Friday, October 17, 2008

In which Loud muses about how to keep the free world rocking. And writing. And painting. And coding...

My housemate returns home tonight, and finds the remaining three of us in the midst of a heated debate. Naturally, he inquires as to what it is we are yelling about.

“We're having another copyright fight”


“Well, we do tend to have them every couple of days”

At this point, Etarran observes:

“We have them EVERY day!”

Which would be funnier if it weren't the honest truth. We had indeed argued about intellectual property rights the night before. It would certainly be funnier if it weren't my fault. As the token long-haired-hippie-anarcho-communist, I am something of a philosophical punching bag for the ...I guess liberal moderates? Who make up the house, and occasionally those visitors from outside the house as well. It's possible that this is for a good reason; the people who take issue with my positions tend to be more pragmatic, whereas I am an ideologue. Sadly, I think that in this sense I am an outmode, that policy and thought have to be guided by what rational observation can prove, and not by what an individual or group believes is somehow more “virtuous” than the next guy's “good life”.

When we debate intellectual property, as we do too much around here, it comes down to a fundamental difference in priorities. Etarran has observed of us that we “believe mostly the same things, only you believe them for completely the wrong reasons”. In common, I think everyone in the house is in agreement that no matter how you arrange IP rights, you need to both encourage and reward creativity. Past this, we tend to disagree entirely: I focus on the need to promote a vague “public good” - the benefit to people when they are allowed to enjoy art and participate in culture – by removing “unreasonable” restrictions on use of intellectual property. The others point out that making intellectual property less strictly controlled damages the ability of artists and publishers to make money, and therefore disincentivizes creativity. They assert that derivative use of IP under the current framework can be permitted by negotiating with the copyright holder, and purchasing it from them (or agreeing to pay royalties), and since this is at all possible the system does not need to change.

The way I see it, though, the economics of creativity are not the only thing that need be dealt with. While career artists do have to make a living from what they create, there is a whole world of non-commercial creativity that I believe is stifled when artists and corporations demand tighter restrictions on how we are allowed to use our media. For example, it makes economic sense for Apple to have iTunes dispense songs which are of a format exclusively supported by their brand of mp3 players. It makes sense for iTunes not to interface with mp3 players from other vendors. Apple has no obligation to increase the business of other companies, and it has a right to maximize its profits. Apple's policy in this matter may help Apple, but it is harmful to the public good and, I would argue, to the digital music industry. I believe that a free, open standard for music files (mp3, while ubiquitous, is not common property) and players would create a market in which users could buy music AND portable audio devices with greater confidence (I would suggest that they might buy more music, were this the case). Such a system would create market pressure for each vendor to produce the best, cheapest Open-Source Audio Codec (OSAC, not as catchy as mp3, but what can I do?) player, as well as the best digital delivery service. This intense competition would be a great boon for consumers, but perhaps costly for the technology providers. To this, I would respond “tough titty”. If each digital distribution platform used a unique key to encode songs bought through that service, consumers could be forced into being less fickle. HOWEVER, this would put quite the damper on another form of creativity, namely that exhibited by programmers of free or alternative media players. A decent compromise could be reached if users could pay a nominal fee (per song, perhaps?) for either the ability to transfer keys (encryption would be standardized, of course) to other programs, or perhaps – and this is already a reality – simply for unencrypted media files. I think that being able to pay to free your media from DRM strikes me as particularly fair. One, if it is money the companies want, then let them have money in exchange for free (as in speech, not as in beer) information, and Two, honest people who do not like DRM would be allowed to put their money where their mouths are. I think this sort of arrangement could work for all manner of digitally-distributed media. I would love for, say, Steam to be cross-compatible with other digital distribution platforms once I paid the fee. Valve might give up a certain amount of potential revenue, but as a fan of Valve's work, it's not like I'd give up lining their coffers. Sure, they might have to wage a couple of price and feature wars with other providers to get my every purchase, but they should have to do that anyway! Different companies make motherboards, BUT I do not have to buy an Asus graphics card when I use an Asus motherboard. I do not have to buy Toyota gas if I drive a Toyota. I do not have to buy a Warner Brothers' movie player to watch Warner Brothers movies. Standards are DEFINITELY beneficial to the public good, and it's high time that digital distributors cut out all the proprietary bullshit!

Picking up from thoughts of computer hardware and digital distribution of games, I would like to make the case that gamers, and gamer culture (at least on the PC) can be an example of an enlightened copyright regime. First, I want to be clear that I don't think that piracy as it exists in PC gaming is justified or enlightened. What I do think is that “piracy” of so-called “abandonware” games does have some certain merit. While in some cases the industry does produce means for gamers to play their old favourites again (ie. SNES emulators on a chip with all the old games preloaded), only recently have services like Steam and Gametap really, well, tapped into this market. Still, not every retro game will be profitable, and I foresee the utility of a small amount of file-sharing for the obscure, the overly complex, and the forgotten. Where gamer culture really shines in terms of IP is in the world of mods. When buying one game at retail allows you to access for free the creativity of many others who contributed content for the love of gaming (or in an attempt to get noticed in the industry), that can translate into additional value for the original creators and publisher. I think that if the model of mods could somehow be ported over to other forms of art (accessing derivative works is contingent upon owning the original content), we could make culture participatory AND fair to creators. “Institutionalized plagiarism”, you say? Hardly! Humans often learn through imitation/ My sister learned to talk by parroting my every sound (true story!), and while I'm pretty sure I found it annoying, you don't see me handing her a DMCA takedown notice! We retell jokes that we didn't make up ourselves, we relate stories that are not our own, we play games that we didn't make up but never paid for (remember wall-ball in grade 3 or so? Foursquare/king's court?), and sometimes we modify or embellish these things. Granted, these things are not new, but if you told me that no one's livelihood depended on them, I would laugh in your face. Imagine a world where you had to get permission to tell or modify any joke you told, or any schoolyard game you played, and tell me that YOUR livelihood would not be adversely affected (with a straight face and not dripping sarcasm). I think that if we enjoy a series of books, we shouldn't have to worry about whether or not the publisher wants to make an RPG out of it when we contemplate making a MUD on the internet based on said book. Maybe that's cutting into the potential revenues of the author, but if people are not allowed to celebrate what they love with just a little imitation (the sincerest form of flattery), something is VERY WRONG. What I cannot quite say is where the line should be drawn between what sort of derivations are fair and which are not. Maybe a MUD based on your favourite fantasy book is ok, but what about home-cooked rules for adapting, say, D&D or GURPS to be playable in that world? Such an action would be rather akin to making a mod of a computer game, based on an established franchise that you did not own. This happens all the time, and occasionally copyright owners will force the mod teams to cease and desist. While I respect the desire of, say, Lucasfilm, to make money on Star Wars: Battlefront, I think I would rather play a Battlefield mod coded by people who LOVE Battlefield and Star Wars instead of money. I think the ideal arrangement would be what happened to Garry's Mod, Team Fortress, and Desert Combat. Rather than a battle between quality and profit, the industry should embrace mod teams, and then commission them to help build, or even design on their own a bigger, better, for-profit version that the IP rights holder can sell. The amateur creation should be allowed to remain as a demo, free publicity for its better-supported official cousin. Of course, the practicality of hiring a mod team every time you want to exploit a franchise for profit is nil, but in other media the concept does exist in a sense (ie. Star Wars extended universe novels, although I'm sure they have a strict vetting/quality control policy on those). If multiple derivative works were being prepared at the same time, it only gets worse (although mod teams sometimes do coalesce on their own when this happens). The best answer I can give is that IP rights holders could always hire the pick of the modding crop when multiple projects were involved, and that franchise-based gaming could move away from being assigned to particular studios, and to contract work by modders? Still impractical, I suppose, so if anyone has a better idea I'd love to hear it.

I think that's all for now. Apparently posting about actual goings-on in Halifax was a lie. Maybe it will happen next time.


1 comment:

Simon said...

That was actually very eloquent. I'm not convinced though, because you're wrong.

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