The public domain is set to expand once again

Smithsonian magazine reports on an unfortunately unusual occurrence set to happen this coming New Year’s Day.  For the first time since 1998, the copyright on many works is expiring, thus adding to the public domain.

My reaction to this: About. Damn. Time.

Disney has led the copyright lobby and could be said to have literally turned copyright into a Mickey Mouse operation (Steamboat Willie, the first appearance of Mickey,  is not set to enter the public domain for another five years). These works should have hit the public domain long ago, and the stroke of midnight signaling the beginning of 2019 can’t come soon enough to actually make this official.

If you want a real eye-opener, start with the Statute of Anne and follow copyright law through to the present day. The original term of copyright was 28 years–the latter 14 of which returned to the author no matter what. Given the rapid obsolescence of modern electronic media, I have to wonder just how much sense the current term of decades after the life of the author makes in the present day. (The public domain becomes moot when the original physical media from a century ago has long since become unreadable and obsolete. Okay, so the copyright restrictions on that VHS tape have finally expired in 2080, now it’s unplayable and the supply of VHS VCRs worldwide is down to maybe a couple of hundred, so what the hell are you going to do with it? We’ve already seen this problem with the nitrate film stock used for early silent movies.)

For quite a few more years we will start seeing works enter the public domain every January 1. Indeed, it will actually be a happy new year every year for some time, though we need to stay vigilant and keep Disney (and the other large media companies that form the copyright lobbby) from ruining it.

Taking chess into the courtroom: an out-of-bounds assertion of copyright on chess moves

This is a bit old, but the topic once again came up in conversation when I was chatting on FICS (freechess.org).

According to this chess24.com blog post/press release, a US Federal judge denied monetary damages and a temporary restraining order sought by Agon (World Chess US, Inc. and World Chess Events Ltd.) against three different companies which run chess websites, including obviously the aforementioned chess24.com (the other two sites, it appears, are chessbomb.com and chessgames.com). Essentially Agon claimed copyright over the actual moves of a chess game and thus the ability to control their broadcast. The ruling establishes once and for all that the moves of a chess game cannot be copyrighted; however, the commentary and analysis of a chess game can still be copyrighted as before.

The judge got this one right in throwing out the lawsuit and restraining order. Apparently, common sense was lacking at Agon, something I would hope has been rectified going forward. The current knowledge base of chess, backgammon, checkers, and other board games comes from the moves of all games played before under the same ruleset. (The rules of chess have changed over the centuries, with the most recent rule change regarding the actual play coming sometime in the 19th century, that being the elimination of a requirement that pawn promotions be to a piece already captured, e.g. allowing a second queen or third knight, rook, or bishop. See Wikipedia for more details.)

The article quotes an email from Yasser Seirawan, which I think says a lot about just how absurd Agon’s position was:

Chess event organizers have a monopoly on absolutely clear uncontestable copyrightable materials: They have all photography rights; all webcam rights (of the players in action over the board); all audio rights to their own online show; they have all post-game interview rights; including still photography, video and audio; press conference rights; they have all promotional rights that feature the players; they have merchandizing rights to the players’ images and likenesses; as well as other numerous rights.

[…]

[P]ossessing all these rights, what do they decide to do with their time and money? It really is crazy: They spend large sums to go after the one single right they do not have: Copyright of chess moves for a very, very small period of time. Why do they do this? To prevent others from promoting their event? It really is a self-inflicted injury that is plainly stupid. The chess moves of a chess game have been held to be in public domain for decades, even centuries. The recording of a chess move made is held to be a “fact.”

[…]

Today’s organizers accept that chess game notation falls into public domain but now they make a new argument: They have the copyrights to the chess moves during an event (only) and that immediately after the game is finished (not the event which is days and weeks long), only then do the moves of the games played fall into “public domain.” It is a staggering argument to make. In my view, it is just plain rubbish. How to argue that “ownership” is granted for hours or possibly even minutes? At which government agency should organizers “register” such “fleeting” ownership claims?

Indeed, the idea that one can claim only copyright over the live broadcast of an event is absurd. To be fair, the live broadcast rights to NFL football games are probably its most lucrative property, and the NFL (and AT&T, the owners of DirecTV) would much rather you buy the NFL Sunday Ticket package for you to follow an out of market team than set up a bootleg live feed from your friends in whatever city. (Actually, the NFL and AT&T would be just as happy if you went to a local sports bar that paid the commercial rate for NFL Sunday Ticket, but that’s another story…)

There is really no such income stream from the live broadcast of a chess game, match, or tournament. I hate to admit it, but chess is incredibly slow-moving (most of the time) compared to football, basketball, ice hockey, baseball, MMA, boxing, and auto racing. For that matter, the pace of the game moves slower than even golf, which is hardly the biggest draw on television these days, though it still gets plenty of TV time. Even blitz chess is probably too highbrow for the large audiences that watch sports like football and basketball. Thankfully, for now, we have the Internet for the things too narrowly focused for the 500 channels of cable TV we were promised with the “information superhighway.”

The chess24.com article ends with the following quote:

This year chess24 has now “won” legal battles in both Moscow and New York, but the only real winners in such situations are lawyers. The cases have eaten up a huge amount of time and money that could instead have been devoted to chess, while also damaging the most valuable commodity chess possesses – its positive image.

Attorneys (lawyers) do perform a valuable service for society. To say the least, I would probably not be here to write this blog post were it not for the services of attorneys over the years. I know a lot of people love to make jokes about lawyers and they are probably one of the least-respected professions in existence. It is easy to overlook the good that the good lawyers do, including those who take cases at no cost to the represented (“pro bono”, which literally means “for good” in Latin, referring to the greater good).

The attorneys defending the companies behind these three websites, and in a broader sense, the legal rights of the chess community to discuss and share the moves of high-level games in real time, did not work “pro bono”. Those companies had to pay the attorneys quite a bit of money–and that is money that could, and should, have been used for promoting the game of chess instead. I’m not sure who is responsible for contracting with Agon to be the promoter of chess events, whether it’s someone at FIDE or elsewhere, but this role should be rethought. I would like to see it required, as a condition of organizing future events, that Agon either repay the legal fees of the companies and individuals they sued, or donate an equivalent amount of its profits, adjusted for time value, to national chess federations and/or non-profit online chess-related websites/communities. Nowhere does chess24.com make their legal bill totals public that I can see, but I can imagine the total going into six figures easily, if not surpassing the million-dollar (US) mark.

If Agon is unwilling to do this, then they need to be replaced with promoters who actually give a tinker’s damn about the right thing to do. If we do not hold Agon accountable for trampling on our rights as chess fans and players, then they are free to do it again and again at their leisure, which is completely unacceptable.

Some things just don’t belong in an operating system; this is one of them

What the hell were they under the influence of when they came up with this crazy idea? Am I in the Twilight Zone?

This article on TorrentFreak discusses a report published by the organizations Black Market Watch and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, about ending online copyright infringement in Sweden. The report itself is in what would appear to be Swedish (guessing since it’s about Sweden, though I can only say for sure it’s not in English). What they suggest honestly reeks of George Orwell’s dystopian future: have copyright infringing content blocked at the operating system level.

There are so many problems with this suggestion, so I’m only going to address the most obvious one I see. With copyright comes something called fair use, known outside the US as fair dealing but which is essentially the same concept. Basically, fair use means there are some purposes for which it is allowed to use copyrighted material without having to get the permission of the copyright holder. I am not sure how something in the operating system is going to be able to tell the difference between unlawful infringement and fair use. My guess is that it probably won’t, and will interfere with perfectly legal uses of copyrighted material.

Another big issue has to do with the very basic foundations of computing, and what makes computers and related technology so useful. I have been using computers since elementary school, back when the requirement in Texas for computer literacy class was one semester in middle school. (Now, the requirement is not for a separate class, but that all classes at all grade levels incorporate some form of what is now called technological literacy. This is completely different and shows the difference between technology in the late 1980s versus technology in the mid-2010s; it is quite a stark contrast.)

What made computers so useful then, is that the computer did exactly what one told it to. For the most part, this is still the case, though in more recent times there have been attempts of varying success in eroding this. Examples include things like scanners or copiers refusing to make copies of currency or other documents which pattern-match a list of prohibited items. Sometimes the restriction is on the software running on the computer versus the actual scanner firmware (in the case of scanners), so it’s easy to work around if desired. I haven’t checked lately but it is possible newer scanners may have the restriction in the scanner itself, which to me would fit right in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Another case is DVD copy protection, which is also relatively easy to circumvent. The major obstacle here is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which makes it a crime to do so, albeit one which is rarely if ever enforced against someone who just wants to watch a DVD on a PC running GNU/Linux without having to spend more money on a properly “blessed” DVD player or non-free DVD playing software. Most of the same applies to Blu-Ray (and HD DVD) copy protection, though it’s a bit more robust given that it came out after the US government relaxed regulations on cryptography export (in 1996, when the first DVD players hit the market, it was difficult if not impossible to export any encryption systems which used keys longer than 40 bits, which even at the time was laughably small).

There’s also an edge case which may seem far-fetched, but may well become real and a very real problem: what if someone’s original work gets mis-detected as copyright infringing by this system, due to a hash collision or something similar? It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem, given stories like the one about Fox appropriating a clip of someone playing the original Nintendo Entertainment System version of Double Dribble. Fox used the clip in Family Guy, then had the original taken off of YouTube due to a copyright infringement claim, possibly through automated means. Now, what if the clip in question is, say, an original computer animation, and an automated system which is part of the computer’s operating system decides to block it (or even outright erase it) based on a similar content matching system after a TV network uses it? If it were my work, I’d be pretty damn pissed off. Wouldn’t you? Worse, that same operating system module could decide to erase it from my backups if I were to try to restore it.

No. Just plain no. We, the computing public, have a right to have computers free from such an absolutely insane and idiotic system. I acknowledge that copyright as it exists today has deviated far from its original purpose, and may even be considered broken, but this is no way to fix it. In fact, this breaks it even more.

The Predator pinball disaster

This is the first post related to pinball that I’ve made to this blog. Given what I usually post here, I’m kind of hoping it’s the last.

Pinball News, among others, broke the story of a company called Skit-B Pinball and their flagship title, Predator, based on the movie of the same name. Skit-B has been developing this game since 2011 July. I, personally, didn’t know about it until sometime in 2014, just because I wasn’t following the pinball scene. I didn’t even know there was much of a pinball scene to follow anymore; I knew Stern Pinball was somehow still in business, even after Premier Technologies (the last company to make games under the Gottlieb brand name) bit the dust, and later WMS Industries (owners of the Williams and Bally pinball labels as well as the Midway and Atari Games video game labels) exited the pinball business after releasing a grand total of two titles on the much-heralded Pinball 2000 platform. This was back in the late 1990s, and I had just happened to be on a pinball-related IRC channel when news broke of WMS leaving the industry.

Anyhow, so it was with great interest that I began following the companies trying to keep pinball alive, one of them being Skit-B of course. I had expected, any day now, to read news that this great game was going to ship. And then the above story broke, and it’s obvious now that the game in its present form is unlikely to be made commercially available at all. I’m going to keep the quotes to a working minimum, because the story is very long and convoluted.

The important crux of the story is that Kevin Kulek, one of the founders of Skit-B, did something incredibly foolish: instead of approaching Twentieth Century Fox Licensing (hereinafter Fox for brevity) and getting the proper licensing in place, he decided he would just make the games unlicensed, in a low quantity, before Fox and their lawyers found out. That’s sort of like taking a trip of some distance in a car with no license plates, and hoping nobody notices. Even if a cop doesn’t notice, someone will probably call it in.

It turns out Fox found out about it. At first nothing nasty happens, but sometime in 2013 they got their first cease and desist letter from Fox’s attorneys. As the story says:

it now appears Fox had sent Skit-B a ‘cease & desist’ notification, requiring them to remove all Predator-related materials and stop promoting or producing the game.

This was the defining moment where whatever notion of implied consent Skit-B may have thought they had was shattered. If they ever thought they had an agreement, this cease & desist proved they did not. And without an agreement from the [copyright] holder, the game could never go into production.

This was in mid-2013. As the story rolls on, things start happening, like a group of potential Predator buyers approaching Pinball News. By the time someone representing the buyers write this anonymous letter to Pinball News, Skit-B had already announced a second game, Experts of Dangerous featuring the likenesses of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (of the TV show Mythbusters). The buyers became suspicious, and many had paid deposits already; they requested refunds as they suspected Mr. Kulek and Skit-B had no license to make the game. This hunch would be confirmed a short time later.

The anonymous contact would make Pinball News privy to a phone call in 2015 January between himself and the senior copyright lawyer at Fox Entertainment Group. That lawyer said not only was no license in place between Fox and Skit-B, but that Mr. Kulek had been told several times to stop work on the game and that Fox was “looking to escalate matters” regarding the game, which could only refer to a lawsuit of some type (certainly injunctive relief, and quite possibly monetary damages as well).

It’s disappointing to read the story of the demise of what could have been a great pinball game, which appeared to be made in the style of the classic Williams/Bally dot matrix games of the 1990s to boot. I would hope Fox comes around, and Skit-B passes the work they have done to a reputable pinball manufacturer who can secure the licensing and finish the project. I’m not holding my breath, though, as it is entirely possible this episode has made the pinball community look like a bunch of lawbreakers, and we may not see a Fox movie licensed as a pinball theme for many years now. It’s quite likely Fox will at least refuse to license Predator for any pinball, whether the one that Skit-B started or a brand new one. I hope they don’t do this. The law-abiding pinball players and hobbyists, such as myself, don’t deserve to suffer for one rogue manufacturer’s First Class Foul-Up.

Moral of the story: when planning a licensed work, get the licenses first. Don’t expect the copyright holders to grant licenses later.

The slippery slope of censorship: the copyright lobby and child porn

The title of the MAFIAAFire forum post “The Copyright Lobby Absolutely Loves Child Pornography” is intentionally controversial and eye-grabbing, but when you look at the actual content of the post all of a sudden the politics and chess game of censorship as played by the copyright lobby makes all kinds of sense.

From the article, quoting Johan Schlüter, head of the Danish Anti-Piracy Group (Antipiratgruppen) from 2007 May 27:

Politicians do not understand file sharing, but they understand child pornography, and they want to filter that to score points with the public. Once we get them to filter child pornography, we can get them to extend the block to file sharing.

And later in the article (this time, quoting the original poster in the present day):

The reasoning is simple and straightforward. Once you have established that someone who is in a position to censor other people’s communication has a responsibility to do so, the floodgates open and those middlemen can be politically charged with filtering anything that somebody objects to being distributed.

This is a perfect example of the “slippery slope” problem. With apologies to Procter and Gamble, a slightly modified version of the old Pringles slogan applies here: Once they drop (censor something), they can’t stop.

I detest child pornography as much as any other law-abiding citizen. However, a far worse problem than child porn is censorship of otherwise legitimate speech because of suspected copyright infringement. In the past, the NFL has censored obvious fair use of football telecasts (the only example I know of), mainly because YouTube made it so easy and few people bothered to contest the DMCA notices. I can only imagine what it will be like to try to use the net when someone suspects something is child pornography, when it clearly is not, and the request just gets intercepted. This is further complicated by the fact that even “virtual” child pornography has been outlawed.

The ends do not justify the means. We need to stop blatant censorship dead in its tracks now, or we will certainly regret the end result and wish we had acted sooner in a few years. I support in principle the work of the German group Mogis (), which is against the censorship of the Internet.

I concur with one of the conclusions of this post:

The conclusion is as unpleasant as it is inevitable. The copyright industry lobby is actively trying to hide egregious crimes against children, obviously not because they care about the children, but because the resulting censorship mechanism can be a benefit to their business if they manage to broaden the censorship in the next stage. All this in defense of their lucrative monopoly that starves the public of culture.

If you are disgusted after reading this, you’re not alone. I think the copyright lobby has honestly reached a new low. I hope you, my readers, can see through this pathetic ruse; if you can avoid purchasing the products of the copyright lobby, please do so. I realize some people just can’t, and that’s fine. But the only way we will be able to speak the language of the large corporations is by hitting them in the pocketbook.

Update 2011-12-05: The above-linked post may bring up a “403 Forbidden” server error due to a misconfiguration on the destination server. If this happens, please copy and paste the link target into a new tab and it should load.