Oh, Joybubbles, how could you?

You ain't callin me a phreak, are ye?

If you invented a mechanical defecating duck, you’d expect to make a fortune, wouldn’t you? But not if somebody stole your idea and sent a raft of imitations waddling and thingmying all over market stalls the length and breadth of the country.

So then you’d sue the copyducks for violating your intellectual property, only for some snooty judge to decide that the work of mere craftsmen didn’t merit patent protection.

This edifying anecdote from 18th century Britain is one of many in Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by Adrian Johns.

Johns’ argument that “piracy has been an engine of social, technological, and intellectual innovations as often as it has been their adversary” is discussed in this post, but here ‘d like to mention another of Johns’ characters, Joe Engressia.

I’ve never seen Joe mentioned on those lists of people with disabilities who have achieved great things, but this blind boy of Virginia discovered at the age of seven how to make free phone calls and wreak havoc in the telecoms network by whistling into the mouthpiece at exactly the right frequency (2600 Hz if you want to try it at home).

He later changed his name to Joybubbles, but before that he created a group of phreaks like himself, and hacking was born. Joybubbles’ brand of phreaking has now disappeared, in part because phreakable exchanges were replaced and also because the FBI and phone companies were threatening to send the phreakers to jail.

There used to be lots of other ways of getting cheap phone calls. Here in Paris for instance, I can remember seeing long lines of people queuing to use certain public phones that were known to have defective timers, and some people were skilful at hitting the coin drop with a five-franc coin on a string.

The OECD played a role in putting an end to all this, arguing over the years that by breaking up the big telecoms monopolies and allowing different service providers to compete, prices would fall and technological progress would be encouraged.    

The snappily-named OECD Statement of the Benefits of Telecommunication Infrastructure Competition of 1994 represented a milestone, in that for the first time OECD governments agreed on the benefits of opening the business up to competition, even though the majority still had monopolies.

In the coming years the sector was rapidly transformed, with rapid growth in mobile telephony, the Internet, and broadband, in large part due to the lower prices for consumers predicted by the OECD.

You can read more about it in a special chapter celebrating the OECD’s 50th anniversary in this year’s Science, Technology and Industry Outlook, one of several we’ll be including in our flagship publications this year, including a more complete account in the forthcoming Communications Outlook.

(Of course we could have got cheaper calls by substituting capital for labour, like John T. Draper who  discovered that the free whistle in Cap’n Crunch cereals produced the magic 2600 Hz frequency too.)

Useful links

OECD work on information and communications policy

OECD study on Piracy of Digital Content

OECD study on the Economic Impact of Counterfeiting and Piracy

Patrick Love

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