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Whack-a-mole

The news that the RIAA has failed in its legal action against Morpheus and Grokster is a pleasant surprise, because it’s a rare example of a judge being sensible. Of course, the RIAA will appeal, and there’s the spectre of the rather scary US INDUCE act which, if implemented, means that manufacturers of iPods, CD burners and other useful objects could be sued for contributing to piracy.

The case against Morpheus and Grokster is just the latest instalment in a rather tiresome game of whack-a-mole that’s been running since 1999, when Napster first appeared on the horizon, and it won’t be the last: if the RIAA manages to get Grokster and Morpheus shut down, there’s still Kazaa, Limewire and many, many others. And then there are the FTP sites, the Russian sites such as Allofmp3.com, the private file sharing that occurs via instant messaging, and so on ad nauseam.

For years the record industry has refused to enter into licensing talks with P2P networks, and P2P file sharing has continued to flourish; using legal measures to get rid of the problem hasn’t worked since 1999, and it won’t work in the future. The answer seems pretty obvious: rather than lobbying for new and daft laws, the record industry in various countries should be lobbying for some sort of compulsory licence scheme such as the ones affecting public performance of music, radio broadcasting, webcasting and so on.

A compulsory licence might work like this: a P2P network provider must either pay the record industry a licence, or block any unauthorised content; if it fails to pay and to block, there’s no legal grey area and the company can be sued silly. Or the onus might be put on ISPs: pay a licence fee or block access to P2P. In both cases the cost of the licence would be passed on to the consumer, who might pay an extra couple of quid for broadband in exchange for free music; ISPs who don’t want to pay the licence could simply block the P2P ports and run the risk of customers heading for firms that do pay for music licences.

There’s nothing particularly new or exciting about such things. Venues and pubs where music is played need to have a licence from the Performing Right Society; when radio stations play music, they have to pay royalties to the PRS. If I record cover versions on CD I have to pay a royalty to the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, and so on. The system’s there, it works, and it could be expanded to cover P2P networks or ISPs relatively easily.

By implementing such compulsory licences the record industry would get money, artists would get paid, consumers could continue to use P2P services and any firm who refused to pay the licence could be sued into the middle of next week. The alternative – a continuation of whack-a-mole, with consumers downloading for free, nobody getting paid and the record companies chasing after network after network, site after site – will just prolong a situation that’s bad for technology firms, bad for the record industry and bad for artists.

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Does Amazon.co.uk know something we don’t?

The ever-reliable recommendation system on Amazon.co.uk suggests a hammer drill as the perfect partner for Doom 3.

[edited because the original link died]

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New REM track online

Warners have posted a track from the forthcoming REM album on their Web site, and it’s rather lovely [Quicktime required].

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Doom III liveblogging

I had originally planned to do a liveblog on Doom III, typing my thoughts on the laptop as I played the game on my PC. Sadly I had to abandon that idea, because it would have looked like this:

2.00pm Woo-hoo! My PC’s powerful enough!
2.15pm “Insert CD2”. Oh, come on. I want to play!
2.30pm At last! Ooh, nice cut scene.
2.35pm Nooo! It’s crashed!
2.40pm Nooo! It’s crashed!
2.45pm Nooo! It’s crashed!
2.50pm New video drivers. That’ll fix it.
2.55pm Nice cut scene.
3.00pm Why don’t I have a gun yet?
3.05pm Yay! I have a gun!
3.10pm Something bad’s going to happen.
3.15pm Something really bad’s going to happen.
3.20pm Something really, really bad’s going to happen.
3.25pm Aieee! Monsters!
3.30pm Aieee! Monsters!
3.35pm Aieee! Monsters!
4.00pm Aieee! Monsters!
5.00pm Aieee! Monsters!
6.00pm Yay! Plasma rifle!
7-12pm Aieee! Monsters!

The verdict, then? It’s not art, but it’s an effective – and very scary – shooter. It’s tempting to spend all day today playing it, because I’ve actually got ahead of deadlines, but of course that would be a waste of a day. I should catch up on chores, maybe go outside and do some exercise, catch up on my email backlog, post some insightful articles to this blog or do some work on my book. And I’ll definitely do some or all of those things after I’ve had a quick five-minute game of Doom 3. Five minutes and that’ll be it. Definitely.

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How many?

According to the Periodical Publishers’ Association, the UK has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to magazines. Media Guardian reports:

According to the PPA, there are 8,337 magazine titles currently in circulation. A little over 5,000 of those are business-to-business publications, while 3,229 are consumer titles.

I think I subscribe to at least half of them.

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Ice Ice Baby

I’ve found that most computer keyboards require far too much force to press the keys – which in my case, means sore hands after even short bursts of typing. Laptop keyboards are much more pleasant, because they use different technology known as “scissor keys”, and I’ve been trying to find a desktop keyboard that uses the same arrangement. In the end, I’ve bought a MacAlly IceKey:

It’s actually my second attempt at the IceKey: I ordered one a few weeks ago but it was faulty. Now I’ve got my hands on a fully working model, I can’t praise it enough. It’s a very fast keyboard and it’s much, much easier on the hands than a traditional desktop keyboard. The IceKey is mac-specific, although similar products are available from PC keyboard manufacturers.

update

I’ve just realised that more cynical readers may think this post is a blatant bit of promotion in return for freebies; that’s not the case. Unless I indicate otherwise, any nice things I say about specific products are genuine opinions on things I’ve shelled out hard-earned cash for, not PR puffery in exchange for cash, freebies or other considerations. Sadly I’m not important enough for PR firms to bribe :-)

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Record label gets it, blows it

The ever-readable No Rock’N’Roll Fun tells the sorry tale of Warner Bros’ attempt to embrace the power of MP3 blogs.

Firstly, here’s proof that Warners gets the power of MP3 blogs:

Warners in the US has been approaching people who run MP3 blogs offering them a Secret Machines track… It’s good that a major label has endorsed these blogs, and accepted what they’re doing, and not merely sent them a cease and desist letter.

And then, Warners blew it.

Warners then had to go and prove their demonic credentials by getting employees to post obviously false positive testimonials in the comments section – it seems that record companies still haven’t learned anything since they first started blighting Onelist email communities in the 90s.

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Free Culture

One of the great things about laptops is that you can use them to catch up on your reading when you travel; in my case, it meant that I finally got round to reading Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture [free PDF available]. I’ve no idea why it took me so long: it’s great stuff and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the world of copyright law, digital rights management technology and bad laws in general.

In the book, Lessig shows the importance of public domain works – so for example, most of Disney’s famous output is based on others, from Steamboat Willie (the first appearance of the character who would become Mickey Mouse, and a cartoon copy of a film called Steamboat Bill) to films based on the works of the Brothers Grimm. It’s rather ironic that today, Disney is one of the studios behind the constant extensions to copyright that prevent its own works being adapted by others.

The core argument of the book is that the combination of technology and copyright law is enabling copyright owners to do things that are bad for our culture: “code becomes law”, as Lessig puts it. For example, the publisher of an ebook can prevent you from printing it out, cutting and pasting sections into a document or blog post, listening to it with screenreading software (something that’s essential for partially sighted computer users) and so on. Thanks to laws such as the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the European Union Copyright Directive, bypassing these ridiculous restrictions also bypasses the copy protection system, which is an offence.

Lessig backs up his argument with lots of examples: the eBook of Alice In Wonderland, a work that’s in the public domain, doesn’t let you print it out or copy any of the text, two things you are legally entitled to do; a search engine that indexes a network can be sued by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) if it finds a few illegal MP3s; and so on. He also demonstrates the way in which the combination of current law and the deep pockets of copyright owners can be abused: in the case of a search engine that caught the eye of the RIAA, it’s pretty clear that the developer wasn’t trying to create a tool for pirates, but instead was essentially trying to build a Google-style service for his university network. However, fighting the case in court would have cost $250,000 *even if he won*, while the statutory damages in US copyright law meant that had he lost, he could have been liable for up to $15 million in damages. Faced with Hobson’s Choice, the developer handed over his life savings to the RIAA to get them to withdraw their lawsuit.

Nobody who makes their living from copyright (like I do, and like Lessig does) would disagree that copyright owners have the right to protect themselves from infringement, but there’s a fine balance between protection and abuse. So for example if I write a book, another publisher shouldn’t be able to come along, reprint the book and profit from my work without paying me; similarly I shouldn’t be able to copy and paste someone’s blog post in its entirety, sell it to a magazine under my own name and sit back to count the money, or release my own version of Radiohead’s Greatest Hits and flog it down the market. Copyright law, rightly in my opinion, protects copyright owners from such abuses. However, the technology used to enforce those laws also removes your ability to resell products you’ve purchased, your ability to use the hardware or software of your choice to read ebooks or listen to music, your ability to cut and paste sections for a review or a thesis, and so on. In some cases, it even prevents you from skipping the adverts on DVDs.

We’re still in the early stages of electronic media: ebook sales are tiny compared to real books; download sales are tiny compared to CD sales; electronic magazines are still taking their first, baby steps, and so on. But the assault on long established rights – the right to resell things you’ve bought; the right to criticise and review publications; the right to use the hardware and software of your choice – has already started.

update

Guest blogging on Lessig’s site, Rich Boucher writes about the Pay Per Use society:

Whenever I speak with librarians about fair use or the Copyright Act more generally, I inevitably hear them express concerns that we run the risk of becoming a pay per use society, one in which content is available only for a fee. I am concerned that the bookmobiles we all grew up with and their modern day equivalents will go the way of the eight track and the reel-to-reel, replaced by a world in which access to information will depend on the ability to pay and, worse, a world in which a payment gets you only a license to view or listen to something, not to actually own it.

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Alien in 30 seconds (and reenacted by bunnies)

I have a weakness for daft Flash animations, and Albino Black Sheep’s series of film parodies (all in thirty seconds, all starring bunnies) is dafter than most. The latest epic is Alien in 30 seconds (and reenacted by bunnies).

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More Mac musings

The Register reports that Apple has filed a trademark application for what looks suspiciously like a tablet computer:

Inevitably the rumour sites are ablaze with speculation, and the Apple Product Cycle has started all over again.