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American Model Toys and Kusan trains

While almost everyone knows American Flyer and Lionel, and a lot of people have heard of Marx, there was a fourth maker of toy trains in the late 1940s and early 1950s that was much smaller, although very innovative, and today is nearly forgotten: Auburn, Indiana-based American Model Toys.

Its legacy, however, ties into virtually every major producer of O gauge trains in business today.

Read More »American Model Toys and Kusan trains

The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

Toy trains are a funny thing. Vintage Lionel trains are almost a status symbol, and their value has almost taken a mythical quality. Marx, on the other hand, was the working class brand in the 1950s, the company that had something for you no matter how much you had available to spend.

For the most part, today’s prices reflect that. Lionels are expensive and Marxes are cheap.

Sort of.

Read More »The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

A Bing in Marx clothing

The sign said “50% off all items $25 and under. Other items, make offer.” I spied a table full of beat-up Marx trains. I picked through them. There were two 3/16 scale tinplate boxcars and cabooses, paired with a Marx Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive, marked as a “set.” Price: $79. At least two of the cars were missing wheels and the loco had bad paint. Heaven only knew if it ran. The bundle wasn’t worth $20. Likewise for a six-inch bundle. Two common six-inch cars, rusty and one missing a coupler, paired with a locomotive with no wheels or engine or paint–about 90% naked, except for rust–for $65. I’d have been willing to pay $7.

I almost overlooked the three six-inch passenger cars that were almost completely devoid of paint. It’s a good thing I didn’t.

Read More »A Bing in Marx clothing

I need to build this in O gauge

I visited the site because the link promised billboards. I got so much more. Now the fine Scot in me really wants to build this box car.

Since my trains are O27, not HO, I can’t use his artwork directly. But his HO scale decals might be suitable for a tinplate 6-inch car like those American Flyer and Marx used to sell, since those 6-inch Marxes basically look like double-height HO cars.This is precisely why I’m not a rivet-counter. Trains are supposed to be fun. This car doesn’t exist in the real world, but it’s fun. The Second Amendment Gun Shop with a sign in the window saying “No weapons allowed” doesn’t exist in the real world, but it’s fun.

I try to keep elements of what I do believable–you won’t see any low-rider Honda Civics running around my layout, which is supposed to look like the 1950s because my trains were built in the ’50s–but since I can’t build models of a specific time and place, what’s the point of getting uptight about whether M-K-T box car 45001 really existed?

But hey. For some people that’s the best part of the hobby. That’s OK. Just don’t try to stop me from having my fun.

Operate incompatible rolling stock together with conversion cars

In the early 1950s, Lionel had two different standards for the couplers on its train cars. “Serious” sets used its knuckle couplers. Entry-level, or “Scout” sets, used one-piece couplers that came to be known as “Scout” couplers. My Dad had cars with both types of couplers in his collection.

Once I got Dad’s set running, I found a Marx car on eBay that I absolutely had to have–an operating Missouri Pacific cattle car. Marx used its own couplers. So how to get both types of Dad’s cars, plus my new Marx car operating together on the same train?

Enter the conversion car.A conversion car is just a car with two types of coupler on each end. I went to Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton to get mine made. Ideally, I’d have done a Marx-to-knuckle conversion car and a Marx-to-Scout conversion car. Then I could convert either type to Marx, and if I wanted to convert Scout to knuckle, I could just use the other two conversion cars. But Marty only had one Marx truck, so I got a Marx-to-knuckle and knuckle-to-Scout made. One could also make a makeshift Marx-compatible coupler with a Lionel truck that lacks a coupler but has a rivet hole (such as those used on the back end of some Lionel cabooses) and a wire Marx coupler substitute.

The only thing to say is to not use a collectible car to make your conversion car. There’s so little market demand for Scout cars that you won’t hurt their value of most of them by making them into conversion cars, and the same holds true of most Marxes. I used cars out of Marty’s $10-and-under box. I’ll also add a suggestion Marty made: Use an open car, like a gondola or a hopper, that you can put a load in to weigh it down. I find my conversion cars derail much less when loaded down with some weight. Even just a film cannister filled with pennies is enough to make a difference.

In the 1950s, Lionel’s knuckle coupler design gave the best combination of realism and reliability, but at a higher cost. Marx’s design was reliable and very inexpensive, but didn’t look very realistic. The Scout design looked realistic and was inexpensive, but wasn’t as reliable as either Lionel’s knuckle coupler or Marx’s tilt coupler. Today, the difference in cost of manufacturing is probably negligible, and people aren’t so concerned about cost anymore anyway.

Serious hobbyists prefer the Lionel knuckle couplers, and for the most part that’s all that anyone makes anymore. But if I like a car, I’m going to buy it, regardless of the coupler, and I want to be able to use basically whatever combination of rolling stock I like.

I’m not sure what that makes me, but conversion cars let me do it, and cheaply.

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.

Napster and the decline of copyright–part 3

All of this talk of Napster brings up some questions: What is legitimate use?

Making MP3s from CDs you already own is legal, just like making tapes from CDs you own is legal. It’s difficult to say that downloading MP3s made from CDs you already own would be illegal, as you can just make the MP3s yourself. For some people, this is preferable, as encoding MP3s takes a good deal of time on slower systems. However, one can never be certain of the quality of the MP3s online–the condition of the CD, the quality of the source drive, and the quality of the encoder come into play. Those who aren’t audiophiles probably prefer to just download the MP3s, but the existence of the files understandably makes record companies and artists nervous.

So Napster isn’t just out-and-out theft. (Just almost.)

But some tracks on Napster are legal as well. The right to make and distribute live bootleg recordings has been upheld by courts. And some artists, notably The Grateful Dead and, more recently, Phish and The Dave Matthews Band, have given bootleggers their blessing. Other artists aren’t so keen on being bootlegged, but aside from trying to keep recording devices out of their concerts, there isn’t much they can do about it. Such recordings on Napster are legal, but determining whether such a track is what it claims to be can be difficult. I once downloaded a supposed live version of ‘Til Tuesday’s “Believed You Were Lucky,” only to find it was the studio recording with reverb added–clearly a violation of copyright unless you happen to own the original. Many of the live recordings I’ve downloaded from likes of Joe Jackson, Peter Gabriel, and Social Distortion turned out to be from commercially available live albums, some of which I owned, and some of which I didn’t.

And occasionally an artist will release a recording on Napster for promotional purposes–or to hack off their record label. Veteran alternative supergroup Smashing Pumpkins released an album’s worth of unreleased material on Napster last year and said it was their last album.

But policing content on Napster and other peer-to-peer sharing plans is difficult. It’s not a total impossibility, but file renaming can make it much easier for illegal content to get through. Digital fingerprinting would be harder to circumvent, but that, too, could be done, and implementation is extremely difficult. The difficulty of such measures makes me wonder why Napster came into being–it’s not a good business model. Part of me wonders if Napster’s creators just didn’t care whether they were breaking the law or aiding others in breaking the law. While there are legal uses for Napster, I suspect few people are confining themselves to the legal uses.

There are plenty of people calling for copyright reform, and that’s not unreasonable. Under current law, copyrights can be extended beyond the material’s original audience’s lifetime. Under the original law, copyrights lasted for 26 years, renewable for another 26, for a total of 52 years. So that time frame won’t prevent Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney from making a living. But under that law, the pop songs from 1949 would now be freely distributable, and could be performed without royalties. The beloved early rock’n’roll tunes from the 1950s would come available this decade. For those songs, Napster wouldn’t be an issue.

Content publishers seem to be more worried about current copyright provisions than content creators are. Sci-Fi author Jerry Pournelle has stated numerous times he had no problem with the original law, when he was writing his early works under it.

Reverting back to the old law is probably the best compromise. People wanting to freeload will be able to do so, but they’ll have to wait 52 (or if they’re lucky, 26) years. Those who produce and distribute content will still be able to make a living doing so–the majority of people won’t be willing to wait all those years. Abandoned property won’t be an issue either–once it reaches 26 years of age, if it’s not renewed, it’s fair game.

Unfortunately, the copyright law debate is lost in all the Napster rhetoric. And that, I fear, is possibly the greatest casualty of the battle. But it’s no silver bullet either. It increases the pool of material that’s fair game for free distribution, but it doesn’t solve the problem of outright piracy of recent material.

MP3 has plenty of legitimate uses, for the consumer as a matter of convenience and for copyright holders as a matter of promotion, and the courts have upheld those legitimate uses. MP3 usage tends to be a fall guy for all the record industry’s problems, but the record industry had problems before the MP3 phenomenon became rampant. As Andy Breslau said, there are so many avenues of entertainment available today, it’s perfectly natural that the recording industry’s share of the entertainment pie would shrink, just like TV networks’ share is in decline. If and when Napster is forced to close its doors, the industry’s problems won’t just disappear, and the illegal copying of MP3s will almost certainly continue, though possibly not on such a large scale. There’s very little, if anything, the industry can do to stop MP3 swapping through Usenet newsgroups and IRC chatrooms, which was where the MP3 phenomenon began in the first place.

I expect the use of MP3 for promotional purposes to continue, and services such as MP3.com will take advantage of it legally for years to come. But services like Napster, which provide virtually anything you want with no proof of ownership, are probably running on borrowed time, even though the industry is lying to itself about the true impact these services have.

Napster will be forced to shut down, the record industry will continue to make billions and artists won’t get their fair share, and the record industry will continue to complain their billions aren’t enough and blame MP3s or something else.

Part 1 in a series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3