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April 24, 2009

The way we were

Two people in the audience said they were actually at Woodstock.

The math: Champaign-Urbana's Virginia Theater seats 1,600 ("I saw all the Star Wars movies in this theater," said the guy behind me). Audience skews somewhat to Baby Boom and older. Mostly white. Half a million people at Woodstock. Hard to know, but the guy sitting next to me and I agreed: two *feels* right.

This week is Roger Ebert's Film Festival, a small, personal event likely to remain so because of its location: his Illinois home town. A nice, Midwestern town, chiefly known for the university whence came Mosaic. People outside the US may not know Ebert's work as well as those inside it: a Pulitzer Prize-winning print critic, he and fellow Chicago newspaper critic Gene Siskel invented TV movie criticism. The festival is a personal love letter to movie fans, to his home town, and to the movies he picks because he feels they deserve to be more widely known and/or appreciated.

This is what it's like: the second day the parents of one of the featured directors casually pull me to lunch in the student union cafeteria. "I used to sit at this table when I was a student here," said the wife. She pointed across the cafeteria. "Roger Ebert used to sit at that table over there." Her husband pointed in a third direction and added, "And that table over there is where we met."

People come because they love movies - and also love seeing them in a fine theater with perfect sound and projection filled with the ultimate in appreciative audiences. Watching Woodstock last night, people so much forgot that they weren't at a live concert that they applauded each act in turn. And when Country Joe yelled, "What does it spell?" they yelled back "FUCK" at increasingly high volume. (I will remind you that this is America's heartland; these are supposed to be the people whose sensibilities are too delicate for Janet Jackson's nipple. Hah.)

The next morning, at a panel about the tribulations of movie distribution in these troubled times, I found I was back at work. Woodstock Michael Wadleigh - who's heavy into saving the planet now - told a quaint story about the film's release. His contract gave him final cut. Warner Brothers saw his finished length - four hours - and was ready to ignore it and cut it down to one hour 50 minutes. Received wisdom: successful movies aren't longer than that. Received wisdom: rock and roll documentaries are not successful movies anyway. Received wisdom: we have more lawyers than you. Nyaaah. Come and sue us. This attitude toward artists seems familiar, somehow.

So Wadleigh and his producers stole back his film, just like in S.O.B.. The producer then called the studios and convinced them that Wadleigh was deranged enough to actually set fire to himself and all the footage if the studio didn't release the film exactly as he'd cut it. Studio relents (that probably wouldn't happen now either). Film is released at nearly four hours. Still the biggest-grossing documentary in history. Now remastered, cleaned up, sound digitized, etc. for a new DVD. That was, like flower power, then..

Cut to Nina Paley, sitting a few directors down the panel from Wadleigh. Paley, like most of the others here - Guy Madden (My Winnipeg), Karen Gehres (Begging Naked), Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) - can't find distribution. Unlike Lessin, who reacted with some umbrage to the notion of giving stuff away, Paley decided that rather than sign away effectively all rights to her movie for five or ten years she turned it over to her audience to distribute for her. Yes, she put all the movie's files on the Internet for free under a share-alike Creative Commons license. Go ye and download. I'll wait.

And what happened? People downloaded! People shared! People started inviting her to speak! People started demanding to buy DVDs. She started making money.

Wait. What?

Boggle, MPAA, boggle.

That doesn't mean to say that movie distribution isn't in trouble: it is. Wadleigh and the Warner Brothers publicity person, Ronnee Sass, next to him, may have a mutual admiration society, but even films that have won top prizes at Cannes and Sundance are having trouble getting seen. Art theaters are shutting down and the small distributors that service them are going out of business.

"Why?" I was asked over lunch. A dozen reasons. People have more entertainment options. Corporate-owned studios would rather gamble on blockbusters. Theaters got unpleasant - carved-up, badly angled, out-of-focus screening rooms with sticky floors and too-loud, distorted sound. To people who were watching movies on small TV screena with commercial disruptions, home theaters look like an improvement - you can talk to your friends, eat what you want, pick your own movies, and pause whenever you like. More, in fact, like reading a novel or listening to music than going to a movie in the old sense, when you didn't - couldn't - yawn halfway through the magic and say, "I'll finish it tomorrow.".

What people have forgotten is the way a theater filled with audience response changes the experience. Would Woodstock have been the same if everyone had stayed home and watched it on TV?

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to follow on Twitter, post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

April 17, 2009

I think we're all pirates on this bus

So the Pirate Bay Four have been found guilty, sentenced to a year in jail, and ordered to pay 30 million kronor (lotta money) in damages to Big Media (hella big). How to make martyrs, guys.

Except: from the entertainment industry's point of view the best thing to come out of the trial shouldn't be either the verdict or the damages. It should be the news of the site's profitability and ownership, exposed to the non-Swedish-speaking world by Andrew Brown, first in a blog posting and then in Guardian article. Both sets of revelations came from the native Swedish newspapers which, of course, few outside Sweden can actually read.

Shouldn't the thought of possibly further enriching the heir to a fortune who is a supporter of extreme right-wing groups give Pirate Bay users pause? You'd think the entertainment industry would take advantage of this to play, as Sir Humphrey Appleby is advised in "Man Overboard", the man instead of the ball.

In The Register, Andrew Orlowski has speculated that the English-language media have failed to pick up on Brown's revelations because...I don't know, everyone is too pro-"freetard" or something. It's more likely that, lacking familiarity with the language, culture, and politics of Sweden, they aren't comfortable reporting them.

As much as The Pirate Bay is a useful site if you're looking for stuff to download for free, the site can't really make the same arguments many others can: that they don't really know what they're hosting (YouTube, torrent search sites). The site is much too neatly organized and catalogued. Not that it's clear the site's owners have any interest in making such an argument: they've been arrogantly defiant with respect to the trial and earlier threats. It's one thing to sit down and argue principles and try to change laws you disagree with; it's another to openly jeer at the law, effectively behaving like a cartoon character dancing on the edge of a cliff yelling, "Come get me!"

I've argued all along that there ought to be a distinction between personal, non-profit copying and commercial copying. The Pirate Bay falls in the middle. The site's users certainly are engaging in non-profit, personal copying. And the site isn't dealing in commercial copying in the sense that I meant originally, in that it's not selling copies (which would be an absolutely clear diversion of the market from legitimate sources). But if you believe the Swedish press it is making real money from advertising. Unless it opens its books for inspection by the public, we have no way of telling how much of that is actually profit, how much goes to pay the site's no doubt substantial server and bandwidth costs, and how much, if any, is used to support Piratbyrån, the political party aiming to change copyright law in Sweden.

It ought to be clear by now - though apparently it's not - to entertainment companies that attacking file-sharing sites isn't getting them anywhere. Yes, they can point to having closed down a number of sites, but that's like boasting that you've cut 1,000 heads off the Lernaean Hydra. What a boast like really says is how much bigger the monster is now than when you started: you still can't say you killed it, or even that you've scared it a little bit. Year on year, remorselessly, no matter how many people they've threatened or sites they've prosecuted, file-sharing has grown both in usage and in breadth. Plus, the publicity that attends every case is serving excellently to spread the word to people who might otherwise have never heard of file-sharing. Wired News reports that since the case started The Pirate Bay's user base has grown to 22 million and the site is profiting from its new anonymization VPN service.

In terms of breadth, there are still plenty of gaps in what you can find online, but over the years those have continued to narrow as niche interest groups start up their own sites to share old, obscure, and commercially unavailable material. What porn fanciers can do, tennis nuts can do better.

More to the point, entertainment industry attacks on file-sharing are doing for file-sharing sites what Prohibition did for the Mafia: turning them into sympathetic heroes who are just nobly trying to help their fellow citizens. The Pirate Bay may not look like a speakeasy, but what else is it, really?

The problem for the entertainment industry is that decades of television and radio broadcasts have trained users that viewing and listening without payment at the point of consumption is a normal state of affairs. In that sense, downloading torrents is far more like the way television and radio have presented themselves than paid downloads or buying CDs and DVDs. Ironically, US commercial television is now so heavily ad-laden that watching it now makes the trade-off of providing content in return for viewers' attention to advertising much more explicit - and viewers don't like it one bit.

In the end, The Pirate Bay guys may sound like posturing jerks, but they're right: they may go to jail but file-sharing will live on even if they turn out to be wrong about The Pirate Bay's own invulnerability. The entertainment industry might just as well adopt the slogan, "We won't stop until everyone's a pirate."

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

April 11, 2009

Statebook of the art

The bad thing about the Open Rights Group's new site, Statebook is that it looks so perfectly simple to use that the government may decide it's actually a good idea to implement something very like it. And, unfortunately, that same simplicity may also create the illusion in the minds of the untutored who still populate the ranks of civil servants and politicians that the technology works and is perfectly accurate.

For those who shun social networks and all who sail in her: Statebook's interface is an almost identical copy of that of Facebook. True, on Facebook the applications you click on to add are much more clearly pointless wastes of time, like making lists of movies you've liked to share with your friends or playing Lexulus (the reinvention of the game formerly known as Scrabulous until Hasbrouck got all huffy and had it shut down).

Politicians need to resist the temptation to believe it's as easy as it looks. The interfaces of both the fictional Statebook and the real Facebook look deceptively simple. In fact, although friends tell me how much they like the convenience of being able to share photos with their friends in a convenient single location, and others tell me how much they prefer Facebook's private messaging to email, Facebook is unwieldy and clunky to use, requiring a lot of wait time for pages to load even over a fast broadband connection. Even if it weren't, though, one of the difficulties with systems attempting to put EZ-2-ewes front ends on large and complicated databases is that they deceive users into thinking the underlying tasks are also simple.

A good example would be airline reservations systems. The fact is that underneath the simple searching offered by Expedia or Travelocity lies some extremely complex software; it prices every itinerary rather precisely depending on a host of variables. These may not just the obvious things like the class of cabin, but the time of day, the day of the week, the time of year, the category of flyer, the routing, how far in advance the ticket is being purchased, and the number of available seats left. Only some of this is made explicit; frequent flyers trying to maxmize their miles per dollar despair while trying to dig out arcane details like the class of fare.

In his 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman wrote about the need to avoid confusing the simplicity or complexity of an interface with the characteristics of the underlying tasks. He also writes about the mental models people create as they attempt to understand the controls that operate a given device. His example is a refrigerator with two compartments and two thermostatic controls. An uninformed user naturally assumes each thermostat controls one compartment, but in his example, one control sets the thermostat and the other directs the proportion of cold air that's sent to each comparment. The user's mental model is wrong and, as a consequence, attempts that user makes to set the temperature will also, most likely, be wrong.

In focusing on the increasing quantity and breadth of data the government is collecting on all of us, we've neglected to think about how this data will be presented to its eventual users. We have warned about the errors that build up in very large databases that are compiled from multiple sources. We have expressed concern about surveillance and about its chilling impact on spontaneous behaviour. And we have pointed out that data is not knowledge; it is very easy to take even accurate data and build a completely false picture of a person's life. Perhaps instead we should be focusing on ensuring that the software used to query these giant databases-in-progress teaches users not to expect too much.

As an everyday example of what I mean, take the automatic line-calling system used in tennis since 2005, Hawkeye. Hawkeye is not perfectly accurate. Its judgements are based on reconstructions that put together the video images and timing data from four or more high-speed video cameras. The system uses the data to calculate the three-dimensional flight of the ball; it incorporates its knowledge of the laws of physics, its model of the tennis court, and its database of the rules of the game in order to judge whether the ball is in or out. Its official margin for error is 3.6mm.

A study by two researchers at Cardiff University disputed that number. But more relevant here, they pointed out that the animated graphics used to show the reconstructed flight of the ball and the circle indicating where it landed on the court surface are misleading because they look to viewers as though they are authoritative. The two researchers, Harry Collins and Robert Evans, proposed that in the interests of public education the graphic should be redesigned to display the margin for error and the level of confidence.

This would be a good approach for database matches, too, especially since the number of false matches and errors will grow with the size of the databases. A real-life Statebook that doesn't reflect the uncertainty factor of each search, each match, and each interpretation next to every hit would indeed be truly dangerous.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

April 3, 2009

Copyright encounters of the third dimension

Somewhere around 2002, it occurred to me that the copyright wars we're seeing over digitised intellectual property - music, movies, books, photographs - might, in the not-unimaginable future be repeated, this time with physical goods. Even if you don't believe that molecular manufacturing will ever happen, 3D printing and rapid prototyping machines offer the possibility of being able to make a large number of identical copies of physical goods that until now were difficult to replicate without investing in and opening a large manufacturing facility.

Lots of people see this as a good thing. Although: Chris Phoenix, co-founder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, likes to ask, "Will we be retired or unemployed?"

In any case, I spent some years writing a book proposal that never went anywhere, and then let the idea hang around uselessly, like a human in a world where robots have all the jobs.

Last week, at the University of Edinburgh's conference on governance of new technologies (which I am very unhappy to have missed), RAF engineer turned law student Simon Bradshaw presented a paper on the intellectual property consequences of "low-cost rapid prototyping". If only I'd been a legal scholar...

It turns out that as a legal question rapid prototyping has barely been examined. Bradshaw found nary a reference in a literature search. Probably most lawyers think this stuff is all still just science fiction. But, as Bradshaw does, make some modest assumptions, and you find that perhaps three to five years from now we could well be having discussions about whether Obama was within the intellectual property laws to give the Queen a printed-out, personalized iPod case designed to look like Elvis, whose likeness and name are trademarked in the US. Today's copyright wars are going to seem so *simple*.

Bradshaw makes some fairly reasonable assumptions about this timeframe. Until recently, you could pay anywhere from $20,000 to $1.5 million for a fabricator/3D printer/rapid prototyping machine. But prices and sizes are dropping and functionality is going up. Bradshaw puts today's situation on a par with the state of personal computers in the late 1970s, the days of the Commodore PET and the Apple II and home kids like the Sinclair MK14. Let's imagine, he says, the world of the second generation fabricator: the size of a color laser printer, cost $1,000 or less, fed with readily available plastic, better than 0.1mm resolution (and in color), 20cm cube maximum size, and programmable by enthusiasts.

As the UK Intellectual Property Office will gladly tell you, there are four kinds of IP law: copyright, patent, trademark, and design. Of these, design is by far the least known; it's used to protect what the US likes to call "trade dress", that is, the physical look and feel of a particular item. Apple, for example, which rarely misses a trick when it comes to design, applied for a trademark on the iPhone's design in the US, and most likely registered it under the UK's design right as well. Why not? Registration is cheap (around £200), and the iPhone design was genuinely innovative.

As Bradshaw analyzes it, all four of these types of IP law could apply to objects created using 3D printing, rapid prototyping, fabricating...whatever you want to call it. And those types of law will interact in bizarre and unexpected ways - and, of course, differently in different countries.

For example: in the UK, a registered design can be copied if it's done privately and for non-commercial use. So you could, in the privacy of your home, print out copies of a test-tube stand (in Bradshaw's example) whose design is registered. You could not do it in a school to avoid purchasing them.

Parts of the design right are drafted so as to prevent manufacturers from using the right to block third-parties from making spare parts. So using your RepRap to make a case for your iPod is legal as long as you don't copy any copyrighted material that might be floating around on the surface of the original. Make the case without Elvis.

But when is an object just an object and when is it a "work of artistic merit"? Because if what you just copied is a sculpture, you're in violation of copyright law. And here, Bradshaw says, copyright law is unhelpfully unclear. Some help has come from the recent ruling in Lucasfilm v Ainsworth, the case about the stormtrooper helmets copied from the first Star Wars movie. Is a 3D replica of a 2D image a derivative work?

Unsurprisingly, it looks like US law is less forgiving. In the helmet case, US courts ruled in favor of Lucasfilm; UK courts drew a distinction between objects that had been created for artistic purposes in their own right and those that hadn't.

And that's all without even getting into the thing that if everyone has a fabricator there are whole classes of items that might no longer be worth selling. In that world, what's going to be worth paying for is the designs that drive the fabricators. Think knitted Dr Who puppets, only in 3D.

It's all going to be so much fun, dontcha think?

Update (1/26/2012): Simon Bradshaw's paper is now published here.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).