October 14, 2008
Larry Lessig’s WSJ Op-ed “In Defense of Piracy” is quickly making the rounds of inboxes via a few email lists I’m on, suggesting that re-posting it here will not be news to anybody.
What I thought I’d mention in conjunction with Lessig’s piece however, is a link and some thoughts on yet another sad chapter in the entertainment industry’s long brutal fight against creativity and non-traditional business models online.
Former Berkman Intern Zach McCune first brought Muxtape – a site dedicated to facilitate music playlist sharing – to my attention sometime during the summer.
An undergraduate and the victim of an RIAA file-sharing lawsuit, Zach is a grizzled veteran of the copyright wars. He and I agreed that while Muxtape was a beautiful idea, it was only a matter of time before it got mangled by the legal machinery of the music industry.
The truth has turned out to be somehow more complex and twisted than we had ever imagined.
Muxtape founder Justin Ouellette’s September 25 post to the site breaks down the last few months in some detail. Here are the highlights:
- “In the end, Muxtape’s legality was moot.”
- “In May I had my first meeting with a major label, Universal Music Group.”
- “The gentlemen I met at Universal were incredibly receptive and tactful; I didn’t have to sell them on why Muxtape was good for them, they knew it was cool and just wanted to get paid.”
- “Things were going well. I spent the next two months talking with investors, designing the next phases of the site itself, and supervising the negotiations.”
- “The first red flag came in August…the talk shifted to things like guaranteed placement and “marketing opportunities.” I was denied the possibility of releasing a mobile version of Muxtape. My flexibility was being constricted.”
- “…on August 15th, I received…a complaint from the RIAA.”
- “…on Monday when I wasn’t able to produce the documentation Amazon wanted (or even get someone from the RIAA on the phone), the servers were shut down and I was locked out of the account.”
- “…the RIAA moves quite autonomously from their label parents and that the understanding I had with them didn’t necessarily carry over.”
- “And so I made one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever faced: I walked away from the licensing deals. They had become too complex for a site founded on simplicity, too restrictive and hostile to continue to innovate the way I wanted to.”
- “Muxtape is relaunching as a service exclusively for bands…”
- “The new Muxtape will allow bands to upload their own music and offer an embeddable player that works anywhere on the web, in addition to the original muxtape format.”
Ouellete’s experience with Muxtape demonstrates that the actions of the RIAA constitute an egregious, anti-competitive abuse of the American legal system. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the story is the fact that they effectively shut down Ouellete’s business while several of their constituents were in the process of negotiating with him (indeed, the takedown episode looks like a sorry excuse for a bargaining tactic).
When is congress going to stand up to these goons? At the moment, our elected representatives are too busy passing the PRO-IP act, yet another gift of federal enforcement resources to the content industry (against the wishes of the Department of Justice!) at the same time as the US economy struggles to avoid a free-fall.
August 6, 2008
NYT takes a nice long look at the global shipping industry, which has been adjusting to soaring fuel prices.
The cost of shipping a 40-foot container from Shanghai to the United States has risen to $8,000, compared with $3,000 early in the decade, according to a recent study of transportation costs. Big container ships, the pack mules of the 21st-century economy, have shaved their top speed by nearly 20 percent to save on fuel costs, substantially slowing shipping times.
The author, Larry Rohter, uses similarly anecdotal evidence to argue that something like “near-shoring” may be making a comeback in response to the situation.
Scholars of economic globalization will recognize this as the typical global integration story moving slowly in reverse – or at least sideways – towards regionalization. Appropriately enough, the piece concludes with a quote from economist Jagdish Bhagwati, an evangelist of global free markets, expressing ambivalence about what the regionalization trend heralds for the US economy.
I couldn’t help noting that the discussion about shipping is all about tangible goods, though. What role would the Internet play in a (hypothetically) regionalizing world? Already the lowest means of moving intangible assets across vast distances, digital ICT’s were as much a cause as a result of the earlier era of economic integration. Certainly, a regional environment would look a lot different with pervasive broadband and satellite networks making it virtually costless to move information and ideas around the globe.
As of July 1, Spain’s controversial “digital canon” law will impose a tax on any gizmo that can record, copy, or store digital media.
In theory, this is a tax on “piracy” that goes towards supporting artists.
In reality, the cash goes straight to the “collecting societies” that represent artists and collect royalty payments on their behalf. The law apparently makes no provision as to how these societies must distribute this revenue.
The collecting societies’ survival depends on the preservation of restrictive IP regimes and royalty-based business models in creative industries. As a result, they have historically acted to constrain artists’ and users’ ability to opt out of IP-based remuneration schemes.
With the passage of this law they have successfully imposed the cost of their existence on consumers and producers in an entirely separate industry. Not surprisingly, the electronics equipment manufacturers and re-sale firms (not to mention consumer advocacy groups) are furious.
Declining sales across many of the content industries will continue to lead increasingly desperate firms (and their lawyers) to seek ridiculous regulatory interventions like this one. The results are expensive, inefficient legal instruments that will prove even more costly to overhaul as the digital economy continues to evolve.
Instead of more laws like this one, regulators should seek to incentivize alternative business models that capitalize on the network effects of costless digital reproduction. In the case of music, I’m thinking of something along the lines of VODO and other schemes that capitalize on what Doc Searls has called “the volunteer economy“.
If I were a Spanish citizen, investor, or entrepreneur I’d wonder why my elected officials weren’t willing to make a more far-sighted investment in the future of my culture, my technologies, and my economy.
Andrea Foster filed a story with The Chronicle of Higher Education that should send a chill down students’ spines everywhere.
As if the recent spike in bogus copyright infringement lawsuits gushing out of the RIAA and MPAA wasn’t enough, it looks like these organizations are taking their fight to state legislators. Here’s the story’s lede:
Higher-education officials say that the entertainment industry is pushing for state laws that would force colleges to police their networks for illegal trading of music and video files and to buy software to stem the problem.
Lawmakers in Tennessee and Illinois recently considered such legislation, and a similar bill may be brewing in California, according to officials who spoke at a technology-policy conference here on Thursday.
To be honest, I’m kind of surprised they haven’t tried something like this in California already – after all, the RIAA and MPAA practically own L.A….
There is no legislation in California to deter file sharing on college campuses. But Kent Wada, director of information-technology strategic policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, told the technology officials at the conference Thursday that there was an “informational hearing” in the State Capitol in March to discuss the issue. Among those speaking at the meeting was Mitch Glazier, senior vice president of government relations and industry relations for the RIAA
My favorite quote comes from an earlier story in The Chronicle for Higher Ed., in which Foster interviews Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA, about the recent jump in aggressive lawsuits filed by his organization against alleged copyright infringers. Check out this gem:
“There’s just no connection to anything that’s happening in Congress, in the courts, or anything else,” Mr. Sherman said. He added that the increase in notifications did not mean that there had been a sudden rise in campus piracy. “We’re constantly asking our vendor to improve performance,” of its software that scans for copyright violations online, Mr. Sherman said. “They just completed work on an upgrade and, poof, it just happened.”
Did he actually say that with a straight face? Does anyone believe this joker?
If anybody else out there has a stake in a California educational institution, this might be a good time to contact your local administrators, legislators, etc. California has better things to do with its time and (empty) state coffers than play toy cop for the culture industry.
In the case of UC Berkeley, the University’s Chief Information Officer is Shel Waggener. Shel is quite a brilliant guy who is almost certainly already aware of this issue and probably already working on it. I think I might send him a quick email, though, just to be sure…