There’s nothing new under the sun

It’s been discussed before and it will be discussed again: at what point does a derived idea become sufficiently removed to be called an idea of its own?  This is seen in music in the form of remixes being considered derivative works of the original song even if they sound nothing alike.  In visual art, the progression of ideas between artists is prolific and has contributed to artistic movements and motifs.  In literature, fanfiction and historical fiction commonly are derivatives of other books (and recorded history in the case of historical fiction).

Today, we see another example occurring right before us.  BMW hosted a contest to promote their MINI line and asked users for submissions of work that promoted MINI.  After the conclusion of the contest, the winning entry was a photograph:

“Check Mate” – The winning entry in the BMW MINI Space website contest

The work was no doubt chosen for it’s aesthetic qualities and elegant presentation.  Soon after the winner was declared, however, the second place winner informed the contest administrators that the image was actually a derivative from another image.  Although, the original was published under a creative commons license, the stipulations of the license were that derivative works had to be attributed to the original, which this was not.  In this instance, the derivative artist is clearly in the wrong for not observing the original’s fairly relaxed CC license.  Luckily this factor made the case fairly cut and dry.  If it weren’t for this, the judges would have been forced to decide if the derivative work was creative enough to be called a work of its own or if they had to disqualify it.  The original, below, is slightly different.

Kevin Collins’ original photograph of a giant leopard moth

Now, it’s easy to see the striking similarity between the two images… so what should be done?  While I don’t have that answer, I do know what shouldn’t be done.  If you were talking to a philosopher or lawyer, they might tell you that in order to solve this problem it would make the most sense to standardize a formal definition of what makes a derivative work “different enough”.  This, however, is exactly what I think shouldn’t be done.  While it may be a pain to work through this gray area and decide on a case-by-case basis, it really is the only way.  If the courts were to make a formal definition, it would likely be as broad and underspecified as their other definitions (such as piracy).  Even if it weren’t, it would still be up for constant interpretation, negating its usefulness.

Just imagine what kind of formal definitions wouldn’t work based on this example.  If one were to say a certain percentage of the image had to be modified, this derivative work would be standalone.  Because the image is flipped and cropped, the percentage of the original image (pixel by pixel) present in the modified version is going to be limited to parts of the white backdrop that overlap.  If one were to consider percentage after taking into account basic transformations (flips, rotations), then one would have to declare a certain list of basic transformations that didn’t count.  This would certainly bring about problems when the simple rotation of an image changes the content entirely (a la those illustrations of people’s faces that are another face when turned upside down to a lesser extent).  The complexity just continues to rise the more one thinks about the situation.


You know what really rustles my jimmies?  Kids with cellphones.  Most recently, my friend’s eight year old sister just got one.  For now, it’s a dumb phone left over from a plan that would cost more to terminate than to ride out, but I’d bet money on the fact that she’ll get to keep it.  What’s more is that I bet in a matter of months, she’ll have a brand new smartphone with a data plan.  All of this for what?

Gradeschooler with a cellphone...

Did Big Bird pick up yet, or is he going to let it go to voicemail again?

With parents getting less involved in their kids’ lives, cellphones are perfect opportunities for parents to be even more distant.  To a parent, a cellphone could allow them to check up with their kids without being inconvenienced.

Kids like having a cellphone too.  It’s a status symbol in the schoolyard.  Not only that, but kids love toys, which is ultimately what they use them for.  Most kids just play games on their mobile devices, which seems to be a flagrant waste of processing power.  I don’t want to sound like an old codger, but cell phones are some the smallest and most mobile computers we have designed to date, technologically they’re a wonder.  They’re severely taken for granted by kids and adults alike.

I can’t just blame the cell phone companies though, it’s also a matter of some of the service providers and parents as well.  iTunes, for example, brings the practice of a parent linking their credit card to their child’s account.  Just a while ago, I was driving a group of boy scouts to an event.  First and foremost, we didn’t used to be allowed to bring our phones on trips.  This was partially due to the worry of a loss or damage, but it was also because one of the important elements of scouting is to learn how to operate in nature.  I digress though, so I’m driving this group of scouts to an event and two are talking a bit in the back of the car.  One is asking if the other has played this game on iphone.  So the other opens up the app store and just buys the game.  The first scout looks at him and asks “you didn’t want to try the free version before buying it?” and the game-buyer responds “It’s on my parents account, they have to pay for anything I buy”.  I don’t know about anyone else, but in my house, that kind of attitude wouldn’t get you very far.

At the end of the day, what do you own?

As digital media expands and becomes more ubiquitous in the market, consumers are faced with an interesting question they’ve never had to answer.

What do you own?

This question is getting more important with every transaction made by a consumer.  Readers find themselves purchasing e-books rather than physical books, gamers buy their games without buying CDs increasingly and who doesn’t purchase music as MP3s rather than on albums?  All of these products, unlike traditional goods, have no physical existence and are easy to copy.  In order to combat this, many content providers are exploring different schemes of protecting their content from being copied.  These protections schemes are referred to as Digital Rights Management (or DRM).  Unfortunately, more often than not, these DRM schemes tend to require users to bend over backwards just to abide by them.  This puts two forces against each other and hurts everyone involved.  On one side, there are users who are willing to pay money for products but unwilling to break their back just to own a product.  On the other hand, producers are willing to provide high-quality products, but fear making piracy too easy.  While the conflict is still evolving, there are some isolated instances of DRM schemes and users getting along.

One solution is not to have any DRM at all.  Amazon provides, via their MP3 store, DRM-free music files for the most part.  With the exception of a few publishers who insist on using DRM, Amazon has made DRM-free files their standard.  On top of that, any files you buy from them, you can listen to on their MP3 player online and re-download at your convenience.  The only catch is that you have to register your computer in order to download the files.  You can have up to 3 computers registered at a time and it is possible to unregister.  This allows Amazon to attract users who want the assurance that their files will always be available.  By making their products readily available and giving their users a guarantee of ownership, Amazon is able to keep their sales up and discourage piracy.  Additionally, Amazon offers sales on albums to encourage listeners to buy albums rather than illegally downloading them.

Of course, not using DRM is not an option for everyone.  Games are commonly protected by DRM.  For a long time, games were protected in that one had to own a disc to play a game.  Nowadays, with distribution companies cutting physical discs to increase profitability, new schemes have been developed.  Many of these can be quite draconian in nature.  An upcoming scheme which is surrounded in controversy is EA’s new Sim City.  The game will require an internet connection full time to play.  Most of these DRM schemes come under heavy fire because they have done little to stop pirates from copying the software while seriously detracting from the game play experience for legitimate users.  Another large issue with these schemes is that some only allow for a one-time download and install.  This can be particularly troubling when someone wants to own a copy of a game for a long period of time.

One company that’s been doing a good job of DRM has been Valve, with their gaming platform Steam for Mac and PC.  Steam is essentially just a license manager.  It allows users to download, install and keep up to date all of their games on as many computers as they’d like.  The only catch is that you can only be playing on your account on one computer at a time, a completely reasonable request.  It supports an offline mode to play games and only requires an internet connection to purchase and install games.  Finally, Steam offers two huge sales on games every year, maintaining a positive relationship with their users.

From these two successful examples, it’s easy to see that the content-distribution system of the future will need to allow users access to their purchases multiple times.  Additionally, it is important to invade users’ lives as little as possible.  Finally, these examples show that any inconvenience should be compensated for in the form of sales.  This will also attract users and encourage people to legitimately download content rather than pirate it.

That’s not journalism and this isn’t either.

There are few things that annoy me more than not having stair access from the ground floor in the apartment building I live in, the newest addition to this list being an increase in copy-paste journalism.  Now maybe I’m overreacting, maybe it’s not that bad, but the longer readers allow it to pass as journalism, the more popular it seems to be getting.

For those without exposure to copy-paste journalism, this article should serve as a fine example.  The writer starts by finding something they’d like to show someone else (like an example of copy-paste journalism) and basically just posts a reference to it.  The reference is usually preceded by a small blurb by the author in an attempt to justify doing so little work and ends with a sentence to get you to look at the picture they took from elsewhere on the web in lieu of finding an actual story to report on.  I mean, just look at this glaring example from Gizmodo:

This is like the inception of copy-paste journalsim!

Look at me as I copy and paste an image, journalism in action!

Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort.  Given XKCD‘s hit and miss reputation as of late, I’m happy to have someone go through new material and tell me when it’s worth checking.  That being said, I don’t think someone doing this should be allowed to masquerade around as a journalist on a popular blog site.  I mean there are much better outlets for this sort of information than a blog.  Sharing it on Facebook or linking to it in a tweet would be faster, easier for both of us and, best of all, would let writers get back to writing actual news stories instead of short opinionated pieces on things they found on the net.

Mashups and Remixes, Art or Copyright infringement?

Although not exclusive to digital media, mashups and remixes have always drawn criticism.  The mashup (also called bootlegs due to their illegitimate use of audio samples) have been around for as long as recorded media itself.  With roots in audio tape being cut and taped together, the mashup has always had a bit of an underground and taboo feel to it.  The remix is a somewhat newer occurrence by modern definition.  Of course, expanding the definition slightly would allow remixes to extend all the way back to classical.  A favorite personal example comes from the early 1900s, when Vaughan Williams (a noted composer) recycles a theme from Thomas Tallis (a noted composer from the 1500s) in his piece Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

These days mashups and remixes are becoming more common.  This is primarily due to the ability to share work with the internet.  Unfortunately, this is also making them easy to detect by those who are offended by the content and would like to see it removed.  The interesting thing to see is that remixes, which usually bear more resemblance to the original piece, are being adopted by record companies.  Mashups, on the other hand, are consistently attacked by record companies.  The primary reason cited when attacking mashups is that they contain unlicensed samples of songs.

The debate begins to get shaky when record companies begin constraining their efforts to just one of the two genres.  There are a lot of bad remixes and mashups out there.  Remixes might be more accepted because individual artists begin promoting their favorite remixes of their work.  It’s becoming somewhat common practice for artists to release remix albums of a song of theirs, Lady Gaga’s Alejandro the Remixes album comes to mind most easily.  The disc contained 8 remixes, and while they were all high-quality remixes, the song remained the same throughout several of them with changes being made to the synthesizers or bass components of the song.  Mashups can suffer from the same curse of monotony, but many of them break away from sounding like the original at all.  A great example is DJ Earworm’s United States of Pop series.  At the end of each year, he makes a mix of the top tracks in The States and it always produces impressive results by all means.  Take a listen to his United States of Pop from 2012:

While it’s possible to recognize individual components, the song is a completely new creation.  It’s an audio version of a collage.  So why do record companies attack them so heavily.  Without having much insight into the minds of them, it’s tough to pin the behavior on a reason.  It would seem though, that companies have began to accept remixes as they’ve found that they can sell them.  Mashups are, from a legal standpoint, much harder to profit from.  One would have to obtain licenses from all of the included artists.  Unless these artists were willing to give away licenses for free, this business model would never work.  Another large problem with the marketability of Mashups is that they’re not professionally produced usually.  That is to say, they’re not produced by record-label signed artists.  In the case of the Lady Gaga remix album all of the remixes were by also signed artists.  In all likelihood, they remixed the tracks because they wanted to, and allowed Lady Gaga to release them because they were proud.

Regardless of the reason, as digital media further advances, this will be a problem the music industry will have to face rationally eventually.  Until then, we’ll just have to stick to getting our tracks from other sources.

An evolving media

It doesn’t take much to realize that the internet has revolutionized communication.  In a thought exercise in which participants are asked what method of communication was most similar to the internet before it, many people mistakenly say phone or fax.  Of course this is because they’re physically hooked up to the same network over which the internet first existed, but it may not be the most accurate answer.  Early methods of communication over the internet, in fact, didn’t resemble phone communication at all.  These methods were similar to traditional methods: sending letters, talking in a group and passing notes in class.

E-mail: the second generation of mail:
E-mail technically predates the internet by a long shot.  IBM demonstrated an e-mail like system at the World’s Fair of 1939 at an exhibit titled: high-speed substitute for mail service in the world of tomorrow.  It was a common occurrence in the precursor of the internet: DARPAnet.  After the advent of the internet, it became available for general use.  This lead people to obtain e-mail addresses of their own.  Until the early 90s, only text could be sent via e-mail, however thanks to a standardization in 91/92, images could be embedded and files attached.  Over the next two decades, e-mail began to replace physical mail altogether.  There were even talks in the early 2000s of the USPS wanting to charge for each e-mail sent.  E-mail changed the way by which people communicated.  When once it would have been costly. monotonous and time-consuming to send out identical messages to more than a handful of people, e-mail made it quick and easy to do.

Chatrooms and IRC:
These were the next communication systems to evolve.  Again, drawing inspiration from already existing methods of communication chatrooms and IRC enabled a discussion to take place in realtime on the internet.  Unlike e-mail, this made it possible for people to just hang out on the internet.  Because there were always people online and talking, users could just log in and join the conversation.  These methods are still used today to facilitate discussion in realtime.

Again, taking inspiration from already existing methods of communication, the messageboard became the bulletin board of the internet.  People could post things (images, links, video, text) to it.  Just like a real bulletin board, early messageboards only really sorted content from newest to oldest.  This was a feature shared with physical bulletin boards and nobody minded for a while because they were used to the inconvenience of a physical bulletin board.  Eventually, this evolved.

The messageboard with ratings:
While this wasn’t a completely new method of communication, it was an evolution that could have only taken place because of the power of the internet.  Similar to a standard messageboard, this allowed users to post material to a never ending board for the community to see.  Unlike its older counterpart, these messageboards (Digg, Reddit) allow users to either promote or  un-promote material.  By having users rate material as it is posted, it gives a new sorting option, sort by rating.  This is a totally unique feature to messageboards that couldn’t be achieved by physical media.  Now users had a way to find content they liked based on whether or not people like them liked the content.

The video sharing service:
This was another revolution which was only possible on the internet.  By now, everyone is familiar with Youtbe and other services, so there’s really no need for an explanation.  The point, again, is that through user input the content can be rated and then displayed in order of rating.  This recurring theme of sorting by rating is something which just wasn’t possible with physical media, and has changed the way people browse for content entirely.

So what are we seeing?
There are very clear trends that as the internet matures, more methods are being developed to share material with many people at a time rather than just a few.  Probably the most important revolution the internet has brought to communication though, is rating systems.  By rating material, users can find more things that they would be interested in, rather than having to sift through all new material.  While it’s definitely up for debate as to whether or not this is a good thing, it is a revolution in communication that’s happening right now.  No longer is communication between Person A and Person B, rather the nature of communication is evolving to be between Person A and the world.

The Revolution Will Not Be Distributed Under a Label

The scene is late 1999, while the world awaits disaster as a result of a threat they’re calling ‘Y2K’, they are preparing to deal with many changes that the turn of the century will bring.  One thing that couldn’t have possibly been anticipated was the impact that the internet, still called the world-wide web in conversation at the time, would have on daily life in the new century.  In just over a decade, the web expanded to become an all-reaching entity in western civilization.  Accessible from anything including TVs and cell phones these days, the internet is changing many facets of life.

One important change beginning to take place today is that of economic importance.  In the 1900s, artists needed publishers and distributors to ensure that their work would see the masses and that they would see financial return.

The collaborative spirit of the internetimg credit: James Jean

The collaborative spirit of the internet
img credit: James Jean

Today, this archaic system has been pushed off and now floats aimlessly across the river Styx.  While it hasn’t been fully developed yet, a competing model is rising out of the primordial soup which is the internet.  In order to appreciate it, it’s important to take a look at some qualities of the internet that traditional modes of communication lack.  The internet allows for full duplex communication, that is to say it allows for two parties to communicate back and forth in the same session.  This allows for artists to rapidly communicate with their fans and vice versa.  Furthermore, the internet allows for content to be hosted relatively cheaply.  The internet also allows ordinary activities to be turned into social ones.

Consider this: You could go to an ordinary record store or you could go to a totally radical record store, where you could leave notes for the artists and get feedback, filter through a list of the customers at the store by interest, interact with customers with similar interests to you, bring in albums and share them with folks at the store, you could even bring in an album you recorded and get people to listen to it.

Amobea Music in San Francisco

The coolest record store I know of still doesn’t have more than half of these features

In order for this awesome record store to exist in reality it would need a ton of resources put into it and even at that, it would have a finite volume and only be able to service a certain number of customers at a time.  Now if this record store existed in a virtual space and was able to host an unlimited number of customers, how radical would that be?

This is an analogy for the awesome environments springing up on the internet. Naturally, there are groups upset with the kind of freedom the internet provides to the public.  It used to be that if someone wanted to purchase an album, their only option was to buy a physical copy of the album.  Most artists couldn’t manufacture their own albums or marketing materials on their own any more than they could hand-deliver the albums to music stores, so they needed publishers and distributors.  These days are over though, as artists can now publish directly to the internet and allow their users to download songs directly.  Of course without publishers and record-labels, it’s no small task to get songs on the radio or other mainstream places but that’s not to say that it’s impossible.

An interesting point about this is that the system of free, peer to peer distribution is the key to a successful independent artist gaining fame.  This is the same peer to peer system that record labels and the RIAA are constantly persecuting users of.  Artist Jonathan Coulton, when asked about all the free music on his website, has this to say:

I give away music because I want to make music, and I can’t make music unless I make money, and I won’t make any money unless I get heard, and I won’t get heard unless I give away music… we all need to adjust our thinking about the relationship between artists and fans – the RIAA thinks that music listeners are criminals and that music should be locked up and protected. I disagree. I think there are times when free music and file sharing can greatly benefit an artist. Believe me, I spent many years making music and not sharing it with anyone, and that didn’t get me anywhere.

Jonathan Coulton has been an unsigned (indy) artist since 2005 when he quit his job as a software writer.  He’s been extremely successful in his quest to become a musician and attributes much of his success to the generosity of his fans and the fact that he was willing to share music for free in the beginning of his career.  He also allows for the use of his music in accordance with a Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial license, meaning that anyone can use his music for anything as long as they give him credit and don’t turn a profit on it.  Whether or not the RIAA attacks such a system because it undermines their business model or just because it signals a shift in their field that they are unwilling to adjust to remains unclear.  The only thing one can be sure of is that this new practice could render record labels and groups like the RIAA outdated, as consumers can be in direct contact with artists without them.

Another exciting entity which was previously unable to exist due to many constraints is a crowd-sourcing or crowd-funding organization.  One such group is Kickstarter, a platform on which entrepreneurs can pitch an idea and receive funding from individuals just willing to lend a hand.  Below are some of the statistics from Kickstarter pertaining to 2012.  Projects that get funding come from a variety of backgrounds including the arts, products, games and more.

Projects get funding in a variety of fields with varying levels of support. The number of projects proposed appears under the launched column, with successes in the next column over.

This can be seen not only disrupting the old model of music production, but also the old model of having to find funding for projects from distribution partners or wealthy investors.  Rather than giving away significant stakes in the project to high bidders, Kickstarter rewards backers with a variety of perks depending on how much they pledge.  While the system already delivers serious funding to projects, it’s also growing:

The 2012 wrap-up stats for Kickstarter, it’s worth noting that pretty much every aspect of the organization saw an increase in consumer involvement from the past year.

Whether or not these systems will survive into the next decade, they mark an important shift away from the older system of content production and distribution.  This shift puts more power into the hands of the artist, but the real winners in these are the consumers.  No longer will consumers have to enjoy what a label markets as being popular, but they’ll get to choose what they want to see on the market because of their increased involvement in the artist’s funding.