ASCAP vs. Mobile Phone Users – The money song

It’s a bit out of character for me to take AT&T’s side anywhere. Yet when the
EFF reported on ASCAP’s lawsuit
against the telecom behemoth, this is exactly what I wound up doing.

This is the same ASCAP that tried to extort the Girl Scouts for singing
songs around campfires. Some of you may be less familiar with that story so I’ll post an excerpt of the Web site linked above:

After reportedly opening its negotiations with the American Camping Association with an offer of $1,200 per season per camp, ASCAP eventually settled on an average annual fee of $257. But once ASCAP’s plan went public, and people learned that the Girl Scouts were among the 288 camps being dunned, the group beat a hasty and embarrassed retreat.

This story does not mention the number of camps that would have had to pay this amount. Still, $257 times hundreds or thousands of camps across the US adds up to a huge chunk of change for someone.

Fred von Lehmann, who is credited for writing the EFF’s blog post, takes a no-nonsense approach towards blasting ASCAP for the lawsuit, citing a lesser-known part of the copyright act, 17 USC 110(4), and continuing with an excellent explanation of why ASCAP’s arguments are completely out of tune.

I can understand representing the interests of the composers, who have expenses just like the rest of us. However, there is a line between fair compensation and greed. ASCAP’s proposal crosses way over the line.

A lot of this could be avoided if copyright restrictions were capped to a sensible length of time. The original 28 years of US copyright law is much more reasonable than today’ length which is effectively forever (life of the author plus 75 years, and that’s if it doesn’t get extended yet again, which is always possible given the history of copyright law). Had we stuck with 28-year copyright, here’s a small sampling of what would be public domain today:

  • Any surviving recordings of sporting events held during or before 1980, including Super Bowls I through XIV and the World Series staged in those years
  • Any recordings of the Olympic games up to and including the XXII Summer Olympiad and XIII Winter Olympiad (both in 1980, held in Moscow and Lake Placid, respectively), which would include the original game tape of the 1980 Miracle on Ice
  • Every movie copyrighted in 1980 or earlier, including: Rollerball, The Godfather trilogy, the first two Star Wars movies (episodes IV and V), American Graffiti, and any film which predates these (a very long list indeed)

Of course, the list goes on and on far beyond what I could hope to include here. While I don’t realistically see us going back to 28-year copyrights, I do think the pendulum has swung way too far towards “copyright it now, it’s yours forever” and ASCAP’s greedy grab is only a symptom of the disease.

The plight of Numerama and the future of copyright

Torrentfreak reports on a story involving the French P2P news site Numerama and the French courts. The courts have ordered Numerama to publish extracts of convictions of 27 copyright violators.

Although the court is compensating Numerama to the tune of €10,000 (about US$14,000), it is not surprising that Numerana is a bit worried about taking money from the pro-copyright lobby, even if it is indirectly. Some creative uses for the money have been proposed, and they run the gamut from buying servers for a file-sharing network to a donation to the (unfortunately named) Swedish Pirate Party.

This order comes even though Numerama is not involved in any of the cases. Such appears to be the quirkiness of French law. I question the wisdom of the move, and would still question it even if I believed the draconian copyright enforcement we face today is justified (which I don’t). For one, Numerama’s readers will probably see these people as martyrs or even heroes. With this in mind it is not clear at all just what the copyright holders, through their trade organizations, intend to accomplish.

We live in an age where the previous scarcity of recorded media no longer exists because of the advance of technology. Records, tapes, even CDs in the early years cost what they did because it was expensive and difficult to make copies. Now, all one has to do to make a copy is frequently no more than dragging icons from one window to another, or even typing in a command like cp -a music /media/travel5. That’s still a lot easier and faster than hooking up a tape deck to a record player ever was.

What has been the response of trade organizations like the MPAA and RIAA? Higher prices, and vicious attempts to restrict the freedom of the users. Everything is bits, and bits can be copied over and over again with no loss of quality; rather than embrace this, the companies which make up the MPAA and RIAA have tried to layer scarcity on top of it via Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). This is doomed to failure (already, the RIAA has admitted this by allowing Apple and Amazon to sell MP3 files without DRM).

Let’s define what copying, recording, and playback are, fundamentally (this is really as simple as it gets):

  • Copying is reading bits from a storage device (CD, DVD, hard drive, SD card) and writing the same bits again to another storage device.
  • Recording is reading bits from an input device (camera or microphone) and writing those bits to a storage device.
  • Playback is reading bits from a storage device and writing those same bits to an output device (video monitor or speakers).

All three are fundamentally the same operation. The only differences are where the bits come from and where they go.

The RIAA (and similar music/audio recording trade organizations) may finally be realizing this; when will the MPAA and television producers follow suit?

Who really owns purchased media files with DRM?

While I do realize this is a little old, it’s a topic that’s also not likely to go away any time soon. Earlier this month both Electronista and BoingBoing reported on the remote disabling of text-to-speech for Amazon Kindle e-books. The Authors Guild is claiming that text-to-speech is an unauthorized audiobook performance and is thus subject to this particular facet of copyright restriction.

But, in particular, the Electronista article linked above mentions some interesting questions asked of Amazon. I quote part of the article here:

I’m specifically interested because Amazon has announced a “DRM-free” version of the Kindle format and I’d love to sell my books on the platform if it’s really DRM-free. To that end, I’ve put three questions to Amazon:

1. Is there anything in the Kindle EULA that prohibits moving your purchased DRM-free Kindle files to a competing device?

2. Is there anything in the Kindle file-format (such as a patent or trade-secret) that would make it illegal to produce a Kindle format-reader or converter for a competing device?

3. What flags are in the DRM-free Kindle format, and can a DRM-free Kindle file have its features revoked after you purchase it?

An honest company would answer “no” to the first two and the second part of the third. I really would like to trust Amazon here. However, this is the same Amazon that has arbitrarily locked accounts for “excessive” returns, while intentionally not defining “excessive.” Another Electronista article tells the woes of someone who just wanted products that worked. Not entirely unreasonable for a consumer to want, in my opinion.

I am still awaiting an e-book reader that does not support DRM at all, only unencumbered formats like PDF and DejaVu. This is a product I would not mind buying. The music industry learned DRM doesn’t work, the TV and movie industry is assumably not far behind. Why do book authors insist upon trying to hang onto it?

Apple’s sneaky iTunes personal information leak

As (re-)discovered in a recent TechBlog article, Apple is embedding personal information in downloads from its iTunes music store. Assumably this is a way to help catch the “low-hanging fruit” of those who partake in unauthorized copying. Casting aside the ethical issues, this is rather horribly misguided if that’s Apple’s reason.

Consider the following situation: Alice hosts a party where several guests, Bob, Charlie, and a few other close friends of hers are in attendance. Mallory crashes the party (or, even attends as a friend of one of the other guests, it’s really kind of immaterial) and snarfs some of the music files from Alice’s collection, with Alice’s name and e-mail address in them. They wind up on a Web server with a Tor hidden service address, run by Mallory the next morning.

Now, nobody downloading these files will know anything about Mallory. Well, obviously they’ll know some Tor user put these up on a hidden service. But all they will see in the files is Alice’s e-mail address, and probably assume she’s the one who has shared the files.

This can happen any number of ways: stolen storage media strikes me as one of the more likely ones (in fact, Mallory may well have sticky fingers when it comes to USB flash drives in the above example). But I think it’s a great reason why this kind of information should not be in downloaded media files.

Not to mention Dwight does a great job of showing how easy this is to circumvent (converting to MP3). I would not even be surprised if there’s a way to configure a decoder to write the exact same encoded audio sans most of the tags.

Copyright, fair use, and officiating in professional sports

This was originally about an article about an NFL officiating blunder on I had the link saved as a draft with the idea of wrapping up the article as soon as I could watch the video.

However, today, I went to watch the video. I instead got a black screen with “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim from NFL Properties, LLC.”

Clearly, the use of a short video clip of part of an NFL game to illustrate a point is fair use, at least in spirit if not actually in letter. My comment (still pending approval at the moment) left on implies that the real reason the NFL told YouTube to take it down was the fact that it made their officials look bad, and the number of other NFL clips that have been allowed to remain on YouTube tends to back that up. Shame on you, NFL.

I still haven’t gotten a chance to actually see the video that the article is about. If anyone has a copy, please let me know in the comments. I do look forward to writing the article I originally planned to write.