Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 14: December 2004


Perspectives

A Year-End Potpourri

Some of these pieces could belong in Trends & Quick Takes, some in Interesting & Peculiar Products, some in Followup. You may find some dangerously close to being offtopic (which usually means the topic range is expanding). As with any assortment such as this, the overall meaning is in the mind of the beholder.

Ghosts of Issues Past

Some ideas never quite go away, much as we might wish they would.

ClearPlay: DVD without all that nasty stuff

I’ve mentioned ClearPlay technology elsewhere (in copyright roundups), though perhaps not by name. It’s a DVD censoring system available in players from Apex, RCA, and others. You get a CD containing lots of movie-specific censoring instructions; for $5 to $7 a month, you can download instructions for new movies.

Dan Tynan tried it and reported in “Censors and sensibility” (PC World 22:9, September 2004, p. 142). He started out modestly favoring the idea given his young children: “Today I can watch family-friendly versions of many films, thanks to a new technology that filters a movie as it plays, censoring the racy bits.” So he gave it a tough test: Austin Powers. ClearPlay noted that the movie had strong action violence, crude sexual content, and “vain references to deity.” By default, all the category filters are on, but you can disable them.

“I quickly discovered that watching Austin Powers with filters is like eating a ham sandwich without the ham.” Censored words were blanked, scenes ended abruptly, and some of the best jokes were gone—as were the Fembots. “Untouched, however, were several gun battles, a nuclear explosion, and various torture scenes.” When it was over, his wife turned to him and said, “ClearPlay: Prude in a Box.”

What about ClearPlay and copyright? Some in the motion picture industry find it objectionable and want to go after this company and its competitors with DMCA or other copyright-related laws. So proposed legislation, such as a section of HR 4077, the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act, would explicitly legalize ClearPlay-like technologies while toughening other aspects of copyright. After all, you can never be too prudish.

I believe ClearPlay should be precisely as legal as a commercial-skipping button on your TiVO, as long as there’s a clear on-screen warning that the movie has been modified. I wouldn’t use it, but that’s my choice. Once you’ve purchased or rented a DVD, you should be free to watch as much or as little of it as you want, in any sequence you want, and with help from others in making those decisions if you choose. Just as you can buy or borrow a book and choose not to read certain chapters or even (if you bought it) tear out pages with nasty scenes—and if someone published guides to tearing out the nasty stuff, those should be legal too. I’m sympathetic to moral-rights issues for original creations, but not for individually owned mass reproductions as long as the altered versions aren’t passed off as the originals.

Disposable DVDs

According to the LA Times (October 27, 2004), Flexplay isn’t quite dead yet. I have yet to see positive reports of sales from Disney’s experiments with these environmental absurdities (DVDs that self-destruct after 48 hours and cost $6 or $7, presumably attracting consumers too dumb to sign up for Netflix, too lazy to take back a $4 rental, too impatient to wait for the $10 rerelease a year later, and giving the same hoot about the earth’s resources as Hummer2 drivers).

The story (by Rachel Abramowitz) informs us that Jeffrey Arnold, a “34-year-old multimillionaire” entrepreneur, purchased the patents and Flexplay itself. To “overcome consumer resistance” to the idiot technology (oops, sorry, let an opinion slip through there)—and after all, Barnum informs us that 60 new potential Flexplay users are born each hour—he’s doing something unique.

On November 12, the Convex Group released a movie, “Noël.” It’s an $8.5 million “feel-good” movie with Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz, and “an uncredited Robin Williams”(!) and will show in 20 cities. The same day, Amazon will start selling a disposable DVD version for $4.99. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, the movie (which might or might not still be in any theatres) will be on TNT, once only. A CD-ROM teaser with a song from the movie will be attached to two million soda cup lids sold in Regal theaters during the holiday season (Arnold owns Lidrock, which does this sort of thing).

Arnold says things like “grow the overall pie,” as you’d expect, and just knows there are lots of consumers out there who want a movie “but don’t want the hassle of returns or late fees or the $20 price tag.” They can’t be the computer-avoiding types for whom Netflix isn’t an option, since you can only buy your two-day “Noël” from Amazon. But this new way of squandering resources and money “empower[s] an audience, allowing them to choose how best to experience the film.” As with other Flexplays, there are no extras on these DVDs.

Blockbuster isn’t impressed. I’m no friend of Blockbuster, but neither am I (impressed, that is). Disney’s man in the fray calls Flexplay “revolutionary in nature.” Maybe so.

CD sales, pseudo-CDs and flexible players

Most discussions on these topics have been in Copyright Currents but this cluster feels at home here. First there’s the issue of the dying CD industry and the legal-download industry that’s replacing it. Not, perhaps, very quickly. Jupiter Research’s latest forecasts assert that, in 2009, European music fans will spend $1 billion (equivalent) on downloading and streaming—about 8% of the total music market (excluding ring tones). Forrester thinks downloading and streaming will be 30% of the music market by then. It’s always good to see forecasters disagree this sharply; as usual, neither one’s likely to be right. (This was a Reuters report from London, but I believe U.S. projections are comparable.)

Edward W. Felten pointed out one alternate explanation for reduced sales in a September 30, 2004 Freedom to tinker entry: Census Bureau figures on hours spent using various media. Between 1998 and 2003, time spent listening to music by U.S. residents age 12 and over declined from 283 hours to 219 hours—more of a drop than the sales drop that RIAA blames on piracy. (By comparison, time spent on the “consumer internet” tripled, from 54 hours to 174 hours; time spent on videogames doubled from 43 to 90 hours; time spent watching home video—whatever that is—almost tripled from 36 to 96 hours.)

It may also be worth pointing out that RIAA’s biggest claim for the impact of “piracy” is that sales of the biggest-selling CDs have gone down. Check Good Stuff in this issue: One essay cited there suggests that this phenomenon is part of a shift toward the “long tail” that’s also happening in TV viewing, with movies, and maybe even with books.

Sony, a company with inherent internal conflict between consumer electronics (where copying is good) and media publishing (where copiers are pirates), seems to be moving back toward the electronics side in some ways. Sony Music Entertainment has stopped publishing copy-controlled pseudo-CDs. They say it’s because consumers understand that illegal file sharing is wrong. It might also be because consumers won’t tolerate pseudo-CDs.

Going a bit further, Sony’s decided to get serious about portable digital music players. Their players will support MP3 by mid-2005 and may also support other formats. Sony has only supported Atrac in its flash players, and that may be part of the reason that Sony’s traditional leadership in portable players has disappeared. MP3 doesn’t have the DRM overload of Atrac and other formats.

Good News on the DMCA Front

For the second time, courts have ruled that there’s a limit to DMCA’s reach. Last time (Chamberlain v Skylark), it was that wonderfully creative work known as garage-door opening. This time: third-party ink cartridges. Lexmark includes a program (about 50 bytes, according to Ed Felten) in its ink cartridges. Software in Lexmark printers checks for that program and won’t work with cartridges that don’t contain it. Static Control makes a chip with the same program, so that third-party vendors can produce competitive ink cartridges.

Lexmark claimed copyright infringements for copying the program—but also DMCA violations because Static Control was circumventing the program-verification step. A lower court issued a preliminary injunction against Static Control; on October 26, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that injunction.

Had Lexmark won, it would mean that any company could use DMCA with a trivial locking mechanism to prevent a competitor from making interoperable products—and have the Federal government backing them. In this case, the Court said you can’t use copyright on a program whose sole purpose is to prevent interoperability, at least not in a DMCA claim—and that DMCA’s use of “access” couldn’t be stretched to fit the facts of this case. As Felten concludes:

To sum up, this ruling is a big victory for interoperabilty. It also strikes an important blow against one overreaching reading of the DMCA, by limiting the scope of the access control provision. The DMCA is still deeply problematic in other ways, but we can hope that this ruling has narrowed its scope a bit.

Is this meaningful for libraries? Possibly. Say a truly competitive market emerges for RFID chips and self-checkout/scanning systems. Could the maker of a checkout system force you to buy overpriced RFID chips from them by including short programs that only that maker could use—and threaten any RFID competitor with the DMCA hammer? Before this ruling, possibly; now, it’s unlikely.

Search Me—or Would You Prefer Lorcan Dempsey?

Two items here, not directly related. First, Vivisimo launched a new web metasearch engine for the consumer market with a truly awful name, Clusty (www.clusty.com). The name comes from one characteristic inherited from Vivisimo’s roots: Preparing topical clusters on the fly from a set of results. (Vivisimo licenses its technologies to corporations and other metasearch sites such as Dogpile; the Vivisimo site was never intended as a general-purpose web search engine.)

The first PR I saw was a little overstated, along the lines of “Try Clusty and you’ll kiss Google goodbye.” I tried it. It’s good, it’s interesting, but it’s not a replacement for Google (any more than Google is a replacement for Yahoo, for that matter). The interface is clean, with tabbed features such as news, image searching, weblog searching, and shopping databases.

Search Engine Watch has a preliminary writeup on Clusty dated September 30, 2004. It is an interesting new tool, worth looking into and possibly adopting as one of several web search engines.

What does this have to do with Lorcan Dempsey? Nothing directly; that’s the second item. I don’t know Dempsey and I don’t believe we’ve ever met. He’s at a much higher level at OCLC than I am at RLG (and, of course, he’s internationally known in the library field). I was surprised to get an amused email from him in mid-October. He was trying out another new web metasearch site, www.info.com. As most of us do (don’t you?), he included an ego search. Above the results was a note asking whether he was looking for Walt Crawford. So he tried searching for Walt Crawford—and, along with results, got a note asking whether he was looking for Lorcan Dempsey. I got the same results when I tried it.

Gary Price offered a possible reason. He notes that Lorcan Dempsey will show up as a search refinement for my name at Teoma, and vice versa—and that checking this out yields more than 50 web pages that include both names. We’ve served on the same editorial boards in the past (e.g., Public-Access Computer Systems Review) and our names both appear in some bibliographies.

Between Teoma, Clusty, www.info.com, and some of the other web search systems with special features like this, there’s a whole new area of fun and games. Spot the most peculiar “were you searching for” suggestions, refinements, and cluster topics. Just what we need: Another way to waste time on the internet. (Hmm. And if this essay appears within the first 150KB of this issue, there’s another linking of Walt Crawford and Lorcan Dempsey on the same web page—three of them, in fact.)

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 14, Whole Issue 56, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to wcc@notes.rlg.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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