Zoë Keating Ponders YouTube Service

I have to direct readers’ attention to this blog post by composer and cellist Zoë Keating.  It is the clearest articulation I have yet read about the rock-and-hard-place terms demanded of artists who are considering participation in YouTube’s paid streaming service Music Key.  Keating outlines some of the non-negotiable terms she doesn’t like, for instance that her entire catalog becomes fair game anywhere on YouTube and that she must release new work on Music Key simultaneous with any other release. And if Keating or any other artist does not wish to participate in Music Key, no problem, Google will simply throw your work to the wolves.

What does that mean?

Presently, Keating and other artists participate in YouTube’s Content ID program. The way it works is when someone uploads a video with Keating’s music on it, robots identify the track and send her a notice giving her options, including an option to monetize the video.  Many artists, Keating included, choose either to let the video remain without ads, or choose to monetize it with ads; and they typically only seek removal of offensive or unlicensed commercial uses.  But for all the noise people like to make about “new business models,” the Content ID program cannot generally be called an opportunity for artists, so much as it is a band-aid applied long after the bleeding of music’s value had begun.  It’s YouTube saying, “Well, people are going to use your music online and we’re going to monetize that, and there’s not much you can do about it, so here’s a slice of the pie.”  But nobody should think for a minute that Content ID is a revenue stream that most artists consider a portion of sustainable income. Still, it does provide artists a view of where their music is being used on the service, and this certainly has value.

But along comes Music Key with terms artists don’t like — last year there were several reports about the meager revenue shares in the offer — but an artist who declines to participate in Music Key will automatically lose his/her Content ID account.  As Zoë Keating describes, this puts her in the unfortunate position of potentially removing almost 10,000 videos and upsetting thousands of fans, or gritting her teeth and accepting YouTube’s exploitative terms for Music Key. But, the implication here is actually worse…

If an artist were to decline the Music Key deal, and next month there were 40,000 videos using her music, she could neither participate in the revenue nor very effectively remove those videos due to the slow and cumbersome DMCA notice-and-takedown process. Plus, Google’s bots are no longer identifying her music for her because she’s had that account revoked.  And if she did avail herself of DMCA for removal of any videos, YouTube will show users its frowny face icon, and the EFF will catalog the removal with the Chilling Effects database, making the artist look like she’s being a greedy, mean, censor.  See, it’s not so much a new model as it is a very old model coming back into vogue.

But Zoë Keating makes a very important point in her article about copyright itself.  If you pay attention to the facts she lays out — and she’s much friendlier about it than others, including me — you will notice that the central conflict she has with the YouTube predicament is the limiting of her choices as an artist.  This is something people continue to overlook:  that in most cases, what the artist wants is to retain his or her right to decide how works are used — by whom, for compensation or not, the timing and manner of presentation and distribution, etc.  People talk about copyright as though its last remaining use is for big media corporations to scrape every nickel out of a property it bought forty years ago. And they like to make generalizations like, “the labels have screwed artists for years.” But no label was ever able to say, “Hey, take this deal, or I’ll just give your music away and sell ads to the crowds I draw.” Here’s Keating on the comparison between the old boss and the new boss:

“But I want to decide what to do when. That is a major reason why I decided in 2005 to self-publish rather than chase after a record deal. I am independent because I didn’t want a bunch of men in suits deciding how I should release my music. For 10 years I have managed to bushwhack a circuitous path around them but now I’ve got to find a away around the men in hoodies and crocs . . .”

Others have said it before, and Keating is saying it again. The new boss wears a new uniform, but he’s just another boss. Only this time he has a worse deal in one pocket and a rock in the other.  Or as Keating puts it, having been an early evangelist of the Internet’s cultural potential, “the revolution has been corporatized.”

Posted in Copyright, Digital Culture, Music | Tagged , , | 46 Comments

Assessing piracy harm is like climate science.

Ernesto (no last name) at TorrentFreak published a slightly sarcastic article about the fact that pre-release piracy did not do any apparent harm to the box office bonanza for the makers of American Sniper.  I have personally criticized pre-release piracy as a distinctly egregious form of theft and have stood by the principle that the behavior can cause harm to the primary release window of a motion picture.  Most specifically, though, I called pre-release piracy a “dick move,” and I’ll stand by that without apology whether it does financial harm to any particular film or not.

Ernesto points to the indisputable fact that some movie industry professionals blamed the widely reported pre-release leak of Expendables III for that film’s poor performance at the box office. He then rhetorically suggests that the contradiction in the case of pre-release piracy of American Sniper, which is doing very well, is a mystery.  Even with the sarcasm, TorrentFreak often presents articles in a fairly balanced manner, as follows:

First of all, the impressive opening doesn’t necessarily mean that the pre-release piracy had no impact at all. Perhaps the film would have raked in an additional $5 million without piracy.

On the other hand, some may argue that piracy may even have helped to promote the film through word-of-mouth advertising. In the end we simply don’t know what effect piracy had on the opening weekend.

I’ll agree with Ernesto enough to say that we don’t know, but I will say that the answer, (or answers) is likely a little more complex than the obvious fact that the two films being compared are like chalk and cheese.  Yes, American Sniper is a big deal film getting all sorts of accolades from critics and stirring up all forms of chatter on social media, while Expendables III was a typical example of a franchise being beaten to death and would never have attracted that degree of critical or audience attention in its wildest ambitions.  So, the success of the former and floppage of the latter is not inherently about piracy, but that has nothing to do with whether or not piracy is harmful in the aggregate, which is the more important question.

Regarding the economic harm done, if you view piracy the way Ernesto is viewing it on TorrentFreak, you’re what we call a climate science denier.  You look outside and the weather is okay. In fact, there’s snow on ground!  Global warming?  Ha!  This is the myopia we often encounter from a variety of idiots or vested interests incapable or unwilling to accept that the climate is a very large, very complex system and that climatology takes a much broader and more comprehensive view than our day-to-day peek at the weather.  Now, I’m not calling Ernesto an idiot.  As I say, I think TF can be fairly balanced, and I think his question is posed honestly.  But, trying to assess the harm, or potential harm, done to films by piracy through examination of two or three movies is like trying to study the global climate by looking at the ski report.

The reason I say this is that, like the climate, there are a variety of factors at play, including a significant amount of uncertainty, when it comes to averaging the successes and failures of motion pictures.  And one of those uncertain factors  is the fact that studio executives have believed since the days of two-reelers that they actually understand all the other unruly factors for success.

Ernesto is right that we won’t really know the harm/benefit of piracy on American Sniper, but there are a lot of other things we won’t know either.  We won’t know who went to see the film that wouldn’t have if not for some of the controversy it stirred.  We may not know — and I suspect this is the case — whether or not this film drew a demographic out to the theaters different from the demographic that typically engages in piracy.  Ernest speculates that perhaps the blockbuster would have made an additional $5 million without piracy, but one can just as easily theorize that an above average audience of 55+ year-olds offset the losses of piracy to the tune of $5 million.  Eastwood’s name alone is worth a segment of audience that doesn’t even know how to pirate and doesn’t always go out to the movies these days.

Multiply all the factors for success by the total number of films made at every level and you have a data set that needs a climate scientist’s computer to begin to make predictions about the motion picture environment.  But what we can know without a whole lot of complex research is that there is always a finite pool of money available to invest in motion pictures, and we can know that investors generally like returns and hate risk.  And film is always risky, even the “sure things.”  So, the most distinctive films, the ones that surprise us, are the riskiest ones of all, not only with regard to subject matter or style, but because they almost always operate on much smaller margins. These films are historically less attractive to investors even without added risk.   Moreover, some production companies spread their bets across a wide range of fare, some presumably more commercial, others more creatively daring.  Hence, even a loss on a commercial film that some piracy rationalizers may presume to call marginal, might have been the seed money for that other product.  In the larger economic climate, this is certainly the case.

So, if we want to make assumptions about the prospective harm done to movies by piracy, it is insufficient to compare and contrast a big movie that has a lot of reasons to flop with a big movie that has a lot of reasons to win big.  We need to look instead at the prospect that piracy, like carbon in the atmosphere, adds substantial risk to investment across the broad range of distinctive films that are produced in the middle by independent filmmakers who survive on relatively modest returns.  Those are the films we’re mostly likely to lose in the long run.

Not that that means I condone piracy of the big movies.  No, that’s still a dick move.

Posted in Copyright, Piracy | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Google Glass on hold. But what’s next?

Last week, Google announced that it will be halting the production and sale of its somewhat controversial product Google Glass. This eyeglass-style, wearable computer, retailing for $1,500, never really caught on with consumers; and based on reports about Google’s own rationale and future plans, I have to wonder if the company is right about why Glass flopped. Industry journalists report that Google’s publicly stated reason for what it’s calling Glass Phase 1’s failure was their strategy to employ the kind of iterative product development typically used by software makers, but not often a recipe for successful hardware launches. Companies that produce apps and other software-based tools often benefit by releasing Beta versions of their products and then crowd-sourcing improvements from consumers willing and eager to kick the tires on the new offering; but this approach is not typical for makers of physical products.

Google has stated that it is not abandoning Glass but is instead moving development to new internal management that will pursue the kind of model employed by successful device-makers, who develop in secret and then reveal fully-formed products. Tech writers like Ben Johnson reporting for Marketplace on public radio, make the natural comparison to the way Steve Jobs first rolled out the iPod as a thoroughly developed unit ready to go to market. And, of course, what tech company would not want to emulate the kind of theater that Apple, and particularly Jobs, has performed so well with many of its product reveals? But comparing the iPod to Google Glass (at least so far) is a bit like comparing an electric car to the Segway*. Because we already know what a car is for, and we have a pretty solid idea about the pros and cons that come with driving. The Segway, though, while it is a cool piece of technology, did not instantly offer a value proposition for mass consumption; and it raised some tough-to-answer questions like, “Would it be safe to have thousands of these things on city streets?”

By the same token, Steve Jobs did not invent the personal music device — we had this thing called a Walkman in the early 1980s — and he certainly did not need to create a demand in the market to listen to music. The iPod, though iconic and revolutionary and all that, is really just a very elegant improvement on other products that were already meeting consumer demand. The moment it was revealed, we intuitively knew what it was for, but he iPod was cool. It was beautifully designed, consistent with Apple’s tradition of redefining what technology can look like. But without music, the iPod would be a paperweight.

By contrast, I’m not really surprised consumers did not see Google Glass as an improvement to wired life; and many of the assumptions about the product that clearly came to mind sounded rather unsavory. Notions of unauthorized, P2P surveillance or even more acute forms device distraction than we have now  became the basis of criticism and satire. Plus, Glass was expensive and had a fashion-coolness rating somewhere in the vicinity of fanny pack and pocket protector. Seriously, even Sergey Brin, whose coolness rating is a net worth of about thirty billion dollars, looks like a complete tool wearing those things. The blogosphere popularized a term for early adopters and Beta testers — Glassholes. And in a few incidents, Glass wearers were beat up or harassed by people who felt threatened by the recording capabilities of the device.

Google has stated that the privacy concerns associated with Glass were based on misunderstanding and a failure on the company’s part to communicate; and this is somewhat consistent with a Beta-launch approach to development. But given Google’s poor track record so far for its stewardship of private data, I don’t think consumers are wrong to be concerned about the prospect of any device that helps us capture and “share” data even faster and potentially more intimately than we do right now with handhelds.

What intrigues me most about Google’s stated regrouping and re-strategizing for Glass is that I have to wonder what it is about the goals of this product that the company believes consumers will ultimately want. Innovative products help us do things we already know we want to do, but do them better; or they enable us to do things we didn’t know we wanted to do until we tried. Any technologist is asking us to accept a vision, but Glass makes an interesting statement, and the metaphor could not be more obvious. Google is saying, “See the future as we see it based on our assumption that what you want is to be an always-wired, walking, talking node of the interconnected, global network.” And given the level of apparent smart-phone addiction, maybe Google is right, though many average consumers and avid technophiles increasingly talk about the value of unplugging. Steve Jobs’s own kids weren’t even allowed to own iPads. A product like Glass could reemerge just as consumers are getting better at balancing real life with wired life, and Glass 2.0 could fail even if Google does redesign the dork factor out of the product.

And lest you think I’m overstating the larger implications of a wearable like Glass, I remind readers that, Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil will say without equivocation that the future of computing is what he calls “hybrid thinking,” made possible by nano-tech implanted directly in the brain. Why have a computer in your hand or across your face when it can be conveniently carried around inside your head to provide you with information at the speed of thought? This is an inevitability according to Kurzweil within just two or three decades. Maybe this sounds cool to some people, but I cannot imagine why anyone would think the communication would work in only one direction, and why, therefore, Kurzweil’s prediction is not literally the foundation for creating thought police?

Imagine by the time my youngest grandchild is born that Kurzweil’s hybrid thinking, nano-tech implants have become commonplace. Then, imagine society begins to reorganize itself because the people with implants have an advantage over those without implants. Perhaps certain economic sectors disappear altogether in favor of those that thrive based on the capabilities of the new cyber-human. Fast-forward another generation or so, and the implants are as common as vaccinations because nobody wants to disadvantage his child in the new society. Maybe they’re even mandatory.

Sounds a little creepy and maybe farfetched? I don’t know. Kurzweil is not wrong that the capability to merge with the network through nano tech is not far off. The desire to do so is another matter altogether, so we should be careful what we wish for. In this regard, I’m encouraged that consumers said no to Glass because I suspect the step before man becomes machine is man wears machine.

*Originally published as “Segue.” Thanks to a reader for pointing out the error.

Posted in Digital Culture | Tagged , , | 38 Comments

Je ne connais pas Charlie

I have so far refrained from saying anything about the Charlie Hebdo murders.  For starers, I don’t like bandwagons and don’t feel a strong urge to restate the obvious. Naturally, we abhor this kind of violence and stand in solidarity with any creator, who at this moment is considering his/her own position on controversial free expression in the wake of this attack.  At the same time, I cannot claim to have had any previous knowledge of the work of these cartoonists and commentators and so cannot honestly claim to be Charlie when I don’t even know Charlie.

The free-speech-a-thon was to be expected.  This is the age of the meme, and nothing is easier, or quite possibly less relevant, than changing one’s profile photo and/or sharing an image that affirms one’s position at a moment of crisis, tragedy, or conflict.  Of course, the contrasts between that which goes viral and that which is overlooked is always an interesting subject in this regard.  A man in Saudi Arabia named Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years and a thousand lashes for starting a blog that discussed politics and religion. And though this story is actually a more acute example of the right of free expression being repressed, we haven’t seen any memes declaring I am Raif.

I assume the Charlie Hebdo attack scares us more than stories like Badawi’s or journalists jailed or killed in dangerous and radicalized parts of the world. Because all these cartoonists did was go to work in a major European city, where the right of free speech already exists; and then violent thugs silenced them in a brutal and terrifying manner. That will give anyone who writes or creates anything, even in a free and relatively safe society, a moment’s pause.  On that subject, this interview by Celia Farber of American ex-pat cartoonist Robert Crumb is worth a read. As one of America’s most unabashed cartoonists, and a resident of France for over 20 years, Crumb found himself in a situation that demanded he say something. So, clicking like and share and all that is fine, but what if you are the cartoonist everyone is turning to for an illustrated response, and you’re now considering your own safety?

I’ve read a number of stories drawing distinctions between Charlie Hebdo’s editors as martyrs to free speech and the content of their speech, which has been described by some as racist, jingoistic, phobic, and offensively facile without satirical value.  As I say, I don’t know Charlie, and I have to wonder how many of my fellow Americans who say they are Charlie know him either, but assuming some of these criticisms of the work are valid, I have to ask this:   If some nut had gunned down Fred Phelps, would we have bothered to create a meme in his name proclaiming his right to free speech?  Probably not. But the truth is that’s when standing by speech really counts — when it offends you. And to our credit, nobody did shoot Phelps, though he could not have been asking for it much more effectively.

One of the more interesting pieces I have read questioning the value of the content of Charlie Hebdo is by Arthur Chu, writing for The Daily Beast, who describes their work as exemplary of “chan culture.” By this, he’s referring to the kind of sophomoric, scatalogical humor one finds on sites like 4Chan. Chu writes:

“When the only thing you’re reverent of is irreverence, when the only thing you hold sacred is the idea that nothing is sacred, well, you eventually get chan culture, you get one long continuous blast of pure offensiveness and taboo-breaking for taboo-breaking’s sake until all taboos are broken and there’s nothing left to say.”

Chu, as does everyone who has written from his perspective, goes to great effort to make clear that he would never suggest these cartoonists brought violence upon themselves; and it is indicative of our reactionary, meme-based times that he must tread so carefully to make that clear.  But his central point is worth consideration.  In this fleeting (and everything on social media is fleeting) canonization of these cartoonists, do we elevate the work to something it never was?  Quoting Chu again:

“. . .  the Internet is already busy at work deifying Charlie Hebdo as the new Satanic Verses and Charb as the new Salman Rushdie. People are changing their profile photos to crude, racist caricatures of Middle Easterners in solidarity with the principle of “free speech” and the average person’s Twitter feed is one-half gleefully “irreverent” reposts of offensive cartoons and one-half cloyingly reverent tributes to said cartoons.”

Like I say, I don’t know Charlie. I do know that Chu is right in principle — that merely being shocking for the sake of being shocking is easy and is not necessarily socially relevant satire. I don’t personally believe any icon or idea is beyond ridicule, but that doesn’t mean I cannot make a distinction between social commentary and offending just to be offensive. It also doesn’t mean I would necessarily have Crumb’s courage to draw what he calls “The Hairy Ass of Muhammed” in a new cartoon and wonder whether or not I had instigated my own personal fatwa.

To be honest, the Charlie Hebdo story and the editorials it has spawned serve principally to remind me that speech is dangerous, complicated business and always has been.  Perhaps in our globalized, networked, interconnected utopia, speech is becoming more dangerous in places we have long considered safe — like a movie theater running a basically dumb comedy making fun of a dictator.  Regardless, it is the seriousness of speech that forms the basis of my own scorn at the pampered, corporate elite who presume to tell us that the right of free expression not only depends on their gadgets now, but worse, that even those who risk their lives to speak don’t deserve to own their words.

Posted in Digital Culture, Free Speech | Tagged | 6 Comments

Is an old conservative message working with new progressives?

As American progressives, especially New Yorkers, honor the passing this week of Mario Cuomo, editorials and eulogies in various forms will cite the former governor’s famous keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.  In this speech, Cuomo challenged President Reagan’s statement that America is “a shining city on a hill,”  which comes from Matthew 5:14; and it is a phrase that has been synonymous with America’s unique capacity for divinely presumed exceptionalism since John Winthrop first invoked the words in advance of founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  (All credit to historian Sarah Vowell for making these connections in her book The Wordy Shipmates.)

Cuomo addressed Reagan directly, accusing the president of living in an ivory tower from which “the city” may indeed look shiny to him and his wealthy friends, but down on street level, where people work, struggle, and endure deprivations like homelessness, the American city is neither shiny nor on a hill.  Progressives like me didn’t think much of Reagan’s rhetoric that often glossed over real challenges (like energy and climate issues) that we are only now beginning to take seriously.  And we didn’t buy into supply-side economics or the deregulatory agenda that helped foster a culture of “conspicuous consumption,” which continues to distort the principles of responsible capitalism to the extent that contemporary progressives seem to have broken faith with the idea that the system remains a rational, economic model for a free society.

This understandable frustration, combined with an equal measure of distrust in government, appears to be leading many social progressives toward economic libertarianism that, ironically enough, champions the same deregulatory paradigm long-cherished by the trickle-down, supply-side conservatives.  What’s different this time is that it isn’t financial services, extraction industries, or the manufacturing sector promising the “market will solve everything if government gets off our backs,” it’s the high-tech industry, the disruptors of Silicon Valley.  Many of us democrats and progressives marveled at Reagan’s ability to teach the conservative, working-class base to vote against its own self-interests, and now the technocrats appear to be teaching progressives to do the same thing.

In an article that appeared yesterday in The Washington Post, writer Larry Downes offers old-school, industry-serving declarations dressed up in the new lingo used by the tech industry elite. Touting what he calls “Big Bang Disruptions,” Downes is not only promoting a new book, he is serving up classic, conservative rhetoric, sprinkled with a dash of Schumpeter, and folded into byte-sized hors d’oeuvres that smell tasty and fresh, but are really just pigs in a blanket again.  It’s just another business sector saying, “Get out of the way, and technology (i.e. the market) will meet all challenges and bring about prosperity.” And the reason I think this GOP stand-by is now playing among progressives is the aforementioned disenchantment with government in general and the nature of the Internet, which many see as an antidote to or substitute for government.  I honestly think we’re at a baby-with-the-bathwater moment when faith in both private and public systems is so low, that even traditional progressives are susceptible to messages like this one from Downes:

“We see . . . the FDA’s growing discomfort with new technologies, such as the DNA testing service 23andMe, that are being translated into new products and services circling the moribund health care industry, giving patients access to information about their own bodies that have long been the exclusive fiefdom of medical professionals.”

Of course such populist ebullience must be tempered in light of this piece by Sarah Zhang, which appeared Tuesday on Gizmodo; it reports that the supposedly self-empowering 23andMe is entering into deals with large biotech firms to sell the DNA data people have been voluntarily providing to the company through its app.  Not that I don’t hand it to guys who figured out how to make billions from spit, but Downes’s implication that their business model is going to solve the underlying flaws in American healthcare by disrupting the “fiefdom of medical professionals” is farcical.  Of course, nobody should be surprised that selling user data is where the money is, not only for these high-tech expectorant collectors, but for most of the companies Downes is assuring us will “build the future” if the damned regulators will just stay out of the way.

And I have little doubt they will build the future, but on the chance that it starts to look like a future we don’t like, on the chance we don’t want to allow our genetic data to be sold like bundled securities, I have to ask my fellow progressives precisely what hedge against this kind of corporate practice might they propose other than government?  We could argue about it on Facebook and Twitter, I suppose, but because Silicon Valley is interconnected by an incestuously small pool of venture capital, this “representation” through social media only makes more money for the new elite in their new towers. And from up there, America really does look a lot like a shiny city on a hill, doesn’t it?

It is also worth noting that some of the most successful Silicon Valley firms don’t have a particularly good track record for abiding by rules and regulations in the first place.  In their own words, they like to “break things” and “get big fast” and “apologize later,” meaning they’ll settle lawsuits and pay fines after  a few million dollars is a mere drop in their over-valued buckets.  As such, I think a little skepticism is warranted in response to the assertion that a shiny future is somehow being delayed by the prospect of regulatory oversight.

Rules are ignored, broken, and fought against daily by these companies, so where is the unfettered prosperity?  The economy is certainly healthier than it was when we were on the brink of disaster, but is the gap closing or widening between the ultra-rich and everyone else?  One need only look in Silicon Valley’s own neighborhood to see that not much trickles down from those particular hills to the streets below. And if an industry is not closing that gap through legitimate creative destruction, but is potentially widening that gap with with destructive destruction, then it has no right to say to the public, “Back off. We got this.”

Posted in Digital Culture, Economics | Tagged , | 6 Comments