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About this weblog
Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this weblog are those of the authors and not of their respective institutions.

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Monthly Archives

February 26, 2011

Sometimes Things Couldn't Be Better

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

The band Arcade Fire recently won a Grammy and, as they're not a big-name, mass-produced, Cartel-controlled act there was a good bit of whining from that contingent over it. Suck it up and deal. I particularly liked this response from Scott Rodger, the band's manager:

"Arcade Fire are now one of the biggest live acts in the world. It's not all about record sales. It's about making great records and it's about building a loyal fan base. Ther band make great albums, they're not a radio driven singles band. On top of that, they own their own masters and copyrights and are in complete control of their own destiny. Things couldn't be better.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Counterpoint

February 24, 2011

Patrick Rothfuss offers to help Nathan Fillon buy back Firefly

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

In a way this is a story for my kind of nerds, but it's also an interesting story about creativity and control and why copyrights aren't always good things.

First some background for the newcomers: Firefly was a TV series shown starting in 2002 that never had that big of a following. It was a Joss Whedon 'cowboys in space' adventure that didn't achieve the massive following of his earlier Buffy and Angel series. As a result, it was canceled. Somehow, despite all that, a movie (Serenity) was made and delighted the show's fans. The making of that movie set the framework for a David (the fans, who call themselves browncoats) vs. Goliath (the big media companies) tale of struggle and eventual success.

Fox own the rights to Firefly and it's locked up in a vault somewhere. Nobody can make new Firefly material, despite the salivating fan base that want it. If you've ever been to the packed midnight showings of Serenity called "Can't Stop the Signal" you'd see how intense this fan community can be. And like most fan communities it doesn't want the story to end. It wants more stories, new material, and is willing to spend money on that.

So what? The fan base may be avid but it's not big enough to satisfy a corporate media giant. So the guy who starred in the series, Nathan Fillon, put out in a recent interview that if he had the money he'd buy it back from Fox and put the thing on the Internet. Presumably for free, but certainly more accessible to this fan base.

Maybe that's a stupid idea, if you're a major media corporate executive. Or maybe it's the most awesome idea for a crowdfunded project that has been heard in a while. Patrick Rothfuss, the author of Name of the Wind, thinks it's a worthwhile idea and he's offering to put the profits from his latest book behind the notion. And you know the fans were just waiting to jump on board this one.

Hibberd's EW story raises a couple of interesting points. One is that a handwave estimate of the rights' value is a lot less than the $300 million that Fillon guessed. But the big problem? Fox has no incentive to sell. They've got a property that's earning them some money without them having to lift a finger. Making new shows, movies, and so on? That costs money; that's risky. Their copyrights give them no incentive - or even a counter-incentive - to satisfying the fans' hunger for more and new material.

Which is sort of the opposite point of having copyrights in the first place. Copyrights are there to incent creation, not stifle it. I don't know if the Davids can overcome Goliath this time, but if they pass a hat around I'm throwing my money in again.

"May have been the losing side, still not convinced it was the wrong one."

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

February 18, 2011

February 17, 2011

The Shakespeare Conspiracy

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

(No, not that conspiracy.) Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, David Post has a stinging rebuttal to an idiotic New York Times opinion piece.

The column, by Authors’ Guild leaders Scott Turow and Paul Aiken with professor James Shapiro makes a plea for support of the COICA bill (Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act) that is presently before Congress. The column's authors ask whether we will ever manage to get another Shakespeare - or whether we even would have had the historical one - without the brave souls of the Cartel and Congress protecting us from the scourge of piracy and... OK, I can't keep this up.

First of all, as Post delightedly points out, Shakespeare lived, worked and died before the very first copyright law was ever passed. So, you know, without copyright laws we'd have... Shakespeare.

That bit of obfuscatory mis-history aside, the point of the Times column is to claim that the decline of things like traditional publication for books, newspapers, you name it is all due to illegal copying. Nothing is said about e-books, or about online publications, or about any of the myriad of causes a reasonable person might want to discuss in regard to the ongoing collapse of traditional publishing mechanisms.

Instead, what we get is defense of a bill that would create a legal pretext for silencing people that the Cartel doesn't like, without all that messy stuff about being able to defend oneself. It's just much simpler and more efficient if the authorities can be told to shut down sites that someone doesn't like. There's a nasty piece of indirection here since what's authorized in the bill isn't exactly silencing an individual - it's seizure of the domain name. The equivalent in the real world would be something like the authorities saying "We're not going to stop you talking - we'll just padlock all the doors from the outside and tell everyone you canceled your talk." Presumably some genius thinks this indirect approach doesn't raise First Amendment concerns.

Post's blog piece is itself passionate, making reference to the US's position as a "bulwark" of free expression and all that jazz. That's nice if passion is your thing, but I'm a pragmatist and pragmatically this bill is shite. As the attempts to keep Wikileaks dark have shown most recently you can't just grab a few domain names and expect that to be the end of it. Say it with me: the 'net treats censorship as damage and routes around it. Egypt tried to black out an entire country and failed.

If this plan really does go forward then there will be some serious questions raised about who owns domain names and to whom the DNS authorities must report. The US does not control (nor should it control) the world's DNS servers. If DNS servers in the US have a different idea of what the IP address is for a seized domain than DNS servers elsewhere it could be... interesting. In theory, DNS servers get their marching orders from the so-called "root" servers, which are supposed to be under the control of ICANN, which is supposed to be independent of national authorities. In practice the government has already carried out a few of these seizures and the ISPs have played along. If the ISP tells the DNS system that someone else now owns a domain there's little that anyone can do to dispute that.

Apparently Messrs Turow, Aiken, and Shapiro think it's just fine and dandy for ISPs to act as stooges for the US government. I wonder how they'll feel when the Chinese government decides that it owns domains and has its ISPs stealing away hosts that the Author's Guild cares about. Sauce for the goose, gentlemen. You are not going to like how this will go down.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Laws and Regulations

February 10, 2011

How Could They Not Screw It Up?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

If you read Boingboing, Make magazine, or any of the numerous "maker" blogs you know that 3D printing is one of the hottest new technologies being explored by folk who like to make their own stuff. People are 3D printing everything from whimsical art items to seriously functional tools, to experimental objects for use in things like teaching anatomy.

However, 3D printing, particularly of objects for things beyond personal use, raises a host of intellectual property questions. If you print a copy of an object, what rights do you have in that object? What rights are potentially infringed if your printed object is a copy of another object that is protected by copyright, trademark, or patent - particularly design patents that are supposed to cover expressive elements?

Public Knowledge's Michael Weinberg takes a serious look at some of these questions from the point of view of someone who believes in the liberating and disruptive effects of this technology.

Weinberg's white paper is called "It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology" and is available for free online from the Public Knowledge site as text or as a downloadable PDF.

He covers all three major forms of IP protection in common use today, at least superficially. This piece is not an in-depth study; rather, it's an introduction to the issues that we will almost certainly see being litigated in this decade. That said, I have to wonder if Weinberg's starting analogy is not the right one. He likens the spread of cheap (sub USD 1000) 3D printers to the spread of once-expensive homebrew computers to hobbyists in the 70s and early 80s but I think from an IP perspective that's not a big deal.

The analogy that comes to my mind is the advent of the cheap "office copier" - back when Xerox and its competitors brought the technology of photographic reproduction of paper into hundreds of thousands of businesses and libraries. The result was a massive wave of copying - including significantly infringing copying - that took almost two decades to get used to and develop practices around. My guess is that even though a 3D printer is more useful for original creation than a copier was we're likely to see a similar set of gyrations and adjustments.

I do foresee a day soon when 3D printers will become easy and cheap enough to have in every home - a really disruptive moment when you need a new stapler or a new kitchen knife and just push a button to make one - but we're not there yet. Weinberg's paper is a call to action to the current wave of 3D hobbyists to work together in anticipation of that day.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Use

February 3, 2011

When A Crowdfunded Project Goes "Off the Rails"

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Cory Doctorow has a do-not-miss post up at Boingboing summarizing the current status of Diane Duane's experiment in trying to get potential readers to subscribe to an upcoming book and thus subsidize its writing. This is a variant of what I called "writing for those who want to read" and was intended to get a book called The Big Meow written and published.

Unfortunately, as Duane describes in great detail in her blog entry, life happened. Duane spends a lot of her posting apologizing to readers and sharing a bit of her perspective on the experiment. The big take-away here is that this is not all that unusual. Books are big projects and a tremendous amount can happen between the time a book is conceived and its eventual completion or - more often - abandonment. This happens a tremendous amount of the time in the conventional-funding publishing industry (last Dangerous Visions, anyone?) so it should be no surprise that it happened in a book funded by micropayments.

The challenge here is how to deal when something like this happens and that is completely uncharted territory. My hat is off to Ms. Duane not just for attempting a project of this highly experimental nature, but for how she is handling its conclusion. As I wrote earlier this week, I am still deeply committed to the idea that artists need to get paid for making art, but we clearly need to figure out how to handle what the software industry calls "error and failure cases" as well as successes. When I teach my Intro to HCI course one of the assignments for the students is always to go online and find an NTSB or similar accident report and learn how the physical world deals with failure cases - lessons the virtual world is still painfully slow to learn.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts