A strike against the “music industry”

A recent osnews.com story chronicles Google’s troubles with its music store project. From the article:

Sadly, however, rumour has it the negotiations with the music industry have been so frustrating, Google is contemplating abandoning the entire project altogether. This has led some to wonder – why doesn’t Google, or a consortium of technology companies, just buy the music industry outright?

The talks with the music industry to set all this up have apparently been so frustrating for Google that they are now contemplating shutting the entire thing down. Wayne Rosso, who once ran Grokster, claims that sources familiar with the matter stated that Google is “disgusted” with the music labels, and is considering options ranging from just following Amazon’s lead and not seek the labels’ consent, to just shelving the entire project.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I’m not Google’s biggest fan. I’ll admit they have done some good, but they’ve also done their share of things that are at least dubious if not outright evil. A music store project of the sort Google is planning, however, definitely falls in the former category, and it’s a shame that the music cartel is stonewalling it. A sticking point of the negotiations is that Google wants the service to be free of charge for the first 500 tracks; the music cartel (Warner Music Group in particular) wants a $30 per year fee.

I’m not sure what the “music industry” (who I well henceforth refer to as the music cartel) is trying to prove by stonewalling Google; it only makes them look like the fools they are. Today, artists can sign up with Bandcamp, Magnatune, CD Baby, among others. Dozens of companies exist to press “short runs” of CDs, or the artist can burn copies to CD-R. The music cartel we grew up with, where artists relied on record companies to get copies of their music in the hands of the public, has changed radically in the Internet era. In fact, physical copies are now closer to becoming the exception rather than the rule. (In a way I’m not a fan of this, as I prefer a physical CD to a digital download in most cases, but that’s another rant for another day.)

Remeber, the same music cartel that charges $20 for a CD, and gives the artist that actually made the music around $1 on it, is the same music cartel trying to stonewall Google’s music store. I’m not surprised. It took the music cartel (specifically the RIAA) most of a decade to figure out that suing their customers for alleged copyright infringement was a lousy business plan. That hasn’t stopped them from trying the same shenanigans in other countries; France has a draconian “three strikes” law (the HADOPI law) with regards to unauthorized copying (though it’s possible this is more the MPAA’s doing).

Google appears to be following Amazon’s lead, which is to offer the service first, then clear up any legal problems later. It’s hard to blame them; Google epitomizes “filthy rich corporation” at this point in time. But it’s also just a bit frightening to me that Google can do this. It’s as if we have The Rules The Rest Of Us Must Play By on on side, and The Rules Google Gets To Play By on the other. Could any of you out there just open your wallet if you were facing a lawsuit by the RIAA?

The story of OpenTable versus the restaurants

A recent post to Incanto’s website answers the question often asked of the San Francisco eatery “Why are you not on OpenTable.com?” For those of you that don’t know OpenTable is a restaurant reservation service. The case against Incanto accepting OpenTable is, in summary, that OpenTable takes too much away from the bottom line and also shifts customer loyalty away from the individual restaurant, replacing it with customer loyalty to OpenTable.

Put another way, the real cost of OpenTable goes beyond just the monthly fee and the per-reservation fee. The cost is also the ownership of  the customer relationship, which no longer belongs to the individual restaurant. At first glance one thinks “the restaurants are nuts to pay for the alienation of customer loyalty” and this is distressingly close to the truth.

I don’t disagree with the general principle of being able to book a restaurant reservation via the Web. However, I agree with Incanto and others that OpenTable’s lofty goals have been overrun by greed, especially now that it is a public company. If OpenTable were to place more emphasis on helping individual restaurants succeed, and encouraging loyalty to specific restaurants instead of merely its own reservation service, my opinion might be different. But for now, my advice is for restaurants to close the book on OpenTable and do what Incanto has done: offer reservations via its own website.

Ode to Houston’s switched-off red light cameras

Just under two weeks ago, voters in the city of Houston, Texas, defeated Proposition 3 by a fairly wide margin, bringing the city’s controversial photographic enforcement of traffic signals (red light cameras) to an end. This morning, at 10am, as mentioned in a post to Swamplot and a story on KPRC’s (Channel 2) website.

And not a moment too soon. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, and while the intentions of installing red light cameras may be good, the implementation and eventual result was bad. For one, any time you have money changing hands for something like red light violation fines, there’s an incentive for greed at the expense of safety. Even if the city or county governments don’t get the fines. Even if they go to local hospital trauma centers. Greed is greed.

You’ll have to just trust me on this, but months ago I once had occasion to make a trip by bus to the Willowbrook mall area, where one of the red light cameras is installed at State Highway 249 and FM 1960 (which is now named Cypress Creek Parkway in addition to its FM number, but was not at the time). I got to observe the intersection enforced by the red light camera. Most of the red light runners were not the “zoom through trying to beat the light” type that usually come to mind when someone mentions “running a red light.” No, these were people trying to sneak across on the tail end of a yellow, going by my estimation 20-25 mph (maybe even as low as 15 mph in some cases), well below the limit of 35 mph on the exit ramp/service road for FM 1960. These were not the menaces to safety that got the red light cameras up to begin with.

To make matters worse, after pacifying the angry citizens with a promise that red light cameras would not be used to issue tickets to right turn violations, the city reneged on this and quietly started ticketing them too. Why? Greed! Pure greed! My mom got one of these tickets.

The Houston red light camera era overlapped significantly with my run as a courier/messenger in the Houston area; thankfully, I never got a ticket from one, either on or off duty. However, knowing the cameras were there and I risked a rear end collision every time I stopped on a fresh yellow light just to make sure I didn’t get a ticket did nothing to ease my already stressful life on the road.

Maybe now that the people have spoken, the city of Houston can time yellow lights properly on traffic signals, a move proven to increase safety. It won’t make the city any money, of course, but wasn’t this whole thing about safety to begin with?

It should be noted that Baytown also voted out the red light cameras in the same election. However, other cities such as Pasadena, Jersey Village, and Humble, appear to be retaining their cameras at least for the short term. It is my sincere hope that these other cities seriously consider following Houston’s lead and put the matter up for referendum in the next election. It’s time to make the entire greater Houston area safer–by getting rid of the cameras and actually focusing on safety, not money.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hunt down my recording of “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead.” Good riddance, red light cameras. You won’t be missed.

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.

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.