Game and Watch – by “Bryan B”

Back in 2007, a forum known as Something Awful popularized a form of video game walkthrough known as a “Let’s Play,” termed so because of the subforum they were hosted on. Today, you can find a plethora of these types of videos on sites like YouTube  and dedicated sites like the Let’s Play Archive.

(If you still don’t understand what might constitute a “Let’s Play” video, watch one of my favorites to provide some context for this discussion)

On the surface, these kinds of videos don’t seem any different than what you might be doing when you’re at a friend’s house watching them play a copy of the game they own. “Let’s Play” videos also don’t appear to differ much more than the format in the cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Some people just don't know when to shut up.

But they aren’t exactly similar, or at least, they aren’t treated similarly. The potential problem with “Let’s Play” videos lies in the way most of these videos are made.  Although not always explicitly stated, many “Let’s Play” videos implicitly suggest the use of an emulator and ROM (hint: the ability to use and load save states is typical of emulators). For those who don’t know, video game emulators are programs that allow a computer to mimic a video game console, while ROMs are the copied data from a video game cartridge or disc. Essentially, emulators and ROMs are programs that allow you to turn your computers (or even now, smartphones) into a NES, PS2, and even now, a Wii.

Why anyone would want to torture themselves by trying to beat Contra again is beyond me.

The advent of video game emulators and ROMs on the internet has, however, worried some video game publishers. Moreover,  many websites hold that ROMs are inherently illegal, even if you actually own the physical game. The basic argument is that emulators and ROMs, by lacking anti-circumvention measures present in video-game consoles and removing the need to actually own the hardware and software, promote piracy. It is difficult to play pirated games on normal video game consoles without the aid of extra software or modification to the hardware, which is currently illegal. Unforunately, while “Let’s Play” videos would certainly hold up as fair use (they are overwhelmingly used noncommercially and are substantially transformative through their commentary), the use of emulators to create them puts “Let’s Play” creators at risk.

A Link to the Past

People who use DVDs for critique, comment, remixing or educational purposes, once faced a similar conundrum. Even if a use of the movie itself constituted fair use, many were breaking the law by cracking through the anti-circumvention measures on the DVDs. That law has since changed, and now many seeking to use movies for the aforementioned purposes enjoy several rights.

So are the people who create “Let’s Play” videos breaking the law by using emulators and ROMs to produce their videos? Currently, the law enables circumvention in the event that a program with protection be obsolete or no longer supported or readily available for repair in the current market.  Publishers like Nintendo have explicitly abandoned support for older video games and consoles. Though they argue that you may still play some games through Wii’s Virtual Console, the selection is often very limited, often promoting only the most popular games. Still, a few “Let’s Play” videos use these very popular titles, which doesn’t much help in that regard. Rather, a different argument might be needed.

Sometimes no amount of blowing will help you play your old NES games.

!

A more growing problem in the video game industry is the growing DRM and anti-piracy measures, which seem to be moving towards limiting what you can do with your software (often by limiting how often you can install the software or when you can play). Nintendo and other companies would argue that, even if you owned the video game,  having and playing a ROM of that game is illegal.  Although having a backup copy of a video game you own is completely legal under fair use, going further by having a ROM is not. Companies like Nintendo want to limit how you can use your product.

As DRM and anti-circumvention measures develop further and video game companies begin to crack down on emulator and ROM users, we may face the stifling of a new artistic medium. Not only are “Let’s Play” videos at risk, but also other video types that necessitate the use of emulators, such as Tool-Assisted Speed Runs.  Time will come for either the law to change or kill the medium, but with the power of the internet and the notorious difficulty in fully removing something from it, I doubt we’ll see the latter. Times are already changing now that video games are accepted as art, and so it will only follow that they receive the same protections as art forms like movies and for uses of their DVD counterparts.

 

A Convenience Approach to Curtailing Music Piracy – by “Zack RW”

Music piracy is on the decline in recent years. At the high point near the close of 2007, 16% of internet users relied on a P2P service to download music. But by the end of 2010, that figure had fallen to 9% just after LimeWire, probably the most popular P2P service at the time, was forced stop operating by a court injunction. This decline, which many suggestwas largely a result of LimeWire’s cessation, looks at first glance like a big win for copyright, and it is. However, more curious is exactly why it had such an impact, as internet-goers are far from unable to pirate music without LimeWire. LimeWire was, in addition to a direct P2P filesharing network, a torrent client, which people use to quickly download files—often music files—from other users around the world who are “seeding” them (sharing them, making them available for download). Other torrent clients include (but are not at all limited to): uTorrent, BitTorrent, BitComet, Deluge, FrostWire, Vuze, and Transmission. Anyone with even an ounce of determination can still illegally download music for free.

LimeWire in action

Just as the drop in overall illegal P2P downloading was unlikely a result of incapacitation, it is improbable that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) managed to significantly deter would-be and ex-pirates through lawsuits against individuals. Between 2006 and 2008, the RIAA spent over $64 million on lawsuits that earned $1.4 million in total settlements. And they went after only a small fraction of violators. The scope of the problem is too vast to attack on an individual level, and few pirates quake in their boot and peg-leg at the thought of the RIAA.

Cartoon Pirate

(Video links: an Anti-piracy ad and a semi-funny Parody to anti-piracy ad on YouTube)

So why did so many people stop infringing copyright when LimeWire disappeared? Perhaps a more reasonable explanation than incapacitation or RIAA crackdowns is that the shake-up caused people to reevaluate their most convenient listening option. LimeWire’s decline provided enough illegal downloading inertia for some users to realize that music was far more freely and legally available than it had been when they started using LimeWire. One could find almost any music video on YouTube, listen to any artist on Pandora or Last.fm, and track down any song through a subscription service like Rhapsody or the new Napster, or even through the Zune community (in theory—nobody actually has a Zune). For about a dollar a song, they could scour the vast library of iTunes, and download almost any song to well-organized and easily manipulable libraries and playlists. Legal access to music had become far more convenient since the days of buying CDs and waiting up to fifteen minutes for them to import into your library. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these champions of convenience.

Zune Community photo
The Zune Community

YouTube

Since its inception in 2005, YouTube has grown to serve over 3 billion videos each day, about 15% of which it monetizes through advertisements. It carries popular music videos, such as those legally posted by Vevo, and is a popular destination for on-demand music streaming.

iTunes

For those willing and able to afford it, iTunes is an intuitive and easy-to-use organization and storage option for music. Apple is also planning iTunes Match, which is currently in beta testing. ITunes Match, they hope, will monetize previously pirated music: for around $25 per year, iTunes will take all of your music (up to 25,000 songs), sync it with Apple’s higher quality versions, and keep it in the cloud for you. Stop paying the $25 each year, and your access to the music in the cloud disappears. However, anything you downloaded and store locally you get to keep.

Itunes Match

Pandora Radio

Pandora is a music streaming and recommendation service that allows users to pick an artist or a song and then plays a variety of music that the user is likely to enjoy based on its similarity to the original choice. Each of Pandora’s 100 million users can give “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to each song, which Pandora factors into future predictions. Especially useful for discovering new tracks, Pandora is like YouTube in that it is most suitable for one-time listening, rather than for building a reusable and well-organized library.

Last.fm

With around 40 million users, Last.fm is another recommendation service known for its ability to work synergistically with other software. For example, it can extract play count data whenever an iPod is plugged in and use it to improve it’s recommendations. It is also integrated with the next and (I think) most exciting marker of how listening to music is changing, Spotify.

Spotify

Although it had no bearing on the piracy decline in 2010—it’s only two months old in the United States—Spotify, which was founded by the former CEO of uTorrent, Daniel Ek, might just be the service that gets people to really abandon torrenting for more “legitimate” music service. First off, it can automatically sync with a computer’s iTunes library, eliminating the hassle of transferring a whole library. It lets users access any song in its catalogue of over 15 million songs, form playlists, and integrate track plays into Last.fm, all for free. For $5 a month, ads disappear, and for $10, Spotify will sync all of one’s devices, allow for mobile use, and let users download songs to play while they are offline. Of the service’s 10 million users, approximately 1 million are paid users. When my free trial expires that figure of paid users is certainly going to increment.

Spotify
Spotify comes to the United States; spelling conventions remain across the pond

Part of the magic of services like Spotify rests in their ability to take advantage of the fact that music no longer needs to exist as a physical entity in the sense that CDs and cassette tapes did.

Boom box
Hi-Fi baby

Therefore, it is less important to own a physical copy of an album or a single, and much more feasible and convenient to settle for just having access to any song at any time, via the cloud. In effect, they are exactly the same thing from an internet-equipped user’s standpoint, except she doesn’t have to devote space on her own hard drive to keeping all the files. Optimists will reason that we pay subscription fees to talk on the phone, watch television, and surf the web; it’s only a matter of time before we do the same for device-independent access to 15 million plus songs.

Although it may satisfy a desire for self-righteousness to parade around promoting strict copyright penalties and efforts to shutdown websites that enable or promote copyright infringement, such an approach, for two reasons, is futile as the only strategy. Firstly, the internet is a highly globalized and free environment; copyright law is state-specific. Sites like The Pirate Bay can simply move camp to the Seychelles, and skirt U.S. authorities in the process. Secondly, enablement and promotion of copyright infringement are difficult offenses to define. Did I just infringe on EMI and Sony’s copyrights by providing an external link to The Pirate Bay, which can provide you with torrents of copyrighted works? Does Google infringe on copyright when I search “Rapidshare new Eminem song download.” In both cases, the answer is probably “no,” but the larger and more general point that these questions give rise to is that contributory and vicarious liability judgments are very difficult to make.

To wrap up, it is highly unlikely that illegal music downloads can be prevented completely without significant violations of privacy and freedom. The bottom line is that the illegality of music piracy is not enough to deter people alone, and it is too costly to police on an individual level. Instead of trying (and perhaps achieving similar results to other idealistic, non-solution-oriented ventures like abstinence-only sex education and the original “war on drugs“) let’s continue to create legal alternatives that are more convenient than pirating. And let’s nudge users toward checking them out as a piracy alternative by working to shut down specific mass violators like LimeWire. If it works, hopefully we’ll be looking at a world where everyone shells out $10 each month—$10 that far exceeds the opportunity cost of taking the time to assemble a comprehensive library of pirated songs—and in return receives a stocked and personalized library on all of her devices. Who’s down?

Pirates, and Copyrights, and Torrents! Oh My! – by “Nick D”

Let’s set the scene. An endless sea vista opens to the sound of waves and a slight breeze. A large wooden boat comes into view, silhouetted on the ruddy orange sky.

Queue epic, driving music.

Enter, The Pirate Bay.

TPB

What is the Pirate Bay and how does it work?

The Pirate Bay claims to be the largest BitTorrent tracker online and has been described as the most visible facilitator of illegal downloading. The Pirate Bay was created in 2003 by Piratbyrån (“Pirate Bureau”), a Swedish anti-copyright organization, and was then run independently by a group of individuals starting in the later part of 2004. The site is currently run by an uber-shady company registered in the Seychelles, an island nation northeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

From The Pirate Bay in the Seychelles to the World: Catch us if you can!

BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer, or “P2P” protocol, which is used to distribute large amounts of data online and allows for rapid download times. BitTorrent relies on the torrent, which is a file containing information on a target file’s component locations. These component pieces are spread across many hosts. When a user requests a download of a particular target file, the torrent seeks each of these components to piece together the target file for the user, which can be opened when all of the pieces have been assembled. This results in very fast download speeds of large files (movies, TV shows, etc.).

For those of you that are interested in how this relates to client-server download processes…

Client Server Download Process
BitTorrent Download Process

BitTorrent file sharing accounts for 28.40% of peak time aggregate traffic in Europe and 17.23% in the US, where it was only recently overtaken by Netflix (for peak time aggregate traffic). According to an MPAA report, the worldwide motion picture industry estimated a loss of more than $7 billion as a result of Internet piracy in 2005 alone.

Torrent downloading services offered by The Pirate Bay are free, and uploading/commenting capability only requires free registration. The Pirate Bay justifies their lack of censorship by noting the “broad spectrum of file sharers” that use The Pirate Bay. This means that everything from Barney and Conan O’Brien episodes to pornographic material can be downloaded using The Pirate Bay. And of course, most (if not all) of this is copyrighted material.

 
And then Conan O'Barney walked in...

 

Legal Lash-Back

How, you might ask, can they do this?

Simply put, they do.

The Pirate Bay takes no responsibility for the copyrighted material that is illegally dispersed thanks to their service. The following argument is readily posted on their website:

“Only torrent files are saved at the server. That means no copyrighted and/or illegal material are stored by us. It is therefore not possible to hold the people behind The Pirate Bay responsible for the material that is being spread using the tracker. Any complaints from copyright and/or lobby organizations will be ridiculed and published at the site.”

The Pirate Bay is notorious for this last part; putting up for public display takedown notices it receives from everyone and their grandmother, as well as the (usually vulgar, crass, inappropriate, and hilarious) response they send back. To acquaint you with the type of sentiment that The Pirate Bay typically responds, below is a medium sized cornucopia of phrases excerpted from various responses to Dreamworks, EA, Warner Brothers, and others’ Take-Down Notices:

  • We demand that you cease and desist sending letters like this,
    since they're frivolous and meaningless.
  • It is the opinion of us and our lawyers that you are ....... morons.
  • stop lying.
  • you should please go sodomize yourself with retractable batons.
  • We demand that you provide us with entertainment by sending more
    legal threats. Please?
  • The DMCA is a US-specific legislation, and TPB (The Pirate Bay)
    is hosted in the land of vikings, reindeers, Aurora Borealis
    and cute blonde girls.
  • Go fuck yourself. 
    
    

Quite a list of colorful phrases we have here! (if you would like some more, there is a whole list here)

But, you might wonder, why hasn’t The Pirate Bay been prosecuted and shut down?

Well, the Swedish government tried. After a criminal complaint was filed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Swedish Police executed a raid of The Pirate Bay, confiscating servers and shutting down the website in 2006. Dan Glickman, CEO of MPAA said in a statement, “Intellectual property theft is a problem for film industries all over the world and we are glad that the local government in Sweden has helped stop The Pirate Bay from continuing to enable rampant copyright theft on the Internet.” Problem solved? Absolutely not. In three days after the raid, the website was back online, with the following graphic:

Take That MPAA!

So much for the raid…

 

And Now, Some Commentary…

First, it is important to note that these guys founded the Pirate Bay:

The Real Pirate Bay

Gottfrid Svartholm (left) and Fredrik Neij (right) have both been charged (along with Peter Sunde and Carl Lundström) with “assisting [others in]copyright infringement” due to their association with The Pirate Bay. While in the process of an appeal, each defendant was sentenced to 1 year in prison and required to pay damages totaling 30 million SEK (US$3,620,000) (this verdict will only be upheld after all appeals have been processed according to Swedish Law).

Good with computers? Absolutely.

Creepy Looking? Sort-of.

Digital-Pirates in deep $#!%? Looks like it.

But they probably see themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, stealing from who they consider as the rich (MPAA) and giving to those they consider as the poor (the swath of users on The Pirate Bay). However, while Robin Hood stole from a disillusioned, powerful king and gave back to the people who the king stole from, the users of The Pirate Bay haven’t been preyed upon. We operate in a (largely) capitalist world. If the public wants what MPAA and the rest of the entertainment industry produces, by all means the public is entitled to what they want and the entertainment industry is entitled to the profits generated by that demand.

Dispersing copyrighted material is illegal and/or immoral however you slice it, because it denies the producers of a good from their due share of benefits. It is stealing. The Pirate Bay provides the perfect conduit for this to occur. It is difficult for them to make the argument that they are not at fault for the illegal dispersal of copyrighted material because they aren’t the ones that hold the digital files – just the links to them… They call themselves the PIRATE bay for god sakes.

Yes, PIRATE I say!

Most people would agree that what The Pirate Bay facilitates is illegal, but where does it fall on the spectrum of illegal dispersal of copyrighted material?

If someone makes a DVD recording of a playlist and gives it to their friend, it is an isolated case. Sure, the friend could go home and make another copy and give it to his or her friend and so on and so forth, but the infrastructure is such that there is both time involved and physical transport of tangible objects that are required to share copyrighted material. This by the way, is still illegal, but does not make front-page news like The Pirate Bay.

The reason why The Pirate Bay’s activities are so criminal is because of the scope of individuals that can illegally acquire copyrighted material online. BitTorrent allows for anyone with internet access to download the latest piece of entertainment of their fancy. The infrastructure is designed to allow for maximum dispersion and minimal effort for the user. As opposed to a single DVD copy, which for all purposes will not hurt the entertainment industry, a BitTorrent file of the same movie makes the copyrighted material available to anyone on the internet – and all you need is enough hard-disk space to store the target file!

The Pirate Bay would, by this argument, fall on the far end of the illegal spectrum…

The (Illegal) Spectrum

The only reason that the Pirate Bay can get away with this is because they hide behind international disagreement when it comes to copyright law. With the company currently running the site in the Republic of Seychelles, they only need to abide by Seychelles’ copyright law. This highlights a gaping hole in the current international copyright system. What are some countries solution? Block thepiratebay.com. Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, China, Sweden, and the UK have all experimented with blocking thepiratebay.com at some point in the recent past (according to Wikipedia).

What can countries, interested in protecting its citizens’ works but not interested in internet censoring, do? Not much (as of now) against sites like The Pirate Bay. Perhaps getting on good terms with countries where infringers hide and convincing the country to take action (like in Sweden) would work. How about against downloaders and uploaders using a site like The Pirate Bay? If they are within the borders of your country, huge fines would probably do the trick.

If they are outside your borders?

Tap your heels together 3 times and repeat “There’s no place like home”; with the current international copyright conundrum, there’s not much else you can do.

Art in an Age of Interactivity – by “Amanda C”

Manovich’s Claim

Not only have new media technologies… actualized the ideas behind projects by artists, they have also extended them much further than the artists originally intended. As a result, these technologies themselves have become the greatest art works of today… [The] computer scientists who invented these technologies… are the important artists of our time, maybe the only artists who are truly important and who will be remembered from this historical period.

Is Manovich on the Right Track?

In order to address Manovich‘s statement from his 2003 essay “New Media from Borges to HTML,” I’d like to bring up one of my favorite pieces of digital art—”The Wilderness Downtown.” On its homepage, “The Wilderness Downtown” claims to be both a “Chrome Experiment” and an “interactive film.” The essence of the program is inventive—it inputs the address of the audience’s childhood home and creates a music video to Arcade Fire‘s “We Used to Wait” centered around that address.

The film’s credits are particularly fascinating; they credit the members and managers of Arcade Fire, the film production team, the interactive production team, and the Google tech team. Think about how the final product would have changed if any one of these teams had been removed. “The Wilderness Downtown” was a joint effort, and it now serves as a perfect example of interdisciplinary art. Without musicians and filmmakers, “The Wilderness Downtown” would simply be code, but instead it’s an experimental (and revolutionary, in my opinion) interactive film. So digital art is interdisciplinary, by nature. And Manovich was half-right: computer scientists are artists, but they’re very clearly not the only ones.

Sensory Marriage

It’s generally accepted that we, as humans, possess five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Certain art forms feature certain senses. Visual arts feature sight. Music features hearing. Music videos feature sight and hearing—the two senses are expected to compliment each other. And “The Wilderness Downtown” works touch into the equation, by having the audience members enter their childhood addresses into the text box prominently featured on the page and write themselves letters. Interactions with art in physical manners are made more and more possible by advances in technology, so much so that now we’re getting used to touching the art that we see and hear.

The Internet is for Conversation

In an age where the Internet dominates, people’s opinions are overwhelmingly prominent. News articles, blogs, and videos all allow for comments, and often times the comments are more insightful than the original work. YouTube, the platform on which many videos are originally posted, has a built-in feature for Video Responses. In an age where physical interaction with art is increasingly prominent, how can we criticize for remix?

Mashup artist Girl Talk appears to agree. In his interview with the New York Times, he states:

I think a lot of artists are used to their music being reused online and have come to accept and embrace it. You have a generation who go on YouTube and remake and remix music online all the time. They remake and upload songs and videos, and then other people remake the remakes; it just keeps going.

Regarding copyright law:

It is clearly in a gray area but I believe it should fall into fair use under copyright law. I feel like people are not listening to my music instead of buying a CD or album of an artist I feature. Instead, people find new musicians because of a sample on one of my records.

Commercial impact is one of the factors used in determining fair use, and in my opinion the only important one. Should filmmakers and musicians be able to make a living off of their work, without having it stolen? Of course. Commercial success staying equal, should we stop people from remixing works in an age where art is inherently interactive? No. Are the remix-ers artists as well? Yes.

Should copyright laws be reformed for today’s society? Considering the interactive, multisensory nature of digital art—yes.