By Monday I was feeling confident enough to start having rudimentary conversations in Chinese with strangers on the street. Like when I bought a bootleg DVD set of "Micheal" Jackson videos:
I bought the wrong one at first (it turned out to be a collection of biographical clips rather than music videos) so I went back to ask if I could exchange it. Sushu coached me first, but then I went back alone and said:
请问. 我要音乐. 这个不是音乐. 能不能换一换?
And it worked! Hooray! This is a very small thing but it feels like an important milestone on the way to being able to speak Chinese for real.
The set was 2 DVDs for 8 yuan = just over $1. If you've ever wondered what a world with no copyright law would be like, come to China. Despite rampant bootlegging, they still have a functional, if not thriving, movie industry and movie theaters. (Although the movie theaters are very expensive, probably because fewer people buy tickets.)
Copying Is Not Theft
...no matter how much the MPAA and RIAA want you to believe it is. Unauthorized copying of copyrighted material is illegal, yes, but it is a different and distinct crime from the crime of theft.
If I steal something from you, then you don't have it anymore. Stealing is both morally and legally wrong because it deprives another person of their property.
If you record a song and I duplicate that recording, you still have the original recording. I may have violated your legal rights, I may have marginally reduced the likelihood of you obtaining future profits from your recording, but I haven't stolen your property.
Equating the words "copy" and "steal" makes semantic gibberish out of both of them. It confuses the issue. Which of course is the point. Large copyright-holding industries have been waging a Newspeak campaign to confuse the language in hopes of transferring the moral stigma of theft onto the act of duplicating copyrighted materials.
Plagarism, the act of claiming someone else's work as your own, could perhaps more reasonably be called a form of theft, but plgarism isn't what I'm talking about here. People sharing unauthorized movie files on the internet aren't trying to pass those movies off as their own work.
Calling copying "piracy" is even sillier. Piracy is the act of hijacking a ship by force, murdering, kidnapping, or enslaving its crew, and stealing its cargo. It's a violent crime that leaves people rotting at the bottom of the sea. How is duplicating the bits of a video file in any way comparable?
(If you want a cute name, call it "bootlegging". i.e. making and selling alchohol to people who wanted it but couldn't obtain it legally, a fairly apt analogy.)
Here's what copyright law is. As a society, we want to encourage people to publish their creative work and make it easier for creators to earn a living from that work. To make this possible we set up a law wherein the governemnt grants the creator of a work a temporary legal monopoly over the right to make copies, literally a "copy-right". It was invented in a time when the only form of mass duplication was the printing press, so the original copyright laws are mostly about who has the right to print copies of a book (or a piece of sheet music).
To enforce this artificial monopoly, the government started restricting the right of other people to print copies of that book. Notice what is happening here: normally, I have freedom of the press as guaranteed by the first amendement, meaning if I own a printing press I can print whatever I want. The restrictions placed on me by copyright law are an exception to the press freedom I otherwise have. (This is important to understand now that the Internet has effectively given everyone a printing press.)
As a society we've decided that this restriction on press freedom is an acceptable trade-off because we believe that if anyone can make copies of any book, it becomes too hard for a writer to make a living at writing, and then we won't have any books at all.
And this is probably true. That's why we've applied the same logic to each new form of media that has been invented since the printing press - recorded music, movies, TV programs, software, etc.
So the existence of copyright law is entirely reasonable. I'm not saying abolish copyright law, and I don't endorse violating it. You should think of the potential effect on the livelihood of artists, writers, musicians, etc. before copying something, and remember that you might be trying to sell work of your own someday.
But I am saying: recognize copyright for what it is. It's not some sort of absolute moral law or self-evident truth. It's an artificial government-imposed restriction on our freedom that we accept as the price for supporting a professional creative class in our society.
So when media companies lobby congress to impose draconian blacklist laws; or to keep extending the term of copyright for decades after the death of the creator; or they use legal threats to squash promising student technology projects just because the technology might be used to copy media; or they sue a 13-year-old girl for swapping a few MP3s; or they try to secretly install malware on our computers to stop us from copying files...
When media companies do these things, and justify it by invoking the need to fight "theft" or "piracy"; remember to ask yourself: Is this actually furthering the intended purpose of copyright law? How much further is it restricting our freedom, and is it worth the price? Is it something truly needed to keep creative people in business?
Or is just it an abuse of power by hugely rich and powerful media corporations who don't like facing competition?
Crowdfunding vs. DRM as the future of publishing
None of the songs I bought from the iTunes store will play any more because Apple thinks I've authorized them on too many computers; and I can't remember my Battle.net password so as far as Blizzard's concerned I no longer own that copy of Starcraft 2 I paid $60 for.
It used to be I only had to worry about losing my digital "posessions" when a magnet got near my disk drive or when an OS upgrade made my old data formats obsolete, but now... well, let's say I'm very reluctant to pay real money for an intangible electronic "product" when it can be taken away from me any time at the whim of an overzealous and glitchy DRM scheme.
This is why I'm not real keen on the idea of e-books; I like books that I can trust to stay on my shelf and continue existing even if the publisher changes their mind. Sushu's got several Kindles and was telling me about how you can now "loan" e-books to other people - the book is gone from your own Kindle for two weeks, then it comes back. (She likes this because books that she loans out the old-fashioned way pretty much never come back to her, she says.)
It's weird to think that some programmer had to write code whose sole function is to take a file that's still there on your Kindle and lock you out of it for two weeks. I imagine him at a Starbucks, swapping tips with the programmer from Blizzard who prevents users from playing Diablo 3 single-player without a connection to Blizzard's servers.
On a computer, every "move file" operation on a computer is actually a "copy file" followed by a "delete original". The "delete original" step is optional. The default state is for everybody to have as many copies of a file as they want; to reproduce the scarcity of the physical world takes work. Companies are paying workers to make there be less of their products.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. If we let everybody have copies of all the books they wanted for free, then writers couldn't get paid, and we wouldn't have any new books at all. I get that. It's just that, as people have been saying since at least the 90s, the publishing industry should really be coming up with new business models instead of trying to fight technological progress.
For a while we thought that new business model would be advertising. But web advertising has mutated into a creepy track-you-everywhere commercial panopticon, even as advertising fails to sustain print media. The value of web advertising is dropping as well. Advertisers can now see exactly how few people are clicking on their ads, and offer prices accordingly. Besides, I think relying on advertising too much puts the creators into an unhealthy relationship with readers: if the advertiser, rather than the reader, is the one paying your rent, then you have the incentive to do what the advertiser wants, even if the reader doesn't want it.
Lots of creative people on the web have moved to merchandise-supported model. That's great if it works for them, but many types of work (say, non-fiction books) that don't lend themselves to merchandise at all. And besides, there's only so many T-shirts the average comic-reading nerd can fit in their closet. Mechandise seems very limiting.
I donated to my first project thinking "huh, one of those ransom model things? OK, well, they won't take my money unless funding succeeds, so there's not much to lose; let's try it". I didn't think much more about it at the time. But as I've watched Kickstarters get more and more attention over the past few months I'm starting to think Kickstarter, or something like it, might be the answer.
(Obviously Kickstarter did not invent the ransom model of publishing; I know Stephen King did a book that way over ten years ago.)
But here's the thing: Kickstarter-style crowd-funding is one of the very few ways where the creator is actually getting paid for doing the work of creation. With advertising you get paid for delivering customer eyeballs to advertising, and that indirectly funds the creation of the work. Even with traditional publishing, the money comes from rectangular masses of dead tree pulp being shipped around to stores, and the sales of these objects refund the publisher for the advance they gave the author for work already completed.
The work of a creator is to make a thing exist which never existed before. Kickstarter relates this to money in a very direct way: if enough fans say "Yes, I am a potential audience member, and it's worth $X to me for this thing to exist", then they pool their money and the creator gets it. And the successful Kickstarters generally seem to be the ones where the creator explains why they need that amount of money, and what exactly it will be put towards -- the ones where the costs are transparent and justifiable, in other words.
I could even see somebody in the future making a living off of one crowd-funded project after another, setting the funding targets of the projects to cover all their living costs, and not even having to care about piracy or DRM or artificial scarcity. Who cares if some people get a pirate copy, if you've already been paid the value of your time and labor for making the thing exist?
Maybe the bigger risk is that a "creator" will take everybody's money and then never deliver the work. There has been at least one high-profile attempted Kickstarter scam already, but people got wise to it before it was funded and it got taken down. Sooner or later somebody will do a scam competent enough to succeed. It will be interesting to see what happens to Kickstarter then.
I read this interesting article today about how the Kickstarter website doesn't show you the 56% of projects that fail to meet their funding target. He says 56% like it's a bad thing. A 44% success rate is amazing, far higher than I imagined. And it's good that some projects don't get funded. The funding process is a way of gauging interest. If the interest isn't there, won't you be glad to find that out up front? You don't waste time making the thing and you don't go into debt financing it.
So yeah, projects fail. There are still no guarantees of success. Getting publicity for your kickstarter is still hard. There is only a finite amount of donor money out there, and a finite amount of donor attention. (Attention may be even scarcer than money). People who are already famous from other projects have a huge advantage getting attention for their Kickstarter campaign.
But none of those problems are new. It's always been hard for first-time creators to get attention for their work. There's always been competition for a limited number of audience dollars. That's part of the service that publishers provide - they know how to generate publicity. In fact, generating publicity may soon be the only function of publishers that technology does not render obsolete. (Well, that and editing. Editing is a valuable service and most stuff published on the internet would be a lot better if it had some!)
Maybe in the future, a "publisher" will be somebody you hire to manage your crowd-funding campaign for you? And the trustworthiness of the publisher's brand will be part of what convinces potential donors that you're not a scam -- that they can trust you to actually finish making the thing. It's also a reassurance that you meet somebody's standard of quality.
After all, there may be no limits on file duplication, but there are still limits on audience attention span, so that's the resource we need to pay attention to. The future will be interesting!
Games Workshop tries to assert ownership of the words "Space Marines"
Some overzealous lawyers from Games Workshop apparently made Amazon block sales of an e-book called "Spots the Space Marine" because, according to them, GW owns the trademark to the words "Space Marine" in all media.
This is patently absurd because "space marines" are a common trope that were used in science fiction novels (Heinlein and Doc Smith among others) as far back as the 1930s.
It's also funny because, if you go through the original Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader rulebook you'll find obvious shout-outs to Star Wars, Alien, Terminator, Lord of the Rings, Dune, Jugdge Dredd, and probably lots of other stuff. It's a kitchen sink setting of derivative sci-fi and fantasy tropes, made by fans for other fans to enjoy acting out whatever media-inspired scenarios they wanted. And that's great! But how hypocritical is it that after building their company on the freedom to remix common genre tropes, they try to deny the same freedom to others?
40k today is barely recognizable as the same game as that first version - the setting became more defined and unique, it stopped using a referee, they retconned out most of the fun silly stuff, and everything got super GRIMDARK. And of course, little plastic men became a hugely profitable business for them, so the lawyers moved in and took everything over.
Anyway, there's a happy ending to this particular story: the EFF joined the fight and helped get Amazon to reinstate the book. Hooray!
This wasn't the first time Games Workshop has acted as a legal bully - they've been known to shut down websites where people posted game stats, even just for discussion purposes.
I'm feeling pretty good about my decision to stop supporting Games Workshop. (Even though my decision was more because the game stopped being fun than because of their corporate policies.) Besides legal bullying tactics, I've also heard GW is quite terrible to their low-level employees. Plus their stores have that weird cult-like atmosphere where everybody's giving you the hard sell.
A couple months ago I boxed up all the Warhammer 40k stuff that was collecting dust in my garage and started selling it on eBay. I've got $900 so far and I've still got the Tyranids to sell. (I love you, eBay!)