The musicians’ revolt

I know this is way old, but I’m running out of things I feel like writing about and I need to start clearing off some of these drafts.

In early October, Techdirt reported on musicians lining up to take back their copyright from the record companies, in the wake of Jack Kirby’s heirs invoking the same termination provisions in the Copyright Act against the comic book companies, and a similar attempt by the heirs of Jerry Siegel, Superman’s creator which ended in a very bizarre fashion. If you think it’s absurd the idea Superman can fly is restricted by part of the copyright, you’re not the only one.

Anyway, in 2013 musical works become eligible for the same type of copyright termination. Granted, this is still a good three years away. The RIAA of course has not taken this lying down, trying to get musical works classified as “works for hire” which is, to put it bluntly, absurd. If you go back to, say, 1979, there was no Internet, no Web, no personal computers as we know them today (the “personal computers” of 1979 were much closer to “fancy calculators” and in fact, their primary uses were bare-bones word processing, simple spreadsheets/budget applications, and rather primitive games), no Magnatune, no Myspace, no Facebook, no Ogg Vorbis or MP3. All copying was analog. Usually, local bands got their exposure from local shows, and were at the mercy of the A&R (artist & repertoire) people for exposure beyond that. In essence, there was no way around the record companies.

As the decades went on all that changed, 1989 saw the CD and the beginnings of digital recording on a home computer. By 1999 the Internet was in full bloom and record company CEOs were freaking out about the Diamond Rio, the first digital music player, to the point of launching a failed lawsuit to try and squash it. Already there was concern about CD “ripping” as the original CD format had only nominal copy restriction capability, which the CD drives on computers (“multifunction devices”) were not even bound to honor.

And here we are in 2010. Digital distribution is no longer the exception; it’s still relatively commonplace for local artists to sell CDs at shows, but some people are starting to see physical media as antiquated. But the artists have options: Magnatune, CD Baby, etc. It’s no longer a game controlled strictly by the record companies and they are feeling the pinch. They blame unauthorized copying (which they refer to using the loaded word “piracy”) when in reality they expect $20 for a CD that’s often an inferior product to a local artist’s $10 to $15 CD. Gee, I wonder why some people prefer to just go download it off of a peer-to-peer network instead of shell out $20, when the warm fuzzy feeling of being “legal” or “honest” is that expensive.

For every Napster or Bearshare, there’s a Pirate Bay or similar site. I do believe one has a responsibility to financially support those who make it possible for one to enjoy music. However, the viability of doing so by buying “legitimate” copies of CDs from RIAA-member labels is highly dubious at best. Beyond a certain level, even concerts become an activity which financially exploits artists (which I have already gone into in detail here several times).

It’s high time for those who actually make the music to get their fair share. I feel once the artists own the copyrights to their music, we’ll start seeing CD (or equivalent download) prices drop back to a much more reasonable level.

Who does the MPAA think they are, really?

Okay, I’m finally catching up. This should be one of the last “old news” posts for a while. I may have one or two more and then the focus will return to more current items.

As blogged on Lockergnome and BoingBoing, the MPAA has disgracefully acted to shut down an entire city’s public Wi-Fi network due to one user downloading a copyrighted movie. The latter article references the Coshocton Tribune’s original story.

The town of Coshocton, OH, maintained an open public Wi-Fi connection hosted at the courthouse at 318 Main Street. (As you can see from the map, the Tribune’s offices aren’t far from it.) Sometime during the days prior to 2009 November 09, when this story was printed, a complaint came in from Sony Pictures Entertainment to the county’s ISP, OneCommunity, which in turn notified the county.

So now, there is no free Wi-Fi by the courthouse, at least for the moment. The county is looking at installing a filtering program in an attempt to squash those who want to use government resources to get their illicit movie fix, but that does not come cheaply: $2,000 for equipment, then $900 annually for the filtering software license.

The BoingBoing article has choice words for the MPAA, which I am a bit inclined to agree with. They refer to “the MPAA’s spokeslizard” who is identified as Elizabeth Kaltman in the Tribune’s article, who not surprisingly uses the loaded term “piracy” to refer to copyright infringement.

It would be much more reasonable to expect respect for the MPAA’s copyrights if its member studios charged reasonable prices for its movies. When DVD displaced VHS, not only did the studios pocket the lowered expense in producing the former versus the latter, but often upped the price. $20 or more for a DVD movie is still not unheard of; note that the titles that cost $5 to $10 at a discount store are rarely the same ones that one would ever find on a BitTorrent tracker or similar peer-to-peer network. (The RIAA did something similar during the transition from vinyl records and cassette tapes to CDs, charging more for the same music even though production costs went down.)

There is plenty of money to be had by charging a reasonable ($15 maximum, $12 average) price for a DVD. Yet Hollywood (the MPAA) sees nothing but dollar signs, even during the recession, and keeps the price tag arbitrarily high. And then, they wonder why more people get it from BitTorrent or Limewire than Amazon, Wal-Mart, or Target.

If the MPAA’s member organizations don’t like the return on investment they get when setting a reasonable price, maybe they should consider producing higher quality product (movies). Jacking the price up is a no-win for everyone.

Shining light on abuse of copyright for censorship

ReadWriteWeb recently reported on the EFF’s launching of its Takedown Hall of Shame. One of the most notable parts of this site-within-a-site is that there is a specific guide to YouTube video removals. (Aside: yes, I noticed the EFF is yet another organziation that insists upon using the loaded term “intellectual property” and maybe they are unaware of why it is so bad).

It’s sad that we even need something like this. Copyright is not inherently evil; as originally implemented, the Statute of Anne accomplished a quite noble goal when originally passed back in 1710. However, somehow, someway, we as a society (and it’s not just the US anymore, but most of the world) have gone from a reasonable, single 14-year term to what is a nominally limited term that in reality, may as well be perpetuity (70 years from the author’s death, 95 years from publication, 120 years from creation).

In addition, the entire concept of fair use has gone out the window. I wrote a bit about the NFL’s heavy-handed abuse of copyright back on 2009 January 15. (It’s been almost ten months, long enough for the next NFL season to have started, and nobody ever sent me a URL of a video of this play that is still online.) This is a clear example of fair use, about as clear as they get. And yet, YouTube yanks it because the NFL says “that’s copyrighted.”

I could go on and on. It’s time we move to restore copyright to some modicum of sanity: fourteen years, plus a fourteen year renewal, and then public domain. We also need more exceptions to allow for the preservation of works that would otherwise just disappear due to decay of the media onto which they are recorded.

Otherwise, we have something intended to encourage innovation, but which in fact discourages and destroy it. We don’t need that, and it’s time to wake up and realize that’s where we are headed. Don’t believe me? Patents are already being abused this way against computer software.

France tries another “three strikes” copyright law

Ars Technica reports on France’s reworking of the “three strikes” copyright law. The difference between this version of the law and the previous one (which did not pass constitutional muster) is that the decisions on sanctions after the third offense is now the responsibility of the courts instead of HADOPI (the copyright authority) itself.

Of particular note is this parenthetical quote from the article:

A group of French hackers has already begun to work on software that cracks the passwords on locked WiFi networks so that there’s an element of plausible deniability when law enforcement tries to go after home network owners.

Also of note is a recent post from La Quadrature du Net on the subject. The post is in French, but from what I can gather reading an automatic translation, appears to harshly criticize the law for “reducing the courts to simply rubber stamp.” (Original text: “rèduisant les tribunaux á de simples chambres d’enregistrement.”)

A translation of the title of the law to English is also a bit disturbing: “Bill on the criminal protection of literary and artistic property on the internet.” This is phrasing to be avoided for similar reasons to those that the FSF cites in recommending against the use of “intellectual property.”

I sympathize with those in France who are quite possibly stuck with this fascist system. I know in the US, this kind of thing simply wouldn’t fly.

An absolutely, positively, idiotic abuse of copyright

Just when you think you’ve seen every copyright-related stupidity in the book, here comes another. A Real Doozie, if I’ve ever seen one.

Judge Richard Posner has proposed a radical idea to expand copyright law yet again, to bar linking to copyrighted newspaper stories. The idea is to keep the cash cows mooing for large, commercial news-gathering operations like Reuters, AP, UPI, etc.

Dan Kennedy of the Guardian also wrote an excellent piece about this proposal, and I share Dan’s gratitude that the judge expressed his opinion on copyright from somewhere besides the bench.

Yeah, this idea of Posner’s is one triply radical idea–radically dubious, radically short-sighted, and radically heavy-handed. If something must be done to prop up the declining “old school” news agencies, expanding copyright in such an arbitrary fashion is definitely not the way to do it.

Without linking, the World Wide Web isn’t much of a web anymore. If there was a time to say linking should fall under copyright restrictions–and that’s a mighty big if–that time was somewhere from 1987 up to about 1992, when hypertext either had yet to find its way on the Internet or had been there maybe a year or two.

To make such a huge change now is a mistake. Restricting linking under the guise of copyright makes as much sense as short-sighted as the DAT and audio CD-R taxes the RIAA fought for and got. Which is to say, none at all.

Judge Posner suggests economics are the driving force behind the falling readership of newspapers in print:

News, as well the other information found in newspapers, is available online for nothing, including at the websites of the newspapers themselves, who thus are giving away content. The fact that online viewing is rising as print circulation is falling indicates a shift of consumers from the paid to the free medium. The economic downturn has doubtless accelerated the trend, but economic recovery is unlikely to reverse it. To repeat my earlier point, many of the people who have switched under economic pressure to the free medium may find themselves as happy or happier and hence will not switch back when their financial condition improves.

Not surprisingly, I vehemently disagree. Economics aside, three things are notable about printed newspapers:

  • Newspaper can be clumsy and messy in certain situations;
  • Newspaper and ink have gotten much more expensive over the last two decades;
  • Guessing demand is a huge problem; a waste problem if too many copies are printed on a given day, a disgruntled reader problem if too few are printed.

The rising costs of both killed the Houston Post in the pre-Internet era (the remaining Houston newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, bought the Post’s assets including the archives).

In 1995 when the Post failed, both Houston papers and USA Today were selling for US$0.50 per copy during the week. Today, both the Chronicle and USA Today in paper form sell for twice that (US$1.00). The Chronicle has almost doubled its Sunday paper price from US$1.00 to US$1.75 over about the same time frame.

I believe the days of news stories being printed on paper to be numbered and quickly drawing to an end. Ten years from now, I doubt even alternative weekly newspapers like the Houston Press will be distributed in print.

A.J. Liebling’s famous quote “Freedom of the press is limited to those that own one” has taken on a whole new meaning in the nearly half a century after his death in 1963. Today, anyone can get started with a Web site for a very small amount of money, sometimes as little as US$0.25 (on, where incidentally this blog is currently hosted). If one finds themselves without two quarters to rub together after smashing the piggybank, one can even set up a blog on sites like for free and move it to a Web host of one’s choosing later.

I envision the future “newspaper” being available either exclusively on the Web, perhaps being funded on a sliding-scale subscription basis or even the honor system. The reporters of the future? They may be paid by the story out of subscription funds. Or, for smaller sites, they may be amateurs who maintain or contribute to a news site primarily as a hobby.

This could well be anathema to Posner, who observes earlier in his post:

Moreover, while in many industries a reduction in output need not entail any reduction in the quality of the product, in newspaper it does entail a reduction in quality. Most of the costs of a newspaper are fixed costs, that is, costs invariant to output–for they are journalists’ salaries.

I believe salaried journalists will likely be a distant memory in about a decade as well. Most copywriters are paid by the story, sometimes based on length.

Now, the actual word “newspaper”? I’m pretty sure in some form, it will stick around. People refer to “taping” or “filming” something, in the era where it’s more likely a digital video camera is recording onto DVD, hard disk, or flash-memory-based media (e.g. SD or CompactFlash). Even today, WordPress or Drupal themes often make reference to a “newspaper” layout. It’ll be a couple of decades before we have to tell the kids what newspapers were and how they got their name.

We no longer live in an era where one must buy a printing press to get one’s word out. This is the digital age, and the Web server now sits in the same throne that printing press once occupied as king.