Saturday, July 08, 2006

Copyright is right

I recently sat down for a discussion with a young man about his views on copyright. His views were somewhat extremist, but are becoming more and more common amongst netizens as a wave of backlash strikes out, over certain industries perverting copyright usage into perpetual licensing rights. In short, he wanted to abolish copyrights and patents entirely.

It is of course easy to see how the view has come about, to quote the fellow, who we'll call 'Gape',
“The copyright, patent, and trademark laws prop up the big houses. it's why they lobby for them, and lobby for even stricter enforcement and stricter rules on them. If they thought for one moment that eliminating copyright, patent, and trademark laws would be to their benefit we'd see massive campaigns against them.”

Who would benefit from abolition of these things then? Lets look at, say, a music CD.

First, you have to write the songs, or since there's no copyright, you can cover them. However, you'll need to rent a studio, and equipment, and a sound engineer. That costs money. Eventually, you have your recording. Now, to release it, you just have to put it out there. You could try selling a download, or burning your own CDs, but these big labels, and indeed all the companies, could take your work and release it themselves. Additionally, since they have only had to pay for a copy of the music, and then only have the distribution costs to cover, and since the big record companies can afford to produce thousands of a CD if they think it'll do well, its cost per CD will be low. So low that they will easily be able to undermine the price of the contents producer. So they will get all the sales, and the musicians will just have a large hole in their pocket, and CDs that cost more to make than their competitors can sell at a profit. How many people would voluntarily spend thousands on music that they will never recoup?

What about they get a record contract then, you are possibly thinking. Well, in short, they won't exist. The point of a contract is to sign over exclusive rights for the distribution of music to a company. With no copyright, there is no exclusivity. It's a lot cheaper for the record company to spend $20 buying a copy of a CD, and release that, than spend say, $20,000 on the music in the first place.

Patents are the same story. If I were to design a new type of engine, ideal for ooh, mopeds and scooters, and other small personal vehicles, how would I get it to market? I've sunk £150,000 into development and testing, and prototyping of this new engine design. Without a patent, as soon as I release the engine design to try and recoup my costs, a big company, be it Black and Decker, Honda, or Briggs+Stratton could buy a single example, and mass produce copies much faster and cheaper, and to greater tolerances than I could, meaning they will also be more reliable. Where its costing me £200 in raw material (metal, springs and so on) and then £100 in energy costs to make the engine 9power for tools, heat to melt/bend metal etc), and I can make one every 3 days, Honda can spend £30,000 and set up a small production line, use their existing CNC machinery and produce engines for a cost of £120, and make 5 an hour at first. They could sell an engine for what I'm paying for the raw material and still make a profit. Meanwhile, I've sold a total of 20, because by that time Honda, and everyone else, is in production, and their cheaper engines, based on my design, are on the market. The increase in supply also means that i can't even charge a premium for rarity now. Even if those 20 were each sold for £1,000 each I've only had £20,000 back, and those have cost me £6,000 to make, so I've made back £14,000 of my £150,000 outlay, and now I can't sell any more.

I, the inventor, or the musician, have done all the work, spent all the outlay, and everyone else gets to profit from it, with the bigger you are in the field, the easier you will make profit. The equation simply boils down to if you create something new, you're going to take a heavy financial loss for it. With that kind of incentive, its hard to justify spending time and money on anything creative or innovative. You might as well take the money you would have spent and burn it.

Abolishing copyright and patents is not the answer. That way leads to eternal stagnation, as no-one can afford to take the financial loss that will come from being creative. Eventually, a new form of copyright will form, between whatever big players are left, gentleman's exclusivity agreements, that will reduce competition between rivals, and bring us back to the status quo.

Eventually, over a period of many years, things would stabilize and rectify itself, but until then, any country stupid enough to abolish copyright and patents would find itself quickly ostracised from the world of intellectual property. Goods embargoed, restricted sales of items and so on. It'd be just like the Cold War all over again, and in what way can that be good for anyone?

Ben jones

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

If piracy is Stealing...

...then speed kills.

I was driving home with the family, after visiting some friends, and a sign caught my eye. It said simply “speed kills”, and it got me thinking. You see, I, like many people, know that speed is not the 'major cause of death' or indeed any cause of death. You go at something like 550mph in an airliner, and you don't die. Andy Green has driven Thrust SSC at speeds of over 700mph (with a peak of 771mph) at least a dozen times. He's still alive and well. I myself have gotten a speeding ticket in the past, for doing 112mph, on the M57 around Liverpool (by the time the police offer had caught me, I'd pulled off to join the M62, so my average speed was in the high 90s, and so that's what my ticket was for). I was speeding, did I kill anyone? Of course not. If I had, it would have been more than £40 and 3 points on my license. However, whilst the sign did cause me to check my speedometer, to double-check the speed at which I was going, it didn't make me slow down. What it did do was make me think about piracy adverts.

Obviously, it's not speed itself that kills, but that speed can be a contributing factor. At 100mph, you're carrying four times the energy as you would travelling at 50mph, which naturally increases your breaking distance, and additionally means you cover twice the distance in reacting. That's fundamental, and for international readers, in the UK you're required to learn the stopping distances for a 1965 Ford Anglia at speeds of 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70mph, by standardised thinking and braking distances, for the driving test. The biggest factors, however are the environment, and surroundings, and the mechanical components. If the master cylinder for your brakes goes, you're very likely to have a crash at 50 or 100mph. If a tyre hits a shard of metal on the floor, and explodes, its still as likely to cause an accident, at 50 or 100mph, differing only in the potential severity. I've had two tyres explode on one car, both times around 80mph – turned out to be a pair of faulty tyres, no injuries, no accident, and the second time, I was on my way again in under 10 minutes.

Yes, speed is a factor in many accidents, and indeed deaths. Yes, speed can magnify minor injuries that would otherwise be suffered. NO, however, speed doesn't kill. Speed applied inappropriately and in unsuitable situations and conditions maybe contribute (in my speeding ticket situation above, I had no cars in front of me at any time - even the cop car was not on the motorway, but parked off behind a bridge- it was a clear dry Sunday lunchtime, and my vehicle was mechanically sound. In that situation I judged my speed was as safe as the 50mph crawl around the M25 is, if not more so) BUT it requires a least another factor. Driver error, poor judgement, mechanical problems, a freak weather incident (If someone's hit by a blown over tree, it could be argued that had they driven slower they might have survived, was 'speed' a contribution to their death? Clearly not, Its all a matter of situation, experience, awareness and equipment.

So it is with all these “piracy is stealing”, “downloading is theft”, “copying CDs costs the industry billions” and so on. If I download a copy of, say, Monsters Inc. have I stolen anything? Well, since I have the DVD within sight, I'm not likely to buy another copy, so to call my download a loss of income is hardly accurate. Lets try another example. My kids, especially the younger two (4 and 2) love the Blue Man Group. A year ago, or so, we thought about getting the DVD of the complex tour as a Christmas present for them. I got a VCD (low resolution) copy to look at, see if it would hold their attention (I was very skeptical) and I was surprised to see it would. So I bought it. I went from a probably not, to a full purchase. That's a GAIN of a purchase, and not a loss. The VCD is for in our van, for playing on our in-car DVD player, when we're on long journeys (cars are very unfriendly places for CDs, with heat, vibration, fingering for slot-loaders etc)

As with speeding above, and its lethality only as a contributory factor, downloading of content in contravention of current copyright regulations only causes a loss in certain circumstances. Of course, doing so would reduce the size and 'impact' of such loss figures, which companies can show to government officials to get laws they favour, or to shareholders to show why the growth wasn't as big as they'd expected. So, next time you see a claim for monies lost to “piracy” or “downloading” and see how fast the figures have grown over the years, remember one thing – Speed Kills.

Ben jones

Monday, July 03, 2006

Media Crazy

It has become common in in the US it seems, to protest and feign moral outrage over something trivial. The recent MySpace débâcle (here or here) is a prime example – A parent lets her child have unfettered access to the internet, meets someone on a site, arranges a real life meeting, and then the girl (of 14) is attacked. Now the parent who allowed her daughter to use this website, is suing the site. It has become common in this modern day and age for many parents to give their children free reign, and then when something happens, for them to blame someone else. Who was it that allowed a 14yo free reign on the internet? Was it MySpace? Who was it that let that same teenager go out and meet some person she'd just met? The website? The plaintiff's lawyer justified the $30M lawsuit by saying that 21 state attorney generals had warned MySpace that the site's security measures were ineffective and urged the site to adopt age-verification systems. I've been around and about for a while, but I know of no method to verify someones age, short of having the person provide government issued documentation, in person, to the verifier. Adult websites have been stuck with this issue for many years, and their best solution is to use a credit-card, which only verifies that the named cardholder is over 18 - were the girl in the case to get hold of her parents credit card info, and use it for age verification, would anything have changed? There were only two people that could have prevented that attack – the parents and the victim herself.

Of course, this is not the only example of lawsuits going awry, in the hopes of big money. In 2003 two teenage boys decided to take pot shots at cars from a bridge over the I40 motorway using a .22 rifle. They killed one and injured another. They claimed they were bored, and decided to emulate their favourite game – Grand Theft Auto. Who did the family of the victim choose to sue? Why the person with the deepest pockets, the publishers of the game. Not the kids for shooting the gun, not the kids parents for allowing them access to the gun, or even the state that allowed such unfit parents to own a firearm, but the game the kids claimed they were copying. I'm only surprised they didn't also decide to sue the state for having a bridge set up so such a shooting was possible or the gun manufacturer for making a gun a teenager could fire (although that was the underlying plot in the film adaptation of John Grisham's “Runaway Jury”). Those two are equally as culpable as the litigants targets, if not more so. Prevent anyone from being able to fire off a bridge, and it couldn't have happened. Can the same be said if the game had never come out? Similarly, if the girls parents had been on the ball, it couldn't have happened – if Myspace didn't exist, it could, and would have happened using any one of a thousand other similar methods, from IRC, emails, IMs and so on.

Other cases abound – in Oakland, California (on the other side of the Bay Bridge from San Francisco) there were a group (five men and a woman) who called themselves 'Nut Cases' apparently played violent videogames night and day, before engaging in random robbery and murder. Their favourite, they say, was Grand Theft Auto. (sources here and here)

That brings me to modern day. There has been a lot of controversy over the latest incarnation of that game in the last year, San Andreas. For anyone who's kept clear of any and all news relating to videogames, let me recap, anyone else can skip to the next paragraph. It, like its previous 4 incarnations, is a game where you play a villain, and throughout the game you have to perform tasks such as armed robbery, assassinations, carjacking, bombings, and so on and so forth. Nothing at all dissimilar, in fact, from what you did in all the previous games, (and the first one was released in 1998), so why the stink? Well, there is a background aspect of the game where you get a girlfriend, and take her on dates. If they go well, you will be eventually invited back in 'for coffee'. This mod unlocked some visual footage which was removed from gameplay. So instead of exterior shots of the house whilst suggestive sound effects are played, you get to see it happen.

The deal then is that sexual activity between two consenting adults is not suitable whilst murder, mutilation and dismemberment of non-consenting adults is fine, as is wholesale destruction of personal and private property. 81 year old Florence Cohen, from New York even sued Take Two over it, saying that she had bought it for her grandson, aged 14 (the game is rated 'Mature' in the US, meaning suitable for ages 17+) "without knowing it contained hidden, sexually explicit scenes”. Hillary Clinton also jumped on the bandwagon, demanding a Federal Trade Commission investigation. Of course, what both Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Cohen are neglecting to point out is that the acts they are protesting against are, if not the same, then at least very similar, to acts they themselves have performed at times in the past. I do however hope that they have not performed any of the games acts with which they don't have a problem, such as killing someone (curious as to why we haven't heard from Laura Bush then).

It would be nice to think that this is a recent anomaly but it's not. If you were to look at the TV guide for around lunchtime in Atlanta, for instance, you'd notice that on one of the major networks (Atlanta based TBS) they have Lethal Weapon 2 on, starting at 10:30am, and finishing at 1pm, right before the local baseball team's game comes on. Some of the closing scenes of that movie have a South African shooting Mel Gibsons character, and laughing shouting 'diplomatic immunity' before being shot in the head. What a lovely sight for any kids that have turned over for the Braves game a little early. The USA network no cable has Terminator 2 starting at 12:30pm, nice bodycount, so clearly wholesome family viewing. TNT meanwhile decided to show the Martin Lawrence/will Smith film “Bad boys” at 10AM (MPAA rated R for intense violent action and pervasive strong language.) and AMC went with a 7:45am showing of The Godfather, part III. These movies all have something in common – recreating some of the scenes in these films will have you sitting in a cell on death row in many states, and staring at the inside of a jail cell for the rest of your life in the others.

Lets take sexual content now. If we were to look at a film based heavily around consenting sexual action, and nakedness, just as those films above are based around violence and murder – lets take Showgirls. In the US, even if you were to watch it broadcast at 11pm (when all impressionable children who would be so tainted by the sight of breasts should be in bed) it is very likely that you will see anything that could even be remotely described as lewd conduct. There is actually a version of the film, for broadcast, where the 'sex scenes' are cut out, and and nudity fixed by digitally painting on clothes. Double standards?

How about another example. Superbowl 2004 for instance. In the half time show, Janet Jackson's nipple was briefly exposed, and there was national uproar, - FCC chairman Michael Powell was watching the event with his two children, and called it 'outrageous'. Would there have been such an outcry if a blank gun and bloodpack was used instead to give the illusion of her having been shot? One might also assume that Mr Powell's children **satire alert** never exposed to the disgusting, indecent and morally reprehensible act of breast-feeding**satire alert**

“What has all this to do with peer2peer?” You have probably been wondering. What each of these cases highlights is the dangers of a worldview the US is heading for. In a country where revealing of a breast on television is punishable by a $325,000 fine, but films featuring scenes of torture are acceptable Sunday lunchtime family viewing. Where atrocious parenting decisions are glossed over because of a sexual angle, real or implied. Only in such a society, where common sense is sorely lacking, and any sense at all is rare it seems, are laws like the DMCA passed, is copyright extended to 95 years, stifling creativity rather than encouraging it as was its intent. Only in that atmosphere are copies of a film deemed important enough to interfere in another countries democrat progress, and laws, are the reproduction rights treated as being almost as important as military secrets.

Land of the free? More like land of the lunatic.

Ben jones