Monday, October 25, 2004

Considering the DMCA

I see in the news today that John Kerry has made some vaporous comment about "considering" changing the impact of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), the weapon of choice for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in their fight to keep the river of money flowing into their coffers. Slashdot is carrying coverage of it in their new "Politics" section, and all of Geekdom has risen, flamethrowers in hand, to discuss it.

Whenever I read a discussion on the DMCA or a related topic on the web, I'm always amazed at the number of people that seem to be completely against the idea of any sort of copyright protection on anything. They somehow feel like it's their inalienable right to rent a DVD, make a copy of it, and share the copy on the Internet for anyone to download. The same goes for music. The early MP3-swapping craze showed that people have no respect for producers of the media they consume. The common chant is, "We prefer that money go to the artists, not the record producers." Okay, so how does you trading tracks with your buddy give the drummer for your favorite band the ability to pay his rent?

Having said all that, the majority of Congress, as well as the President, should be embarassed for letting something like the DMCA get passed. I put this admonition most directly on the President, as he is one person with the power of veto and should be considerate enough to see the ramifications of such a law. It ranks right up there with The Patriot Act in removing freedoms from Americans, as well as (evidently) those abroad. What's needed instead is a redressing of the whole core issue of content distribution and licensing that is simple and clear enough for everyone to understand, yet robust enough to address current and future distribution technologies.

A law that truly recognized the coming of a digital millenium (that's a thousand years, people) would separate media (the delivery mechanism) from content (what the consumer sees or hears, though sight and sound are not the only means of consumption or use), and both of those from licensing. Consumers have the responsibility to recognize and honor the fact that, when they consume or use a product that they did not produce, they need to pay for it in some fashion. Content distributors need to get over the idea that consumers should only use their products within the narrow band of options that they've graciously handed down. Content should be licensed for use, and the limitations should be on the order of personal use, broadcast use, or commercial redistribution. At that, the latter two are really only one, though there's enough grey area in the definitions of those to allow abuse, so in the interest of clear definitions, I suggest two categories.

A license for personal use of multimedia content should be just that; a consumer purchases content through some sort of delivery mechanism (media) with a license to use it themselves. The usage license should not include redistribution of any sort through replication, i.e. the purchaser cannot make a copy and give it to their friend. On the other hand, the purchase of the license should be for whatever sort of media the user chooses, and licenses should not have to be purchased twice. For instance, a consumer should not have to purchase music tracks once on cassette tape, then again on the higher quality CD, then again in one of the more convenient portable digital formats like OGG or AAC. Purchase of the license is for, in this case, listening to a music track. If someone can demonstrate that they own a license for content (such as by possession of a commercial CD), they should be able to use that content in any way they like on any device so long as it doesn't extend beyond the boundaries of personal use. In much the same way as I can have a bunch of friends over to the house to watch one of my DVDs, it's outside of the usage permissions to charge for tickets at the door. But if I want to rip the movie track to a DiVX file on a media server and keep the original DVD and its jacket away from my best friend's two year old, I shouldn't have to worry that I'm violating some federal law in doing so.

Broadcast licenses should be just as simple. If a consumer wants to redistribute content to a wide audience without specifically charging for individual pieces of content, they would need a broadcast license. Commercial radio stations or home-cooked DSL streaming media servers, file shares or public broadcasting stations, all would need a broadcast license. Licenses would likely come from the publisher in different "sizes" meant to address projected audience classes, but the base license would be the same; if you're going to broadcast this content, pay an appropriate royalty. Consumption of content from a broadcast-licensed media would confer only a personal usage license unless another type of license was purchased separately.

A commercial redistribution license is the one that is probably best understood and best addressed by today's standards. Record companies like Arista and Sony give licenses to redistributors like K-Tel and Columbia House to repackage and resell music and movies regularly. Apple and others have licensed music from those same producers to resell iTunes tracks to great levels of success. This licensing model is on a fast track for growth, and would probably grow even faster if the above-described personal content licensing scheme was widely adopted.

As with any broad-sweeping change in the way the public consumes things, a short period of chaos would ensue if these standards were put into effect. Everyone with an 8-track tape would be digging them out and using them to prove that, indeed, they have a license for Dylan's It Ain't Me, Babe that's stored on their Rio music player, and I'm sure that the newly-reformed Napster would be inundated with requests to download content without making payment. "I've already got it on vinyl, but I want it in MP3 as well, and I don't want to buy another license." In that case, it should be up to the consumer to "possess at their own risk," and Napster should not be held accountable to verify the veracity of their claims, if in fact they let the user download the tracks in question at all.

But with freedom comes responsibility, though, and content consumers should embrace their responsibility to the system as a whole. If, for instance, someone purchases a CD and rips it into OGG Vorbis files to store on their new all-in-one cell phone/PDA/music player, they shouldn't feel free to distribute that file to everyone on their instant messaging "friends" list. When you can get coupons for music tracks on Whopper wrappers and under Pepsi caps, the barriers to entry are extremely low. And, if consumers and producers both respect the system, the digital millenium can proceed with one less ball and chain holding it back in the twentieth century.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Bus Analogy

I've mentioned before that I work for an electric utility. Lately we've been fighting a steady stream of battles over the fact that a few local politicos think they can do a better job managing power delivery than our executive staff. They've been doing their best to get ballot measures passed that would carve out parts of our service territory and turn them into Public Utility Districts, or PUDs. They hold up a bunch of Perot-ist charts that use spurrious data to draw suspect conclusions on how they could've done things better than we have over the last [insert period of time here] and how we're risking the lives of old people and the infirm by our mere existence. They print up flyers, whip the media into a froth of enthusiasm, and make speeches about how it's time for a change.

[I should say here that I am by no means a member of the executive staff. By "we" I mean those of us who work for the company. We all feel like we have a certain amount of ownership of the problem of delivering safe, reliable power to our customers.]

What they neglect to do in all this, much like any salesman who leaves out the bad parts of any deal, is tell the people, our customers, about how much more its going to cost them in the final analysis. They neglect to mention that they're going to have to buy power on the same open market as everyone else, bidding against California consumers for their megawatts. Nor do they talk about where their corporate infrastructure is going to come from, such as an IT department to write and maintain code for the customer information system, a human resources department to handle the warm body infrastructure, or line crews to go out and fix downed power lines in the middle of a stormy night. I'm sure all of this is just too complicated to fit into their basic message, and that's why their not mentioning it.

So, it struck me that I could use a charter bus as an analogy. Not that you're too dumb to figure this out for yourself, but I like analogies, and I'm going to use one.

It seems to me that these people are riding along on the bus, and they decide that, after all this time watching what the driver is doing, that they could drive the bus better. Their fellow passengers listen while these dissenters tell them about how, if they were driving the bus, they would always maintain the same speed no matter how steep the hill, only drive on roads without potholes, stop at every spot that someone onboard wanted to, and make ticket prices so cheap that no one ever need worry about getting onboard, even if gas prices far outstrip ticket prices.

The way they're going to accomplish all this is by starting with a few seats, passengers and all, off of this very bus. You see, with seats, passengers, and competent drivers, you're most of the way there. Sure, you're missing a few minor things like wheels, brakes, and an engine. But those are minor, and surely things will work out so that the new bus will run. And don't worry, ticket prices will be low, that will get figured out, too. And, if ever the new bus breaks down, why this bus line we're on will give us a free ride, because it's the law.


I'm just starting to realize that I never should have written this. I've gotten this far and it's got me mad, so I'm going to stop. I should come to my point before I leave you, though, so here it is:

If you see a ballot measure this election season that proposes the formation of a PUD, carved out of the service territory of your local power company, look closely at the details of their plan before you vote. I'm not even asking you to vote "No" (though I sure would like it if you do), I'm just asking you to pay close attention to what they say and what they don't say. I think you'll be able to decide for yourself that it's a bad idea. As a matter of fact, I sure of it. Like I said, you're not so dumb that you can't figure this out for yourself.


If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Kill, Kill, Kill!

I've watched two debates in the campaign for President over the last week, and a recurring theme that absolutly disgusts me is that of candidates on both sides saying that we're going to "hunt and kill" the terrorists. John Kerry hit this first and hardest, saying, "...I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are." No mention of an attempt to capture, try on war crime or international terrorism charges, imprison, or otherwise humanely deal with those who have or might in the future attack us. He's just going to kill them wherever he finds them.

When I heard Kerry say this, it sounded to me like something stuffed in his mouth by some campaign manager that thought he needed to show how tough he was. Later, he decried President Bush for not using American forces to kill Bin Laden when "we had him surrounded." Whether or not we had him surrounded is a topic of another debate, and not one I'm qualified to take up.

I could have let it go, waiting for him to say later that he didn't mean it the way it sounded, and that he meant something totally different. That's become a common theme with him, so it would not be wholly unexpected.

But everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon. To his credit, President Bush, for all his talk of death and destruction over the course of the last four years, talked about "the killers" as the enemy, reserving the term "defeat the enemy" for the action that the U.S. was going to take. This is consistent theme with him, and is, in my opinion, the only way to view a war action. Soldiers defeat an enemy, using lethal force if necessary; murderers are the ones who kill, seeing that as the goal, not the means to an end.

In last night's Vice Presidential debates, John Edwards took an early chance to repeat Kerry's spurious admonition that we didn't kill Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Vice President Cheney responded in a prideful fashion that we had "...captured or killed thousands of al Qaeda in various places around the world." This may be merely a statement of fact, but it sure doesn't seem like something to be proud of, at least the killing part. And, for all the things I don't like about Mr. Cheney, I've never thought that he liked the idea of killing people unnecessarily. Then again, I've never met the man, and can't say I know one way or the other.

Ah, but then there's John Edwards. I don't know him either, and maybe it's just his stage presence showing through, but I thought he repeated John Kerry's message that they "will find terrorists where they are and kill them before they ever do harm to the American people, first" with such vigor that it seemed born of his own heart. As his running mate did, he went on to repeat the message before the end of the debate, making sure that the American people understood him. I'm not sure how we could have missed it the first time.

I'm definitely not in the category of "bleeding heart liberal" in my political or social views. I think murderers should be punished for their actions appropriately, and I think that society needs to be protected from those who would do it harm, sometimes in a pre-emptive fashion. But I don't think death is an appropriate goal without first considering options, and none of us, as Americans or as civilized people of Earth, should relish killing.

If the leadership of this country is going to be decided on who's the best one to go kill people who may or may not have done us harm, then I want a new system of choice.