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Hobbits, Sauron, Copyright and Pubs

I’m not fond of the Saul Zaentz Company and its heavy-handed approach to copyright enforcement while licensing a bunch of crap using the Tolkien license. But the Hobbit pub in the UK doesn’t deserve the sympathy that it’s getting for being sued by SZC. This isn’t like the time McDonalds sued a man named McDonald who had his own place in the UK. This is a pub that used the movie characters in its advertising extensively.

There might be a sympathy vote if the pub had stuck to the literary scene, used Mirkwood or Lothlorien, and avoided explicit movie refs, but that’s not the case here. The banner outside uses the movie characters. The inside materials did too. That’s blatant exploitation of a movie without arranging for the licensing.

I’m not sure why I should feel sorry for a pub that tried to cash in on the movies, not the books, or treat it as an abuse of copyright when this was a lazy attempt to appeal to students without thinking of the obvious consequences.

Supposedly the pub had that name for twenty years, which predates the first movie by a decade, and it would have been on safer ground if it hadn’t begun using the movie characters. It still probably would have been sued as the release date for The Hobbit, the movie approaches, but it could have relied on being a English institution using a word from an English writer being sued by the bloody yanks, but when you’re exploiting Hollywood, it’s hard to complain about being used by Hollywood.

Just to make the last of the sympathy go away, The Hobbit is owned by Punch Taverns, which is the largest pub operator in the UK and operates over 6000 pubs, it has revenue of over a billion pounds a year. So all the complaints of “We’re a small pub and we can’t fight a lawsuit by a major company” are nonsense.

Imagine Pizza Hut deciding to begin selling Hobbit pizza without licensing. It would deserve about as much sympathy as Punch does.

“Southampton Test MP Alan Whitehead has also condemned the threat of legal action. He said: “It’s like the story – a small business minding its own business until the forces of darkness envelope it.”

I don’t recall that happening in The Hobbit. Also I don’t remember anything in LOTR about Sauron suing a billion pound corporation for violating his copyright, which might be closer to the mark. Especially since Punch Taverns has been accused of monopolistic practices.

More Copyright Wars

From a book review of an industry friendly copyright book in the New York Times

That’s what happened with the music industry, which, spooked by the proliferation of pirated file sharing on Napster, struck a bad deal with iTunes that allowed Apple to replace the sale of $15 albums with 99-cent songs. “Even if they continue to grow,” Levine writes, “those 99-cent-song sales won’t come close to making up for the corresponding decline in CD sales.”

The average album had 10-15 songs on it, which comes to about the same thing to 99 cents a song. How much did the industry really want people to pay per song? And if you eliminate the cost of actually packaging and manufacturing the albums, then 99 cents a song may even be a better deal. Apple takes its chunk, but does it really take more than Wal-Mart and K-Mart?

The real deal is that the industry didn’t want to change its business model of packaging whole albums that people had to buy to get a few songs they wanted. That business model helped encourage piracy. Sure manufactures would make more money if they forced people to buy printers with every computer or floor mats with every car. But that business model was killed by the internet.

Similarly, the best TV shows, like “Mad Men,” are produced by cable channels like AMC that hold back their content from Hulu, a network-owned platform for distributing TV over the Internet. The Hulu model has succeeded on the premise that “if someone was going to make their product available online for nothing, it might as well be them,” as Levine says of the networks.

I don’t know that Mad Men qualifies as one of the best shows on TV, but Cable has been sinking more money into developing shows that appeal to a more upscale audience. Hulu distributes shows that are mostly free to watch on TV already.

Levine says, is an open Internet model of free video that, by denying the networks any revenue to invest in shows like “Mad Men,” would instead produce the likes of the viral video “Charlie Bit My Finger.”

I’m not so sure one is that much worse than the other, but networks get revenue from advertising, cable networks get revenue from advertising and from their gated community. But free to watch networks spend money on shows, and can pay for it with advertising too.

Recently, France has begun to revive a business model that thrived in the 19th century: a collective or blanket license that, by adding a fee to Internet connections, would allow the convenient downloading of copyrighted music and divide the money to compensate producers and artists.

The fee based internet thrived in the 19th century? Wow. That is some revisionist Steampunk history right there. Must have been that Babbage based internet.

Anyone praising a media internet tax is a shameless shill for the entertainment industry. It’s completely indefensible, not least because it asks paying consumers to pay twice, once for what they buy and once as a confiscatory tax for the industry.

Let’s say we have a universal internet tax/fine, who should get it? Anyone who makes content that is distributed on the internet? Yeah right. Sorry we’re not going back to taxing cassette tapes for the music industry.

Germany has laws forbidding the aggressive discounting of books in chain stores, which has preserved independent booksellers while making it harder for Amazon to introduce the Kindle.

While keeping books more expensive. I like independent bookstores, but does this law do anything to promote reading or help writers?

But regardless of your position in the business-of-culture wars, it’s hard to resist Levine’s conclusion that the status quo is much better for tech companies and distributors than for cultural creators and producers. That status quo may benefit consumers in the short term. But if it continues, Levine argues, the Internet will increasingly become an artistic wasteland dominated by amateurs — a world where music, TV and journalism are virtually free, and where all of us get what we pay for.

My own position is skeptical toward both sides, which means I am skeptical that industry advocates care about creators. Creators are collateral damage for both sides. I am even more skeptical of the idea that the industry will stop making professional music, books and movies because of internet piracy. They had plenty of time to stop in the last ten years.

What the review and probably the book does not mention is that piracy encourages the industry to target the dumbest consumers even harder because they are less likely to have the know how to pirate. The industry has dumbed down its own product, but that is only one of the reasons.

The specter of amateurs is not all that horrifying, what is horrifying is that the future will belong to Cory Doctorow and Lana Del Rey, people who have nothing of worth to offer but strike a convenient pose that connects with a demographic. Creators who are much better self-promoters than they are artists.

No More Unholy Offline Play

That’s the message from Blizzard which is showing every sign of going as evil as Bioware, the other formerly creative company bought up by a mega publisher.

Want to play Diablo III as a game? No thanks. You’d better have an internet connection online all the time. Otherwise it’s not sacred.

During an interview at last week’s press event, Alex Mayberry, senior producer on “Diablo 3,” discussed the required connection. “You can play by yourself but your character is going to be saved on our servers. You have to authenticate through our servers to be able to play the game. I think it’s not just ‘Diablo 3’ but with our games as a whole we’re tying everything into Battle.net these days…We can provide a much a much more stable, connected, safer experience than we could if we let people play off-line.”

Why would we let people play off-line? Next thing you know, they’ll get the idea they own the game.

Forcing people to have an online connection to play is a more stable experience? How, when you can’t even play your game on a laptop without access.

Safer? From what. Being able to play your own game.

Oh and Alex. I remember when Battle.net was a good thing. A model for the industry. Now you just turned it into something people curse. Congrats.

“I’m actually kind of surprised in terms of there even being a question in today’s age around online play and the requirement around that,” said Bridenbecker.

Most games can still be played without an internet connection, even in this day and age when PC game companies think in console terms.

When you look at everything you get by having that persistent connection on the servers, you cannot ignore the power and the draw of that.”

What’s the power and the draw of it… I mean for the player, not the company.

Also if the draw is so powerful, why not let end users make the choice?

“Internally I don’t think [DRM] ever actually came up when we talked about how we want connections to operate. Things that came up were always around the feature-set, the sanctity of the actual game systems like your characters. You’re guaranteeing that there are no hacks, no dupes

No hacks and dupes of what? If people want to change their offline play, what’s the problem? Oh right, sanctity. The Church of Activision doesn’t want you to control your own experience.

But if there’s a compelling reason for you to have that online connectivity that enhances the gameplay, that doesn’t suck. That’s awesome.”

He used suck and awesome. So in touch with the youth culture this one is. Know what’s really awesome? Not being able to play your own game! High five?

So basically Blizzard has decided to force people who want to play their game without being forced to be online all the time to download cracks. And then a month from now they’ll complain about it. Awesome!

So if piracy and DRM never came into the decision, why not just offer an offline mode for those that want to use it? “Let’s say we want to create an offline capacity,” he explained. “You’re introducing a separate user flow, a separate path that players are going to go down. And, at the end of the day, how many people are going to want to do that?”

Uh people who don’t work for Activision? People who don’t have online access? People who play on a laptop when they’re not connected? People who don’t have a stable internet connection. People who don’t want to be forced to link up to Blizzard’s servers just to play a damn dungeon crawler.

You know, people. People who are going to buy Torchlight instead.

Virtual Products, Scary Services

A customer who bought Dragon Age 2 being barred from playing the game because it requires a working EA/Bioware social account which was disabled for forum comments is opening the door to a lot more questions about the value of virtual goods. EA’s customer service has apologized and is promising to fix the problem, even though their own TOS seems to suggest this was planned.

But what about all the rest? There are plenty of stories about customers being banned from Steam and losing thousands of dollars worth of games. And plenty more about customers being banned from doing business with Amazon and losing their Kindle books. The common denom is the linkage between accounts and virtual goods. Buy virtual goods and lose the account, and your virtual goods go with it.

In some cases it’s possible to back up the virtual goods. An Amazon ban is a longshot risk but it’s still smart to have backups of your Kindle books on your hard drive. EA and Steam are trickier problems. Valve is a company with its own built in fanboys and so criticism rarely gets heard. It’s another reason why non-discounted Steam games are not such a great deal. EA has backtracked but as game companies insist that they’re not selling products, just services, this will keep being a problem.

More Plagirism Follies

Remember the whole stolen recipe internet rage thing that shut down an obscure magazine no one had ever heard of before. Cracked article writers are outraged because an AOL blog “plagiarized” one of their Top 6 thingies. There’s all sorts of internet mob googlebombing justice afoot to denounce the AOL mommy blogger for copying that article. Which is funny since Cracked is Wikipedia with more dick jokes.

Unlike the recipe, which you at least assume was original work, people are actually outraged because a list of “secret reasons” why people have sex that included the color red and fear assembled by three different writers to crank out instacontent for one online site, was copied by another writer looking to crank out instacontent for another site. This isn’t someone copying Moby Dick, but copying someone else’s summaries of news stories which summarized the same thing and turning it into a list. So more like copying someone else’s summary of Cliff Notes about Moby Dick. Copying that is wrong because it’s lazy, not because it’s original work.

The push for content is just going to make this worse, with small numbers of people working over the same material to turn it into Top 6 lists to earn their 50-100 bucks. Think of a bazaar in India. That’s the content market now. Overcrowded, dirty and recycled. What does plagiarism even mean in an environment like that when everyone is just chewing what twenty people before him got done chewing.

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