver badge

    Support for copyright

    The reason why a lot of the internet community has such weak support for copyright is the overreach by copyright holders. The continual extension of copyright that keeps everything that was 10 years away from expiration when I was born still 10 years away from expiration today, courtesy of Disney.

    I don't begrudge those writing books/articles, making music or writing computer programs today to keep them under copyright for a number of years and make money off them and/or control their distribution. I do begrudge their "right" to have their grandchildren continue to profit from them 50 years from now, with little hope that they will ever enter the public domain.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Support for copyright

      That overreach include corporations being allowed to include quite toxic IP overreach statements in employment and product contracts!

      IP should never have been allowed to be owned by any corporation (via fake corporate personhood), until that charges, I'm regarding all IP as null and void, because the majority is falsely attributed to corporations and genuine /living/ individual IP can be hard to identify.

    2. DiViDeD Silver badge

      Re: Support for copyright

      "..everything that was 10 years away from expiration when I was born still 10 years away from expiration today.."

      yes, and that's leading to bigger issues. In the rush to extend copyright so that JK Rowling's grandchildren will never have to work for a living, and Disney can carry on making money out of a 100 year old cartoon, much is being lost. Films and books which have not been in print for over a generation cannot be released to the Public Domain. The Gutenberg Project is running out of texts to transcribe. And yet nobody is looking after these books, films, audio recordings. Pop culture is ephemeral by its nature, but the pop culture of 75 or 100 or 300 years ago still has something to tell us about those times.

      Except they will be locked away under copyright law and nobody will publish them because they're not sure fire moneyspinners.

      So they get lost, and those records and thoughts and attitudes are consigned to the dustbin of history just so Corporations can protect the income from the product of a group of long dead creative. Do you really think Disney hunts down the descendants of generations dead animators, hands them a suitcase of money and says 'There you go - granddad's royalties'?

  5. moiety

    And when older tech blog readers see the word "copyright," they think they're being oppressed. This is a historical memory: the creative industries hardly helped embrace the possibilities of technology readily. Anyone recall the plan to turn PCs into dumb devices where the media could be locked down remotely?

    A decade in prison for uploading a few films seems pretty damned oppressive to me.

    Plus, your pro-copyright arguments would hold much more weight if the various IP rights groups hadn't spent the last 20 years being complete dicks (and still are if the above proposal is anything to go by).

    Let's also consider that Disney have completely fucked the copyright laws to the detriment of humanity as a whole.

    We seriously need to throw a match in and redraft the entire field of copyright from scratch because all it's doing at the moment is making arseholes richer whether that be Disney, Google or anyone else. Anyone not a corporate monolith just gets ploughed under.

    1. 9Rune5

      I think you need a reminder just how serious copyright infringements are. Watch this documentary:

      All jokes aside, some revisions do seem in order. Whenever I comment on similar topics I often point to the obvious: Hollywood need to get their s--- together and embrace the 21st century. Their distribution system relies on outdated technology and consumers may not even have old enough devices to play the content they are offering. Discs are old hat. Look to and similar solutions for distributing games for the PC.

    2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      I agree with your points about Disney and prison, absolutely. However, the solution to that is not Google, it is voting copyright length back to where it is supposed to be. That is a problem for Parliament or Congress, not Google either.

      As for Google, let's not keep wool over our own eyes. Google is a private corporation, and has pushed the law as fast as hard as it could from the beginning. Disney has nothing over Google, but who is keeping Google in check ? Nobody.

      Yes, copyright laws need to be reviewed and length of copyright needs to pegged at life of author, max (and no, corporations are not authors). Personally, I think 25 years is long enough.

      But what are we going to do about Google's hold on personal information that is OUR property ?

    3. Dan 55 Silver badge

      The shrinking PC market now runs Windows 10 which is doing that job admirably.

      In addition we've got Kindles, tablets, and mobiles where books and apps can be removed from people's devices or withdrawn from sale so the owner can't redownload them later on.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Ditto patents

      Similarly it has become too easy to nobble others through patenting the obvious and making over-broad claims.

      But what has really ruined the patent landscape is the ability to get a patent on an idea that is never developed into a product. IMO the purpose of patents is to protect the innovator from re-use of their original ideas during the time that they are getting their product established in the market.

      That is right and proper - but all too often patents are used to _block_ the innovators, who have independently invented ideas that the patent-holder never put to use.

  6. JacobZ

    Must read

    If you haven't read Lanier's "You Are Not A Gadget", you really, really should

  7. pete 22

    "Not everyone can be a Zuckerberg"

    Thank $DEITY.

  8. Schultz
    Thumb Down

    'Big Tech' being on the wrong side doesn't put the copyright industry on the right.

    The copyright industry went so far beyond common sense with their efforts to protect their assets for eternity that even Google and MS look like heroes when picking up the fight with them. Let's hope their fight destroys enough of the current system to bring about something more reasonable

  9. Ole Juul

    What an odd fellow

    "While an oil monopoly might control the oil, it won't take over everything in your life, but information does, especially with greater automation,"

    So he rides a bike or a horse, fine. But no food or furniture or plates or clothes? Everything in most people's lives is completely oil driven. Where does he think plastic comes from? Not only production but you can't get stuff shipped to your area without oil, nor likely drive to the stores. Seriously, I doubt this guy rode his bike to China to purchase his computer from a "green" oil-free producer.

    I'm certainly not pro oil, but the idea that we'll have a future where we'll survive on trading information is fanciful. Anyway, those are my pearls of wisdom. That'll be $10. Ya, right.

  10. DaveNullstein

    He's barking up the wrong tree

    Oh poor Jaron. Did his patents expire?

  11. Anonymous Coward


    A technical solution for tracking IP will not work. What Lanier fails to notice is that most 'content' is regurgitated pap. Also, anonymity is strongly advisable when 'sharing' one's opinions and such. I don't know how you square Lanier's proposal with anonymity. And I don't much care. The guy is notorious for pie-in-the-sky ideas like this.

  12. NotBob

    Anyone notice?

    Anyone notice the bits about trying to put personal identifiers on everything you do? Gives me the willies...

    Also, this may be the first time I've seen El Reg refer to the Recording Industry Ass. of America by its less common, expanded name.

    The times, they are a changin'

  13. pete 22

    "Not everybody can be a Zuckerberg"

    Thank goodness.

  14. Fihart

    Enemies of the people.

    I suppose it's a sign of the times that we've gone from hating institutions like landlords, the power utilities, the taxman and the local council to hating Microsoft, Apple, Google and the phone companies.

    Perhaps because, like the old enemies, they have the power to take money from us for unreliable services without much remedy -- but now also invade privacy and threaten our security.

  15. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    My work, my copyright... my decisions

    There's a lot to be said for a concept of copyright which is (a) automatically vested on creation (or perhaps registration); (b) time limited to something sensible, say twenty years (seventy years after the death of the original author is *ridiculous*); and (c) applicable *only* to people. Companies may not apply.

    Google et al have done a wonderful job in persuading people that having their rights stolen from them is a public good...

  16. Def Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    ...the Patent Office and the FCC are now aligned with Google, and in both cases populated by former Google employees.

    It's almost like the Scientology takeover of other US government agencies back in the 60 and 70s.

  17. keithpeter

    Summary of Lanier's views

    Above page has a useful summary of Lanier's position and reasoning. His old style home page has a lot of writings on it. Interesting author and fresh viewpoint.

    Coat: mine's the one with the Nokia 3420 and a notebook and pen in it

  18. Christian Berger Silver badge

    One should also note that large services got popular because it shields you

    I mean in the past, if you wanted to distribute things like opening themes to cartoon shows, you'd do it on your website. Usually nobody would care, but you always had the fear that some big copyright holder would sue you into oblivion... not a good prospect for someone having a small private webpage.

    Now with services like Youtube you can simply do that. At worst Google will take it down, but there is no personal risk involved in it. That's why they got so popular. If we'd have a saner approach to copyright, (i.e. allowing personal use and citing things on the Internet, as well as making DRM illegal) we'd have a much more distributed Internet again.

  19. Snafu1


    Hmm... ISTM that Copyright (the ability for 'artists'* to claim their own unique work, for a period of time) & Patent (the ability for inventors/engineers to claim a /limited/ timeframe for their unique innovation to be licensed to build copies) is being conflated here

    *'artists' include authors, picture daubers, metal/masonry/fish reconstructors (including architects) etc etc

    Inventors/Engineers get IIRC 20 years from a patent (+ applicable licensing) to make a living out of producing Something New, that may (or may not) be still going & producing 'better things' for x years in the future.. alternatively it may die due to any reason, including fashion. That's if their patent licence has been (a) granted & (b) they live long enough for (a) to be applicable.. (I'm leaving out (c) their application has been contested then denied by Big Corp lawyers for obvious reasons)

    Artists (see above) create something out of 'nothing'. Good for the psyche of those that behold the creation, but other than that..? However, whatever they've created & however it's perceived it'll still get 50 (or 70 or WHY) years' prevention of duplicating, /past the creator's death!/**

    So, I can see reasons for artists' copyright time limit (there are very few rich artists, on a global scale), but I can't see parity for engineers/inventors :( OK, some may be working for others (as most artists do: ever heard of 'commissions'?), but shirley Engineers/Inventors should be recognised for who they are, what they do & paid appropriately!

    **(I'm deliberately not going into the 'perpetual copyright/patent' situation here as it's far more complex than this bear of very little brain can follow..)

  20. scrubber


    Industry has convinced government that a potential economic detriment to them should be dealt with not by their lawyers and civil courts, but by criminal courts and state lawyers. That means you and I are paying through tax to pay for the state to investigate, prosecute and punish infringers (i.e. our fellow citizens) whereas in most other situations the supposedly wronged party has to pony up for their own lawyers, initially at least, court costs are paid by the loser and an economic redress is made if the party is found to have done wrong.

    Of course, as with everything, there are two sides here - industry has also convinced government that our information should be free for their use, from Facebook's claims of ownership of everything you upload to Google scanning all books ever written with no recompense or permission.

    I may be naive, but these seems to be two completely opposite views on copyright that the state seems happy to play along with and they both screw the little guy. If we had only one at least we'd know where we stood, but currently industry copyright is protected by the state and personal copyright isn't worth a damn.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Guy says that Google sucks and I think Google sucks as well.

  22. MacroRodent Silver badge

    But the dumbed down PC:s plan is on track!

    Anyone recall the plan to turn PCs into dumb devices where the media could be locked down remotely?

    A pretty good description of the iPad and similar. Note that the market for "open" PC.s has been going downhill for years, and they, too, have gradually become less open. Modern chipsets from Intel and AMD actually are always running a little closed OS underneath what you think is the OS (Windows,or Linux, does not matter), it is in full control of the PC, and you can't turn it off, or replace it.

    1. energystar

      "Intel and AMD actually are always running a little closed OS..."


  23. Francis Boyle Silver badge

    "The general principle that we pay people for their information and contributions is critical if we want people to live with dignity as machines get better,"

    Except IP law was never designed to put a price on information*. And in any case how is that going to help the information poor i.e the people who actually stand to be out of work by Google's robots. It seems to me that Lanier is actually infected by the very techno utopianism he's made a career out of decrying.

    Yes he's added the meaningless *contributions" in there as if that was going to fool anyone.

    1. BoldMan

      But it may protect you against Google or the BBC wiping away the copyright on that photo you took of a very important event that you MIGHT have been able to earn some money from.

      Remember the Monkey -selfie photographer? He's had all chance of earning anything from that photo stripped away by Wikipedia and the US courts. He's a PROFESSIONAL photographer, so his livelihood is being able to monetize the IP on his photographs.

      I do wish people would understand that IP isn't just about Patents or Holywood, its about being able to retain control of your own creativity. If you don't believe that you have any creativity, then you need to educate yourself better.

  24. Lapun Mankimasta

    posthumous copyright extensions

    has anyone found out where the dead are banking their cheques? How do they get them?

    Or are the corporations banking them themselves and pocketing the money?

    And, copyright is supposed to return the investment of time and energy to the people doing the work, so they can continue producing it. Or at least according to the precise of copyright the US Constitution proffers. As far as I know, only Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote something from beyond the grave: there might6 be a few others like Cleopatra and the like, but they've all "produced" works well beyond their lifetime thus are not covered by copyright as such. Does Disney have a medium on staff to receive film scripts from Walt Disney himself?

    I think Jaron Lanier's taking himself far too seriously.

  25. PassiveSmoking

    Sorry? Copyright will save us from big tech?

    I think anybody who had fair use content DMCA's out of existence from YouTube and/or had their channels shut down might have a different opinion on that front.

    And your opening sentence sounds like a stretch at best.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for protecting the rights of creators, but there should be some fairness in the laws and right now there isn't any. I copied the CDs I bought with my money to the iPhone I also bought with my money using the software Apple provided me for that purpose, and under UK copyright law that makes me an evil scumlord pirate. How is that fair. And how is it fair that the goalposts on how long copyright lasts keep moving? Lets be honest, no work made since Steamboat Willy will ever go out of copyright because when the copyright on that film is about to expire the American government will extend copyright terms.

    1. BoldMan

      and the argument you are making here is what this discussion is all about - you are in essence agreeing with the original article which is all about protecting the rights of creators.. .which is you and me by the way, whenever you take a photograph or write something...

      Currently the way the laws are structured means the BBC can sue me for any tiny copyright infringement that I might make against them, but the chance of me suing the BBC for stripping the metadata out of a photo I uploaded to them and then using it without acknowledgement is next to zero.

      1. PassiveSmoking

        Not really.

        The argument the article seems to be making is that copyright is the great liberator, that it makes everybody's lives better, and stronger copyright and stronger enforcement of copyright is in everybody's best interest.

        My argument is that copyright, and especially ill-conceived copyright enforcement laws like the DMCA are a blunt instrument that the evil Big Tech use to bludgeon the rest of us into submission. Did you know, for example, that an organisation promoting a FOSS 3D modelling package called the Blender Foundation made an open source movie called Sintel and made not only the movie itself but also all assets involved in making the movie free for non-commercial use to anybody who wanted them? Did you also know that Sony took the movie and used it as a demo for their video equipment (which is fair enough given the rules the movie was released under)? But did you also know that Sony then issued a DMCA against the Blender Foundation, claiming that the BF's distribution of Sintel related materials was in breach of Sony's copyright on Sintel? Even though it was BF who owned the copyright? Said DMCA notice resulted in the (temporary) removal of Sintel from Youtube.

        Like I said, copyright needs to be fair. For everybody. It currently isn't, and making it stronger would only make matters worse. First and foremost, the DMCA must die.

  26. energystar

    My children future: their IP assets?


    Well, No... :|

    Has not worked, is not working and will not work.

    On leaving their future to GOOD WILL of the Status Quo, they will be dispensed, then evicted from the Economy. Pariahs of the future. 'Hunger Games' Material.

    No, I'm not jocking.

  27. energystar

    My children future dependent on their IP assets?

    'Hunger Games' Material.

  28. energystar


    First the free transit, then the land, then the tools...

    Nothing left? Well, you could sell me your 'ideas'.

    Sorry, that 'idea' is not yours.

    Anything more to sell? Well, I have a very nice view from my corporative office.

    1. energystar

      Re: Yea!

      "... or run a (tech) company..."

      In fact, this progressive dismantling of the economic power of the individual should be stopped, and reversed.

      Running a company by the integration of small amounts of diversified resources, WASN'T, until this -deliberatively?- procrastinating effort, quite a big thing.

  29. energystar

    A single run at a music 'silo'...

    Could bring back a product several times bigger that the 'silo' itself. Made exclusively of another's songs' distillates. 10 'silos' of 'sound-alikes'.

    Not trying to diminish creative work. Just saying that IP has to be worked a LOT, LOT more... [Or the contrary, stop to be worked and put in a different system of economic reward].

  30. aij staff

    'For the past twenty years, Silicon Valley has waged a war on patents and copyright. Google alone funds over 150 digital rights astroturf groups, think tanks and academic departments to advance its case for weakening copyright. This campaign has been reasonably successful in the US, as the formerly independent agencies like the Patent Office and the FCC are now aligned with Google, and in both cases populated by former Google employees.'

    We agree. Don't believe the lies of thieves. Just because they call it reform doesn't mean it is.

    For our position and the changes we advocate to truly reform the patent system, or to join our effort, please visit us at

    or, contact us at

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