Oppose Strengthening the CFAA and Support Aaron’s Law

I wrote about Aaron Swartz and his difficulties with the U.S. Government almost a year ago. Since then Aaron killed himself, due in no small part to the strain put upon him by his pending criminal charges. Cory Doctorow gave a talk at a local bookstore a couple of months ago that felt like a call to arms.

Since then, I have been doing my best to make people aware of the problem posed by the vague language of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and it’s misguided use as a club to prevent people from doing things with a computer that threaten the status-quo of our government’s favorite corporations.

Rather than post one of my trademark walls of text, instead I would like to direct you to a film about two others who saw mistreatment and abuse as a result of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And keep in mind that both of these gentlemen actually defrauded and abused computer systems, unlike Mr. Swartz, who did no such thing.

Keep circulating the tapes

I saw this on TechDirt and found the tale to be entertaining:

In the comments, someone mentioned a TVTrope about how some shows only exist in illegal archives maintained by fans. The trope is known as “Keep circulating the tapes“.

On that page is this little gem:

Try not to be angry that you can get the complete Brady Bunch Variety Hour, Van Pires, and TJ Hooker on DVD but not Muppet Babies, the 1960s Batman, or almost any music video of The Beatles.

It struck me as funny, because I have both the complete “Muppet Babies” series, as well as the complete 1960’s Batman series (including the doomed Batgirl pilot), thanks to bit torrent.

apple wants control of your textbooks

this article about the stir that apple has created over high school textbooks is amusing in that it’s much ado about something that has already played out with movies and music.

the author has a valid concern over apple serving as a gatekeeper to education:

Apple’s vision is a walled garden that offers a carefully curated experience to those willing to lock themselves into it. It will be shiny and beautiful, but education will be a commodity and Apple the company through which we will consume it.

however, the author concern fails to take into account the “invisible foot of piracy”. unlike the invisible hand of the market that keeps things going, the invisible foot kicks people and corporations who attempt to wield too much control.

prior to receiving my first e-reader, i had read a couple of books on a computer screen, and a few more on my phone. after receiving my original nook, i jumped into ebook piracy with both feet. this is why the apple lock down just isn’t a big deal. people don’t need apple hardware to access apple controlled education because digital goods are so easy to pirate. this quality is known in economic terms as excludability. excludability is the ability to keep people from benefiting from something without paying. digital content is by nature non-excludable. as a matter fact, i kind of hope that apple succeeds in locking people out of the education system, because that will make pirates like me even more valuable than we already are.

after two attempts at college, and three course corrections during my second attempt, i can say with conviction that education can be adversarial to people who are not on what the educational establishment considers to be the optimal trajectory. for folks like me, who missed the opportunity to go to college right out of high school, you are basically fighting the college for the right to succeed.

having digital access to course materials and text books, be they legitimately obtained or pirated, is of tremendous value to a student fighting to succeed. thanks to filthy scumm pirates, apple will never be able to wield total control over access to those materials.

Clay Shirkey on Defending our Freedom to Share

This blog is composed entirely of things that I have found on the web, from the content management system, to the hastily generated advice memes. I have discussed here, at length, why ACTA, SOPA and every other government bailout of the content industry is a bad idea, but Shirkey’s talk takes it to a more fundamental level: that the 20th century media companies have declared war on the culture of sharing which has always existed, but has really been incubated by the internet.

piracy and “the long tail”: the product problem

a lot of bloggers talk about the amazon/netflix phenomenon called the long tail, which is [a different] chris anderson’s theory that the future of commerce is selling a lot less of a lot more.

on the surface this sounds logical. netflix rents out all sorts of films, and their warehousing costs are nominal, so they will do a small business on a large number of items, instead of the bestbuy model which is to do big business on a small number of items which are mostly current releases that end up in the bargain bin once their popularity gives out.

amazon has observed something similar to the long tail and supposedly makes about as much on its obscure sales as it can with its hit products.

i have had a couple of friends who worked at big box retail stores complain that the automated supply chain management system floods them with shipments of blank CDs, meanwhile, customers riot over the lack of stock on a hot new video game. this is because only reinforcing success by selling only what is hot, leads to a marketplace that is flooded with lots of recently-hot-but-rapidly-cooling products all competing for the same limited attention and resources.

the idea sort of comes from the power law distribution, or the 80-20 rule: 80% of some quality will come from 20% of some quantity.

the long tail is basically a paretto distribution:
the paretto distribution

which states that when you measure the relationship of popularity to sales, the area of the curve where the products sold are popular is roughly equal to the area of the curve where the products sold were considered to be unpopular.

so, with this in mind, then digitally distributed goods should make this sort of long tail business model even more successful, right? storing things digitally is really inexpensive, so there is no reason not to offer everything digitally, dump physical media and the logistics that come with it, and make money selling the popular stuff when it is popular and then continue making money on that stuff once they are considered to be un popular.

except that the media companies are reluctant to let all of their wares go digital due to piracy concerns.

so where does piracy come into the continuum?

like retail stores, file sharing communities tend to focus primarily on what is popular and recent, and there tends to be less emphasis on older, more obscure works. piracy itself has a long tail as well, where the back catalog of once-popular but now un-popular downloads live on with relatively small numbers of loyal seeders.

the classical argument against piracy is that creative works cost money to create, promote, and distribute and piracy circumvents the sale of media, which is how those costs are recouped. the new argument is that business models that embrace free promotion and distribution can help producers compete with piracy. in the olden days before the internet, you made a movie, book, TV show, or music album with the idea of having the broadest appeal, and then marketed it to the widest audience possible. today you need to reach an audience that wants to support your production.

the old way meant hiring the best known and [presumably] best performing, and therefore [probably] best paid, actors/performers, directors/producers, and designers/creators. this meant putting them to work on something that follows some sort of formula that appeals to a large audience. the result is a work that took a lot of money to create and looks a lot like all the other stuff that’s out there. this decline in quality and originality is ultimately what undoes a production.

in order to make as many people as possible aware of your work, you have to spend as much or more on promoting the production in the media as you spent on the production itself. in other words you are investing lots of money hoping to guarantee popularity, and therefore guarantee a return on your investment. the problem of course is that your product cost a lot to begin with, and spending an equal amount on promotion means to have to do twice as much in sales before your product breaks even.

my assertion in this is that, with regards to creating and promoting big hits, the investment in popularity creates the kind of positive pressure behind the product that drives piracy as well. a product which has mass marketing and mass appeal has mass demand on the file sharing scene. in the figure below, the red line indicates what i call the “piracy line”, where a work gains enough popularity to be massively downloaded:
the red line means pirates!

the actual location of the line could be much lower on the popularity axis and the result will still be the same: there’s way more area of the curve *below* the piracy line than there is above it. the popularity of your product is working against its profitability.

let me say that again: all the advertising that you do is basically saying “go pirate this thing now!”

when you couple mass promotion of a product with a general decline in quality you create risks for your consumers. the odds that your album, movie, book, or TV show will be at least sampled via the file sharing scene increase with every corner you cut in development and every dollar you spend on promotion.

the other way to look at it is that if your product had less universal appeal, and more niche appeal, the impact of filesharing would be significantly lessened because there would be significantly fewer marketing costs associated with such a project. you could probably spend less on production as well, especially if your production is targeted at a smaller audience who will be more enamored with your work being targeted at them. this exuberance can also translate into sales: if your production becomes part of the community, then people will want to buy stuff associated with it in order to identify themselves as a part of that community.

in fact, i have downloaded and watched films for no other reason than they were highly supported on the file sharing scene and the comments on the torrents made the film sound compelling. one such example is amish grace which was some lifetime made for TV film that would never have shown up on my radar otherwise. it was good story and a neat look into a culture i know nothing about.

large scale productions cost a lot of money to produce. productions like a top 40 album, summer block buster film, or a network television series need to be made to appeal to a large audience. they also need to be heavily marketed so that a large audience can be made aware of the production’s existence. the cost of the production requires many sales (CDs/tickets/ads) to be made before the project breaks even. the product is just too expensive to be sustainable in an environment of rampant file sharing.

a small scale production costs less to produce. an independent film or album doesn’t need as large a budget. independents also don’t need as big of an audience, hence they require less marketing. most importantly, independents don’t need as many sales to turn a profit. what hollywood doesn’t realize is that less marketing also means fewer downloads and more people who are willing to support your work.

another advantage that an independent project will have in the new piracy landscape is more loyal fans. i don’t mean a larger number of fans who are loyal, i mean greater loyalty among the small number of fans that you have. in terms of filesharing, independent works are more likely to be supported by their fans because the work is more likely to mean something to them. examples abound, but the humble indie bundle is probably the best one.

in music, a catchy, highly produced, but ultimately forgettable radio tune will be downloaded extensively and deleted to make room for newer, also forgettable tunes. back catalog tunes that have stood the test of time will probably also be downloaded massively but may also see merchandise sales from a small percentage of downloaders who really love the song. a musical act that makes the music that helps define a sub-culture will get not just merch sales, it will get people who are not just willing to help, but wanting to be part of the experience. this fanatical loyalty is where production costs can really lower as people donate time, money, and other resources to make the production a success.

nothing makes me happier than finding some new thing on the internet and jumping into it. this has happened with music in the form of grime; it’s happened with movies like the millenium trilogy (funny story, i heard about “the girl with the dragon tattoo” from the list of movies that feature nmap); and even television shows like insecurity. note that in all of these cases, the works are from other countries and that distribution and promotion in the US is just virtually non-existent.

attack of the cyber pirates – calling hollywood’s bluff

embedded below is a 9 year old video about the plight of hollywood and its fight against piracy:

so what’s changed since then?

pirates still pirate, more now than ever before. hollywood still whines about lost sales, more now than ever before.

except that the UK passed the digital economy bill, and the US is trying to push through BS treaties and legislation like ACTA and COICA. the situation went from stupid (suing college students and single moms) to ridiculous (COICA == censoring the internet).

except that since 2002 films like avatar and the dark knight have come out. these sorts of films were supposed to be impossible in an environment of rampant piracy, and yet….

what i find amazing is that hollywood is supposed to be losing billions every year to illegal downloads, how are they still around?

assuming just $2 billion a year in losses – the smallest amount of money someone could lose and still call it “billions” – after 9 years of losses that’s $18 billion. how much is the music and film industry worth if it’s still economically feasible to make movies and music after losing $18 billion?

or is the industry just lying?

or maybe they’re not lying, they’re just bluffing. you know, like a strategic move. how a tactical retreat isn’t running away, it’s a strategic move? or how withdrawing from a losing campaign isn’t a defeat? i guess that if you plan ahead, doing something cowardly isn’t cowardly. yeah, premeditated cowardice isn’t cowardice, it’s strategy.

fair enough. i say it’s time to call the bluff. when someone talks about losses due to piracy i think the uni-lateral response should be “if you’re losing money, then quit.” it doesn’t matter if it’s a big name hollywood film maker, record exec, or an indie folk singer. if someone does something remotely connected to media, and they complain about losing money due to piracy, tell them to quit.

for bonus lulz add an immature expletive.
do eet

extremism in the war on piracy

this torrentfreak opinion piece tries to strike a middle ground between the hardened pirates and the hardened IP maximalists.

i have a different opinion: the war against piracy is over. the pirates won. it’s time to roll up your sleeves and do some Real Actual Work(tm). all the DRM and lobbying in the world isn’t going to change the fact that the world went free and digital without you. if you want to stay relevant you need to start catching up.

the entertainment industry should have stepped in and taken control of the situation in 2001, not by suing file sharers, but by building out the services to give those middle of the road consumers what they wanted. instead, 10 years was wasted ignoring and then suing potential customers. the end result: whole generations have grown up *NOT* paying for content.

i certainly am not. i’ll pay for access to content (i have the top tier internet connection plan through our cable company as well as a netflix streaming account) but i won’t pay for media or licenses, and based on netflix’s success i am guessing that i am not alone.

*yawn* google is doing something with TV

internet TV, for me is a non-starter. compared to bit torrent, it’s inconvenient, poor quality, totally fragmented, and jammed with ads. oh sure, it’s legal, but sucks mightily.

google thinks it can get it right, but with the TV studios, broadcasters, and cable companies pretending the internet doesn’t exist, i seriously doubt it.

since i modded my xbox, like 6 years ago, i have been streaming videos from a file server and it absolutely rocks. there is NOTHING that compares to samba and VLC or XBMC pulling files over the network from a file share.

there is the inconvenience of getting the files to the share, but that vastly out weighs the inconvenience of internet TV in it’s current form.

an old PC with windows xp, or a new atom barebone plugged into the VGA port on your TV is pretty much all you need. in the absence of VGA, mod a classic xbox and plug it into the RCA jacks on your old dinosaur of a TV. the first year we lived in our house (and separated the geek room from the living room) the “TV” in my living room was a 22″ monitor.

either way the technology for internet TV peaked like 5 years ago. so get on with your life and quit messing with apple TV and the rest. all the other varieties of set top appliance suck miserably in comparison.

so all of you out there in TVland, this is what you are competing with:
$0-$300 for hardware (depending on your choice of modded xbox, old PC, or new atom)
total freedom for website access thanks to mozilla if you go the PC way
total freedom of video quality and availability thanks to bit torrent
$50 price tag if you go the xbox route.

other nice add-ons if you go with a PC:
support for arbitrary streams via netflix if you go with windows
support for crazy peripherals if you go with a PC (think webcams, speaker phones, or fancy remotes)
native support for youtube, hulu, netflix, etc. (no games with devices like with the roku)

in fact, i have had a couple of fun evenings with the family just watching youtube videos or other web based TV shows (like the strangerhood or 5second films).

so if you want to sell a nifty appliance it has to to cost significantly less than $200 AND support streams from samba/NFS. UPnP might work too, but i haven’t tried that since samba is so easy. another option would be a USB port for playing video from a thumb drive or an external hard drive, but i’d really prefer the samba support.

that’s been my issue with video on an unmodded console, the ability to play streams from my file server.

so i went shopping this weekend, and i have to say that the googleTV boxes look pretty sexy. not $300 worth of sexy, but sexy non the less. i have to admit that the integrated video conferencing on some of the gear is really cool.

i am working on getting my family into video conferencing, partly because it’s important to keep in touch, but mostly because it was totally baller when the jetsons did it. i think the availability of a TV sized screen to a pc, plus the affordability of web cams and low end PCs, and the availability of simple messaging software like skype or gmail make it possible to set up a decent conferencing system.

i have worked with some commercial conference systems in the past, mostly from striker or polycom, and frankly, the functionality just isn’t worth the muli-thousand dollar price tag. not to mention the hellish misery of petitioning the network gods with prayer for them to grant you an open port on the great firewall.

if you having streaming problems i feel bad for you son…

…i got 99 problems but getting content on my device of choice ain’t one.

i have used hulu like twice, both times it sucked. i guess some people are actually paying to use it, but are not impressed and they got this in response:

due to stringent contract agreements on how content can be shared through certain devices, we are not able to have all of the content that everyone wants at this time.

this is hulu saying “yes we suck, but it’s not our fault”. well hulu, yes it is your fault. the current state of affairs in the TV industry needs to be destroyed, and you could be poised to destroy it, but for some reason you keep caving in to the demands of content providers.

you see, TV has always sought to destroy new entrants into the market:

and every time, new licensing deals are made and the market grows significantly.

need i remind you that i can get whatever i want, in whatever format i want, on whatever device i want, with bittorrent and a bit of research? that is your competitor hulu, but it’s also your content provider’s competitor as well. you guys could totally compete with that by being legal and easy to use. especially if hulu was easy to get onto a TV.

you guys do in fact compete with piracy. pirated content is a superior good, don’t ever forget that, but more importantly, don’t let your corporate TV overlords forget it either.