Motivation for Innovation

Dan Pink’s TED talk on innovation led to a slight little sparking in my brain in regards to innovation. Throughout my work I’ve been toying with the idea that across the last decade, much of the innovation that we have seen in terms of digital distribution of media has come from outside of the media industries. Napster, Gnutella, BitTorrent, etc. all appear to have roots outside of the media industry sphere and were produced without financial incentive. They were then more or less subsumed into the industry either willingly or unwillingly and the innovations these outsiders had produced were utilised.

What Dan Pink’s talk at TED may illuminate is why these innovations were created by people with no financial incentive. Pink’s talk, to paraphrase the conclusions, outlined that financial incentives like bonuses or higher pay will improve the output of someone who has a clear task to complete. However these financial incentives will actually diminish someone’s capabilities when asked to produce without clear rules or aims. It’s definitely worth a watch.

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Patent Trolling the Podcast

Hey you know that thing where two people walk towards each other and try to step around each other but keep stepping to the same side and it gets awkward… I own that now.

If that sounds utterly moronic please dear reader cast your eyes towards the announcement from VoloMedia (I have no idea who they are either).

VoloMedia proudly announce securing a patent for ‘podcasting’, but not just podcasting, in fact they own the concept of episodic media downloads. Note the date on the announcement is July 29th 2009, not July 29th 1998 when something like this may indeed have been a flash of insight. Years after the iPod spurred the creation of ‘podcasts’ and thus the name, VoloMedia have claimed ownership over not just the podcast but the whole idea of downloading episodic content. Quite how this has occurred baffles me, surely someone in the U.S patent office had vaguely noticed that this already exists. According to their CEO the company filed for this patent in November 2003  and it has taken this long to process.

Firstly the RSS2ipod script (Google it) was released in October 2003 to provide users with an automated way of moving downloaded radio shows in MP3 format to their iPod. This implies that there were already episodic shows being downloaded and listened to through media devices before the patent was filed.

Secondly, should it be the case that if a practice has developed fairly independently of a business before the patent is finalised that that patent should be honoured? Even if VoloMedia did come up with this idea independently, by the time they receive their patent the concept is taken for granted as public domain. Should anyone have the right to come along and say “I had the idea first so now you have to pay me”?

Large companies like Apple have already established empires on this concept with the iTunes Store. Apple has utilised the idea and made a very profitable business, but they didn’t claim dominion over the general mechanism of episodic downloads, they left it in the public domain for others to do as they would, confident that they had enough clout beyond just the concept. Granted Apple are vicious about their IP with other products but this they let go. VoloMedia are apparently in talks with Apple and hope to ‘grow the business’. If they did attempt to claim rights to a cut of the iTunes store the only scenario I can imagine is Steve Jobs trying to pretend he’s listening whilst crying with laughter into his black polo neck and releasing the hounds. This patent isn’t about extorting the established, its about playing parasite on the startup.

Their intentions become apparent with the mention of Hulu, a legal tv streaming site that is gaining massive popularity.

The episodic media download industry is still in its infancy. There will come a day when all the content on Hulu is available as an episodic download.

Such unabashed patent-trolling would impress me if it didn’t enrage me more-so. Their intentions are clearly to wait until companies begin offering downloadable episodic content and then jump on them for a cut. This is not the kind of patent that encourages innovation, its the kind that atrophies it.

Props to Thresq.com for the sources

If Mandelson is Telling the Truth…

The Digital Britain team recently posted up some rebuttals to the accusations directed at the government, one of them being that Lord Mandelson did a u-turn on policy after having a hearty meal with David Geffen. According to team DB…

No discussion took place with David Geffen about Digital Britain. Peter Mandelson has said he doesn’t even think the issue is on Geffen’s radar.

Suppose then that this is indeed true. If we do accept that the dinner with Geffen and the policy change announcement are completely coincidental, does that dissipate the issue? According to The Independent

Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, is said to be persuaded by the argument for tough laws to curb illegal file-sharing after an intensive lobbying campaign by influential people in the music and film industry.

Stating that their decision to enact some very controversial policies is based on intensive lobbying from the media industry to me is not an absolution but equally damning. Considering that the Digital Britain report was produced based on taking the opinions of many different groups and developing a middle ground. From these recent developments I can only assume that the media industry were not content with a balanced solution and instead continue to demand preferential treatment. At least the British citizenry now know where they stand.

Licensing The Pirate Bay

I was caught off guard today by the announcement that Global Gaming Factory’s shareholders voted to continue their motions to purchase The Pirate Bay. Despite the loss of investors scared away by the less than smooth months GGF has had, those that remain have decided to continue on with the venture.

Torrent Freak mentions that as of yet GGF have still not secured any licensing deals, the crucial element required for the business to even start operations. The question is will they secure them at all?

When Napster took a nose dive in court and were forced to close shop until they could operate legally one of their biggest hurdles was the fact that none of the major labels would licence to them. They distrusted not only the brand but also the executives that ran the company and eventually the original Napster liquidated. It was eventually resurrected by Roxio as a sub-par subscription site using MP3.com tech after Vivendi ruthlessly bought them out.

There are some parallels with TPB buyout in that the success of the business model is dependant on licensing, which they have yet to acquire. The brand is certainly one that has caused a lot of sleepless nights to the industry and I imagine many would love to see the venture fail just because it has ‘that’ name. Finally with the freeze placed on their stock due to an ongoing investigation, a sudden loss of key company executives and a run on the investors is it the case that the industry will trust GGF anymore than they trusted our loveable foursome?

There is perhaps a bigger question here as well that I believe has been present throughout the media industry’s relations with ‘illegal’ file-sharing: is it about the content or is it about the system? Is it the fact that their products are being shared across p2p networks that worries them, or is it the networks themselves? It’s more than likely that the industry realise that the real threat these networks pose is that they make much of their business redundant. It used to be that if you were a musician and wanted to get heard your main conduit to an audience was a label, who would promote you and distribute your work. Now for many artists the possibility of going it alone is more tangible.

It’s not necessarily the case that the industry has failed to distinguish between the technology of file-sharing – which is perfectly legal – and the distribution of copyrighted content – which we have to admit is technically not – due to ignorance. They hark back to the old days where they controlled the entire supply chain and the profit margins were great. Now they have pesky middlemen from the computer industry disrupting their perfectly tuned ecosystem. The more they can convince people that the ‘networks’ are illegal, the safer their dominance.

So, will the Pirate Bay MKII receive their licensing? It’ll be interesting to find out.

Mandelson Overturns Digital Britain

The government have the unenviable task of attempting to please everyone, however yesterday they appear to have failed spectacularly, and leading the way was Lord Mandelson. Yesterday he overturned the recommendations in the Digital Britain report – a year of consultations and debates down the drain – and stated simply that we need to move fast to stop filesharing. Moving fast means that rather than mess around with silly things like, courts, trials and rights we simply disconnect anyone accused of filesharing.

Maybe he was in a go getting mood after his holiday with David Geffen, record company billionaire. I know spending time out on a yacht with billionaires gets me back in the zone. Mandelson has denied that his coming back from his hols’ with a record executive, clutching a declaration of  war against piracy is linked… because if it were the case then surely he’d admit it. Apparently his change of stance is based on an intensive lobbying campaign from influential figures in the media industry… which is COMPLETELY different from spending time with ‘influential-figure-in-the-media-industry-David-Geffen’, so I’m cool with that.

As not all of us have luxury yachts and lobbying groups to make Mandelson do what we want, those who would prefer something resembling democratic process will have to make do with an opposition coalition formed on self interest.

Our strongest force is the ISPs who will protect consumers because it’s financially better for them to do so. If these laws come in they will have to spend a great deal on monitoring us (the amount of detail required to ascertain if data packets are copyrighted data packets is enormous), more on processing any claims, and will then have to deal with cutting off their own customers. I only have a GCSE in business studies but even that tells me that having customers is better than not having customers.

Another perhaps powerful opposition is the Tories and LibDems who have jumped on this as another sign of incompetent Labour, running with it as a mud clod for the general election; whether you like them or not they’ll also be useful.

Last but certainly not least we also have those working slightly more altruistically, primarily in consumer rights groups, the Pirate Party UK (PPUK) and The Open Rights Group, all of whom are pretty much foaming at the mouth right now (in politics that’s good). For the PPUK this has been a double edged sword as although foaming is occurring, they’re also picking up more members as angry citizens are given a reason to join (in the interest of disclosure: myself included).

Hopefully if there’s opposition the implementation will be delayed, if it’s delayed it’ll probably be stuck on the backburner till the next General Election and then all opinion polls suggest these guys will be out. Problem is Mandelson knows this is the case and the media industry do as well, that’s why the original Digital Britain report wasn’t fast enough for them and they’ve sent Mandy back with a new brief, ‘do it fast’.

ADDITIONAL

Torrent Freak have – as always – a thorough piece on this story… and they mention me!

Meanwhile, as one commenter indicates in a comment on the Digital Britain site, more people will be joining the UK Pirate Party,

Thank the Media for Information Freedom

Perhaps one of the most prominent patterns I’ve seen in my research is increasing decentralisation in information transfer primarily driven by media. Services such as MP3.com and Napster who wanted to work alongside the music industry were incredibly centralised. MP3.com worked off the classic server/client system of information distribution, whilst Napster was centralised by its index servers that co-ordinated the finding and transfer of information. These made the services vulnerable to take-downs, but they never built those systems with the aim of defending themselves, they wanted to work with the industry.

When the industry reacted as they did (read as ‘rather badly’) it spurred on certain software developers to work towards making their networks as decentralised as they could and the politics changed. Justin Frankel, founder of Nullsoft the company responsible for Winamp and the original Gnutella protocol wasn’t the corporate type and his system was designed not to work with the industry. Despite the sale of Nullsoft to AOL his perception of the buyout quickly changed when he realised how much his personal perspectives jarred with those of AOL. When Frankel saw what Napster was doing his first thoughts were how it could be done without being sued. His fairly autonomous Nullsoft staff worked away at Gnutella and released it for free on the net. Gnutella worked as a completely decentralised network, no matter how many computers were taken offline, the network persisted. It was no longer a case of ‘can we work with the industry’ but ‘can we get past the industry’. Proof of success lies in the fact that the Gnutella protocol still persists, its most popular client software being Limewire.

Other systems such as Kazaa, Grokster and WinMX all worked on similar variations of the Gnutella system. The next shift in data transfer came with BitTorrent. Strangely BitTorrent was never designed with piracy in mind, Bram Cohen (the original protocol coder) once said

“Distributing stuff that is clearly illegal with BitTorrent is a really dumb idea. BitTorrent doesn’t have any anonymity features. There are things about it that make it very incompatible with anonymity”

BitTorrent was designed for fast reliable media distribution, but on a legal footing. That’s why if you go to BitTorrent.com you’ll see endorsements from Fox, Warner Bros and Paramount Studios. BitTorrent became the piracy powerhouse it is today because it was released open source and the privacy aspects were built in later, including the ability to decentralise. Usually BitTorrent requires a tracker to co-ordinate the sharing of information, a big ol’ centralised server just screaming for a takedown notice. This wasn’t a problem to Cohen but the community worked their way around this by introducing DHT and peer exchange which make BitTorrent function more like Gnutella than Napster by making every client a tracker (quite how they do this technically is still beyond me).

This is the level of decentralisation we’re at now. However what we’ve also seen with The Pirate Bay lawsuits and raids is that BitTorrent is vulnerable, because of the technical centralisation, but also interestingly the social centralisation. The suit against the pirate bay was possible because there was a degree of centralisation in the apparent responsibility for it, that being the four plucky chaps that ran it. Similar cases have arisen for other trackers where the administrators have been targeted. The servers frequently get shifted around or backups are hidden in various countries ready to kick in if one set go down but the people are a different matter.

This is one of the reasons I believe the pirate bay admin have decided to sell it off. I don’t think they truly believe anyone will turn it into a pay service and I don’t think they care either. The pirate bay became too centralised as an icon. The hope is that the next stage of P2P will be decentralised to the point where no index site is needed to find content, no tracker to co-ordinate the transfers and no administrators to run anything. Simply client software all running as index, tracker and admin all at once. We can already see this in certain clients such as Vuze who are attempting a similar shift in being both content platform and torrent client. Torrent files, the small files that direct a software client to connect to a certain tracker and look for certain content will be considered less as a requirement for content sharing, and more as a browser based shareable link to a network that is always on.

What is interesting about this drive towards decentralisation is the necessary role that the media industries have played in it. Both as the reason to create the systems themselves by providing the profit motive (Napster and BitTorrent) and as the impetus to make them faster, stronger and more open by consistently attempting to shut them down. Perhaps one day we will salute the media industry as the greatest driver for information freedom.

Marketing in Twitter: Applicants Must Have 250 Bots or More

It seems I can’t post anything to Twitter recently without suddenly gaining a follower. “What a braggart!” you might say (brilliant word braggart) but this really isn’t a boast. These apparent followers are nothing more than bots, trawling the twitterverse for keywords and automatically following people that use them.

This isn’t that new in Twitter but its frequency – at least anecdotally for me – is becoming much more prominent. For example I recently posted a reply to a follower about books and how they should all have a digital equivalent. Searching for a quote in a book is much quicker when its digital. It appears simply this use of the word ‘Book’ got me a new follower. Hurrah, new found internet fame!

In actuality the follower was simply a bot for a user that was attempting to get individuals to talk about their favourite book. A worthwhile pursuit perhaps, but not exactly an individual interested in me. However I have also gathered other less altruistic followers , law firms simply from discussing IP law, book publishers who picked up on my complaints about the publishing industry and even a brooklyn wedding DJ after tweeting about visiting a wedding venue (which is about 3,445 miles from Brooklyn).

In all honesty (probably killing my internet cred here) I’d say about 85% of my followers on Twitter followed me not because they think I have something interesting to say, but simply because I used the right words and their bot picked me up as a potential customer

The capitalist urge to market and profit has obviously found its way into Twitter, and there are already seminars and courses on how to utilise Twitter for your business. US electronics retailer Best Buy even makes 250 Twitter followers a requirement of their applicants to marketing jobs, whether they count bots or not is unknown. What I find primarily interesting about this is the cycle of innovation and capitalist co-option. I’m sure many were drawn to Twitter for its open nature, the simplicity to talk with people you’d never meet otherwise. This however is also what brought marketing to it, and in a way it’s perhaps making Twitter a little less appealing to some. MySpace appears to be dying off since the News Corp purchase, the primary mainstay being bands using it as a marketing platform. Facebook, already swamped with applications has now reached a massive audience but with audience comes adverts and third party marketing which may be chasing off the early adopters.

This of course is not meant to be an anti-capitalist rant, these services need financial support in some way or another and it appears that advertising has become the primary source for supporting net services. According to the OECD, advertising agencies worldwide pulled in $445 billion USD in 2007 from selling internet advertising slots. These were primarily search based pay-per click and placement such as banner and sidebar ads. However the OECD also noted a rise in ‘behavioural advertising’, what could also be called taste targeted or algorithmic. This was two years ago (20 in internet time) so we’re forced to simply imagine how this has changed by now. However with so many ‘recommendation’ systems (iTunes, Last.fm, Amazon, Facebook ads etc) it has become apparent that we should perhaps get used to paying for these services with information about ourselves… oh I just got another bot.