Saturday, 28 February 2009

Random time killer

Bored at home, I stumbled across an old favourite Internet activity via a Facebook friend. It's the one where you have to manufacture a fake band album cover after hitting Wikipedia for a random article, a quote website for some random pearls of wisdom and Flickr for the artwork.

The 'rules' as I followed them insisted that the quote discovered had to be the last one on the page and consisted of the last 4 or 5 words. The Flickr image had to be the third image on the page.

Stick them all in Photoshop or GIMP and let's see what they look like. My, ahem, masterpiece is below. What do you think? I'd like to see yours...

Monday, 23 February 2009

File-sharers fight back?

The MAC281 Cyberculture lecture this week dealt mainly with the responses file-sharers have given in relation to years of music industry rhetoric which has sought to label them as criminals. I've included a link to the slides I used in the session below (best viewed in full screen due to small text on screen grabs):

One of the issues that tends to get brought up time and again by filesharers is the issue of copyright infringement in a digital age. In the book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything the authors, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams identify a demographic born between 1977 and 1996 as the first to 'grow up in a digital age ... bathed in bits' (2008: 47), which they refer to as the Net Generation or N-Geners. They claim that this generation is distinct from previous ones due to the myriad ways in which they not only consume media, but scrutinise it, and re-purpose it.

Tapscott and Williams go on to suggest that these N-Genres are not passive consumers but rather, are driven by a desire 'for choice, convenience, customization and control by designing, producing and distributing products themselves' (ibid: 52). They go on to highlight the creation of Napster in June 1999 by the then-student Shawn Fanning as an example whereby a young man with an idea was able to create a piece of software to share audio files amongst friends, which then went on to pose a serious threat to the established distribution model for the music industry.

A similar example can be found in the guise of Jesse Jordan who was a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, during 2002. Jordan developed an internal network search engine which enabled anyone on the institutes network to search the public folders hosted on the network, which just so happened to include music files. When the RIAA caught on to this side-effect of the network search tool, they branded Jesse a pirate and demanded he pay them $150,000 per infringement - a total of $15,000,000 (see Lawrence Lessig, 2004 for more details) - money he clearly didn't have.

With some guesses putting the amount of web traffic now taken up by file-sharing as high as 50%, it would seem like these N-Geners are bringing about a philosophical rethink with regards to how we make sense of copyright and intellectual property in a digital age:
The ability to remix media, hack products, or otherwise tamper with consumer culture is their birthright, and they won't let outmoded intellectual property laws stand in their way (Tapscott & Williams, 2008: 52)
The emergence of Web 2.0 platforms and user generated content has further entrenched this type of activity. In a more recent book Lessig (2006: 196) recounts the example of digital creativity in the guide of Anime Music Videos (AMVs) whereby young people spend hours re-editing anime cartoons to perfectly match a piece of music before posting their creations to the Web. One company in particular, Wind-Up Records, didn't see this as an example of creativity but rather, as an example of copyright violation and ordered a take-down. Instead of seizing this as an opportunity to connect with fans or engage with customers they assumed a fairly traditional position.

It is this atypical type of industry reaction which irks the N-Geners and actually stands in the way of creativity and innovation, and helps contribute to a sense of 'net banditry' (Rojeck, 2005) amongst file-sharers. Less than a decade ago the mainstream music industry was dominated by a handful of global players - EMI, SONY/BMG, Universal, Time Warner - who had an established business model which had served them well for many years. Key to this was a firm grip on distribution outlets for their products. Music had to be written, recorded, produced, marketed and physically transported around the world - an expensive business. The creation of services like Napster and zero-cost search tools played a part in transforming that traditional relationship. The advent of digital audio compression techniques (e.g. MP3) also played a substantial part in that process. We shouldn't forget that these developments helped bring about an attitudinal shift.

To paraphrase the recent Creative Freedom Foundation campaign, the distinction between using and copying artefacts in a digital age has become blurred. The movement towards digitisation, rapid search and zero-cost distribution has enabled a remix or 'mash-up' culture that enables people to be creative in new and exciting ways. We need a legal system which reflects that. We need a copyright system which is fit for a digital age We need a legal system that reflects the behaviour of a multitude of people who breach current intellectual property laws on a daily basis.

We don't need what the New Zealand authorities have been proposing recently whereby ISPs will be forced to take down internet connections and websites of anyone accused (nb: not actually convicted) of copyright infringement. Section 92A assumed that people would be guilty upon accusation irrespective of the circumstances. There are all sorts of problems with this law which TorrentFreak cover here. A small reprieve came today when John Key announced that the implementation would be delayed until March 27th.

This might be a temporary reprieve however and more pressure needs to be applied, especially when the lobbying power of the world's copyright holders are in play. They are rich, powerful and organised. What happens in New Zealand could easily happen elsewhere if pressure is not applied. The Irish music industry (as represented by IRMA) has already succeeded in getting one of the biggest Irish ISPs to block access to file-sharing sites and it won't be long before others are forced to follow - this is despite the fact that sites like The Pirate Bay have not been deemed illegal in Ireland. An organisation with deep pockets has pressured an ISP into censoring the Internet on behalf of a commercially driven entity.

What does this tell us about censorship and network neutrality? It tells us we should be worried about the future of digital content.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

So what is going on with the UK music business?

Yesterday I did my annual lecture for the MAC281 Cyberculture module in which I outline the problems facing the music industry, drawing particular attention to the rhetoric from those groups which seek to advance a very specific version of events vis-à-vis the impact of the Internet. Lecture slides are embedded below (some formatting issues are apparent but you'll get the picture):

In particular we looked at some of the rhetoric and roles played by the following organisations:
It's well worth paying a visit to these sites as they give you a good indication as to the lobbying power of the music industry. All of these groups represent the music industry in its various guises and they are all intent on using the rhetoric of supporting artists through combating file-sharing.

I was looking through a few BPI press releases this past week as I attempted to update some of the facts and figures regarding the sales of music in the UK context and I was a little confused by the data I found, which seemed to suggest that the UK album market is fairly buoyant with a relatively steady set of sales figures over the last decade. Had I cared to listen to the rhetoric of the anti-filesharing lobby without being too critical I'd have thought this data was surely inaccurate given the frequency with which messages abound - equating piracy with poor sales and less future investment. I'm not trying to suggest piracy doesn't impact on sales, but I am a little sceptical about the amount of leverage the music industry seems to have in promoting a somewhat misleading account of the impacts of file-sharing.

After all, there are a number of events occurring currently that seem to suggest that these lobbying groups are gaining momentum in their ability to get national and supranational governments on side. In New Zealand there are a number of groups contesting the introduction into law of Section 92 of the Copyright Amendment Act, which has been nicknamed the 'Guilt Upon Association' law.

New Zealand's new Copyright Law presumes 'Guilt Upon Accusation' and will Cut Off Internet Connections without a trial. Join the black out protest against it!

When this is introduced in 10 days it will enable the termination of internet connections and website access without sufficient evidence of wrong doing, without a fair trial, and without punishment for any false accusations of copyright infringement. The consequences of such a thing are monumental, especially when one study has already pointed to some of the flaws in evidence gathering.

Meanwhile, the Legal Affairs Committee in the European Parliament has given its approval to extend the copyright term for music recordings from 50 years to 95 years despite substantial opposition. Torrentfreak have been following this one. The ruling was meant to protect the rights of sessions musicians who get a rather short deal out of existing copyright arrangements, although they still have to prove they are entitled to any money to a collection society acting on their behalf. Not many people live beyond 95 years of age and seldom are born composing music. These extensions have a history of benefiting the rights holders over anybody else. The Open Rights Group are carrying an attack on the 'fairy tale' of the term extension.

Becky Hogge: Speech at Sound Copyright conference in the EU Parliament 27.01.09 from Open Rights Group on Vimeo.

The video above seems to have been ignored by the Legal Affairs Committee who have given the big 4 (Sony BMG, Warners, Universal, EMI) yet more power and control over copyright. The myth of the poor musician was a successful smokescreen yet again...

In Sweden, The Pirate Bay founders are being taken to court by media firms including Warner Bros and Sony on charges of copyright theft. Various industry representatives from the games, music and movie sectors are seeking approximately €10.5 million in damages and losses due to the sites hosting of files which point users to others with copyright material. The trial started yesterday, and already 50% of the charges have been dropped due to insufficient evidence.

It seems like these are turbulent times in the worlds of filesharing and intellectual copyright. I wonder whether or not these ventures are worth the money spent on them? More investment in new and exciting music services like Spotify might point to a better future. It's good to see the big 4 are actually supporting this venture as it rolls out across Europe. The basic service is free to UK users now.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Net neutrailty doomed in the UK?

I've just been ploughing through the UK's Digital Britain report and I was shocked to read the following from page 22:
The Government has yet to see a case for legislation in favour of net neutrality. In consequence, unless Ofcom find network operators or ISPs to have Significant Market Power and justify intervention on competition grounds, traffic management will not be prevented.
This is a pretty big indicator for the future from Stephen Carter who has a bit of a reputation as being pro-market. It seems to me like he is edging towards a pro-market position when it comes to the delivery and regulation of Internet bandwidth. By suggesting that it is in the best interest of the ISPs to traffic shape data, offering preferable rates to those organisations or customers who can afford to pay more for a guaranteed service, seems to fly in the face of the reports other grand claim in the report: to provide universal connectivity for all.

It seems like a contradiction in terms. Ditch net neutrality in favour of supporting big business and the market place, let the end user (ie us!) make do with a two-tiered, slower service. How does this sit with a universal service for all?  After all, the report only seeks to guarantee a connection speed of 2 Mbps  by 2012.  The current UK average is 3.6 Mbps according to Ofcom.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Welcome back to uni!

I'd like to extend a warm welcome to all our students who have been brave enough to face the inclement weather in Sunderland this week. Public transport links and public carriage ways haven't faired so well under the recent snow storms meaning that many students have been trapped in their beds, sorry, I mean homes! Attendance wasn't great yesterday - notably amongst the staff - so it seems we were all caught a little short. At least Sunderland was warmer than London for once. The capital seemed to grind to a halt due to the odd bit of the white stuff - softies ;-)

I'm running two modules this semester which are focussed around critical readings into new media and the web, plus I've also focussed half of another module around related issues:
  • MAC281: Cyberculture
  • MAC309: New Media, the Web and Society
  • MAC301: Media Studies 2 ('Media & Modernity' strand)
I've already posted content on the VLE WebCT Vista for these modules but I just though I'd share a few useful web-based sources that might be useful for students wanting to do a little bit of background reading on their computers whilst they are 'snowed in'. You might find some interesting articles...
You might also be interested in the recent government green paper by Stephen Gowers: Digital Britain.

Hope you like them... See you next week