The Great Circular Awards Ceremony

Showered with awards

Is there a more incestuous and self-congratulatory scene anywhere outside the fashion business?

What a strange world it is, the world of “digital rights” activism. Campaigners pause only to pat each other on the back.

Last week, anti-copyright campaigners Public Knowledge revealed their annual award winners. The group’s president Gigi B Sohn proudly announced the winners: fellow campaigner Carl Malamud of PublicResource.org, fellow campaigner Ben Scott of FreePress… and fellow campaigner Fred Von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the EFF.

Trebles all round, then. But Sohn was merely returning the favour. Two years ago, the EFF announced its annual Pioneer Awards – and up stepped Gigi B Sohn of Public Knowledge to collect his.

In recent years the EFF has found an ingenious solution to the task of finding new pioneers – by simply giving awards to EFF insiders. In 2005, we noted, the EFF marked the lifetime’s achievements of one Mitch Kapor. One of his achievements happened to be… founding the EFF. Last year, the EFF cast its net far and wide, scoured every corner of the earth… and honoured EFF Fellow Cory Doctorow.

And if you’re not in the race to win one of the awards, that could be because you’re judging them. The EFF’s von Lohmann judged the Public Knowledge awards in 2007, when one of the winners was Columbia law professor Tim Wu. And Wu was so delighted, he returned the favour this year, as an awards judge honoring von Lohmann.

Is there a more incestuous and self-congratulatory scene anywhere outside the fashion business?

When the EFF first instituted its Pioneers Awards, it was rewarding people who’d actually achieved something. Bob Kahn, Ivan Sutherland and Tom Jennings were recipients in the first two years. All have left a rather more tangible and lasting mark on the world than ranting on a blog, or issuing a press release.

Meanwhile, we have spotted a gap in the circle jerk merry-go-round. Soros-backed newcomers FreePress fails to honour campaigners in any kind of annual ceremony. We trust this omission will be rectified. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Who killed Three Strikes for filesharing?

A badge of pride

Rejoice! “Three strikes and you’re out” is dead in the UK. Music file sharers will no longer face the threat of seeing the household broadband connection severed. The plague that is currently endemic in France won’t be jumping the English Channel.

Strangely, some people want to keep it alive. Stranger still – this includes the “digital rights” lobby.
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One or two things you didn't know about In Rainbows…

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke says the band won’t be repeating the band’s digital deal which allowed users to download a version of its most recent album for free.

“I don’t think it would have the same significance now anyway, if we chose to give something away again,” he said, describing it as a “one-off response to a particular situation”.

That’s despite the gimmick paying off handsomely – both in promotional terms, and financially. Radiohead have done better out of this deal than many pundits suppose – and I’ll explain why in a moment. So why not do it again?

The short answer: the job’s done, and they don’t need to. Don’t be fooled by the guilt-ridden, right-on rhetoric: this is a group of canny businessmen with offshore bank accounts. And so they make hard-headed calculations, as canny businessmen should.

A crisis in the Strategy Boutique

Radiohead’s commercial goal was to recapture some of the huge worldwide audience that followed OK Computer a decade ago. It took almost four years to release new material. The back-to-back follows-ups, Kid A and Amnesiac, were self-consciously experimental.

In the meantime, Radiohead-influenced bands such as Muse and Arcade Fire had captured a slice of their former audience, the epic rock seekers. Competing with these arriviste pomp-rockers was risky, as the bumpy 2004 release Hail To The Thief made clear. So a more accessible direction was a natural course for Radiohead to take.

But back in Oxford, there was a big problem.

Radiohead had an upbeat title and the sunny, warmer graphics concept all set. The trouble was, there just wasn’t a lot in the creative larder: all the band had was a few familiar riffs and mannerisms. These were more appealing on the surface than the Warp-influenced albums of 2001, but there wasn’t very much you could hum. Or at least, you couldn’t hum it without sounding like a faulty air conditioning unit.

In addition, Radiohead’s refusal to deal with a strong outside personality – they’d been friends since school – ruled out the option of involving someone who could develop some of these odds and ends into another Karma Police – a Phil Spector type. So what they had, simply had to do.

Bring on the ‘tards

The band had an ace up its sleeve, however. That huge former fanbase still viewed the fading memory of Radiohead with affection, and they’d been patiently waiting for three years since the last new material (excluding solo stuff). This was enough to create an instant buzz – and the band bet that enough of these fans were so dedicated as to pay twice: once for the “preview”, and once for the physical release.

But it was the Music Freetards who catapulted Radiohead from the Culture pages in the papers into the Business Section, and even the front page. After a decade of digital music shenanigans, hacks were still asking the question, “What’s the new Business Model?” To which the anti-copyright crowd replied: “give stuff away for free!” For hacks who can look no further than bloggers for their ideas, this was the cue they needed.

(Here are some field recordings samples of Music Freetards captured in their natural habitat, and doing what they love doing best – bullying and whinging.)

Radiohead made a low-bitrate version available several weeks ahead of the physical release of In Rainbows. The management even waived the credit card charge – and you could get the album, in its entirety, for free.

Such was the buzz around Radiohead’s approach to market that few people noticed that it really wasn’t very inspired. No one seemed to mind very much. Contractually free of their deal with EMI, the band signed with Beggars Group indie label XL Recordings to release the physical version – which went on to top the charts in the UK and the USA. Many fans paid twice for the same recording – and some of these are fans who’ll complain about the music business’ practice of getting us to pay for the same record twice as one format supersedes another.

How the honesty box worked

Despite investing £20,000 in new servers to cope with the demand for the digital preview, Radiohead benefited from the “honesty box” release in several ways. There’s the one I’ve mentioned: the bet that people would pay twice – once for the preview, and again for the physical release.

There was an instant cash-flow dividend, too. There was no waiting around for a royalty statement from the Accounting Department of the Mega Label. And best of all, the renewed interest from overseas – particularly the United States – gave the band far higher royalties than they’d gain from a physical release with a major label.

So although fewer fans put less money into the honesty box than many people claimed, it didn’t really matter. Enough had done so to recoup the one-off costs – and the album was available as a sampler for weeks.

But one-offs, by definition, are not to be repeated. Neither Trent Reznor nor Coldplay have generated anything quite like the publicity that In Rainbows digital preview enjoyed.

Without the Freetards, the publicity coup could never have happened. Even the most inventive major label marketing genius with the biggest budget would have struggled to get such an indifferent “product” to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

And the real money, you’ll note, is in the CD, and getting fans to pay twice. Which looks a lot like the Old Business Model to me.

Nokia's music bundle Comes With Hoover-shaped liabilities

Nokia faces a crippling financial bill for its strategy of bundling free music with handsets, which will give users unlimited song downloads with Nokia phones.

The world’s biggest label, Universal Music, joined the “Comes With Music” initiative at launch last December, and Sony BMG joined last week. The Register has learned that Nokia must pay the wholesale per-unit rate for downloads over a certain ceiling – believed to be 35 songs per user per month.
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Creator haters at the LSE

“one last fag, then bop, bop, bop”

– Wolfie Smith

London School of Economics I saw one of the most disturbing of all. If you thought people don’t behave in real life like they do online, think again. Here were all the most unpleasant aspects of online behaviour – ignorance, rudeness, groupthink, and a general sneering moral superiority – but made flesh. By the end, it had degenerated into farce. So what was it all about?

The event was billed as “Music, fans and online copyright”, and hosted in co-operation with the British Berkman clone, the Oxford Internet Institute.

Music and copyright are subjects that everyone has a stake in. But the speakers had been hand-picked by a fanatical anti-copyright Jacobin, Ian Brown. Brown drew from a narrow, ideologically homogenous group of friends. That didn’t make for an enlightening debate, but it made for a good lynching party – and the afternoon would culminate in a ritual lynching, with Mr John Kennedy of IFPI lined up for the noose.

With a selection like this, unpleasantness was guaranteed.
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"The Government wants to copyright my thoughts!"

They’re coming to take me away – ha haa!” – Napoleon XIV

The Patient

A student, Robert Soave writing in The Michigan, the student paper at the University of Michigan.

Clinical Symptoms

The patient is fearful:

“The idea that information can be owned is quite terrifying”

He also fears a loss of identity. Once something is digitally encoded, all rights vanish, according the patient.

“How can one possibly lay claim to information?”

Soave says that creator’s rights are a philosophical impossibility.

“Critics might argue that musicians should be able to own their music because they created it and you should own anything that you create by default.

“Only with the government’s random mandates could anyone actually lay claim to something as abstract as information that is sent over the Internet.”

Soave also displays paranoid fantasies common to the digital utopian:

“Today, the government defends companies that claim to own music. Tomorrow, it may defend people who claim to have invented new feelings and emotions.”

“Such abstract claims of ownership may seem ridiculous, but the government has already stretched copyright laws past any definable form by criminalizing file sharing over the Internet.”

Prognosis

Not good.

(Thanks to Dean Kay for the tip.)

Ursula le Guin dings surly Boing Boing

Science Fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin has given the anti-copyright fanatics at the Boing Boing weblog a quick refresher in authors’ rights.

The blog posted a short piece by Le Guin, erroneously slapping a Creative Commons license on it.

“This is incorrect,” wrote her representative. “Ms. Le Guin has not placed this work under such a license and retains these rights. Ms. Le Guin has not given blanket permission for everyone to copy or create derivatives (which can include film, TV adaptations, etc.),” Andrew Burt told SF author Jerry Pournelle.

Robo-bloggers who act as repeaters of Boing Boing material – vital nodes in the Hive Mind, we like to think of them – added to the confusion.

“Numerous copies of her piece have been discovered on the web and attributed to boingboing, illustrating that many people are being mislead by this incorrect application of a Creative Commons license.”

“Given Doctorow’s intense interest in issues of copyright,” added Burt, “it is easy to imagine that he has let his wishes run ahead of reality, and so committed some serious ethical and legal errors, which he might wish to begin to redress by taking the Le Guin piece off his site and putting an apology in its place.”

Boing Boing has since truncated the excerpt, but declined to apologize or remove it. There’s more details on Pournelle’s letters page here.

It’s another example of the confusion generated by Creative Commons licenses – the autistic person’s answer to a problem that doesn’t really bother anyone. If even the most dedicated, foaming-at-the-mouth Commons evangelists can’t use it properly – what hope do us mortals have?

The license-abuser, Cory Doctorow, was recently a professor at the University of Southern California – where he was lecturing students about copyright.

In its first incarnation as a print ‘zine back in the late 1980s, “bOING bOING” (as it was) was one of the most highly regarded chroniclers of cyber culture. The title was revived in blog form as a self-promotional vehicle seven years ago.

This is how it looked before the Trotskyist-style takeover. And this is what it looks like now.

Quite a difference.

World's dumbest file-sharer mulls appeal

Ironically-named P2P user Jammie Thomas, who was fined $220,000 for copyright infringement in a case brought by the RIAA last week, wants to appeal the Minnesota jury’s verdict.

The lady is certainly unlucky. But is she ill-advised by her attorney Brian Toder – or is she just incredibly stupid? You decide:

  • Jammie Thomas had used one hard drive for her Kazaa file sharing… then sent a different one to the plaintiffs. Amazingly, they noticed.

Doh!

  • Thomas’s attorney claimed that her account might have been hijacked by a Wi-Fi hacker hovering outside her window. The plaintiffs had little trouble disproving this: she wasn’t using Wi-Fi.<
  • /ul>

    Doh!

    • Jammie Thomas carefully covered her tracks – by using the same login name for Kazaa that she uses for all her email, online shopping, and MySpace account.

    Doh!

    The blue-collar jury in Duluth wasn’t impressed by the dissembling, and a juror told WiReD that the fine they imposed reflected her dishonest defence. Michael Hegg, a 38-year old steel worked told WiReD:

    “Her defense sucked… I don’t know what the f*ck she was thinking, to tell you the truth.

    “She should have settled out of court for a few thousand dollars. Spoofing? We’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, you got to be kidding’.”

    As if Thomas hasn’t had enough bad legal advice already – now the preppie lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) want to “help out”.

    The EFF reckons that making files available isn’t “making available” if er… no one downloads them. And they reckon that the copyright act only applies to physical objects. That’s genius! 1983 sure is shaping up to be an interesting year…

    An appeal fund has been set up for Ms Thomas, but perhaps a nomination for the Darwin Awards might be more appropriate?

    The RIAA wants to put the fear of prosecution into internet users – but millions of P2Pers are cheerfully carrying on downloading today, knowing that their chances of being caught for copyright infringement are negligible.

    What a pity that a few retarded bloggers want to connive with the RIAA in this ridiculous pantomime. The two sides really do deserve each other.

File sharers: spare me the phony outrage

Last week, the ailing sound recording industry in America found someone even dumber to pick on. Kazaa user Jammie Thomas had got on the internet, and was doing just what the adverts and mass media say you should do once you’re there – fill your boots with free stuff.

This is a case that should make everyone involved feel ashamed of themselves – with no exceptions. But I’m amazed by the howls of outrage.

Without this free stuff, the internet would be worth very little: it’s simply an extension of the telephone network with added pictures, and would otherwise be priced accordingly, as a low-cost or free addition to your phone bill. Everyone knows that pictures of cats falling down stairs, or even feature-light web-based office suites aren’t really money spinners. Google and BT can’t say so explicitly, but most people are only here for the free music or porn. The rest are here for online games. The stuff about getting broadband “to help with the kids’ homework” is sanctimonious crap.
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