Gates and Jobs on the Great Wall of China

Vermel was triumphant.

4 min read
Vermel was triumphant. His hip-hop/metal/klezmer band Depeche Modem had just won first prize in the Bay Area's ComposerPalooza festival with an "original" song that sampled liberally from Puff Daddy, Radiohead, Steely Dan, and even the Hawaiian Elvis, Don Ho. I was, nonetheless, vexed by this surge of creative borrowing: Wouldn't these big-league artistes object to their work being appropriated sans compensation?

As the V. rolled his eyes at my quaintly antiquated notions of intellectual property, suddenly it hit me: One man's plagiarism is another man's homage! Quick, to the Xerox machines!

While Steely Dan might enjoy hearing its work "repurposed," Steely Bill--Gates, that is--is entirely another matter. The megabillionaire has been quite vigorous about pursuing Microsoft software pirates to the four corners of the globe, especially in China. Here lies the rub: A Skinnysource has alerted us to an intriguing rumor on what Gates and Chinese officials discussed during his recent trip to the Middle Kingdom. In keeping with the tradition of Netscape's open source ethos, I hereby provide you with the essential information; do with it what you will.

Our Asian adventure begins with a reminder from our Skinformant that Microsoft is enhancing many of its new products with "digital signature" features that can confirm whether a particular communication has been tampered with after it has been "signed" by its author. He also avers that we Netizens might eventually have to "sign" just about all of our digital documents, Web content, and email missives in order for future browsers and email programs to be able read them. A Big Brotheresque death of anonymity, you say? Read on.

According to our mole, rumor has it that chairman Bill starting pushing extra hard for these certification features right after his trip to China. Apparently, Gates convinced the Chinese to crack down harder on piracy (good news for a man dreaming of billions new Windows users) in return for continuing to develop technologies that trace the authors of digital content. Why would Beijing want to track down digital content creators, you wonder? Does the word "dissident" ring a bell? All together now: "Gates says 'pirate,' China says 'dissident'--let's find the content source!"

If this scenario seems overblown, you might also recall that Gates recently has been working with British braniacs at Cambridge University on ways for Microsoft to covertly monitor illegal software usage via certification, and that Redmond--unlike the "best things in life are free" crowd down at Netscape--still depends on keeping track of who's using what to earn its daily bread. Today, China analysts busy themselves trying to divine the thoughts of a guy named Bill in Washington on MFN; perhaps tomorrow they'll be more interested in what a different Bill in a different Washington thinks about, say, MSN.

Another high-tech icon with some serious Sino-techno issues is Apple's Steve Jobs, who was last seen breaststroking through the huge waves of irony rising up from Apple's decision to drop the Dalai Lama from its "Think different" ad campaign in Asian markets. Although the Mac maker claimed that the religious leader wasn't well-known enough in the Far East to merit continued inclusion, most observers credit the move to Apple's fear of offending Beijing, jeopardizing access to the gigantic Chinese market. Understandable, but what's next? No Rosa Parks ads in the Deep South? Does Richard Gere know about this?

The ironometer goes even higher when you consider the fact that Jobs himself has long shown an interest in Buddhism--exemplified by his comment in Wired magazine: "There's a phrase in Buddhism, 'beginner's mind.' It's wonderful to have a beginner's mind." He's also known to have dabbled in Eastern religions while at college, and often his dress and hirsute appearance seem downright monkish. What's more, both Jobs and the Dalai Lama received their highest worldly honors in 1989, when Steve was named Entrepreneur of the Decade by Inc. magazine and the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Coincidence? Oh, ye of little faith! You don't have to be MS-DOStradamus to see this cosmic connection.

Despite Apple's recent successes, some decidedly bad karma is floating around in Cupertino: The company is barring the press from its upcoming shareholders' meeting; a Newton Defense Fund has been formed to investigate Apple's potential mishandling of that beloved and beleaguered handheld OS; and its recent fling with Beijing has people thinking differently about who would be whom today in the famous "1984" ad. To top it off, this afternoon in San Francisco your Rumormeister actually saw, à la Don Henley, an Apple sticker on a Mercedes-Benz. Which way will the vibe bounce next? Stay tuned.

On a final international note, file the following under "We're Huge in the Ukraine." This verbatim comes from a Russian newsgroup posting:
"?????? ??, ??? ?????????????. ? ????????? ??? ? ????????? ? ?????-?? ????, ??? ? www.news.com ??????? ?????, ??? ??? ???? ? ????????? ?????, ???????, ??????, ?????, ?? ?? skinny dubaud :)"

Thank you, tovarich, I think. Wherever you may be, remember that scuttlebutt is the universal language--and that I'm always ready for rumors.