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.
Sundman's publishing journey is unusual, probably unique. He began with a Creative Commons-licensed work (Acts of the Apostles) that got a positive review on /, and saw a spike in popularity on Amazon. The novel was then sold to a small indie publishing house that was set to produce a revised version but was instead bought out by a bigger house. The rights then reverted to Sundman who wanted to produce a revised version of the book, incorporating improvements. The result is called Biodigital and it's about 60/40 reworked material/new material.
This sort of thing is (or used to be) quite common in the music space. Bands would release an EP with 4-5 songs and then later a full-length LP or CD containing those same songs - perhaps with a more professional production polish - and some new material. Record companies are set up to do this. Book publishers? Not so much. Sometimes you get a novel that's been made out of a short story (e.g. Ender's game) but nobody I know of has taken a previously published novel and remixed it themselves.
So, that's one point of view. Or, you could just pay the goddamn writer what they're worth. In this clip from an upcoming documentary on Harlan Ellison, the author rants about the "assholes" and "amateurs" who agree to work for free. Ellison wants to be paid for his work - in this case for an interview that Warner Brothers wanted to use on a DVD.
A real author, in this case Ellison, wants to be paid for their work particularly when that work is going to be used in a for-sale enterprise by a highly profitable mega-corporation such as WB. Ellison's rant is necessarily simplistic, but he has a basic point: the explosion of free content is making it difficult for people who want to make a living. The difficulty - again, see Erin Biba's rant - is that even people who are making money at these sorts of businesses seem to want contributions to come in for free. We, the public, give our free labor and content to YouTube and Facebook which use that content to make millions. It's been a couple years since the Ph.D. elite began to revolt against the publishers who make millions off their free labor but that business hasn't changed.
We're looking at a very wide gulf here: on the one hand we have individuals like Sundman and Fleishman who are on their own trying to figure out approximately everything and having a hard time getting actual income. On the other hand we have corporate entities that appear still to be quite profitable yet take advantage of individuals. I have no idea how to bridge this gap.
Two articles on Medium illustrate the differences in how 21st-century business models are affecting different people.
The first is Erin Biba's short, sharp farewell to Medium. Despite being one of the better-paid writers on the site, she's only getting about 2.5 cents per click on her story. That's not enough even to think about living on, and it's well below the living wage (she doesn't specify how much) that she's getting from traditional media organizations.
The core of her rant is that new media organizations don't value quality, only clicks. This leads to a profusion of listicles, recycled mindless content, and other things designed to drive up pageviews regardless of the content of those pages. In other words, new media are getting what they (don't) pay for.
What's missing from Fleishman's piece is how this relates to a living wage. He calculates his profit at $3000 on over $53,000 base income. That's not even going to pay rent for the time the campaign ran, let alone any realistic calculation of expenses. Yes, the purpose of the campaign was, nominally, fulfilled. But what's the point of artists making these complex and time-consuming campaigns when they can't eat? I talked about this last October, when I backed the 99% Invisible Kickstarter and I feel like if Kickstarter is going to run aground this may be its weak point: however many dollars it can pour into product, we still don't have a reasonable and reliable way to compensate the creators whose products we want.
(h/t Boingboing where I first saw these stories linked)
The proximate cause is that the Chief Justice of the CAFC is stepping down from the Chief spot and the Court has had to re-issue two opinions in which soon-to-be-ex Chief Judge Randall Rader was involved. Rader recused himself from those cases, but not before he had been involved in the decisions (oops!). To make matters worse, the reasons for recusal involved ethical improprieties on Rader's part that call into question his fitness to serve as a judge at all. Rader effectively endorsed a lawyer, in a manner similar to an author giving a blurb for a novel they enjoyed.
Judges at all levels are supposed to be as impartial as humanly possible. Giving an endorsement to a lawyer - let alone one who might appear before your bar - is just not done. Yes, we know that judges are mostly former lawyers, and nobody expects them suddenly to drop their private friendships with other lawyers. But there needs to be at least some professional distance.
The CAFC was created in 1982 in order to merge two courts that were hearing and often competing in rulings over patents. The theory was that there should be one highest court for patent cases, which would lead to more uniformity and that this unified court would be able to delve into the more technical matters that patents often require. Unfortunately, the CAFC seems to have spun more and more out of control,
He notes that IP in games can involve multiple regimes: patent, copyright, and trade dress, which covers elements of physical appearance and is generally compared to trademarks or service marks. I am not enough of a lawyer to know what is covered by trade dress versus design patents - they seem essentially similar to me.
The reader question to which he is responding involves a complaint and suit by the game company Wizards of the Coast against competitor companies Cryptozoic Entertainment and Hex Entertainment. WotC alleges that the game Hex: Shards of Fate, produced by these competitors, is too much a clone of WotC's famous and highly lucrative game Magic the Gathering.
Without getting into the specifics of either game too much, TB argues that there are derivatives and there are clones. The latter are particularly prevalent in the mobile space where a successful game often finds itself facing a dozen nearly identical clones with the serial numbers rubbed off. Larger-scale game cloning is much more rare, though it does happen. On the other hand, games are like many other media forms in that they innovate by evolution. Game mechanics and styles are similar, but new games make changes and twists and try new combinations or new approaches to the same thing. It's not at all clear at what point any given collectible card game is going to wind up being too similar to another.
The PBS Idea Channel's May 7 episode looks at The Future of Fandoms. One cannot talk about fandom without running into fan fiction and the entire cadre of (usually not officially sanctioned) derivative works produced by fans. One of the possible futures posed in the episode is whether the growth, robustness, and increasing popularity of fandom will provide a more robust bulwark for fair use.
It's not an unreasonable question - despite the efforts of the Cartel and various large corporations to stamp out fannish work there are now things like fan-funded major films, and the 'Net provides ways for fans to organize and respond that did not exist decades ago. Where fan-created derivative works previously only existed in sort of shadowy or out-of-the-way spaces, you now have Comicon costuming on major news networks, Google images, Etsy stores, not to mention millions of blogs, sites, and generally transgressive Web pages.
By sheer volume it's impossible to police all this stuff, so the question is whether it will continue to exist in a legal limbo, or be able to be legitimized. My opinion is that we're unlikely to see a more robust fair use anytime soon, because the current regime works to everyone's advantage. Corporations can still selectively prosecute those works they find threatening, while making money off the fan base that is kept fed with the quasi-legal derivative works. Fandoms grow fan bases and keeping a robust fan base has always been in the interests of the promoters - that's why there used to be official fan clubs. And I suspect that many fandoms act as slush piles for creators. Most of it isn't usable but once in a while a gem will float by. Certainly enough people are convinced that commercial creators "stole their idea" to support an entire forest of advice and help Web sites.
It's also in the interest of the monied powers to keep people guessing. If you don't know whether or not the lawyers are going to show up at your doorstep you may self-censor, or seek licenses and permissions that you didn't actually need but are less costly than a legal defense against Disney's hatchet team. (Not to pick on Disney exclusively, but they are one of the most aggressive.)
If you think government is somehow going to come to the aid of fair use, well you haven't been watching the amazing amount of regulatory capture that has happened in the past six years. I doubt we'll ever see a major change in Executive position so long as there continues to be a revolving door between the regulators and the regulated.
If you are a nerdfighter (and you probably are, or should be) then you may have seen the Vlog Brothers' short video on "I Gotta Go". In it, the hosts discuss their use of a sign-off phrase, which they've been doing for years. The brothers realize that their use of this phrase, and much of the style of their videos that they had taken to be unique to themselves, derives instead from childhood hours listening to Ian Shoales commentaries.
This leads to a riff on the notion of creativity and they come around to the idea that creativity isn't a single artist locked in a room, but rather is a creator who is soaked in the cultural milieu of their time and place and whose influences may not even be conscious. As one of them says, "this [sign-off phrase] is deep in my brain."
Long-time Copyfight readers will know that this is the view I've had since I started blogging here. It's been important for me to state that because so much of corporate creativity is based on the myth of the sole creator. I'm not saying that people whose output goes through the professional systems (publishing, record labels, movie studios, etc) are not creative. But in fighting over who has the rights to such creative output, the Cartel has found it convenient to push the myth that creativity is exclusively the province of the most recent person to touch it. The fight against remix culture brought this back into sharp focus, with the assertion that sampling so small an amount as a three-note phrase was "stealing" someone else's "original work."
I can clearly spot my own conversion to the cultural model of creativity: a class I took from Henry Jenkins at MIT. That class changed my ideas about how creativity works, and very nearly rid me of my elitist bias in favor of high art over pop art. Then again, Jackass. I retain my biases, and how Copyfight expresses some of them.
You may have noticed that I'm not posting much here lately. There are a bunch of reasons for that. For one, work has gotten really busy and I don't have a lot of energy for doing more writing when I get home. I also am discouraged by the loss of all the comments that got wiped out in my attempt to deal with the ongoing current of spam. Very few people take the time to comment on entries and I appreciate those who do.
I am also trying to figure out what kinds of things I want to put in the blog. If I have time for fewer entries then I'm likely to shed small stories or things that interest me less, and try to focus what time I do have on things I find more worthwhile. However, that contributes to the blog's quiescence, which isn't good for the blog or regular readership.
This is the question posed by Paul J. Heald of the University of Illinois (PDF link). Heald's research shows that the majority of uniquely named musical songs from the previous century are available in digital form on places such as YouTube (70% of public domain and 77% of copyrighted). But when you go to look at ebooks, the story is starkly different: 94% of popular books from the early part of the 1900s up to 1923 are available and after that you're pretty much out of luck.
1923 is the publication year for volumes that still fall under copyright - the hole in our collective mind that begins there. But if copyright was the whole answer you'd expect to see a similar gap in availability for other works like music that are still covered by copyright. Since we don't see such a gap the question is why?
First, music is both easier to "produce" - that is, convert into easily accessible digital form - and "consume" since any browser or mobile device will hook you up to iTunes or YouTube. By contrast, creating an e-book is still a fair bit of work and you often need a specialized reader or app to consume the e-book.
Second, Heald points to two cases that caused a split in how copyright was applied to the two media. In 2002, the case Random House v. Rosetta Books established that publishers need authorial permission to create e-books, particularly when reprinting older works. By contrast Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers, Ltd. v. The Walt Disney Company found that publishers - in that case Disney - did not need a special license to convert music to a new form.
Heald's belief is that reform of copyright laws would lead to a surge in publication of older e-books. Given that his data show a high availability of pre-1923 books in electronic form, he argues that the production and consumption barriers aren't really that significant. Publishers are in the business of selling books that people want to read and even if it's not true for all volumes, it's still likely that publishers would find literature that was worth the investment to produce.
GOG - Good Old Games is an electronic games-sales store. It has a wide variety of titles but is best known for its namesake: older games that long ago left retail shelves and may be hard or impossible to find from other retailers. Even online retailers need a supply of keys, which make up the inventory of an electronic games store, and there's not a lot of incentive to buy and hold onto keys for old games that people may never buy. GOG, though, lives in the long tail.
Geigner points out the ways in which Walker's proposal appears both sensible and even-handed and highlights some of Walker's responses to his critics, whom he calls both "astronomically false" and "gruesomely inaccurate". It's fun to read and I suggest you read both Geigner's summary and Walker's originals.
Walker touches on several of our common themes: what motivates creative people, what is the purpose of copyright and how has its current maximalist implementation strayed from that purpose, etc. To take a page from the economist's book, it's a fundamental error to treat non-rivalous goods the way we treat rivalrous goods. The creation of a process for releasing old games into the public domain after a long time would enrich our society without impoverishing creators.
Salmon points out that each of these attempts is "highbrow" by which he means variously that the journalists are taking their work seriously, all have pretty high price tags, and come with high ambitions. It will be interesting to see which of them is able to make it.
Like Salmon I am most excited about Ezra Klein's attempt to do a more networked, more comprehensive, and less time-dictated version of journalism. For a long time the wisdom has been that news has to be "new" and that electronic media would win because it is faster at delivering the latest new thing. Even broadcast television has its news timeslots and 24-hour news channels have schedules to follow.
But maybe news isn't about newness so much as it is about comprehension and understanding. Another thing the net and electronic media are good at is providing comprehensive - some would say overwhelming - amounts of data. That can take the form of a firehose - just search for a common problem like "my cat pees on the carpet" to see how many different answers you can get, not to mention people wanting to sell you products to solve your problem. Or it can take the form of a collaborative answer. This week I remembered the Challenger disaster and found that Wikipedia has a really detailed and thorough page on the event.
These things both have their uses as well as weaknesses and what Klein seems to be proposing is some of the best of both. He wants a site where incremental updates on developing stories are folded into a larger, more comprehensive, and more explanatory whole. This is an idea that I've seen bounced around since people like Ted Nelson first started talking about using hypertext for news, something I heard from him in 1986 or '87. If Klein can make it work that will be a real advance, in my opinion.
Benkler and his co-authors used a set of tools to code content from various Web sites, news sources, and social media over a 17 month period. Their tools did the initial text and link analysis, which they then supplemented with human review and personal interviews. From this analysis they argue that - in effect - the long-claimed effects of decentralized and networked democracy worked. They track how small-scale media worked to shape and coalesce the story (narrative) that then entered the mass consciousness.
As David Post notes in his blog entry on the report titled "What the Hell Happened?" for people not intimately involved in the networked media discussion for the year or two before the bills went down, it felt like a sudden tidal wave. Literally in the space of a couple days the bill went from having massive support from the political elite to being a piece of toxic waste politicians couldn't disavow fast enough. It looked like a quick event from the mainstream media perspective, but what Benkler et al show is that the opposite is true. The conversation started and evolved and grew through broad participation (including thoughtful academics like Post). It was these highlights that the mainstream media seem to have picked up on, missing the broader and deeper picture.
It's a standard question in economics to ask if we have too much or too little of something and if so, why. Stiglitz argues that right now innovations are overprotected. As evidence, he notes that the Myriad decision - invalidating their patents - was key to unlocking important techniques in cancer screening, such as alternative (and affordable) tests for second opinions. Breast cancer is itself a killer, and women are making radically life- and body-changing decisions on the basis of these genetic tests, so having easy access to alternatives is clearly a major value. Stiglitz notes that he filed an expert declaration in the Myriad case arguing why patents are not necessary for drug innovation - in fact they stifle such innovation.
Stiglitz's points are complex and worth reading - I can't do them real justice in a blog post that summarizes a column where he himself summarizes a set of book-length arguments. But let me touch on three important elements of the debate.
There's an argument to be made that health-related intellectual property is special. I've just finished watching a lovely video from the Steinway company on how they make their piano bodies. Many of their techniques are (or were) patented. Our patent system makes no distinction between a process for creating a life-saving drug and a process for laminating boards to give particular sound fidelity. Economically, however, they are very different. Stiglitz argues that generalized increases in health and longevity have led to the economic booms and prosperity we all enjoy. Making a better piano is nice but has a fairly narrow benefit; making people generally more healthy has a much broader impact. In market terms, there's a greater value realized (even though it's much more diffused) and from that one can reason that they ought to be treated differently.
There's also an argument to be made for replacing government monopolies with more direct subsidies such as funded research and prize competitions as promoters of innovation - on efficiency grounds if nothing else. Stiglitz argues that our current structure of IP monopolies lead to "rent-seeking" behaviors that are undesirable from both economic and social points of view. Patent trolls may be some of the worst rent-seekers we've seen in the IP arena. Eliminate (or curtail) these monopolies and you reduce the waste and hindrance that comes from rent-seeking behaviors.
Finally, there's the important idea that there's nothing actually necessary about the system we have today - it's a political construct, not a mathematical necessity. If we're going to be talking about new models for business, we also ought to be talking about new models for IP.
There's another school of thought, though: anything goes. We've seen this in industries like fashion where copying is in the lifeblood of the business. This is sometimes called the "wild west" but it would more accurately correspond to "colonial times." In the bad old days when American was the upstart and the British were the established heavies, Americans stole and copied and stole and copied. Even after the Copyright Act of 1790 and its successors became part of the body of American law, we were happily ripping off European authors to the point