Thanks to Newsweek for Having Me at News/Geek

Just a quick, 24-hours-overdue thanks to the folks at the Newsweek Dev Team for hosting me last night at their third News/Geek event.

I had a rollicking good time, the questions were awesome, and the post-talk celebration was even better. If you want the Powerpoint, it’s here in all its 12.2 MB glory.

Further discussion welcome.

Stimulus Bill: Content Filtering Out, Open Networks Requirement In

Thanks to Alex Curtis at Public Knowledge for the stimulus bill content filtering update. The good news is in the headline: No on content filtering, yes on open network requirements.

He also posted a PDF of the relevant section. See the highlighted portion on page 9 for the nondiscrimination requirements.

Lessig Moving Back to Harvard

Lawrence Lessig, the man who’s done more than anyone to publicize the debate over copyright law in the digital era, is returning to Harvard Law School. In addition to being a professor, he’ll head the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics.

The Harvard press release (first link) explains:

He will also launch a major five-year project examining what happens when public institutions depend on money from sources that may be affected by the work of those institutions — for example, medical research programs that receive funding from pharmaceutical companies whose drugs they review, or academics whose policy analyses are underwritten by special interest groups.

It’s a very exciting day for Harvard Law School–and a sad one for Stanford.

How the DMCA Was Born

This week is the 10th Anniversary of the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Title I of the DMCA is the most controversial and important part of the act.

In a great post over at Freedom to Tinker, David Robinson has a great post on how the DMCA was born. He relies heavily on Jessica Litman‘s fantastic book, Digital Copyright, but the post itself is quite worth reading.

Importantly, he talks about the process of policy laundering–negotiating international treaties behind closed doors as a vehicle for passing laws that would be politically unpopular if simply proposed as legislation at the national level.

Unfortunately, this seems to be an important motivating force behind the super-secret, back-room-negotiated Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA.

Latest on DVD Ripping

RealNetworks’ recent decision to sell DVD ripping software, RealDVD, has the public asking: “Why not rip DVDs like CDs?”

Doing a Google News search today for the software, I got over 200 hits, many from decidedly mainstream sources like USAToday and USNews. Those of us who pride ourselves on some modicum of tech savvy have long known that this was possible, but RealDVD has enough financial backing, perceived legitimacy, and user friendliness that it may reshape how many people watch movies.

The next big question is when the motion picture industry will send out their lawyers, waving the DMCA’s Section 1201 in RealNetworks’ faces. While it is probably the best publicized program to do so, RealDVD is just one of many brave commercial programs trotting out onto this legal minefield. From the EFF DeepLinks blog:

Real has chosen to follow in Kaleidescape’s footsteps. Apparently, it is not alone — CEPro has an informative article summarizing all the DVD media server solutions for the home theater market that were announced at the recent CEDIA conference. Looks like Hollywood’s iron-fisted grip of DVDs is slipping a little every day.

Ironically, I’ve been falling behind on these developments as I focus on my dissertation on DRM politics. I’d assumed that the free programs, like HandBrake and MacTheRipper, were still filling this vacuum. It’s good to catch up, and even better to hear that somebody’s fighting and winning against the DVD-CCA.

RealNetworks has made a splash of late with their RealDVD software. Other small-scale commercial programs have come and gone; most memorably among them was 321 StudiosDVD X Copy. Under the pressure of Hollywood’s massive legal onslaught, 321 folded up shop.

RealNetworks may not fold over so easily. They are a much more substantial company, and the studios are more likely to negotiate something mutually acceptable.

The Measure of Technological Success

Over at Manifest Density, Tom has a couple interesting posts up arguing that the success of Blu-Ray in our marketplace should not be taken as proof that it’s a “better” technology than HD DVD, as many seem to have contended.

Megan’s right [as stated here] that I and a lot of my fellow nerds aren’t very happy about this outcome, but she’s wrong to say that “[e]very time there’s a format war, the losers complain that the inferior product won through nefarious methods.” I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. In this case I can admit that Blu-Ray is the technically superior standard. Many technologists didn’t like it because it seemed a bit more DRM-laden, because it didn’t seem worth the price premium, and because Sony has behaved very badly with respect to proprietary media formats in the past [...]

It’s just that it’s frustratingly obvious that the factors determining a technology’s success frequently have little to do with its capabilities, price, performance or other innate attributes. Rather, they’re the result of quirks of the business environment into which the technology is born.

I don’t think I have much to add to this debate, but I thought it was interesting enough to be worth sharing. I’m not convinced (as some of those in this debate have suggested) that all economists would argue that the “better” technology is the one that succeeds in the marketplace, and I disagree with the criticism that Tom’s idea of technological superiority is devoid of consideration of human and market concerns. I think (in agreement with Tom) that any technology has its pros and its cons in its design, but that these formal features may have little or nothing to do with what plays out in the marketplace in the long run thanks to the quirks of the business world.

It’s important to consider that “better” is subjective to group interests—better for whom? Arguably, Blu-Ray is better for movie studios in the short run view because it seems to offer better DRM. Maybe HD DVD was better for consumers because of less restriction in this way (which, some will certainly argue, would have been better for everyone in the long run, as the lack of rights management in audio cassettes was likely a boon to the music recording industry). We’ll never get to see how this plays out long-term in a real, idealized “market” scenario, though, because some major studios threw their support to one side early and made up consumers’ minds for them.

For my part, I wasn’t interested in committing to an expensive, high-def movie format right now. I must admit, though, that I appreciate the free bag I got from the Consumer Electronics Show much more now because of the HD DVD ad embroidered on the outside. In five to ten years, that will be about as hip as a Betamax t-shirt.

(This entry has been cross-posted at Geek Studies.)

Comcast to FCC: Why Regulate? We Have the Blogosphere

In a filing with the FCC (pdf), Comcast claims that, thanks to market competition and blogging watchdogs, there is no need for regulatory intervention to protect net neutrality.

The company’s recent discrimination against peer-to-peer traffic is the cause of the hearing. Last August, Comcast denied the charges (which were first documented on… drumroll please… a blog), but now the company has stopped fighting the clear and convincing evidence, instead changing the Terms of Service to reflect the fact that they are willfully throttling BitTorrent traffic.

Now, they claim:

Network Management is best left to the sound, good-faith judgment of the engineers and proprietors who run and own the networks and who are best able to remedy customer service issues promptly, rather than to regulation. The self-policing marketplace and blogosphere, combined with vigilant scrutiny from policymakers, provides an ample check on the reasonableness of such judgments.

There’s only one problem: whatever market pressure and public criticism can be leveled has already come to pass, and Comcast still has not changed direction. Could this have something to do with the market failure in the broadband market? After all, a duopoly is rarely the sign of a healthy market.

At least one prominent blogger and vocal Comcast critic finds the argument laughable.

On DRM-related sidenote, somebody (presumably Comcast) put a password on the PDF, preventing the wholesale one-step copying of text. Yet further evidence that the company is deeply committed to an open dialogue on net neutrality.

(Link from Lok)

Is Music DRM Dead?

The Wired blog Underwire appears ready to declare music-protecting DRM dead in light of Sony BMG’s decision to begin selling some tracks in the unprotected MP3 format.

Since Sony was the last holdout among the big four record labels, this is indeed big news; that said, I remain skeptical that the music industry will completely ditch DRM in the near future. Inertia and stubbornness are powerful forces.