Wednesday, February 28, 2007

MLB.TV, DirectTV, and the Regulation of Choice...

Major League Baseball is considering a deal with DirectTV to offer out-of-market regular-season games to satellite subscribers. For around $200 for the entire season, DirectTV users could watch any baseball game that doesn't involve their their local team (blackout restrictions apply). Meanwhile, for $90 per year, people can alternatively watch all of those games on baseball's official website, MLB.TV.

There are a couple of components here that need to be addressed. First of all, regarding the possible DirectTV deal, there is a big problem that parallels what's happening with the advent of the NFL Network - consumers would not be allowed to purchase the programming they want unless they switch service providers (from cable to satellite). This is a regulatory issue, and the FCC, who is responsible for ensuring market competition while still acting in the "public interest, convenience, or necessity" needs to stop this deal from taking place. Senator John Kerry and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin have started to address how consumers should be able to purchase the programming they want (and while I'm on the subject, Senator John McCain has also in the past proposed badly needed legislation to prohibit cable companies from forcing people to buy channels they don't want).

The bottom line is that, as a wannabe customer, I shouldn't have to switch from cable to DirectTV. It would be like having to switch from cable to DSL internet service if I want to visit YouTube, but having to switch back if I want to use Hotmail. The FCC needs to ensure that the content is kept separate from the delivery.

Second, when comparing the $200 per year price of DirectTV to the $90 price of MLB.TV, one has to wonder if the internet truly is the future of the delivery of all television programming. Bill Gates has been saying so for years. My bet is that right now the only thing holding up its widespread adoption is that most people don't know how to set up their televisions to work as their computer monitors. Once this happens though, it's going to be hard for cable and even satellite to compete, due to the internet's inherently low cost structure, which ought to keep prices low, and its unique ability for customization through computer programming (go open source!).

I welcome the day when I can pay for the channels I want, not be forced to pay for the channels I don't, and have it all delivered through my high-speed broadband connection. In the meantime, I'm just glad that I live in the metro New York City area so that I can watch all the Mets games.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Lessig's Video On Copyright and Orphan Works...

Larry Lessig has posted a new video presentation on the problem with copyright law, the internet, and orphan works. Basically, it order to use someone else's work in producing your own content, the law makes you jump through all sorts of chilling legal hurdles to prove you have the permission of the copyright holder. But what happens when it is unknown who the copyright holder is?

Click "Play".


The Carr-Benkler Wager and the Gift Economy...

Yochai Benkler is a scholar whom I've come across repeatedly in my dissertation research, and Time Magazine has just run an article on him as well. He argues that the role of volunteer contributions are becoming more fundamental to the economy - creating a "gift economy" - citing that the future will more closely follow the models of Web 2.0 sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Wikipedia, which rely on volunteer "peer production" for content.

But will volunteer efforts really replace the role of paid professionals? Even if so, then to what degree?

There are many examples that support Benkler's claim. The open source movement in computer programming circles has relied almost exclusively on the efforts of volunteers in writing software, which is then given away for free and with the source code revealed. As a result, the open source movement has compiled a string of technical successes - the Linux operating system, Apache web server, Firefox web browser, and scores of others.

Nicholas Carr, however, disputes the notion that volunteers will become more integral in tomorrow's economy. Instead, he argues, the reason Web 2.0 sites are driven by the efforts of volunteers is not the result of altruism, but simply because a business model has yet to emerge in which these people are to be paid. There is evidence to support this stance as well - most bloggers run advertisements on their "volunteer" writings, including myself, and many Linux gurus "volunteer" their time to the project knowing that their expertise will lead to consulting money from Linux-using companies like IBM.

This, in essence, is what has come to be widely known in Web circles as "the Carr-Benkler wager": a bet on whether, by 2011, such websites will be driven primarily by volunteers or by professionals.

It strikes me that these sites will indeed continue to be primarily driven by volunteers, however I am less convinced that this means we are moving towards a "gift economy". If you scour through blogs on Technorati, read news stories on Digg, or review photos on Flickr, one thing becomes indisputably apparent - that this volunteer Web is an egalitarian marketplace of ideas and content. Everything and anything goes. Some of it's crappy, some of it's profound, most of it's slightly absurd. People will always get a thrill out of posting things to a global audience (just ask anyone with a MySpace page), and in that way the role of volunteers in creating content on such sites will only to continue to flourish. However, as in any true marketplace, the best ideas and products will rise to the top. Volunteer bloggers, Flickr photographers, and Wikipedia entry-writers who clearly produce works that are superior to 99% of the rest of the crap on the internet will undoubtedly find an audience - and at that point, thanks to our capitalist system, it is inevitable that the money will follow.

That's the Web 2.0 paradox: The best volunteers who drive such sites will ultimately become paid professionals. But while that's the case, the majority of volunteers who produce less interesting content will continue being no more than volunteers. There is also a disconnect here in thinking of most MySpace users as "volunteers". Most are better identified as consumers using a free product for personal use (like creating an online family photo album), rather than as lethargic-sounding "volunteer content providers". Web 2.0 sites will continue to exist, and indeed thrive, in 2011 because there's a whole lot more grandmothers posting pictures of their grandkids than there are elite wanna-be professional photo-journalists.

Ultimately, Benkler is on the right side of the wager - that these websites will continue to be driven by volunteers - however, not for the reason of altruism. For some, the reason will still be the profit motive, hoping to reap a financial reward down the line. For most everyone else, the reason is simple...

For fun.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Response to Steve Jobs' Thoughts on Music...

Last week, Steve Jobs of Apple released a public essay which some are claiming should already be canonized among the most important pieces of Internet literature - his thoughts on digital technology and the future of the music industry.

For several years now, technologists have criticized Apple for using closed Digital Rights Management (DRM) software with the music it sells on iTunes. This DRM software encrypts the music files to prevent piracy, however it also makes it so that music purchased from iTunes can't be played on digital devices made by companies other than Apple. Critics, such as myself, have pointed out repeatedly that this locks in consumers to one product line, namely iPods, for the rest of their lives, and is a clear violation of existing consumer rights.

So in a rather stunning move, Steve Jobs not only has come out and acknowledged this situation, but has even called for the abolition of the entire current system. "Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat."

On the surface, Jobs is agreeing with his critics. He is explicitly asserting that the future of music is one of interoperability between music stores and players, unhindered by DRM. It's about time. So why isn't he doing anything about it? Jobs seems ideally situated to be a catalyst for change - really there is no one in a greater position of power on the issue. In his essay, he places the blame on the record companies. "If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store."

The conspiracy-theorists have already gone on record as to say that Jobs is doing this strictly as a negotiating strategy. As Apple's original deal with the record companies is set to expire, they believe Jobs is publicly taking this anti-DRM stance simply to frighten those companies into submission; renewing the current licensing arrangement. Jobs cannot legitimately place the blame on the record companies. Blogger Thomas Hawk is right to point out that, "at this point if the music labels dropped iTunes there would be outcry and backlash of massive proportion... The labels are too far immersed into iTunes as the the leading seller of online music at this point to back out now." In other words, it is Steve Jobs, not the record companies, who hold the cards.

Hopefully Jobs truly is sincere in his sentiment of a DRM-free future. In the meantime, whether this essay is a negotiating ploy or not, Jobs has thus far utterly failed to show the kind of vision and leadership he is famous for. Steve Jobs is in a greater position to bring about change in the digital music industry than any other human being, and his failure to leverage this unique position is either a sign of cowardice or insincerity.

Until the situation changes, alternative models do exist, and people can download legal DRM-free music to their hearts content.

Whithering Federalism in the Stevens Internet Bill...

A debate has been going on for some time in the blogosphere over a bill introduced by Senator Ted Stevens - which includes the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, the Deleting Online Predators Act, and the Children's Listbroker Privacy Act - all of which are intended to protect children from internet predators and reduce child pornography online. Some are arguing that the bill amounts to censorship of legitimate informative websites, including Wikipedia and MySpace, while others counter that the language of the bill does not automatically censor such sites, but does leave it a possibility depending on the judgments of the Federal Trade Commission.

The Stevens bill appears to be the lynchpin of Internet policy debate for 2007. However, while all of this gets hammered out, both in the blogosphere and in Congress, what often gets overlooked are crucial notions of federalism.

The American federalist system is based on the idea that local and state governments claim sovereignty simultaneously with the national government. That's why governors are not mere subordinates of the President, and why the issue of states' rights is ever so prominent in American politics. The importance of local and state governments, and that they are at least somewhat independent of the national government, is a crucial check on the influence of Washington and crucial in decentralizing power.

The Stevens bill attempts to consolidate power over Internet policy in the hands of the national government in a far too drastic manner. Local school boards and public libraries which receive federal funding would no longer be able to make decisions over what types of websites should or should not be accessible. Even though the citizen parents of New York City might deem sites like Wikipedia perfectly alright (and perhaps even valuable) while parents in Mississippi might disagree and deem them worth banning in public places, the Stevens bill would take decision-making away from the local authorities and place it in the hands of Washington legislators and bureaucrats (in this case, the FTC).

Regardless of your position on the bill in terms of censorship and protecting children online, those interested in defending federalism and limiting Big Government ought to be able to unite on this point.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The SAFETY Act and Recording All Internet Activity...

Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas has introduced a new bill, the SAFETY Act (Stopping Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Today’s Youth), which would "require ISPs to record all users’ surfing activity, IM conversations and email traffic indefinitely". This is yet another attempt by the federal government to impose surveillance measures on all internet activity, and poses a serious threat to our personal privacy.

The stated intent of the bill is to reduce child pornography - which is an obviously worthwhile goal. However, it seems that every few weeks another piece of similar legislation is proposed (and ultimately fails) in Congress. The original SAFETY Act was shot down last summer due to fundamental free speech concerns.

Does it bother you, my loyal readers, to think that your Internet Service Provider is recording every single website you visit, every instant message conversation you have, every email you send or receive? Not only is it happening, but proposed legislation such as the SAFETY Act would make it LEGALLY REQUIRED.

This is unacceptable. There are constitutional protections to prevent exactly this sort of thing - the right to privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. The Seminal is right to say that this is a terrifying development. It would strip away people's constitutional rights, and yet have virtually no impact on reducing child pornography.

Blogger Amanda Marcotte Resigns from Edwards Campaign...

John Edwards is running for president, and as he has positioned himself further to the left, he has decided to hire bloggers to work for his campaign - to write about his virtues, and attack his critics. Then last week, a firestorm erupted because two of his bloggers made inflammatory remarks referring to Christian conservatives as "Christofascists" and "used vulgar language to characterize religious conservatives and Roman Catholic teachings on birth control, homosexuality and the virgin birth".

As politicians seek to harness the power of the internet, and Web 2.0 specifically, they are bound to encounter the law of unintended consequences. Edwards was faced with a choice: fire the two bloggers for their insulting remarks and incur the wrath of the political left (aka - the Democrats' base), or else keep them on staff and be forced to defend them, incurring the wrath of the religious right.

This is what happens when political campaigns, which like to have obsessive control over their message, engage in activities that are not conducive to control - namely, the internet and blogosphere. Politicians must realize that the fiercely independent and chaotic nature of the blogosphere is not an environment suited to a narrowly-tailored message. If they're going to participate in online discussions (and they should), then they must be prepared to deal with the consequences. John Edwards should be held accountable for his decision to keep those two bloggers on staff.

From this perspective, it's a shame that Amanda Marcotte - one of the two bloggers who created the controversy - submitted her resignation yesterday. It would have been instructive for American democracy to see a politician actually engage in meaningful debate and be accountable for his decisions, rather than fire anyone who goes "off message".

The blogosphere is valuable particularly because it is chaotic and independent of traditional political institutions. Being outside the confines of tightly controlled debates and public forums allows for all points of view to be considered. A true "marketplace of ideas". What politicians who seek to harness this power need to understand is that in this environment the best ideas will win.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Revisiting Music Business Models for the Internet Age...

Two nights ago I had that rare pleasure of being blown away by the performance of a musician who I'd previously never heard of - Earl Klugh, playing jazz at the Blue Note in New York City. After the show I couldn't wait to tell some music aficianodo friends to check him out. But then I realized none of them would likely pony up nearly $20 to buy an album of a musician they'd never heard of, and after one listen, might think is awful.

This is a prime example of what's wrong with the music industry's business model in the Internet Age. At $35 per ticket, Earl Klugh is not going to expand his fanbase, and his case appears ripe for musical piracy on BitTorrent and Limewire by those curious about him. The artist suffers, and the people miss out on his extraordinary talent.

There is an alternative business model. Give away the live recordings of concerts for free. Artists such as the Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews Band have for years allowed audience members to legally record their concerts, and distribute those recordings for free, so long as no profit is being made. Why would artists ever choose to do such a thing? It's called promotion. If Earl Klugh would allow people to freely share recordings of his live shows, he would be using a viral marketing strategy to turn more people on to his music, ultimately leading to increasing his fanbase, generating better ticket sales, and even selling more albums, as there is always a demand for more polished studio albums of high audio quality.

Think it's crazy? Hundreds of artists already have adopted such a strategy and web databases provide links to tens of thousands of LEGAL live concert recordings by musicians. I, personally, was turned on to the Grateful Dead years ago through a concert recording, obtained legally and for free, and while I still download many of their shows on a regular basis without paying, I've also pumped untold thousands of dollars into their coffers by going to dozens of live concerts.

Certainly, this business model might not work for everyone. It is particularly suited for those musicians who struggle generating album sales and who tour constantly. It also helps if their live performances offer something different than simply playing their albums. Jazz musicians seem especially suited to this model, in addition to jambands, as their concerts are often heavily improvised.

When the show ended, I was dying to email a number of friends about the performance and tell them to check Earl Klugh out. But being unwilling to shell out $20 for the unknown, piracy would have been their only other option - and that is a serious shame. The artist suffers, and the people miss out. Can someone explain to me how the recording industry is actually working in the interests of the musicians by doing this? Maybe one day I'll play some of his material for them in person, marketing the old-fashioned way, by word-of-mouth. However, as I have written about a number of times in this space, if left up to the recording industry and Apple's DRM software, which makes the old idea of creating a mixed CD for a friend impossible, pretty soon I might not even be able to do that.

Monday, February 05, 2007

No iTunes for Linux...

Wired's "Cult-of-Mac" column has reported that Linux users are petitioning Apple to make iTunes for Linux. As of this writing the petition only has 739 signatures, thus begging two questions: 1) Why hasn't Apple developed a version of iTunes for Linux yet? 2) Why do so few Linux users seem to care?

The comments posted on the column are telling. To answer the first question, Apple has been reluctant to create a Linux version of iTunes because, as "M_nassal" puts it, "there is very little upside for Apple to put the required resources on a project to port iTunes to Linux. Their resources are better spent trying to convert Linux users to Mac". Quite simply, it is possible that the numbers just aren't there. The more conspiracy-minded might also suggest, as does "Sam", that "their choice to not release iTunes is 100% based on the potential for widespread DRM hacking". In other words, Apple is purposely making life more difficult for programmers and people with techie skills because they are seen as a threat to their controversial (and some say illegal) iTunes-iPod bundling practices through DRM software.

"TC" comments that "in general, the culture of Linux is not well aligned with western industry/capitalism". That is hogwash. The Open Source community is not trying to undermine capitalism; it is trying to create better quality products. The day that better quality products become a threat to capitalism is one which I hope is not on the foreseeable horizon.

And finally, to answer the second question, so few Linux users seem to care about getting an iTunes version compatible with their Linux machines for exactly that reason. Better quality alternatives already exist thanks to the open source community, and the Linux world recognizes this. The comments on the blog are filled with Linux users providing links to the different pieces of software that they already use and prefer over iTunes. Several examples include the DRM-free Amarok and GtkPod, not to mention my personal favorite, Songbird.

Most consumers are still unaware that when they buy music on iTunes they will basically be trapped into buying iPods for the rest of their lives, even if they would like to try cheaper and better Mp3 players made by Dell, Sony, etc. Linux users are simply avoiding getting trapped into this system, and you can't blame Apple for not catering to them.

Then again, maybe if Apple actually did make iTunes available for Linux, they might actually take a capitalist stance and try to convert a few people into new customers; if they truly believe iTunes can compete with the open source alternatives, that is.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Internet Jurisdiction and Creating a Copyright-Free Nation...

Internet activists, including myself, have been arguing for a while now that copyright laws need to be updated to meet the challenges of digital technology. Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, which encrypts music and video files to protect the interests of copyright holders and the music and movie industries, has simultaneously stripped away the traditional rights of consumers over products that they buy. This is the reason why if you buy a song on iTunes, you'll never be able to play it on anything but an iPod even though you legally purchased it.

Now comes an announcement that a group called the Free Nation Foundation has actually formed in order to create a new copyright-free nation.

This is activist zealotry taken to the extreme, and will actually do more to hurt its cause than to help it. There are serious arguments that support the notion that copyright laws need to be updated - including the protection of EXISTING consumer rights and the need to legally clarify conceptions of personal property and the meaning of ownership in the Digital Age. However, rather than pursue rational discourse, the Free Nation Foundation and its parent organization, the Pirate Bay, are basically throwing a tantrum and have decided to simply withdraw from the rest of the world and start their own country where they can pass whichever laws they want.

There are a whole slew of problems with this plan, but I'll focus on one for now - internet jurisdiction. Free Nation Foundation activists believe they have discovered a loophole in global copyright laws - the tiny island of Sealand (really, little more than an offshore platform) is technically outside the jurisdiction of any one sovereign state. Therefore, Sealand, they argue, should be able to create its own laws and not be subject to the shackles of DRM and other aggressive copyright measures (not to mention be exempt from the legal penalties for violating them). People across the internet could upload, share, and download files hosted on Sealand servers and not be violating any copyright laws.

But internet jurisdiction is far more complicated. Jurisdiction can be, and has been, asserted by local, state, and national governments, in addition to international forums as a result of treaties and groups such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) - an offshoot of the United Nations. Contrary to what they think, Sealand or whichever other island these nation-builders ultimately select will not be outside the jurisdiction of the rest of planet Earth, particularly if most of its file sharers and content originate in other real-world jurisdictions.

I am all in favor of revising copyright laws to protect consumers from Draconian policies. But just because you get frustrated with the slowness of policy change does not justify running away and starting your own new country. Rather than advocating for what's right, these people are de-legitimizing the issue by making proponents of copyright reform seem like nutcases.

Besides, if we were really going to start a new nation "based on the ideals of freedom, equality and sustainable growth - a nation where important ideals and not wealth accumulation rule the day" - would copyright law, of all things, really be the central issue?