OrgCon 2012: Be There or Be relatively disadvantaged in your knowledge of orgcon…

Snappy Title Ahoy!

Yes I shall be attending OrgCon 2012; the shindig put on by The Open Rights Group to discuss many important issues in the sphere of digital rights. If you are able to get to London with relative ease I thoroughly encourage attendance. The primary benefits involve hanging around in the general vicinity of the rather excellent Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and other well credentialed individuals. Clearly it is the Tech-and-Civil-Liberties-Nerd event of the year so get to it!

Get your tickets here
If you’ve ever paid for an academic conference you will find the prices pleasantly surprising.

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All You Ever Wanted to Know about the History of Piracy and Digital Distribution…

…but were too afraid to ask.

The site is back!… and mildly snazzier. The UI has had an overhaul and things should be a bit simpler now. The primary addition is that new menu bar up there that should help you get around if you feel like wandering off the blog-beaten trail.

However the real reason the UI got updated was because now the site is hosting a load of new goodies. My thesis is due for submission in just over a week and because I like to be revolutionary (awkward), a lot of the resources I produced to go along with the thesis can’t be conveyed on paper that easily. So instead they’re here for the reader to access, and as a bonus, that means they’re here for anyone to get at. So what can you get your hands on?

Peer-to-Peer Networks: How do they do it!?

Ever wondered how Napster worked, or maybe you’re confused about the complicated
majesty that is BitTorrent. Be confused no more as the video guides show you through handy animations the operation of the most popular peer-to-peer protocols over the last decade.

The History of Digital Distribution: There’s a lot of it.

The main aspect of my thesis is the histories I’ve produced documenting the development and impact of the major piracy systems of the last decade. As part of this history I generated a fairly dense timeline of events running from 1998 to 2010 which helped me keep things in order as I wrote. I’ve provided the timeline here for your perusal.

There’s a bit of Pirate in us All

One of the more interesting things I found during my research was where those legally fuzzy peer-to-peer technologies ended up. The Illicit Influence Map shows how the illicit tech of the piratey world impacted on the businesses and media delivery systems of today. Unfortunately the diagram won’t tell you exactly how (you’ll have to read the thesis for that) but maybe once you see the connection you’ll be inspired to go find out more.

Everything is accessible under ‘Thesis Resource’ and licensed under Creative Commons, so go forth and tinker!

‘Instant Pop’: Give the Kids What they Want

Grabbed from The Guardian

Ten years after piracy first began to ravage the music industry, Britain’s two biggest record labels will finally try to play their part in stopping it, by making new singles available for sale on the day they first hit the airwaves.

Now this, is a good thing.

The further I’ve read into the technicalities of retailing digital media the more sympathetic I’ve become to the difficulties of digital retail. This softening of my opinion has primarily come via reading a healthy dose of intellectual property law and the various EULAs attached to services like iTunes, Steam and Amazon’s digital arm, those things none of us read but sign our souls away to, quite literally in some cases. I’ll post something regarding my adventures in EULAland in the near future; for now we’ll stick to the recent ‘Instant Pop’ announcement.

As much as I have softened in some regards, there are still areas where I’m fairly critical regarding industry practice. Digital retail at first seems to be about manufacturing scarcity in an inherently bountiful product, something that is profoundly difficult. However rather than apply old scarcity economics to digital media, the successful retailers have realised that it is not the product that gains them the custom, but the service surrounding it. The latest pop hit is the latest pop hit, whether you buy it from Amazon, iTunes or pull it down off of some P2P network. What differs is the process surrounding that acquisition. P2P is a pretty good service if you ignore the legality issue; contrary to industry opinion the files are of high quality, speeds are solid and if you are competent enough to operate some P2P client you’ll probably be street wise enough to not get a trojan of some sort.

With a service like iTunes however, because of their nice walled little empire they have something that P2P doesn’t; that nice little button, default on all iPods and iPhones that says ‘iTunes Store’. As long as you’ve got connectivity you can hit that button, search for a track and purchase within about 30 seconds. Then it’s there ready for you to own it at the moment you decided you wanted to own it. Put this hand in hand with radio and you’ve got a brilliant system; song comes on the radio, listener hears it, likes it, wants it. Listener goes to device in pocket and a few taps later they have it. The price is higher than P2P, but P2P couldn’t give it to them right then and there. The customer paid to have the song NOW.

iTunes WiFi Store Logo

People are walking around with miniature record shops in their pocket all day, at any moment they have the potential to purchase a small something that takes their fancy or even go on a media bender when looking to kill some time. Having a gap between radio promotion and single release, to deny the individual the option to purchase it at that moment when they are primed to be consumer, to tell them to wait and buy it in a few weeks, a few days, even a few hours, is a strategy that will lose you that customer. They’ve had the marketing plugged straight into them, they’ve got the shop out of their pocket and are ready to go, but due to a perception that you can still maintain media scarcity, there’s no single in the shop and the customer will look elsewhere because they know they can get it somehow, it’ll just take a bit more work.

This instant pop strategy is a good one, it plays to new behaviours of consumption and takes advantage of the fact that a grand majority of people are hooked up to media retail wherever and whenever. It won’t be a panacea for piracy, there’s more factors in people’s decisions to pirate than simply speed and convenience, sometimes p2p offer a service or a product that the legit spaces don’t. However for those people who previously would have taken the costlier but quicker option if only they had one, this move will bring them back in to the shop.

Guardian Article: Universal and Sony Music plan ‘instant pop’ to beat piracy

Props to @tegularius00 for sending me the article.

Digital Economy Bill Will Enter Wash-Up

Yesterday I spent much of my afternoon and evening watching BBC Parliament. It’s not a regular pass-time I assure you, but like many people of my ilk I was there for the second reading of the Digital Economy Bill. This was the crucial moment when we would find out if the bill, which contains some rather dangerous thinking surrounding web censorship and internet disconnection, would disappear into the murky process of wash-up. Wash-up, which sounds much more quaint than it is, is where parliament attempts to pass through all the legislation that is suddenly left hanging when a new election begins. It happens behind closed doors and is debated by the party whips, leaving your elected officials out of the loop. The second reading was cleverly placed right on the day that Gordon Brown dissolved parliament, leaving the house of commons with little choice other than to pass the bill into wash-up, or abandon it until the new government was formed.

Well I shall inform you now that it will go into wash-up. Harriet Harman interrupted the commons proceedings around 4pm to announce the various bills that would be going through to wash-up. During the second reading of the digital economy bill, Conservative MP and shadow culture secretary gave the bill his approval, despite having reservations. Though not necessary for the passing of the bill, the Lib Dems also supported the bill. After these statements much of the debate seemed moot, as the proper vote to pass the bill to wash up will take place today. The debates themselves were interesting however with much consensus in the room being that it was poorly written, scandalously handled from beginning to end, and a mockery to the house… but that they would pass it anyway. Consensus of course by no means meant majority: when debates started there were perhaps 40 members present, within an hour the number had drastically plummeted to around 15. With all the camapaigning occuring to get the MPs to demand the right to debate the bill, when the opportunity for debate arose, few of them bothered. If you wrote to your MP about your concerns with the Digital economy Bill, there’s a pretty good chance that they didn’t care enough to hang around.

Your Representatives in Action... well a couple of them.

A few highlights from the evening include…

MP Austin Mitchell stating that he doesn’t understand the issues at all and that he doesn’t think anyone else in the room does either. What he does understand is that there are a lot of young people that understand better than any of them, and the young people are very worried… perhaps we should listen to them? Mitchell suggested leaving the bill till after the election where it could receive proper debate. Mitchell won a lot of internets with that.

MP Tom Watson who has been against the bill from the start, and garnered much love from open rights and pirate types. Essentially every moment he spoke was a highlight simply because he seemed to be the only person talking about the social implications where where everyone else was talking economics.

On the other end of the scale there was Sion Simon’s patronising tale of how Tom Watson was ‘Luke’, how Clay Shirky was ‘Obi-Wan’, how Peter Mandelson was ‘Darth Vader’ and that apparently this meant that Steven Spielberg was ‘Emperor Palpatine’. This is apparently how us ORG Pirate types see the world and apparently its ridiculous. Well I think I’d have to agree that it is ridiculous. Andrew Robinson of PPUK considered the possibility that Sion Simon was intoxicated; validation of that is yet to be confirmed.

A highlight in itself was the banding around of massive numbers whenever piracy was mentioned. These statistics regarding the cost of piracy, the likely unemployment caused by piracy, the amount of piracy and the probability that piracy caused cancer (maybe not the last one) were so erroneous that I hallucinated big ‘citation needed!’ banners floating around the room.

Finally my possibly favourite moment is when MP Michael Connarty stated that Richard Falkvinge, the leader of the Swedish Pirate Party, was actually in jail. Andrew Robinson found this confusing as at the time Skype was telling him Falkvinge was online. The low down dirty criminal soon afterwards used Twitter to express that tales of his incarceration had been greatly exaggerated, stating… “I would strongly debunk the rumor that I would be in jail..”

So where does this leave us? Well although it will pass into wash-up as many of your representatives felt no need to listen to the thousands of letters and emails sent by their constituents… all is not lost. The fuss raised by the public has made the parliament edgy, and although the Tories gave their support, it was grudgingly with the caveat that if they gained power they would rip the thing apart and do it properly. The Lib Dems also had many alterations they wanted to make during the wash-up process and beyond.

However this silver lining is still surrounding a pretty big cloud. All that fuss about the bill was made, and the disgustingly few MPs that did turn up recognised it. They also recognised that the bill had a rather shady history, and that they should be given the opportunity to debate it. They recognised it had deep flaws and dangerous wording and that they may not truly understand the implications of what they were doing. They recognised all of these things, and they still passed it.

The Third reading of the bill is tonight, with the vote scheduled for approximately 9pm. With both Tory and Lib Dem support it is unlikely that the bill will be thrown out in this final reading.

Unpacking My Library

Long ago when I left my parents’ home for far away shores I left behind a mountainous pile of what can be best described as ‘stuff’. This ‘stuff’ consisted primarily of media, in shiny round form in lots and lots of little plastic cases, some of which were then inside unnecessarily big cardboard boxes. When it was finalised that the family house would soon no longer be the family house we were forced to deal with my mountainous pile of stuff.

The old computer games that I whittled my childhood away with were first. Initially the cardboard had to be dealt with, as well as the reams of paper manuals that games used to require. All of that went to the recycling centre and as for the discs, they had to be chucked. The discs, so old and incompatible with the computers we have now were essentially useless to anyone not running a computer they bought 15 years ago. The games that the discs contained are readily available on services such as Steam and Good Old Games, nicely patched up and able to handle the operating environments that were inconceivable when they were first written. However unfortunately for the discs and anyone that abhors waste, the games in their original form were useless, too solidified in a particular era to be used now. They couldn’t even be recycled and it was at that point that I realised how glad I was that I buy my games as a digital download.

Next came the stacks of music CDs, all the albums I had collected since I became aware enough to have a taste in music. They weren’t necessarily useless, but they had become superfluous to my day to day life. All my music now lives on my laptop, backed up across various devices and drives. The physicality of discs is too much of a burden in both storage and inflexibility. I went through them one by one, remembering where I had bought them and if there were any poignant experiences that had them as a soundtrack. Their songs were copied onto the laptop, catalogued by various online music database systems and then the discs were sent off to Music Magpie, who paid me an average of 30p per disc. A significant devaluation from the average of £7-£12 they cost back in the height of CD dominance. Some discs survived the purge, quite what my criteria was I was unsure of even at the time of choosing. Some I knew I wanted to keep to show my children, others just seemed to exude an aura of significance in their physical form. They seemed to have developed an identity more significant to me than simple exchangeable commodity, but I still couldn’t tell you exactly why.

Yet in a strange antithesis to this story, the media I acquired most of over the christmas period was books in tangible wood pulp with black ink form. A format relatively unchanged for centuries and surely due for a reboot considering the relatively short life cycles of other media. Yet rather than preparing myself for the great bookshelf exodus, I’m instead eagerly buying more. Every one is significantly placed on my office shelves and to me the ownership is solidified as a lifetime relationship. The concept that I would rid myself of them is absurd, they will be with me for as long as I exist.

There was also another type of media that had incredible significance and demanded proper archival treatment. Amongst the various boxes and cases lay recordable CDs, unlabelled but clearly used. Before going to University I was in a band, and I have always considered it to be a significant part of my life. Due to the diligence and sacrifice of one of our party, we were fortunate enough to have our own studio. This gave us the opportunity to record songs when the mood took us, and these songs were usually burnt onto CDs to be taken home for review. These recordable, unlabelled and unarchived CDs had the potential to be those studio discs. This led to a night of exploration, going through them disc by disc searching to see what was contained. Many of them were nothing of significance but a few contained biographical gold, including one which essentially amounted to a definitive archive of all artwork, promotional posters, photos, management correspondence and some raw audio data. All of this was swiftly copied to the laptop, backed up and then the discs carefully noted, ready to be stored for an unknown period; perhaps until disc drives are driven to obsolesce.

So why have I bothered spending a significant amount of time that I should be working, on writing about going through my old junk? I wasn’t that sure myself when I decided to, but now I think I understand the significance. Firstly, these media though eventually disposable, had a significance to me in my life. My everyday life and the objects I surrounded myself with were intertwined. Disposing of much of the media was emotionally distressing to a degree, because it was in some way connected to a certain period of my life, which is significantly different to the one I’m in now. Although I am now glad to be rid of much of it, the process itself was difficult. This difficulty highlighted quite how much of a significance I place in even the most disposable of things.

Secondly, I got the feeling when I was disposing of those old discs, that I wouldn’t be doing it again. That I was contributing to my eventual disassociation from physically instantiated media. Moving further away from the concept of media as object, and closer to the idea of media as effervescent flux, as message in and of itself. That may be why I, like many other people, cling to the idea of the instantiated book. It is a reference point in history, an object type that gives us a stability to say where we are in time. We can conceive of a time when the CD was not here, and thus understand quite readily that a time will come where it is not here again, but books are different. Books have always and will always be, because the idea that they won’t be is frightening.

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Corey Doctorow described the significance of books better than I could at his speech to the National Reading Summit last year which I thoroughly encourage a read of.

The title of this post is a small homage to Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name. You can read excerpts here or the full piece in the collection of essays ‘Illuminations’.

Losing British Airwaves to Hollywood

The BBC is moving to encrypt public broadcast signals with lovely lovely DRM.

In early september the BBC submitted a petition to OFCOM to be allowed to encrypt the public airwaves. If it is allowed to go through manufacturers of receiving devices will have to apply for a licence if they want their products to be able to store or output the content it receives to another box as the content will have to be encrypted. This means that every box you have in your home media set-up will have to be compliant with the encryption or none of it will work together. Who has determined these licences? The same people that created the ‘Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator Agreement’; the US studios.

As it stands our current public airwaves are just that, public. Broadcasters are free to use them but in return we are allowed to do what we like with the content, as long as it doesn’t violate copyright laws. We can record it for later viewing, move it around to different devices or cut it up and play with it. If the content is encrypted we can’t do this and suddenly our public airwaves are just another proprietary conduit for US media that hate to see a distribution network that they don’t control.When I saw the Doctorow article that informed me of the BBC encryption it reminded me of a story from April this year.

After getting fed up with poor internet service from Time Warner Cable, the residents of Wilson in North Carolina set up a city run broadband network. It was high-speed and low cost and everyone loved it, Apart from Time Warner. Rather than improving their service and lowering their extortionate prices – like the city requested of them before they went ahead with an alternative – they instead thought the best option was to lobby for the outlaw of community ISP services; their argument being ‘we can’t make a profit’. The issue is still as yet not resolved, but the fact that it could even be considered an issue worth debating is rather unnerving.

As I have mentioned multiple times before, my firm belief is that the attacks on so-called ‘illegal pirate networks’ are not about copyright but about control of publicly produced systems of distribution. The media industries have had dominance over the conduits of media delivery and they don’t like the competition. This has become even more prominent when the industries move to close down legitimate public distribution systems as well as the supposed illegitimate.

The very awesome Open Rights Group has already set to work opposing the encryption scheme, head over and support them if you can.

Sources

Engadget – Time Warner and Embarq can’t compete with city-owned ISP

Daily Tech – Time Warner, Embarq Fight to Outlaw 100 Mbps Community Broadband

The Guardian – The BBC is encrypting its HD signal by the back door

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.