Skip to main content

IP-SKEPTIC: Why You Should Distrust Copyright

Submitted by kmeisthax on Fri, 03/22/2013 - 22:39 in Rants

So let's talk about HTML5 - the much touted "open web" that kicks proprietary, insecure plugins like Flash, Java, or Silverlight to the curb. Specifically, it adds audio and video handling functionality to the browser specification so that you don't need to use Flash anymore. You just add a <video> tag and bam, you have a functioning video player in your browser. It almost makes handling video and audio in the browser as easy as handling images.

Naturally, we would want to see this functionality implemented as wide as possible, as multimedia was the last great bastion of Flash. But then we run into a problem. You see, some video sites carry content from entrenched media interests outside of the new Web media bubble. These interests have very specific demands when it comes to delivery of their content; more specifically, they require that the content be completely under their control from the moment it leaves the video services' servers until the moment it hits the display you're watching it on. This control is achieved through technical protection measures, also known as DRM.

So Tim Berners-Lee alongside several of the more commercial backers of the W3C (World Three Consortium, or World Wide Web Consortium, the main standards body responsible for this) including Apple, Google, and Microsoft, pushed for a new standard under the HTML5 umbrella called "Encrypted Media Extensions", or EME. The idea behind EME is to make it so DRM video providers can play their video in an "open web" environment - i.e. without Flash, Silverlight, and so on.

Naturally there's a lot of well-deserved backlash to the EME spec. First off, it's technically deficient because it does not specify a DRM scheme. In fact, it can't, because they have to be protected as trade secrets, not as open standards. Instead, it specifies a way to plug DRM schemes into browsers, which just takes us back to the days of having to install proprietary plugins to watch videos. But there's a bigger problem: Why the hell is this even on the table?! Why are the close-minded needs of content providers hampering the open web platform!?

Actually the answer is pretty simple: In the past few years there has been a concerted effort to rebrand computers as entertainment consumption devices which, thankfully, has only limited itself so far to tablet and smartphone computing. However, even with the limited scope of those two areas, the problems resulting from this affect all of computing. Because now people expect their tablet computers to, first and foremost, watch movies, we're now at the mercy of content distributors to get those movies to the screens of our tablets, or people flat out won't buy them. But even then, why is Hollywood getting everything they want? Becuase they "own" all the content in question through copyrights, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets, which together form the nebulous and vague term "intellectual property".

In a previous rant I used the term "IP Skeptic" without defining it. This was because I merely needed to profess my distrust of copyright laws before ripping into a particularly out-of-touch House Committee of the Judiciary hearing. But now I think I should define it anyway. Intellectual property skepticism is the viewpoint that "intellectual property laws"; specifically, copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets; do not necessarily benefit the public and should be reduced substantially in both size and scope. It posits that the political component of property ownership, when applied to non-tangibles like culture, causes harms which are borne by society.

Copyright laws in particular are bad, because they stigmatize and harm the natural human tendency to treat culture as a conversation rather than a product. The only cases in which conversation is allowed is when it serves a marketing purpose, which is why "social media" is such a buzzword nowadays. It's also ruining the underlying production of the cultural works in question. Production of art is being focused more and more towards efficient monetization of such art over the actual quality of it. More and more we're seeing things getting simplified and recontextualized so it can be "relevant to today's audiences", not actually to make it relevant to today's audiences, but instead to make it familiar to today's audiences. And all of this comes from the fact that the people who own these large media empires are more and more afraid of financial failure that they're running their artistic merit into the ground.

This consumption over conversation angle can be seen in the way that entertainment industries invision social networking. When Sony went on stage and pushed the PlayStation 4's "Share button" they showed functionality perfectly poised for helping users sell other users on a game rather than what people actually do with video of games. The technology in question only supported sharing 10 second video clips or livestreaming the game to your friends. Livestreams come close to the esports usecase, but 10 second video clips with no narration or video editing is just hilariously ignorant. People on YouTube make use of game footage in all sorts of creative ways that could not have been possibly thought of in a limited console UI.

Going back to the PS4 launch announcement again, a lot was made of the console's power and how it would free developers to make the next set of great experiences. That is, if you're a "registered developer": a member of the social class of game developers which have an in with Sony to be able to purchase extraordinarily expensive development hardware and have the privilege of being able to sell games on Sony's platforms. Much of the games industry in particular is based on a developer/player dichotomy enforced in the hardware we play games on. But this producer/consumer dichotomy isn't particular to the games industry by any means. It exists everywhere, and the source of it's power is copyright law.

The property ownership that is copyright law inherently pushes the production of art towards the optimal exploitation of art. To put it lightly, the incentive to produce new works is actually *decreasing* with the increasing terms of copyright ownership. Longer copyright ownership as well as increased consolidation of production companies into transnational media empires is producing creative stagnation. From the point of view of a transnational media empire, all of the works you already own have some amount of built-in equity while new projects being pitched to you represent risks. I mean, to get one Inception funded, it's director had to make three Batman films. And this means that the majority of Hollywood's creative energies are being increasingly diverted away from new and potentially promising ideas towards the next way to creatively "reboot" (or resucitate) whatever franchise isn't doing too hot in terms of sequels.

I mean, just the fact that people other than the American comic books industry are using the term "reboot" scares me. A "reboot" was the cynical cash-grab that DC or Marvel would do when their continuity fetishism got the best of them and rendered their books an unreadable mess. Now it's a generic thing that's done whenever a sequel to a creative work doesn't do too hot. Instead of just trying better the next time or admitting that the formula's gone stale and putting the franchise away for a while, we've now decided the best way to continue would be to try and resell us the same story all over again.

Actually, no, there is something worse than a reboot. Reboots for legal purposes. As an example, Sony Pictures (yes, Sony is a thing that does both expensive videogame hardware and long-format cinema) had a pretty decent series of Spider-Man films, until the third one, which was a critical and financial bomb. So they decided to shelve it for a bit. Except they didn't actually do that, right? No, they pulled the reboot card and gave us The Amazing Spider-Man which could have just been Spiderman 4! The cynical part isn't that though. The cynical part is that the only reason why the reboot happened was that Sony Pictures was about to lose the license altogether because they weren't doing anything with it. Essentially, they made a crap Spider-Man film to justify making sure nobody else could make a good one.

Even if a new property does make it through the gauntlet that is your average game publisher or movie studio, it faces the final task of maintaining it's artistic integrity in front of a large number of corporate participants looking to make a buck at any price. A lot of works find themselves cut down or streamlined because there's a fair number of people in the industry who confuse narrative complexity for incomprehensability and figure they can make more money by sacrificing the quality of the product. Again, all in the interest of building a better "intellectual property".

The core reason for all of this is that media companies are fickle beasts run by fickle people who expect their exploitation to reap rewards. Any fear that a particular project might not make as much as it could turns into an industry-wide witch hunt to destroy it. The biggest imaginary bugbear of the industry is piracy: specifically the idea that mass unauthorized filesharing with the intent of avoiding paying for culture is going to destroy the industry. This simply isn't true: while there are some people who could possibly say they have been harmed by piracy, they are almost always independent or otherwise unknown artists. The people who run large media empires think they are being attacked by piracy in the same way a meth junkie thinks they are being attacked by spiders.

And this goes back to my point about DRM. Sure, yes, all of this is bad, but I don't work in a creative industry. I majored in CS. Why would this affect me? Well it will, because the media execs afraid of not getting paid are working around the clock to have the world reorganized such that you have to pay. That means increasing control of the market through more stupid DRM schemes that we will be expected to implement or face technical irrelevance. That means half-written "standards" with no technical merit being pushed through open standards bodies to please Hollywood faster.

That means another fucking copyright term extension so that Steamboat Willie stays under copyright protection.

ip skeptic
copyright law

Member of The Internet Defense League

This block will automatically put an annoying banner on the site whenever someone decides to pass a bill the Internet doesn't like

Total jerks