Friday, May 28, 2010

RIAA Sues 28,000 Americans?

The RIAA has now sued or threatened to sue more than 28,000 people in the United States, in most cases extracting settlements of several thousand dollars from college students, housewives, and families with precocious preteens who downloaded music from Grokster, Kazaa, LimeWire, or BearShare. In many cases the infractions alleged are minimal (e.g., 5 songs) but the damages sought are not. The litigation strategy is intended to create the public perception that even the smallest infraction will be prosecuted and even the most naive teenager will be punished. The lawsuits are clearly not brought to win damages – suing unemployed college students has never been a winner on the Mensa list of ways to make a buck. Obviously, the real intent behind the lawsuits is to strike fear into the hearts of everyone contemplating file-sharing, to instill the thought in the back of your mind that you could be next. What the RIAA wants is for you to pause before downloading, remember the litigation horror stories, and delete LimeWire from your desktop. If you remember that RIAA lawyers are so aggressive they will not hesitate to sue your deceased grandmother, perhaps that will deter you from your illicit quest to download “I Wanna Know What Love Is” for free.

Though the RIAA’s litigation strategy apparently has a certain surface appeal to music industry egos, in real life the RIAA’s rigid litigation model has not yielded meaningful results. Apart from alienating the general public and creating an enormous amount of superfluous litigation for the courts’ already overcrowded dockets, the results have been abysmal. The RIAA has failed to discourage file-sharing, and created an underground file-sharing community that — like Ninja assassins — quietly creep up out of nowhere and download billions of songs on ever-changing platforms. Every time a file-sharing company gets big enough to be noticed and sued by the RIAA, it is replaced by yet another start-up providing exactly the same service at a new location, with better cloaking technology. While the industry can sue LimeWire, Pirate Bay, Napster, and all and sundry for all they’re worth, eventually a compromise is going to have to be made. The “we’ll sue you into the ground” business model is not working, is not good business, and is quite possibly not good law — just yesterday the 16 year old cheerleader who got sued for downloading 37 songs and was ordered to pay $27,750 filed a Petition for Certiorari with the Supreme Court asking the court to overturn the decision against her on the (frankly quite believable) grounds that she didn’t realize that file-sharing was against the law.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hitler the Comedian

Several weeks ago YouTube announced that it was taking down all the parody videos of Hitler’s explosive speech to his general staff — in which Bruno Ganz channels the ghost of Hitler and does a compelling embodiment of instantaneous psychotic rage — based on claims by the creators of the film Downfall that the viral spoofs infringed their copyright in the film. Although this was, and is, rather controversial (see criticism here), the elimination of the video clips was not undertaken with anything like German efficiency, and many of the clips remain up and running, including perhaps the best clip of them all — the one where Hitler bitterly complains about all his videos being rudely yanked from the airwaves and lambasts Constantin Film AG as an ungrateful upstart conspiring against him.

Frankly, faux Hitler may have a point. Since the spate of video spoofs first appeared on the web, rentals of Downfall have dramatically increased, moving the film out of the “it was nominated for an award but now you can’t find it” category into a late-night Blockbuster favorite. Given the intrinsically dour nature of the film (which is about Hitler’s last days), one could reasonably conclude that the YouTube publicity resuscitated a film that had only been seen by (approximately) four Germans since its release in 2005.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Free Books? Nope

Yesterday I emoted a bit on the prospect of an all-information-all-the-time database which the public could access for free, and as exemplars of this paradigm shift away from market-driven pay-as-you-go access to information I cited Project Gutenberg and Google Books. While Project Gutenberg’s 30,000+ tomes are indeed free — really free — to anyone with access to a computer or virtually any e-reader with a USB port, my reference to Google Books was more optimistic than exemplary. While Google has already scanned and plans to offer over 12 million books to the public pursuant to the the Google Books Settlement (the revised version of which is still pending court approval based on Justice Department concerns), the reality is that these books won’t be free. You can look at 20% of any book for free (by default), but Google Books will charge you a fee to access the entire book. While digitizing all books is obviously the only way to ensure their continued availability and survival, the myriad of problems surrounding ownership rights and the ever-present-issue of “Who gets paid?” still have a few kinks to be worked out. Although they may not be insurmountable, at the moment these kinks loom Everest-like over the prospect of a happy ending. Under the current regime, that book you can check out at the library and read for free? You can’t read it online without paying a fee. For a detailed discussion of the copyright issues surrounding the Google Books Settlement, see the article by Annalee Newitz of here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Free Books!

If you have ever read any space opera or even been a casual observer of sci-fi on television (e.g., Star Trek), you will be familiar with the idea that one of the advances civilization finally managed to accomplish with the advent of advanced computing capabilities was the information net, where all human knowledge, information, science, art, literature, media, news, and data was collected, stored, and backed up in multiple locations — so many locations, in fact, that it was almost alive in the ever-growing cloud of data that was accessible to all with a mere click of their mouse, com unit, or other fanciful device dreamed up by the minds of the legends of science fiction. Those of a certain age may recall the late, great Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, as well as other seminal entries in the field by the other two giants of science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger In A Strange Land) and Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End), whose dreams of what the future held for humanity have in many respects come true, as space travel, personal computers, hand-held communication devices, tasers, AI, solar power, electric cars, and even energy bar have in many respects become commonplaces that we take for granted. Recently, part of the information legacy predicted by these authors and others has started to come true, as the advent of the e-reader has made it (or started to make it) a winning proposition for books to be published electronically, so that a true e-library is possible. The current iterations are in flux, but the respective plans of Project Gutenberg and Google Books to digitize the entire catalog of all available novels, plays, stories, biographies, poems, tomes, treatises, and arcana are a huge step in the direction of allowing the public to freely access humanity’s cultural legacy.

If you’ve never taken a look at what you can read for free, check out Project Gutenberg. Over 30,000 titles are available at the click of a mouse, including works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saki, and many many many other acclaimed writers. And soon Google will be adding 4 million more titles for your reading pleasure. Better upgrade your RAM.