13 March 2006

Administrative Convenience

… part XLVII (or whatever we're up to by now).

Two other shoes have hit the floor with a dull thud in the last couple of days in the battles over who has the right to allow (or authorize) downloads of copyrighted material. The one that's going to get more press (ironically enough, as we'll see) concerns downloading of films. According to an item in Reuters, Amazon is considering establishing a movie downloading service in cooperation with several big studios (at present, Viacom/Paramount, Universal, and Warner). This leads to several fascinating questions. At least, they're fascinating if one does not blithely accept that permission comes from whoever is easiest to contact.

  • Universal and Warner in particular have shopped at bankruptcy sales of other companies' film libraries. I wonder if the bankruptcy sale transferred this particular set of rights? (Hint: How many other bankruptcy sales in the last five decades have screwed up intellectual property rights? Or, to make the list a lot shorter, how many even paid attention?)
  • Then, too, there's the unanswered question of file formats and royalties. Yes, that's right—one of the "problems" with MP3 and MP4 files is that the format and encoding algorithm continue to have patent protection. Windows Media is a proprietary format; so is QuickTime. And DivX? Although it's almost certainly the best container for files of this nature, adopting DivX (or Xvid) as a standard would be a rather ironic counterpoint to efforts to combat piracy via DivX files over the last few years. So, then, are we due for yet another incompatible standard that will require considerable upgrading of hardware… and even-more-intrustive DRM?
  • Finally, there's the bandwidth question. BitTorrent's real advantage is not that it is a "distributed download," but that it is technical (and "techie") enough that it doesn't really have all that many users. Perhaps Amazon is planning on yet another bit of (DRMable) software for people to put on their computers so they can have the dubious privilege of downloading such stellar vehicles as Deuce Bigalow, Japanese Gigolo1 or Dirty Love. I'll leave the irony of these references to IMDB in a story regarding Amazon and movie downloads as an exercise for the student.

Turning to the more mundane world of print, another shoe—a particularly moldy old sneaker—comes to us courtesy of Google… and the print-publishing world, which still can't spell Tasini if your spot it the first six letters. Google has announced that it will "allow" publishers to sell the full-text version of scanned books. Gee, guys, do you think that includes bankruptcies or publishers that have otherwise gone out of business? Or books for which the rights have reverted to the author? And things are even more confused across the pond… and vastly more revealing, in some respects.

Mark le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors, said: "There is no consensus among authors. Academic writers see Google as a new and exciting way to help market books that have otherwise found it hard to secure space in bookstores, but more commercial writers are concerned that Google is building up this vast and profitable catalogue on top of copyrights for which they have not paid."

Maija Palmer, "Publishers' Soul Searching Over Google Plan," Financial Times (13 Mar 2006). This is, in the end, the crux of the problem. Google (and potential competitors) are demanding that there be a single point of contact for large chunks of the "library" of scannable/scanned texts. Google wants the publishers—to be blunt, other business entities more susceptible to bribery—to be those points of contact for obtaining permission. However, there is simply no concensus among the myriad of actual rightsholders2 on who actually has that power/right. Google is therefore adopting the tried-and-true means of doing what it wants to do: the fait d'accompli, under the theory that it's easier to ask forgiveness than get permission. In this instance, literally… and literarily.

  1. Why "Japanese"? Guess the nationality of the distributor.
  2. Some of which—and depending upon the market segment, ranging from a significant minority to a substantial majority—are indeed the publishers.