A reasonable analysis of the current copyright mess (updated)

Well, that was a disappointment. It was retracted nearly as quickly as it burst onto the scenes. Crud.

A reasoned, level-headed analysis of the problems that current copyright law creates rocked Slashdot yesterday. The amazing thing is, this thing came from Washington.

Here’s the highlight reel: Read more

The Byte digital archive

Here’s a treasure trove for retro computing enthusiasts. Archive.org created the Byte digital archive. It’s exactly what it sounds like: A collection of digitized issues of Byte magazine available online, free.

Numerous archives of vintage computer magazines exist, many of which are of questionable legality so I’ll refrain from saying anything specific about that.

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Redigi gets to live another day

Slashdot is reporting that selling used MP3s has been ruled legal. Unfortunately, Slashdot jumped the gun on that–it’s not quite what happened. Capitol Records asked a judge to shut down Redigi, and the judge refused. So Redigi can continue to operate, at least until the case goes to trial.

That in itself is a victory. But this isn’t the Super Bowl, where it’s just one game. More like the World Series.
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What the Founding Fathers intended to be in the public domain today

If Copyright law was still the way the Founding Fathers intended, anything copyrighted before 1955 would be in the public domain today. A number of noteworthy things came into being in 1955.

But like Duke University’s Center of Public Domain Studies, I’m a bit more concerned about the stuff that isn’t as noteworthy.

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The many troubles with e-books

A brief essay by free software pioneer Richard Stallman on the problems with e-books made the front page of Slashdot today. It’s everything I’ve come to expect from Stallman. I found myself vigorously agreeing with parts of it, and vigorously disagreeing with other parts of it.

But mainly I found myself disappointed that he didn’t really elaborate much. Maybe it’s because he covered similar ground once before in his 1997 dystopian 1984-ish short story, The Right to Read.

And, to me, that’s the problem. We’re on a slippery slope. Today it sounds ridiculous that it could be illegal to loan your laptop or your e-reader or your tablet to someone else. But prior to 2009, the idea that you could buy a book and then at some point the party that sold it to you could take it back from you without permission sounded ridiculous.
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No reason for brand wars

On one of the train forums I frequent, a legitimate question quickly degenerated into brand wars. And brand wars are one thing, but when people hold their preferred company to a different standard than the other company–in other words, one company is evil because it does something, but their preferred company does the same thing, it isn’t productive.

Actually, I see very little reason for brand loyalty as it is. I drive a Honda and I use a Compaq computer. Do either of those companies have any loyalty to me? No. To them, I’m just a source of income from yesterday.I don’t like the categorization of companies as "good" and "evil." Companies don’t exist to be good or evil. Companies exist for one reason: Make money. And one thing to remember is that companies will always do exactly what they think they can get away with.

In the case of the toy train wars, the two antagonists are Lionel and MTH. MTH is a scrappy underdog that got its start building trains as a subcontractor for Lionel. A business deal went bad–in short, Lionel left MTH high and dry on a multimillion dollar project, so MTH decided to go on its own and sell the product Lionel decided it didn’t want, but Lionel didn’t like the idea of one of its subcontractors competing with it while also making product for them, and understandably so.

MTH and Lionel have been mortal enemies ever since.

A few years ago, MTH accused Lionel of stealing trade secrets. The specifics are difficult to sort out, but someone with intimate knowledge of some of MTH’s products started designing equivalent products for Lionel. MTH sued and won, to the tune of $40 million. The case is now in appeal.

There’s no question that Lionel benefited from this contractor’s knowledge of the competing product. The question is who knew this was going on, who authorized it, and what an appropriate punishment would be. The only people who are questioning guilt have blinders on. There is no innocence here–just possible degrees of guilt. The other question is appropriateness. Lionel doesn’t have $40 million in the bank. Arguably the company isn’t worth a lot more than $40 million. So that $40 million judgment is essentially the corporate death penalty.

MTH is anything but perfect and holy, however. The thing that bothers me most about MTH is its attempt to patent elements of DCC (Digital Command Control), a method for automating train layouts. It’s an open industry standard, widely used by HO and N scale hobbyists. So MTH was seeking to collect royalties on something that’s supposed to be free for everyone to use. That’s a particular pet peeve of mine, and it’s the reason I haven’t bought any MTH products since 2003.

I came close to relenting this weekend though, when I saw some people bashing MTH while holding Lionel up as some kind of perfect, holy standard. It made me want to go buy a bunch of MTH gear, photograph myself with it, and post it on some forums so I could watch these guys have a stroke about it. Fortunately for them, I have better things to do with $200 right now. I also looked on my layout, and I don’t know where I could put the things I would have considered buying.

I’m more familiar with the computer industry than I am with anything else, and if you mention any computer company, I can probably think of something they did that would fit most people’s definition of evil. HP? Print cartridges that lie about being empty. Lexmark? Same thing, plus using the DMCA to keep you from refilling them. Dell? Nonstandard pinouts on power supplies that look standard, but blow up your motherboard if you try to use non-Dell equipment. IBM? Microchannel. Microsoft? Don’t get me started. Apple? Lying in ads.

As far as I’m concerned though, the most evil company of all is Disney. Disney, of all people? Yes. Disney is the main reason for the many complicated rewrites of copyright law that we’ve had in recent decades. Whenever something Disney values might fall into the public domain, Disney buys enough congressmen to get the laws changed. Never mind that early in its history, Disney exploited the public domain for its gain as much as anyone (which was its legal right), even to the point of waiting for The Jungle Book to fall into the public domain before making the movie, in order to avoid paying royalties to Rudyard Kipling. The problem is that now that Disney is the biggest kid on the block, it’s changing the rules it used to get there, so that nobody else can do it.

Unfortunately I’ve even seen not-for-profit corporations, companies that exist mostly to give away money, do dishonest things and essentially steal. If a charity can and will do these things, you can be certain that a for-profit corporation will.

So I don’t see any reason for brand loyalty, aside from liking a product. If you buy a company’s products and you like them, fine. Keep buying them. But that doesn’t make the people who prefer a competitor’s product evil. They didn’t sign off on the decisions, and your favorite company has done its own share of underhanded things too, whether you know it or not.

And there’s certainly no reason to go to war for your company of choice. It wouldn’t do the same for you.

Whatever happened to risk-takers?

I love Disney like I love the Soviet Union. Mainly it’s because the company clawed its way to the top by taking advantage of obscure aspects of copyright law, and then the company bought enough Congressmen to close up the doors they used to get where they are today.

But I read something today about Disney that I found interesting.Ward Kimball was a high-up at Disney. He was one of Disney’s primary animators and had almost a son-father relationship with Disney himself. He wrote a memoir some years back (the link takes you to some excerpts), and it gives me some idea what’s wrong with Disney and, frankly, what’s wrong with us.

Some poignant sections:

Walter Lantz, who made Woody Woodpecker, never gave a damn about quality a day in his life. He always wanted the quick buck.

If you want to know the real secret of Walt’s success, it’s that he never tried to make money. He was always trying to make something that he could have fun with or be proud of.

It goes against our instincts to do anything like that today. Today, everything’s about the bottom line. If you can save half a cent, you do it. If it comes at the expense of quality, so be it.

He felt that if you put your heart into a project and if you were a perfectionist, people would automatically like it. They would appreciate the quality.

I was going to say I don’t think that’s true anymore, but maybe that’s just because I thought only of the computer industry when I read that. In the automotive industry, part of the reason Toyota is now the second largest carmaker in the world is because of its quality. Twenty years ago Toyota and Honda were two of the least imaginative companies in the industry (and frequently the butt of jokes) but the quality was there almost from the start. So maybe this does still work, provided you manage to not run out of money.

Artists are pretty touchy individuals; they aren’t brick layers. It takes very little to hurt their feelings. Walt was never quite aware of that.

Neither are most people. I guess that gives me more insight into myself than it does into the world, but I found it interesting.

Walt was a rugged individualist. He admired Henry Ford… Maybe Ford and Walt were the last of the great ones, the last of the great rugged individuals. Maybe that was why they were impatient with people of lesser talent and impatient with themselves when they made mistakes.

Nah, there are plenty of rugged individualists. The problem is they don’t do well when they’re stuck under people with less talent than them. Billy Mitchell is a notorious example. Rugged individualists often aren’t appreciated until they’re gone. I don’t know if I have all of the attributes of one, but “impatient with people of lesser talent and impatient with themselves when they made mistakes” fits me to a tee. I wish I had some insight in how to deal with that attribute.

Guys like L.B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn were despots. They were untouchables. You would have to speak to a guy who would speak to a guy who would speak to their secretaries in order to see them. Walt wasn’t like that. He mixed with everybody. You didn’t say Mr. Disney like you said Mr. Mayer or Mr. Warner. [I]f you called Jack Warner by his first name, he’d fire you. Walt didn’t want anybody to call him anything but Walt.

There are a lot more untouchables at the top today than there are approachables. I quickly tire of higher-ups who refuse to call me “Dave.” You’re not my mother! Why not just go all the way and make it “Mr. Farquhar” if that’s the way you’re going to be!

I read a story a while ago about Louis Marx. For much of the 20th century, Marx was the owner of the largest toy company in the world. Somehow he managed to figure out how to consistently produce cheap toys that didn’t break. And when they did break, he usually fixed them for free. Send the broken toy to the factory and they’d fix it for the price of postage, or bring it in person to the headquarters at 200 Fifth Avenue in New York City, and they’d fix it free if they could. Well, I read a story about someone who brought a toy in to be fixed. He had no idea where to go, but he saw a kind-looking old man, so he walked up to him and held up his broken toy. He smiled and asked the child to follow him. The child noticed that everyone treated this man with the utmost respect. He took him to an office where a repairman fixed toys. Well, a few years later this child saw a picture of Louis Marx and he believes the kind old man who helped him was Lou Marx himself.

[Walt Disney] was a man who loved nostalgia before it became fashionable. That’s why so many of his pictures were set in the harmless period of American history, the Gay Nineties or the early 1900’s – because that was when he was a kid.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that you’re the most honest and your work is the most appealing when it harkens back to your childhood. So I guess the money I spent back in 1998 learning how to un-grow up was a wise investment. Not that I needed Ward Kimball or Kurt Vonnegut to tell me that, of course…

He came from a pretty… poor family. He had four brothers and a sister. There wasn’t any extra money to spend… He loved having that soda fountain because as a kid, he couldn’t spend money for ice cream. His youth was scratching for pennies and nickels and tossing whatever he earned into the kitty at home.

I think you appreciate you have a lot more when you’ve had to struggle for a while. That definitely explains the difference between my Dad and his brother. I won’t elaborate on that any more other than to say I learned a little about how not to live by watching Dad, but I learned a lot more of what not to do by watching his sorry excuse for a brother.

Now the Disney operation is a corporation with many, many bosses and committees. The people who run the place don’t have any personal relationships with the creative people. The thing that made Walt great was that he was a creative himself and he recognized creativity in others.

Mega-success stories often begin with the person at the top being the prototype for the type of person the company needs to succeed. At the very least it makes the person at the top able to recognize the people who do the work.

Marx’s ultimate downfall was that he wouldn’t hire anyone too much like him, because he was afraid of someone usurping him. He didn’t get usurped, but without someone to replace him, his company died a very quick death. He was 76 when he finally retired, and he lived to see his company’s assets auctioned off at bankruptcy.

I suspect a second coming of Walt Disney probably wouldn’t last all that long at Disney now.

There’s no longer any innovation or excitement. The new regime just sits around trying to guess how Walt might have done it. That’s quicksand… So it’s boring. It’s a corporation where they play it safe. You copy yourself copying yourself. Walt would never stand for that. He never repeated himself.

If you have to guess how someone else would have done it, you’re much better off just walking up to someone else and asking, “How would you do it?” You’ll get better ideas that way.

He’d frighten everybody half to death by challenging them that way. But then you’d get with it, and new ideas would come. Walt kept everyone on pins and needles. Everybody getting [angry] at him was very healthy. See, you had a guy steering you all the time, and that made you work to capacity. It pulled the best out of you.

I guess I’m just really reflective right now. I don’t ever want to be out of work again, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I’m looking for. I know there has to be a better way to say it, but I think what I’m looking for is someone who takes risks and is usually right.

I don’t believe in rule by committees. I don’t think anything can be done well through group action. This is another thing that made Walt great, because all the decisions on a picture were checked by him, down to the last detail.

Agreed. What else do I need to say?

Hey, score one for copyRIGHTS!

If you haven’t heard of the hilarious JibJab parody of “This Land is Your Land,” starring George W. Bush and John Kerry, click on that link, then come back here when you’re done laughing. I’ll see you in an hour or two.

Well, the supposed owners of the copyright on the original song weren’t amused, so they threatened a lawsuit. But the good guys struck back. Not only is parody permissible (are they gonna sue Weird Al Yankovic next?), but the good guys made a convincing case that “This Land is Your Land” is public domain!This was a case of a publisher trying to stack the deck in its favor to eke out a few extra years of copyright, trying to save 20 bucks, or both. The song was first published in 1945, but the publisher prefers to stick with a 1956 copyright, renewed in 1984.

JibJab’s goal was to protect its own skin, so the publisher is sticking by its 1956 copyright. Someone else will probably have to fight that battle.

Sadly, the way copyright law is now, it’s almost impossible for something to fall into the public domain except by accident, as in this case. But at least we have a demonstrable case of it happening once.

Eldred loses, and so do the rest of us

It’s obvious from today’s ruling in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case that copyright law will never revert back to what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Corporate interests will be able to continue to buy extensions to copyright law to prevent the overwhelming majority of works made after 1924 from falling into the public domain unless for some odd reason it gets abandoned.
The problem is that when you and I want something, all we have to offer to our congressmen is our vote every two or six years, and maybe a campaign contribution. Disney doesn’t vote, although its employees do, but Disney can give a congressman or a political party more money in a year than I’ll earn in the next decade.

The result is that companies like Disney can profit off the public domain (that’s where they got The Jungle Book–author Rudyard Kipling didn’t make a dime off the Disney movie) without ever putting anything into the pot. Movies like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, which would be public domain by now if the Sonny Bono Copyright Act hadn’t passed in 1998, remain locked up.

I doubt the public domain issue is something that’s going to energize the masses enough to force the issue into Congress. At least not in the short term. Most people have no clue what “public domain” means. They just know that around Christmas, suddenly 50 of their cable channels start playing It’s a Wonderful Life 24 hours a day. If any of them ever bother to ask, they find out it’s because the movie is in the public domain and anyone can broadcast it without paying for it. Then they shrug their shoulders and reach for the remote and look for tanks or bulldozers or football.

But this is a battle we have to fight.

Since writing to our Congressmen is futile–I may do it anyway, hoping that maybe my word carries a couple of grams’ worth more weight since I have produced a number of copyrighted works–we’re going to need to resort to something else: Civil disobedience. If a law can’t be counted on to be kept by 70 percent of the populace, it’s not enforcable and the law will chance. The most recent example of this is speed limits.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to run out to Gnutella and Kazaa and download everything in sight. As much as I may disagree with Aimee Mann’s political views, she has more than the right to be paid–she has the need to be paid. She’s not working a steady 40-hour-a-week job so she needs those record royalties to pay her bills. Taking her music without paying for it is no different from withholding my 40-hour-a-week paycheck.

But when the copyright would have rightfully expired by now anyway, I see no moral or ethical problem in taking it.

For example, there’s the Non-US Online Books Page that lists old books that are out of international copyright but not U.S. copyright. Books make you look smart, right? Download them, unwrap them with a text editor like Metapad, and then you can load them into Word and set the font and size to whatever you want. Duplex-print them (or print the odd pages, let the pages cool, then put the pages back in and print the even pages) and comb bind them or put them into cheap $1 3-ring binders, or take up bookbinding as a hobby. Fill up your bookshelves with free books you may not necessarily ever read. Be sure to include legitimate public domain books in your collection as well.

Or, since I know the majority of you won’t do that, amass a huge collection of early ’50s rock’n’roll tunes. The copyrights have expired in Europe. Import cheap European bootlegs, or get them through Gnutella. Share them with friends. Record a shelf full of CDs. If your hobby is music, sample and re-use the living daylights out of them. If you’re a European musician, do us States-siders a favor and use a 1950s-era sample in every song you record so that your colleagues over here start wondering why they can’t do that.

Sometimes civil disobedience is the only way to overthrow oppressive laws.

Ways to save money on your DVD player

If you’re the only person left in the United States without a DVD player, you might want some tips on how to buy them.
I know, I know, since this year was the year of the DVD player, this information would have been a lot more helpful a couple of months ago. I don’t always think of things as quickly as I should.

Believe it or not, your best bet for a DVD player is very likely the cheapest one on the shelf at your local store, the one that’s a brand you’ve never heard of and made in China.

The main reason most people want a cheap DVD player and don’t know it is old TVs. I’ve got a Magnavox console TV that looks like it should be sitting in a shag-carpeted living room with an Atari 2600 connected to it. DVD players have S-Video and composite outputs. The only words of that sentence my ancient TV understands are “have” and “and”.

There are two ways you can put composite inputs on an old TV like mine. You can connect an RF modulator to it–that’s an accessory you can buy at Radio Shack for $30 or most consumer electronics stores for $25 that plugs into your TV’s antenna jack and gives you composite and possibly S-Video inputs.

The second way to put composite inputs on an old TV is to connect a VCR to it. Chances are you already have a VCR. Every VCR I’ve ever seen has composite inputs, which are intended to allow you to chain two VCRs to a TV.

But most brand-name DVD players have copy protection circuitry that detects the presence of a VCR and degrades the picture to an unacceptable level. This is because Hollywood is convinced the only reason someone would connect a DVD player and a VCR in tandem is to make copies of DVDs. And since the lack of composite inputs on old TVs presents an opportunity to sell more stuff, and most big-name makers of DVD players also make stuff like TVs, they’re more than happy to comply.

The brands you’ve never heard of, however, really don’t give a rip. They care about making stuff cheap. And, well, extra circuitry means extra cost. So that’s one reason to leave it out. And China is notorious for thumbing its nose at Western copyright law anyway. (I find it really frightening that totalitarian China is more interested in my rights as a consumer than the supposed Republic of the United States, but that’s another topic.)

Connecting a VCR to a TV through its antenna doesn’t noticeably affect picture quality, because VHS’ picture quality is lower than that of broadcast TV. Connecting a DVD player through the antenna–whether through a VCR or an aftermarket RF modulator–does reduce picture quality. But the picture will still look better than VHS-quality.

Every time I’ve looked, I’ve been able to find no-name DVD players for $60-$65. Name-brand ones cost closer to $100. So a cheapie could potentially save you $70, if it saves you from having to buy an RF modulator.

But even if your TV has composite and/or S-Video inputs, you probably still want the ability to chain your DVD player through your VCR. Because chances are you still want to keep your VCR around for recording TV shows (don’t tell Hollywood) and watching all your old tapes that you don’t re-buy on DVD.

An awful lot of TVs that have those inputs have two sets of inputs, one on the front and one in the back. If you ever connect your camcorder to your TV, you want to save your front-mounted inputs for that, to save fumbling around. If you have a videogame console that you’re in the habit of disconnecting and reconnecting, you want your front inputs for that.

Having the ability to chain your new DVD player to your old VCR gives you more options in setting things up. Options are good.

If you just got a DVD player and you’re having problems with it, you might just want to exchange it for a no-name model.

Finally, if you’re into foreign films and want to import DVDs to get movies you can’t get in the United States yet (if ever), you’re much more likely to be able to disable region codes on a no-name cheapie than you are on a big name brand.

What about reliability? Yes, a $60 no-name model is probably more likely to break than a $100 brand-name one. How much more likely? It’s hard to say. Is it worth the risk? Absolutely. In all likelihood, by the time your cheapie breaks, you’ll be able to buy a replacement cheapie for 40 bucks. Or, since many cheapies use a plain old IDE DVD-ROM drive like your PC, and that drive is the only mechanical part in a DVD player, you stand an awfully good chance of being able to fix the thing yourself. It’s pretty easy to find an IDE DVD drive for $50 or less right now. Within 18 months, I expect them to be selling for $20. If not sooner.

Finally, a tip: If your TV has S-Video inputs, use them. Using S-Video instead of the more conventional composite gives you a sharper picture and better color accuracy. With VHS, this doesn’t make a lot of difference because the format is really low-quality to begin with, and tapes wear out and reduce it even more. There are a lot of things that can go wrong before the signal even starts to travel down that set of cables.

Since DVD has much higher resolution and doesn’t wear out, you’ll notice the difference.