Physical objects and the-internet-as-copying-machine

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2011

If you think we’re struggling to police the duplication of non-physical items on the internet, just wait until 3D printing gets a little bit more commonplace. Here’s a sort of soft-run test case at Fabbaloo, wherein a Thingiverse user subbed a set of playing piece designs for the Settlers of Catan board game. Copyright infringement? Well, possibly not, at least as things stand:

Another view comes from website Public Knowledge, who have taken the time to analyze this a bit deeper. Their approach was to examine each of the methods of protecting ideas: Copyright, Patent and Trademark. What did they determine?

  • Copyright: They believe that copyright extends only to the images and logos used by the game. Since the Thingiverse objects don’t include or attempt to include the images, they likely don’t violate copyright. The object designs are effectively not copyrightable, since they are simply common shapes and would be considered “functional objects”.
  • Patent: Patents are typically used to protect the rules of the game, rather than its components. In this case, the inventor did not patent the game, and even if he did, it would be expiring in 2015 anyway.
  • Trademark: A trademark protects only the icon or symbol of a product. In this case, the Thingiverse submission did not use in any way the trademark.

It then appears that the offending Thingiverse user is likely not offending at all. But if that’s the case, then this opens up a pretty wide hole in the generation of intellectual property. We may see a lot more “functional objects” appearing in the future, and it’s not sure how this may affect the inventors.

One thing’s for sure – there’ll be no shortage of work for lawyers.


Cory Doctorow lays down his not-actually-a-manifesto

Paul Raven @ 06-10-2010

The more famous Cory Doctorow gets, the more people try to knock him down. I’m quite fond of him myself (he’s very charming in person, if somewhat perpetually part-distracted*), but while I’m not going to argue any sort of superhero status for the guy (I’ll leave that to Randall Munroe), when it comes to puncturing the poor arguments of his most vocal critics, he’s got undeniable flair. Witness his recent retort to an article that accused him and other net notables of profiteering from their “evangelism” of “free” business models for creatives, which also acts as a pretty good summary of the state of the artistic marketplace and the ongoing copyright wars. A few snippets:

What should other artists do? Well, I’m not really bothered. The sad truth is that almost everything almost every artist tries to earn money will fail. This has nothing to do with the internet, of course. Consider the remarkable statement from Alanis Morissette’s attorney at the Future of Music Conference: 97% of the artists signed to a major label before Napster earned $600 or less a year from it. And these were the lucky lotto winners, the tiny fraction of 1% who made it to a record deal. Almost every artist who sets out to earn a living from art won’t get there (for me, it took 19 years before I could afford to quit my day job), whether or not they give away their work, sign to a label, or stick it through every letterbox in Zone 1.

If you’re an artist and you’re interested in trying to give stuff away to sell more, I’ve got some advice for you, as I wrote here – I think it won’t hurt and it could help, especially if you’ve got some other way, like a label or a publisher, to get people to care about your stuff in the first place.

But I don’t care if you want to attempt to stop people from copying your work over the internet, or if you plan on building a business around this idea. I mean, it sounds daft to me, but I’ve been surprised before.

[…]

I understand perfectly well what you’re saying in your column: people who give away some of their creative output for free in order to earn a living are the exception. Most artists will fail at this. What’s more, their dirty secret is their sky-high appearance fees – they don’t really earn a creative living at all. But authors have been on the lecture circuit forever – Dickens used to pull down $100,000 for US lecture tours, a staggering sum at the time. This isn’t new – authors have lots to say, and many of us are secret extroverts, and quite enjoy the chance to step away from our desks to talk about the things we’re passionate about.

But you think that anyone who talks up their success at giving away some work to sell other work is peddling fake hope. There may be someone out there who does this, but it sure isn’t me. As I’ve told all of my writing students, counting on earning a living from your work, no matter how you promote it or release it, is a bad idea. All artists should have a fallback plan for feeding themselves and their families. This has nothing to do with the internet – it’s been true since the days of cave paintings.

I believe the appropriate phrase is “zing”.

[ * After appearing on a panel with Cory at Eastercon 2008, to which he managed to contribute more thoughts and ideas than the rest of us put together despite busily battering away at a netbook at the same time, a friend from the audience suggested a hypothetical version of posthuman bear-baiting: the game would simply involve installing Cory within a Faraday cage that blocked all wi-fi and phone signals, and then betting on how long it would be before he spontaneously combusted from sheer frustration… ]


Copyright and the Eyeborg

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2010

Well, so much for my ability to see potential conflicts arising from new technologies; when we were talking about Rob “Eyeborg” Spence the other day, it never even occured to me that live streaming video from a human-implanted camera would open a massive can of copyright worms.

… what happens when he goes to the movies? Or, what if he goes to a sporting event with an exclusive broadcast right?

Quite. Obviously it’s not far beyond being a purely hypothetical issue at the moment, but wind forward a decade to a point where AR spex and similar hardware are as ubiquitous as smartphones are now, and you’ve got a real legal minefield around infringement techniques which will be difficult to police… just like we have right now, in other words, only more so.

At least we know the lawyers won’t be going hungry.


Cursor: a community-based fiction publishing business model

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2010

No idea how I managed to miss this one before, but Richard Nash – founder and former head honcho of Soft Skull Press – is starting a new publishing venture called Cursor which promises (among other things, like a strong focus on niche community-building) to do away with the exploitative life-of-the-copyright contracts with which authors are traditionally saddled [via Damien Walter]:

… the tweak is pretty radical. It’s not really a tweak at all, it’s a complete break with publishing norms. […]

No more life-of-the-copyright contracts.

Instead: three year contracts.

Yup, from a contract that locks you in till seventy years after you’re dead, to a three year contract. Renewable annually thereafter. Which means after three years you can walk. Or stay, but stick it to us for better royalties because there’s gonna be a movie. Or stay with us because with all the additional formats and revenue opportunities we’re creating above and beyond what any publisher has to offer, you’re making more money than ever before.

You see, most publishers have accepted they’re not going to make money publishing your book. They’re publishing your book and a bunch of other books like it so they can have exclusive rights over as much intellectual property as possible. Such that if, three or five or nine years down the road, you win the NBA, or the Orange, or there’s a movie, or an Oprah pick, your whole backlist starts to sell but they don’t have to pay you one single extra red percent in royalties.

That’s where their profits come from, from being able to NOT have to renegotiate royalties when your books start selling better than they expected.

[…]

The publishing industry is in a state of turmoil. New sales channels are arising, new formats, new terms of sale.

Authors deserve the chance to renegotiate as the industry evolves.

The number of books published has increased forty-fold since 1990, the number of readers has remained broadly static.

Authors deserve to be actively connected with readers, not just be made available to readers…

Well, you can colour me intrigued – that’s a project to keep an eye on. Much as it’s been good to see the big houses looking at new ways of doing things, their responses to the times have been as small and grudging as they think they can get away with (e.g. Orbit’s digital short story publishing plan); Nash’s decision to empower the creators first and foremost seems to stand in stark contrast to the blanket rights options I keep reading about (which seem to be a literary echo of the infamous “360 deals” recently made in the upper earnings bracket of the recording industry), and aiming for small dedicated niche communities is very much in keeping with the philosophies of the leading edge of business and marketing punditry (not to mention social media architecture).


Posthumous cover-versions by famous musicians?

Paul Raven @ 05-03-2010

Dovetailing neatly with that piece about the Emily Howell program that composes pieces in the style of famous composers as well as its own, here’s another software company who are trying to develop software that will analyse a musician’s playing style from their recorded putput, and then reproduce other songs in the style in which they might have played them.

Or, to put it another way: they want to let you hear how Jimi Hendrix would have jammed out any national anthem you care to name. They’re not quite there yet, though:

As things stand now, Zenph’s technology looks at actual old recordings to find out how a performer played a certain song, and is not capable of figuring out how a musician would play a new part. “We hope — but we can’t demonstrate today — that after we’ve done several re-performances of a given artist, we will understand enough about that individual’s musical style to be able to suggest how that style might manifest itself in the performance of a work that the artist never actually performed,” said Frey, clarifying that today Zenph’s software only reproduces performances, it doesn’t create them.

That faint hint of white noise you can hear? That’s the sound of thousands of copyright lawyers rubbing their hands together in anticipation.


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