Taking the “artistic” out of “artistic nudity”

The LA Times Culture Monster blog recently posted an article on YouTube’s censorship of videos containing nudity. At issue here is a 1973 video called Dressing Up by Susan Mogul. The video shows Susan putting on underwear and clothing in a casual fashion and discussing each piece as she puts it on, sort of a strip tease turned around.

Tom Jancar, owner of the Jancar Gallery in LA, posted the video in 2009 and it had received “hundreds of hits” during the time it was up, and also notes Susan is “doing everything posible not to be sexy.”

While I understand Google (who now own YouTube) not wanting the site to become a haven for pornographic short films, there is a difference between obvious pornography and artistic nudity. I saw the clip of Dressing Up on Susan’s website and while Susan is definitely fully naked in the beginning of the clip, I would call this artistic nudity. (It’s still almost certainly NSFW though.) Hopefully, some other site can host this video since apparently it’s too hot for YouTube.

Seriously, how can Google allow this Australian news clip with a straight face at the same time they mercilessly take down Dressing Up?

Illogical beyond words: Italy vs. Google

Normally I relish the opportunity to roast large companies like Google and hold them accountable. In this case, however, no sane person can possibly side with Google’s opponent, the Italian government, in this case.

This TechCrunch story links to a post on the official Google blog which describes a situation where three Google employees were found criminally responsible for failing to comply with the Italian privacy code in relation to a video uploaded by a YouTube user in Italy. A fourth Google employee was acquitted. From the Google blog post:

To be clear, none of the four Googlers charged had anything to do with this video. They did not appear in it, film it, upload it or review it. None of them know the people involved or were even aware of the video’s existence until after it was removed.

… In essence this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload. We will appeal this astonishing decision because the Google employees on trial had nothing to do with the video in question. Throughout this long process, they have displayed admirable grace and fortitude. It is outrageous that they have been subjected to a trial at all.

This is paramount to holding employees of an automobile manufacturer such as Ford or GM criminally liable for a drunk driver’s actions (or for that matter, someone at, say, a Budweiser or Coors plant). It’s crazy. It’s dumb. In fact “galactically stupid” and “box of rocks dumb” don’t really do it justice at all.

I’m not even sure the wording used to describe the intelligence of a computer in a book I read as a kid would do it. That book described a computer as having the intelligence of a very stupid worm. To compare this judge’s intelligence to the stupidest of the worms would be an insult to the worms.

I feel compelled to drag out the quote from the FSF’s “Some Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases That Are Worth Avoiding” yet again:

The idea that laws decide what is right or wrong is mistaken in general. Laws are, at their best, an attempt to achieve justice; to say that laws define justice or ethical conduct is turning things upside down.

Never has this been clearer than this instance. If the judge is applying the law correctly, then the law is more broken than the result of dropping a grand piano from an airliner. If not, then this should be reversed on appeal and the judge stripped of his authority.

If allowed to stand, this is a horrifying threat to the Internet as we know it, and it may not remain confined to Italy and Italian law. I concur with this quote later in the post:

[W]e are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason. It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming.

Indeed, common sense isn’t so common anymore. Remember this if you’re travelling to Italy.

Google, On2, and the future of video codecs

As summarized in FSF’s open letter to Google, there is a strong case for Google releasing the VP8 video codec acquired from their purchase of On2 Technologies.

I agree with most of what is in this open letter from the FSF. However, I have some doubt that VP8 will be a better choice than Theora (itself a derivative of On2’s earlier VP3 codec) in the short term. The more likely path is something along the lines of the following:

  • VP8 is liberated (released under a free software license and with full royalty-free patent licenses, similar to how On2 released VP3 to Xiph.org.
  • Xiph.org, other organizations, and/or the free software community at large steps up to clean up and improve the VP8 codebase.
  • The result is some successor to Theora, whatever it may be called, and probably won’t reach “1.0 release status” until 2013 at least.

From the open letter:

This ability to offer a free format on YouTube, however, is only a
tiny fraction of your real leverage. The real party starts when you begin to encourage users’ browsers to support free formats. There are lots of ways to do this. Our favorite would be for YouTube to switch from Flash to free formats and HTML, offering users with obsolete browsers a plugin or a new browser (free software, of course). Apple has had the mettle to ditch Flash on the iPhone and the iPad — albeit for suspect reasons and using abhorrent methods (DRM) — and this has pushed web developers to make Flash-free alternatives of their pages. You could do the same with YouTube, for better reasons, and it would be a death-blow to Flash’s dominance in web video.

I’ll go into detail on Apple’s suspect reasons since these are well-known to computing freedom and free software advocates, but probably less known to most “Joe Average” iPhone users.

Apple runs an App Store for the iPhone and this is, according to Apple, the only “blessed” method of getting applications onto the iPhone. It is possible to “jailbreak” an iPhone such that alternative third-party application repositories can be used. However, Apple has maintained this voids the iPhone’s warranty in addition to violating the DMCA, and at least one update has “bricked” (rendered completely inoperative) jailbroken iPhones.

The sum total is, as far as deciding what actually gets to run on the iPhone, it’s really less like a purchase than a rental. One is effectively renting the iPhone from Apple for a term of the iPhone’s useful life, and Apple retains the true ownership of the iPhone. If this seems just a bit absurd to you, that’s because it is. Most other phones will let you run any Java-based application and download almost any ringtone or wallpaper, giving you a warning that the download is not guaranteed by the wireless carrier or phone manufacturer. But Apple steps in and plays nanny. Anyway, that’s getting off the topic a bit.

The move from Flash-based video to free formats is inevitable. We don’t know what shape the VP8 code is in as far as cross-platform compatibility, and it took a great deal of hacking on VP3 to produce Theora.

The conclusion of the FSF’s open letter to Google is a commendable call to action:

You owe it to the public and to the medium that made you successful to solve this problem, for all of us, forever. Organizations like Xiph, Mozilla, Wikimedia, the FSF, and even On2 itself have recognized the need for free formats and fought hard to make it happen. Now it’s your turn. We’ll know if you do otherwise that your interest is not user freedom on the web, but Google’s dominance.

We all want you to do the right thing. Free VP8, and use it on YouTube!

I’d like to think Google has honorable intentions. However, just because Google decides not to free VP8 and immediately use it on YouTube does not necessarily mean Google intends to sit on VP8 or use it as a bargaining chip. It has already been shown that the argument against Theora on YouTube is FUD. If there’s a difference between Theora and H.264 at a similar bitrate, I’ll be damned if I can see it. The opinion is damn near unanimous that Vorbis blows away MP3 at a similar bitrate and is at least competitive with most everything else.

Google already has access to a free, unencumbered alternative to Flash for YouTube, and did before buying On2. If liberated, VP8 is the future for unencumbered video formats, but it may be too early to just jump in and use it now.

Nobody likes falsely flagged videos on YouTube

Most of you are familiar with YouTube. Some of you may in fact be familiar with some of the more popular shows on YouTube, such as “Is It A Good Idea to Microwave This?” which is the subject of this entry.

For those not familiar with it “Microwave This?” is a show devoted to putting random objects in a microwave oven to see how they will react. The results have ranged from boring to slightly interesting to outright crazy. The concept makes for great television, and is something that due to the show’s length (typically 4 minutes or so) would probably never work on its own even on cable TV. It’s a perfect match for YouTube or something like it.

“Microwave This?” is in the middle of a rather heated controversy right now, centered around YouTube’s flagging system. This ordinarily would not be that big of a deal but Jonathan Paula, the producer of the show (doing business as Ideo Productions), is a YouTube partner and producing videos for YouTube is in fact his day job. (I would assume the revenue is shared with Jory Caron and Riley McIlwain, the on-camera talent, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll simply refer to Jonathan.)

Success does not come without a price, however, and it is to be expected that not everyone is a fan of “Microwave This?” or is happy for their success. Some, in fact, have taken to flagging the episodes of the show. Now, to Joe Average YouTuber, having a video flagged is no big deal, it just means the viewers have to tell YouTube they are at least 18 to view it (not even necessarily actually be 18, even though it’s a TOS violation to lie about one’s age I’m sure it does happen). But to guys like Jonathan, this is a direct attack on their livelihood, since if a video is flagged, it is ineligible for ad revenue sharing. Eventually, the videos get unflagged but by then most of the people who want to watch the video have already seen it, without Jonathan sharing in the ad revenue. This Is Bad. In fact, enough videos have been flagged that the show is in danger of being flagged off of YouTube completely.

Last night’s (2010 February 01) episode as posted to Jonathan’s main channel was actually a 54 second video stating the real episode is on another account and urging fans of the show to get on Twitter and send a tweet addressing George Strompolos, who handles the Partner Development for YouTube. Not surprisingly, this video got taken down for a terms of service violation before I could view it, much less write this blog post about the whole situation. But it’s a great example of leveraging the power of social media.

This is not the first time Jonathan and crew have run into this situation. Some weeks ago (apparently it’s also been taken down because I can’t find it) Jonathan read a letter he wrote to someone at YouTube about this same situation.

I am a huge fan of “Microwave This?” as well as Dovetastic Microwave Theater. I’m not going to get in the middle of a debate over which show is better, that’s not what this post is about. What it is about is YouTube (Google) doing damn near nothing to protect the interests of those who make money via its service. Without the partners, YouTube is almost back to where it was in about 2005-2006 where it was just people uploading home videos. I know that’s not what Google wants to see happen to YouTube. But that’s where it’s headed.

“Microwave This?” is big enough now that it shows just how broken the current system is. The big names in television (CBS, Fox, etc) and movies (Paramount, Disney, etc) can make their videos flag-proof. One way or another, the system needs to be fixed by YouTube, either by implementing something similar for partners, or by thoroughly investigating the abuse of the flagging system and dealing severely with the violators.

I’m horrified that it’s gotten to this point. Jonathan has done a great job of protecting his interests, but he shouldn’t have to go to extremes to get YouTube to do what it really should have been doing all along.

Nobody likes falsely flagged videos on YouTube. (Or roasted nuts.)

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.