Monday, April 30, 2012

Germany hates YouTube and wants it to die

So here is an interesting story about a court decision in Germany that dictates that YouTube should "filter" all uploaded content to ensure that it does not infringe copyright, or pay royalties.

Yet another thing that sounds simple and sensible until you actually think about it for a minute.

The key word here is "filter".  Sounds easy enough...think Britta water filter, only for copyrighted content of all sorts.  All you need to do is have a programmer wave a magic wand and voila, filter created.

Unfortunately, programming something like that is not so simple as it sounds.  People who don't know how to program have an unfortunate tendency to believe that it is easy to do.  After all, it is easy for them to use a computer with a mouse and keyboard and web browser and surf the net.  What they don't realize is that the reason it is so easy for them to do that is because of literally decades worth of careful programming work.

For example, if I was to ask you how you would go about writing a program to filter copyrighted content, what would you say?  Come on, what's the problem?  Just make a filter!

Well, I've got news for you--it is an excruciatingly hard, if not utterly impossible, thing to do.

Look, what you need to understand is that computers are machines, and so are computer programs.  You have to start with facts which can be understood, and then write logic that actually does stuff with those facts which is comprehensible by the mind of man.  Let me show you how this works.

Mr. YouTube himself knocks on your office door and tells you that you have been tasked with writing the program which will filter all copyrighted content off YouTube, and it would be nice if you could have it done by COB.  So you need facts.  Well, logically, the facts you need will include:

1. A knowledge of all copyrighted media in the world--all movies and music in particular.  In total--you need to know about every fraction of every second of everything, in order that you can recognize a clip.

Think about it--someone uploads a clip.  You need to do a comparison.  What are you going to compare it against?  Obviously, everything that has ever been created in movies, TV shows, and music.

Some sub-problems of this are:

A. New content that didn't when you got started on the project.  You're going to need to update your database of all copyrighted media in every language from all over the world every day.

B. You need to do this using psychic powers, since not everything that is copyrighted is registered.  In the United States, at least, anything anyone makes (almost) is copyrighted by default, and you will need to divine the intent of the author on a regular basis.

C. A typical DVD is about 4 gigabytes of data (compressed).  A random google search tells me there have been 25,000 movies ever made, which I think is way low but lets run with it.  25,000 x 4 gigs is 100,000 gigabytes, or an exobyte of data.  An exobyte has been compared to all the words ever spoken.  You might be surprised to learn that you cannot buy an exobyte hard drive at MicroCenter, and that searching an exobyte of storage would take a little while.  As in days.

And that's just movies.

Next fact:

2. You will need to develop brand new computer vision and hearing technology so that you can make essentially "subjective" judgements about whether an upload matches one of the members of your huge database of all copyrighted media.  And oh, by the way, I'm sure the Department of Defense would appreciate it if you could share this groundbreaking technology with them to use in their killer robots, because that's the level of sophistication required here.  This technology does not actually exist (quite).

Bear in mind that simple checksums will not work even remotely reliably, as a simple re-encode will alter the checksum.

3. You've got to do it fast.  According to the linked article, users upload 60 hours of video content to YouTube every minute.  Even if you had a billion human beings with encyclopedic knowledge of copyrighted material in their heads, they could not filter all the content.  Add that to the exobyte database above and....


Good luck with that.

I hope you can see now why this is a truly idiotic notion, that you can just "write a filter" to "filter out copyrighted material".  It requires knowledge and technique which does not exist--but other than that it is perfectly feasible.

So.  The alternative under these new rules imposed by a judge is either to close up shop, or for YouTube to pay royalties for everything their users upload.

You heard that, right?  YouTube (owned by Google) isn't schlonging all this copyrighted material onto YouTube for the enjoyment of the masses--it is uploaded by their millions of users, which YouTube are supposed to somehow control.

Is that right?  Should YouTube be liable for the actions of their users?  Think about it: 60 hours of video a second.  That is what YouTube and other file video file sharing sites have given us--a phenomenally powerful and complete library of human culture.

I can see why someone would want to destroy that.

Anyway.  The one good thing about this is it is Google they are going after, now--finally a non-defenseless victim.  That being said, the reason the suit is happening is doubtless because it is Google, because they have money, as opposed to suing all the small fry who actually do the uploading.

And to be further fair, it has to be said that YouTube definitely has ads on their site, and is thus quite commercial.  This is why Google/YouTube have sought cross marketing agreements with content owners where they split the ad revenue on videos with their content.  Not an unreasonable response, in my opinion.  But not good enough for GEMA (the German RIAA).  They want a cash payout or an impossible task.  Because, as usual, suing people is better than doing honest work.

I'm not sure a YouTube without a profit motive could exist, mind you.  But that's not my problem, to make Google money.  I'm just searching for what's right, and what is best for humanity's information network.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Could circumventing DRM actually be wrong?

This story makes my head spin, but it has some suitably complex moral shades for a Sunday morning.

The article is worth reading, but the short version of it is that the makers of a video game, MapleStory, sued the makers of a clone server application, UMaple, which allowed people to use MapleStory's proprietary game client to connect to the UMaple server instead of MapleStory's, and thus play without paying MapleStory.

It sounds simple if you don't actually think about it very hard, but I aim to show you that it's actually somewhat complex.  Bear with me.

If we expand fair use to cover UMaple's actions--assuming it's non-commercial (in this case apparently it wasn't, but more on that later), it could definitely cost the maker's of MapleStory some money.  Is that okay?

Certainly, anyone has the right to write a game server program.  This is even okay if you are reverse engineering another server, in order to interact with a client.  I simply can't see any inherent problem with that.  To say otherwise is to legislate stupidity--you aren't allowed to talk to a computer program yourself, you have to use so-and-so's client software or you're bad, mmkay?  Remember, at the byte level it's not a game, it's bits and bytes of data on the computer you own.

However, it is clear that this directly lifts potential money out of the pockets of the makers of MapleStory.  Note I said "potential".  There is no guarantee that even a single penny of revenue is lost--it could be that people who connect to the UMaple server will never pay to play "legitimately".  Or they might--I think we can't know.  But it's certainly not a given.  (However, I don't think it matters, either, and I'll explain why.)

Now admittedly, the realm of games and copyright and fair use is indeed tricky, and as you may know, video games are a subject near and dear to my heart--as I spent a couple years making this one.  And indeed, my game is a client/server model, and in the long run I would love for it to be advertisement supported--which could require that users only connect to my "legitimate" servers for that to work.

But I have to say, I find the notion that the user must respect arbitrary, closed code (the client) running on their computer a bit fanciful.  It's your computer.  My software is running on your computer because you gave me a chance to please you and earn your custom.  But to do that, You have to give me access to your most precious data, potentially, and other things that are important to you on your computer.  In other words, you're trusting me.  You're trusting me not to turn your machine into part of a botnet, or scour your hard drive for bank account numbers, personal pornography etc. etc. etc.  Man, you are giving me a chance to succeed, for which I should be grateful (and I am, please go try my game if you're in to that sort of thing).

Yes, the software developer has done a lot of work to get you this piece of software to play with, but you are also providing a lot of trust as well--trust that is hard to get these days with rampant malware and botnets and shady dealers all over the internet.

So basically I think we're at least "even" on the score of who owes who what.

Am I making any sense?

The way I see it, if I want to make my game ad supported, for example, it's my job, as the developer, to make that work.  It's not yours, as the customer.  Sure, legally, I may have some cudgels to beat you with, but that doesn't make it right.  As a businessperson, it's my job to respect reality.  The reality is that you have full control over your computer, and my video game runs in that environment which you control, not me.  I can try to control it, but that makes me a punk ass bitch, and it seriously disrespects you, the customer.  And that is what Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) software is--an attempt to control you via your computer, and an implicit disrespect of you as an assumed thief.

So for example, one thing I might do with my game is ship the ads in the client.  It's less elegant than enabling advertisement updates via the server, but it's also less convenient to hack.  But it would make cloning the server irrelevant at a stroke.  That problem is solved.

And indeed, people could still hack the client binary, but why bother?  It's a free game.  New ads could come out with new releases, which I could make a point to do often.  Point being, by simply using a little common sense, I can change the value proposition for my users so that they don't want a hacked version.  Hell, I could have prizes and shit in the ads, stuff like that, that they wouldn't want to miss out on.  Who knows.  The possibilities are literally limitless.

(For that matter, by making my game ad-supported, piracy is also solved.  I want as many copies out there as possible--piracy literally helps me.  See how accepting reality and working with it can be more elegant than fighting it with legal nonsense?)

There is no need for this heavy handed bullshit if businesspeople could just stop thinking like children, which is how I characterize using legal brute force to get their way.  There is a time for that, but it is not all the time.  Children scream and pout and fight when they don't get their way.  Mature people are more subtle, and manipulate the situation so that they cannot fail.  And they are generally more successful in their endeavors because of this.

So I'm looking at MapleStory and I'm thinking it's a damn irritating looking game.  But apparently people play it and found motivation to build out a third party server.  They may not be ad-supported, but apparently they are completely dependent on users connecting to their own servers with the client.

Looks to me like the people who made MapleStory screwed up their business model.

So yes, pirate my game client, it is your right, as long as you don't try to use it to make money--I'm fine with it.

Yes, it may cost the creator money.  Lots of things about expanding fair use could potentially cost content creators money--money I don't feel they are entitled to by default.  The only way they can be entitled to money by default is if the law is used as a cudgel.  I make the arguments  above simply to show that it is possible to make money without that level of control over how users use artistic creations.

In the final analysis, it is never your obligation to make someone else money.  You have your own problems.  If they want your money, they should figure out some way to earn it, just like everybody else in the world.

As it happens, of course, UMaple may have been making money from it, and if so, then fuck'em.  Interestingly, the judge in the case didn't give MapleStory jack for the copyright infringement itself, but only for the breaking of the game's DRM, as per the vile Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA).

How ironic, to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.  America: Fuck Yeah!


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why I'm OK with Teller suing the guy who stole his trick

Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, is suing a guy who has created a set of instructions for reproducing one of his tricks.

It's not even a new trick.

But the guy is apparently selling a DVD with the instructions for about $3000.

Boom, sympathy out the window.  Just another example of how the profit motive removes any moral protection for copyright infringement.  Frankly, based on my judgment of the personal characters of misters Teller and Penn, based entirely on the style of shows they choose to put on, I daresay dude would have been okay if he just hadn't tried to sell it.

A-OK in my book to go after him.  And in this case the expansion of fair use to cover non-commercial use could mirror the reality of the situation, creating a nice overlay of the law over society's own view of morality.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Electronic book publisher very upset electronic book was copied

Now here is an interesting story.  John Wiley & Sons, publisher of "Photoshop CS5 All-In-One For Dummies", is suing a number of people for downloading pirated copies of that book.

So first of all, nice job letting the entire world know that you can download the book for free from the internet.

In all seriousness, I plan on doing an analysis soon of how different media are affected by piracy, and why that should not affect on whether or not fair use should be expanded.  But I do have to drop a special note of contempt for John Wiley ampersand Sons for sheer stupidity.  You put some data on the internet, and you are now complaining that it has been copied without  your authorization.  And then you file lawsuits with the effect of publicizing your foolishness, while, again, letting people know they can download it for free.  Did you even know before this moment that you can pirate e-books?  You do now.  This is known as the Streisand effect.

This whole notion that a copyright holder should have some special license to control how everyone else uses their precious creation is something else I'll be working to dispel in this space.  Suffice for now to say that I'm not as impressed by "content creators" as some.  You're just not that special.  Sorry.

I mean, much media out there do you really think deserves to be protected?  All of it?

I'll tell you what, though.  If I was to publish a book today, I would absolutely insist that it not be available in e-book form any time soon.  Yeah that's right, I want to make some money, so I'm not going to run right out and put it on the internet.  That's the advantage of books.  (Mind you, some smartass who knew about this blog of mine would scan and OCR it and put it on the net, to be sure--and that would be ok with me.) But I'm certainly not going to put it out there onto the peer to peer electronic copying device known as the internet myself, and then freak out when people copy it.

So let's analyze the deal on Amazon for this book.  Paper copy: $26.39.  Kindle e-book: $25.07.  So a paper copy--which has to be printed, shipped, stored, and carried, is $26.39.  The Kindle e-book, which bears none of these costs to the publisher or vendor, is $1.32 less expensive.  The e-book also has the awesome advantage of Digital Restrictions Management software built into it so that you cannot copy it, loan it, or resell it without cooperation from Amazon.  And if their servers should ever go're stuck.  So you get much less value, for almost the same money.

However, this is neither here nor there with regard to any discussion as to whether or not it is appropriate to pirate the book.  The price doesn't matter to that.  I just wanted to point out what a crappy deal it is, and how incredibly fucking stupid John Wiley @ Sons must think we, the buying public, are.

If they had priced the e-book at five bucks, most would probably not bother to pirate it.  Frankly, when I see e-book "deals" like that on Amazon, I have a powerful urge to check the torrent sites for it--and inevitably find it there.  I think I am not the only one offended.  Reasonably priced books tend not to be on the torrent sites, I've noticed.

Neither do e-books available for loan from libraries, I've noticed.  That link is to the CS4 e-book version of the Wiley book at my local library.  Now here is where I would like you to think real hard, if you haven't already, about the difference between loaning/borrowing an e-book, and pirating it.

For example, most people know what a PDF file is.  A lot of e-books are in PDF format.  What would you say if I told you I would loan you a PDF book?  I think even most non-geeks would kinda tilt their head and look at me quizzically.  "Loan?" you might say.  "Yes," I would say, "you must delete it in ten days, or you'll be pirating it".

You might say, "But you still have your copy!"  To which I would respond, "Good point!  I'll delete it off my hard drive now, and when the ten days is up, we will carefully move the file from your computer to mine, so that no single byte of it is ever in two places at once, and thus the copyrighted file has had it's authority respected."

The appropriate response, of course, would be to punch me in the nose for being a punk ass bitch, and steal my computer.

The only way loaning e-books can work is by the imposition of invasive, and unnatural, software restrictions on the data of the e-books.  You have to have some particular piece of software installed which ensures that the book is "checked back in" at the end of the "loan" period.  This is the same mechanism in place for DRM'ed e-books, such as most AZW format books from Amazon, except the "loan" period is theoretically forever.

But that ability to yank back your "ownership" is always there, unlike a real book.  It doesn't matter how bad they feel about it afterwards--DRM'ed media is never really "owned" by you, but only ever artificially "loaned".  And I hope the illustration above illuminates just how dumb that whole idea is.

We have invented these wonderful data copying machines that can change the world--if we don't allow those of superficial sensibilities and limited vision to try to destroy it by imposing artificial restrictions--under penalty of law.  I can assure you, these folks won't stop until we have special copyright police breaking into people's houses and destroying their unlicensed (pirated) books.

It is the only logical conclusion to what they are doing, and it's closer than you think.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Parodies with Hitler are Suddenly Bad

This may be old news for geeks and a lot of other people, but it illustrates perfectly one of the central points about copyright abuse.  I'm speaking, of course, of one of my favorite internet "memes"-- the Downfall Hitler parody.

There is a scene in the movie Downfall where Hitler goes on a rant.  Turns out it works very nicely as a really quite enjoyable vehicle for any particular satire you care to do, with some nicely placed mistranslations in place of the original film's subtitles.

In any case, Constantin Films, the movie's distributor, started filing Digital Millenium Copyright Act requests to YouTube several years after the movie's release to remove these parody videos because it was alleged they infringed their copyright.  Since these are obviously parody, they are very much protected (in the U.S., at least) as fair use.  But yet, somehow, a draconian copyright enforcement law (the DMCA) was blatantly abused by this company, resulting in the stifling of straight-up free speech rights by the creators of the spoof videos.

We'll be talking a lot about DMCA abuse as an argument against even more over-reaching laws.  There has been quite a lot of it, you see, which seemed obviously destined to occur to anyone paying attention at the time the law was passed.  It was a terrible idea at the time, and it still is, now.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Louis C.K. fails miserably

The comedian Lous C.K. recently made a million dollars by simply selling downloads of his routine via his own website.  No publisher, no distributor, and he didn't play any stupid games like requiring you to use a special piece of software to watch the show in order to keep you from copying it.  You have to admit, it's pretty odd for someone to actually accept reality that way, that there is no way to stop copying of media.

Apparently, however, at least one media representative is still determined to impose his own cognitive dissonance on the rest of the world by denying that this counts as Louis C.K. actually managing to "monetize" his work this way.

It's pretty obvious that in this guy's mind, if you don't go through an established distribution channel, why, you just aren't selling your material.  I guess you're just, I dunno, mentally masturbating a million dollars into existence.  But certainly not "monetizing".

I think the take away from this is this is another example of how this conflict is not really a battle between artists and pirates, but between the distribution channels and the rest of the world.  It is not artists who are trying to bribe Orwellian censorship laws into existence, but organizations that claim to "represent" them.

And so it is interesting to see what it takes to become a "Worldwide VP of Content Protection and Outreach"--the ability to believe that war is peace.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dutch Pirate Party Fight For Freedom erm Sanity

So Europe has a multiparty political system, which recently has started including the Pirate Party who, as it happens, advocate that all non-commercial copying should be legal.  The Dutch party is taking a legal stand against BREIN (the local aspect of the MPAA) by refusing to take down a proxy to the Pirate Bay torrents site.

In the Netherlands a judge has been trying to censor the internet by ordering ISP's to block The Pirate Bay because it is bad, you know--and naturally the very next day a million sites in the Netherlands set up proxies to TPB,  the Dutch Pirate Party being one of them.

A proxy is essentially a link.  A link is a string of text.  Apparently this particular string of text is now illegal in the Netherlands.

You are not allowed to know where the Pirate Bay is.

But this is why, even if you are not sympathetic with piracy, you should care about this.  The mechanisms of control necessary to stop this "bad" copying, also disable "good" copying.  Copying, in this case, being equivalent to "communication".

On the internet, all data is equal.  There is no way to tell the good data from the bad data--at least without monstrously intrusive searching by third parties.  The only way to do this would be for users to literally tag "evil" activity.  So just be sure to turn the evil bit on before you get up to that evil shit.

I'll close today by copy/pasting a big chunk of the Swedish Pirate Party's page I linked to above, because I was reading it while researching this post, and damn if it doesn't sound like pretty sensible stuff--and I'm pretty sure they won't mind my copying it ;-)

(I'm not italicizing in order to save your eyes, below)

"Reform of copyright law »

The official aim of the copyright system has always been to find a balance in order to promote culture being created and spread. Today that balance has been completely lost, to a point where the copyright laws severely restrict the very thing they are supposed to promote. The Pirate Party wants to restore the balance in the copyright legislation. All non-commercial copying and use should be completely free. File sharing and p2p networking should be encouraged rather than criminalized. Culture and knowledge are good things, that increase in value the more they are shared. The Internet could become the greatest public library ever created. The monopoly for the copyright holder to exploit an aesthetic work commercially should be limited to five years after publication. Today's copyright terms are simply absurd. Nobody needs to make money seventy years after he is dead. No film studio or record company bases its investment decisions on the off-chance that the product would be of interest to anyone a hundred years in the future. The commercial life of cultural works is staggeringly short in today's world. If you haven't made your money back in the first one or two years, you never will. A five years copyright term for commercial use is more than enough. Non-commercial use should be free from day one. We also want a complete ban on DRM technologies, and on contract clauses that aim to restrict the consumers' legal rights in this area. There is no point in restoring balance and reason to the legislation, if at the same time we continue to allow the big media companies to both write and enforce their own arbitrary laws.
An abolished patent system »

Pharmaceutical patents kill people in third world countries every day. They hamper possibly life saving research by forcing scientists to lock up their findings pending patent application, instead of sharing them with the rest of the scientific community. The latest example of this is the bird flu virus, where not even the threat of a global pandemic can make research institutions forgo their chance to make a killing on patents. The Pirate Party has a constructive and reasoned proposal for an alternative to pharmaceutical patents. It would not only solve these problems, but also give more money to pharmaceutical research, while still cutting public spending on medicines in half. This is something we would like to discuss on a European level. Patents in other areas range from the morally repulsive (like patents on living organisms) through the seriously harmful (patents on software and business methods) to the merely pointless (patents in the mature manufacturing industries). Europe has all to gain and nothing to lose by abolishing patents outright. If we lead, the rest of the world will eventually follow.
Respect for the right to privacy »

 Following the 9/11 event in the US, Europe has allowed itself to be swept along in a panic reaction to try to end all evil by increasing the level of surveillance and control over the entire population. We Europeans should know better. It is not twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there are plenty of other horrific examples of surveillance-gone-wrong in Europe's modern history. The arguments for each step on the road to the surveillance state may sound ever so convincing. But we Europeans know from experience where that road leads, and it is not somewhere we want to go. We must pull the emergency brake on the runaway train towards a society we do not want. Terrorists may attack the open society, but only governments can abolish it."

The Pirate Bay is currently at, by the way.

Monday, April 23, 2012

MPAA fails nicely in Australia...but damn, think about that for a minute....

Hollywood lost a legal battle in Australia last week, where they were trying to force local Internet Service Providers (ISP's) to be responsible for copyright infringement by their users.  This is actually the exact case that our douchebag friend Julian Assange informed us about, via the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, that the U.S. organization MPAA was actually behind it (through the local Australian equivalent, called AFACT).  That's right, they're suing ISP's in Australia to try to get them to watch everything their users do and say on the internet, in order to protect the century-plus long copyright on things like this.

Now beyond the mere insanity of going to these lengths, it's useful to note that in the cable, the U.S. Embassy seemed very friendly with the MPAA.  These folks have an outsize reach compared to the actual size of their entire industry.  Seriously, Google could by the entire U.S. movie industry before breakfast--literally.

And that, in turn, brings home the nature of their influence and the importance of this issue.  They are very visible.  People in the U.S. are rightly proud of our cultural imperialism--it has many benefits for us around the world in the battle for hearts and minds in the world, which even our incompetent politicians can't completely ruin.

But in all seriousness, a $36 billion industry is chickenshit in the U.S. of A.  That's just a fair size company.  Oracle, for example.  Google is $4 billion bigger, even, than the entire U.S. movie industry.

Yet they appear to have the regular attention of the U.S. diplomatic corps, and obviously quite of lot of clout in Congress.

So a small industry seeks to impose Orwellian monitoring of all internet use on a friendly country on the other side of the world.  Nice.  And our government not only doesn't object, but appears quite benevolently disposed.  Not a good thing.

So we can see the problem is a problem because these retards want to try to impose their control over everybody, not just people trying to make a buck from their work.  And that is why I believe that the expansion of fair use to cover all non-commercial activity is the only sane solution to this problem.

Nobody is going to let them get away with censoring or monitoring the entire internet just to get to a few bad actors.  But we seem perilously close to letting them do it in order to go after all of us.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Happy Birthday to YOU

Today we look at an excellent example if the insanity of very long copyrights, Happy Birthday To You.  Let's face it--it's not a great song.  In fact, I rather think Rebecca Black's horrible "Friday" song compares favorably to it.  However, to this day people get sued for performing it without paying royalties.

It's stilted, cloying, saccharine at best, over a hundred years old, and it's copyrighted, motherf*cker!  From 1893.  EIGHTEEN NINETY THREE.  Exactly nobody who was alive then, is alive now.  Nobody.  They are all dead.  All of them.  Everybody.  Zombies are prominent in popular culture right now; perhaps this is why.  The dead seek royalties from beyond the grave.

So whenever anyone says to you, "without copyright, artists won't be encouraged to produce more music", just point out that neither Patty nor Mildred Hill are going to be producing any more crappy music of any kind, because they are long dead.  Yet somehow Warner/Chappell Music has a moral right to make a dime off it if you sing it in public?

It's true--I don't only advocate the dramatic expansion of fair use to encompass all non-commercial use.  I also think the current scheme of incredibly long copyright is preposterous, and anyone should be embarrassed to defend it.

Maybe we should have a National Happy Birthday To You Sing In Public And Invite A Lawsuit Day.  That would be cool.  I wonder what Warner/Chappel Music's lawyers would do if that happened?  Can you have a reverse class action lawsuit?  Sue everybody in the country at once?  I bet our Supreme Court would approve.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pondering the Aereo broadcast TV "retransmission"

I hate to link to Wired, because they are punk ass bitches, but this story is a an interesting object lesson.  This company Aereo is committing the unforgivable sin of recording and re-transmitting material that local television stations transmit free to all over the public airwaves.   It is marketed as an internet VCR, essentially.

Before continuing--have you actually checked out what is available for free over the air in your area, these days?  Odds are you will find you have a cable-esque variety of television channels, freely available, in astounding high definition.  All you have to do is stick up an antenna.  What was once one TV station is now three or four; you'll find music channels, weather, etc. etc.  It's really quite the something.

So let's break this down.  The local television stations provide a free, high quality feed, over the air, for anyone to intercept--on the public airwaves.  They are saying "please, listen and watch what I have to say".  It's not an encrypted communication, like your cable box.  It's just spewed out there, through the atmosphere and streaming through the walls of our houses and our bodies, every day, all day.  All you have to do is "listen".

What Aereo is doing is recording these broadcasts and streaming them over the internet to people who use their service.  And so of course, that just won't do.

I realize there are laws that may protect the broadcasters from this.  But please recall that this blog is all about our terrible, backward laws.  I'm talking about what is actually right and proper and just, not the opinion of our subverted legal system as it stands today.

So, breaking it down further--presuming, let's say, that Aereo leaves the commercials intact when they retransmit, aren't they actually providing a valuable service to the broadcasters by increasing their reach? Of course the broadcasters are upset--because they hate free money, right?

Anyway.  First, I want to point out how preposterous it is to insist on controlling something which you have put into the public airwaves for free.  Over the air broadcasts, in some ways, are even more like the internet than the internet.  Once something is digitized, it can be sent anywhere in the world on the internet with trivial ease.  But in the case of over the air broadcasts, you don't even need an internet connection.  Just stick your pinky in the air.

For example, I own an HD Homerun box.  It's an over-the-air digital TV tuner that sits on your network.  All I have to do is point my computer to it, and it starts filling up my hard drive with super high quality video.  Because that's what TV is--video.  MPEG-4 encoded video and sound data.  I dunno...I think as a geek I am still kinda bowled over by what is possible these days.  If you're not a geek, you probably don't appreciate just how much data is in an HDTV broadcast.   And this is data that the broadcasters give away for free, all day every day.  For their own self-interest, of course.  That being said, they are also using a limited government granted monopoly of a section of our public airwaves--definitely part of the commonweal, and licensed in a limited way to the broadcasters in the public interest.

Just something to think about, there.

So what makes this story really juicy for this blog is the fact that Aereo apparently intends to *charge* for the service at some point.  Aha!  By my own reckoning, this is a different thing altogether.  The question could be whether they are charging for the oh so sacred "content", or the service of streaming it?  This is basically Aereo's contention, that they are charging for a service, not the content.

So let's follow their line of logic.  If they can do it, anybody can start a service like this legally--and that might reduce Aereo's value proposition a bit. But that's not my problem--no one is owed a working business model.  But leaving the stream intact may make it a service, as opposed to a copyright infringement, in a natural law sense.  Since this is a DVR-like situation, let us consider four scenarios:

1. Aereo leaves commercials intact and doesn't charge for the service:  seems to me the broadcasters should pay them for extending their reach.  This would definitely fall into the idea of expanding fair use.

2. Aereo cuts out the commercials, altering the broadcast, and doesn't charge for the service: to my mind, this should be fair use as well.  Mind you, when I say "doesn't charge for it" I mean they don't make any money on it by selling ads on their website, any application they construct, etc.  Obviously, this is not a great business model and not many people would want to do it, but again, I think it should be legal.

Point being, it probably wouldn't happen very much, would it?

3. Aereo leaves the commercials intact and does charge for the service: originally, I leaned toward this being acceptable.  But the problem came when I pondered the significance of altering the data, which in the end I decided was irrelevant.  Once you start making money from making copies,  you're not doing fair use any more.  Also, once you go down the road of charging for a "service", it opens the door to websites charging for Hollywood movies, for example, for the "service", which is definitely--to my way of thinking--not okay.

We'll be talking about movies a lot in the coming months.  It's a tough road to hoe.

4. Aereo cuts out the commercials and charges for the service: yeah, this is not okay.  They are solely piggybacking on the work of others for profit, with no benefit whatsoever to the broadcaster (let alone the content creators--remember them? they don't even enter into the suit, which is interesting to me).

So in the end, the fact that Aereo may or may not be altering the data (cutting out commercials) doesn't matter, I don't think.  But I haven't even talked about the most intersting part of their proposition.

If you read the article, you'll see that what these crazy bastards have done is set up an individual antenna for each of their customers!  They are relying on a court ruling that is still percolating through the courts about remote DVR's.  But the idea, I think, is simply that "hey, this antenna belongs to my customer.  I'm just forwarding the data it collects to them".

And this underlines the preposterousness of the situation of broadcasters--who spew data for free through the air all around us--nitpicking how that data is used.  I mean, from a technical point of view, there is no point whatsoever to having a million separate antennas. It's a technical fiction to pay homage to a legal fiction.  Obviously there is no difference, in function, between having a million antennas and having one antenna.  Aereo could easily just record every channel in the New York area 24/7, save it all to a hard drive, and stream out from that whatever show a customer requests.

Who knows how it will turn out, but I bet it won't be a rational solution.  Really, the local broadcasters should just strike a deal with Aereo to provide the service free to users, and get a little money from the broadcasters for the useful service they are providing--both to broadcasters and the people of New York.  But I'm sure that will never happen.

But I don't think Aereo should be allowed to charge end users for the service without broadcasters (or copyright holders?) consent.

See?  I'm not against copyright.

Except...what is the difference between what they are doing and what TIVO does?  TIVO records the shows on your local drive, instead of at a remote location.  Does location matter in the age of the internet?  What if TIVO enabled you to watch the shows you record over the internet?  That's about the only thing they don't do, I daresay due to concerns about your home's uplink bandwidth.  But if you recoreded it on a device you own in your home, and played it over the internet, would that make you a bad guy?  And TIVO even makes money on the deal....

The issue here seems to be the physical location of the hard drive that records the data, when viewed in that light.

Sure would be nice not to have to worry about that sort of thing.  Isn't it confusing?  Doesn't it seem pretty pointless to bicker over such as this?  Don't we have anything better to do?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Under Construction (but not by me)


This outstanding page is famous among geeks for its tongue in cheek skewering of internet newbies seeking to reassure visitors to their Awesome New Web Sites that yes, one day, there will be stuff there.  So Check Back Soon!

The only problem is that the creator of this site is an evil pirate who must be destroyed.  Do you think they made all those gif's?  Hell no, they even say at the top:

"This small collection was saved from the rapidly dying Geocities"

Aha! So you *admit* that you culled each of these lovingly copyrighted images from an obsolete and soon to be destroyed website in order to preserve them for posterity and personal amusement!  You vile thief.

So anyway.  Should be protected speech, is all I'm saying.  Easily more worthwhile than this.

China considers a more liberal copyright law than the U.S.

I don't know how true or reliable it is, but this article indicates an interesting and innovative solution to the internet copyright mess of a different order.  Basically, China is considering a compulsory licensing scheme for media three months after it is published.

Now, I don't care for it, because it's still nickel and diming bits and bytes, but it is, at least, an innovative idea.  Basically the artist gets three months of monopoly over their work, but after that anybody can use it as long as they pay the appropriate fee.  This would at least have the virtue of allowing anybody to make mashups, remixes, and even potentially create their own internet radio/tv stations on an ad hoc basis--legally.

I still think the expansion of fair use is a better idea, as even I have to admit that three months is a bit of a short time to keep someone from using your new song in their used car commercial, or to re-record it with commercial lyrics selling the latest brand of inflatable condom or whatever.  Hmmm.  I just kinda threw that out there, but you gotta admit it's got possibilities....

Ultimately, though, I don't think that God invented art so that we monkeys to sell it to each other.  And so I don't think a compulsory license fee is the right long term solution because it still restricts the free flow of personal communications with the drag of licensing fees.  Think about a mashup that uses pieces of a hundred songs--that could get quite expensive, for something which truly is new and original at that point, despite it's components.

However, kudos to China for potentially seriously considering more liberal laws than we do here in the U.S.  Has anyone noticed how China is thriving while ignoring our intellectual property laws?  Just thought I'd throw that out there.  I've been looking for references to how industrialists in the early U.S.A. did similar things with British patents, and would be grateful if anyone could throw one my way--I've always understood that was the case.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The only decent solution to the copyright mess is to expand fair use to include all non-commercial activity

I never wanted to be a blogger.  The truth is, I get very tired of the sound of my own voice.  Perpetrators of blogging have a well deserved reputation for self-absorption, insanity, inanity, asininity, and even frippery.  This is not something that I want to do.

However, in the last year or so it has become clear to me that the current stakeholders in media are never, ever, going to learn to live in peace with the internet.  For over a decade now they've been suing people at random all over the U.S. and, indeed, the world.  Ruining lives for the sake of an mp3 file.  They are currently bribing every congressperson they can find in order to obtain government sanctioned censorship powers over the internet.  All in the name of protecting things like this from the horrible fate of copyright infringement.   And in fact, they claim that it is sensible that a person should be prosecuted for copying that song or video--even over a hundred and fifty years from the time of its creation.  Because God knows Rebecca Black's horrible "Friday" song should be protected with the iron fist of the law for three quarters of the time that our Republic has even existed, even long after Ms. Black is, hopefully, dead.

Obviously, things have gotten a little out of hand.  My position is that the internet is of vital importance to the future of the human race.  Free speech and expression are the point of this.  There is a reason the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution deals with freedom of speech and conscience: for if you cannot speak freely, you cannot solve any other problems honestly.  And we have lots of serious problems that need honest solving.

The internet is the ultimate free speech tool.  It is quite possibly the greatest thing humanity has ever invented.  The free exchange of information is what it does.  It does nothing, in fact, but copy files* from one peer to another.  Anything that gets in the way of that--like censorship--is a threat to its basic functionality, which I feel we need in order to survive as a species.  And free speech is not free if some random person on the internet can remove your speech at will, on whatever pretext at all.  And we have already seen copyright abused in exactly this way.

It has seemed obvious to me for some time that the only moral and ethical solution to copyright on the internet is the dramatic expansion of fair use rights to include all non-commercial use.  We need this because this is the natural way for songs, books, movies, and other media to be used on the internet.  These things are our culture, and the way we speak to one another.  But if we somehow want to allow the creators of content to dictate how it's used, we no longer have the free exchange of information, but only glorified television--passive, consumed as opposed to understood, nearly worthless for solving problems.

I don't think anyone thinks that, if I write a song, then some used car salesman should be able to use it in his advertisements without compensation.  It seems to be a natural law.  However, if that same car salesman emails it to a friend simply to share a cool song with her, prosecution of that copyright infringement becomes an invasion of privacy and decency. Don't you think?  I really think most people will see the justice of this way of thinking, given time.

Although I don't believe these bad actors can win in the end, it's clear now that they can do quite a lot of damage in the meantime--and I don't want to wait through a thousand years of darkness for humanity to finish achieving the great intellectual triumphs that await us, enabled by the global, free, information sharing network.  By keeping copyright protections on what is clearly naturally correct, it minimizes disruptions to the network, while allowing the network--and people--to flourish.  The alternative is potentially many decades of a War on Drugs style campaign which seeks to control the uncontrollable, and destroying the lives of everyone who gets in the way.  Or, we can have truly free speech for all.  The choice really is yours.

So, the blog.  One reason I never wanted to write a blog is because I know that in order to be successful, it must be updated (at a minimum) every day.  So it's a thing to take upon oneself.  I had to ask myself, "can I think of 365 reasons to support the dramatic expansion of fair use, and summon the will to write about it?" and the answer was a resounding "absofreakinglutely".  I hereby commit myself to this.  The purpose of this blog is to provide arguments.  Sometimes just an essay on a particular facet of the problem, sometimes a commentary on the outrage of the hour.  I hope to spawn honest debate in the comments from thinking people of all persuasions.

The debate is necessary, because it is my opinion that a lot of people have been, frankly, duped by the major media over the last decade into believing a number of erroneous assumptions (piracy is bad, mmkay?).  I intend to point out how those media have a profound conflict of interest on this issue, and I intend to expose this whenever possible, as well as provide some counter arguments.  Every day.

I am *not* seeking to be the first to break the news of some new outrage.  I don't refute that I learn about a lot of these things from Slashdot and its ilk.  In fact I may actually think about it for a while before posting about it.  I want to try to get at the heart of the matter, and provide good arguments for why the expansion of fair use would be a better solution to that particular problem than anything else.  I am here to provide a point of view.  Piracy is ok when it's not for profit.  That.  Expand fair use to cover that, and we're left with only a fringe element who truly deserve to be prosecuted.  And doing that does not require draconian control of the internet.

And why the focus on arguments, you ask? Because in the end, I think that's the only thing that works.  The most encouraging thing to me about the recent SOPA debacle was the profoundly courageous cowardice exhibited by the United States Congress in the face of--dare I speak it--Wikipedia going black for a day.  Millions of ordinary Americans suddenly said "WTF" in loud and confused unison, and the minions of the pathetic media industry could only curl into a ball and complain as their bought and paid-for congresscritters shut that the hell down (for now).  But see?  They were weak all along.  They are nothing--all we have to do is stand up, and bring our friends around to our simple point of view.

I hope you will join me and tell me if I'm right--or wrong.


*Geeks: yes, I know, it's not just files, per se, but you know what I mean.  Stop being so literal.  It annoys people.