Google has released a patch with the changes they made to the VLC media player. Nothing too exciting–they’ve basically just crippled it by making sure that it will only play AVI and MPEG media types, and then only if they are served from http://video.google.com/. They’ve disabled the ffmpeg encoding functionality as well, presumably to avoid having to pay fees for distributing an MPEG-4 encoder. (Google has to pay MPEG LA $0.25 for every download of the GoogleVideoViewer after the first 50,000 downloads, up to $1 million per year. If they hadn’t disabled the encoding functionality, this per-download fee would double, so commenting out five lines of code saves them an additional million bucks per year.) The only bugfix appears to be something related to the ActiveX plugin (a mouse hovering problem). Other than that the bulk of the patch consists of changing “VideoLAN” to “GoogleVideoViewer” throughout the code.
SCOTUSblog reported this morning that
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that developers of software violate federal copyright law when they provide computer users with the means to share music and movie files downloaded from the internet.
Um, not quite. Reading the actual decision, it seem that the Court held that
One who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, going beyond mere distribution with knowledge of third-party action, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties using the device, regardless of the device’s lawful uses.
So, just distributing software that enables users to share music and movie files is not enough, and just distributing such software and knowing what people might do with it is not enough: to be violating copyright law, the developers have to actively promote the use of the software for violating copyright.
Of course, no one knows what exactly active promotion of copyright infringement is and isn’t. Arguably, Apple is actively promoting copyright infringement by selling iPods with so much space that you couldn’t possibly fill them with iTunes Music Store purchases alone. So, from now on, whenever a U.S. technology company invents a new product, it will sit on the shelf for years while lawyers debate whether it actively promotes infringement. Meanwhile Chinese and Korean companies will develop five generations of the same product and take the whole market before the U.S. product ever sees the light of day.
Bottom line: this decision won’t have a significant effect on file sharing. The number of file sharers will continue to grow, as will the total number of bits shared. What this decision (along with the Bush administration’s (lack of) broadband policy) will do is help ensure that in 25 years American teenagers will be feverishly studying Mandarin in the hopes that they can get into Peking University, so they can get a decent job in Beijing and send money home to their parents in New York.
Cool with me, I love Chinese food.
The conference as a whole was pretty interesting, but the stuff on user-contributed content and games mods was what really grabbed my attention. The games industry is far ahead of our other cultural industries in terms of recognizing the importance of user-driven production and development, so it was great to hear some informed discussion of it which I could try to apply to my own projects.
First Olli Sotamaa of the University of Tampere’s Hypermedia Lab presented some critical perspectives on computer game modding competitions, which touched on the issues Anne Galloway and Alan Schussman have been discussing around the commodification of DIY/hacker culture, and the commodification of leisure in general. Basically, he wonders how empowering the ability to mod games is if companies
- make the exploitation of volunteer modder labor an explicit part of their business plans, and
- claim all IP rights in modders’ creations?
Sotamaa contended that events like modding competitions are a way for gaming companies to cultivate a volunteer labor force, by educating would-be modders how to use the tools of the trade, building up a postive image for successful modders, and recruiting the best modders into professional positions. The result is a tendency toward professionalization in the modding community, a tendency that is masked by the perception that everything game-related is “play,” not work. This perception justifies the often unfair economic structures. But, as Sotamaa pointed out, as mods get more sophisticated, they require larger teams and greater coordination, and the resulting organizational structure (specialization, assembly line-style construction) reveals the laborious nature of modding.
Sotamaa mentioned a paper by Eileen Meehan on the political economy of fandom that sounds like it could be very useful for my own work. He also mentioned some other papers, like Julian Kücklich’s work on modders and the their relation to the digital gaming, that were presented at the Creative Gamers seminar earlier this year. The Creative Gamers thing looks like it was fascinating–need to get access to those presentations. Finally, he pointed us to Tiziana Terranova’s work on cultural industries becoming dependent on volunteer labor and T. L. Taylor’s work on corporate ownership in virtual worlds.
Next Bart Simon discussed physical modding, specifically case modding. He contrasted the trend toward “black-box” computing exemplified by Apple and gaming consoles with the counter-trend toward revealing and reveling in the “guts” of computing, a la case modding. In regard to the commodification issue, he pointed out that the perceived threat of commodification, exploitation, and “selling out” is pretty much constant across all kinds of subcultures, and case modding culture is no exception–as the reaction by “hard core” modders to prefabricated “mod kits” shows.
Later the same day there were a series of short papers on user-contributed content. I missed the first two due to a long lunch, but made it in time to see Marko Turpeinen of HIIT present some work on legal and organizational issues in collaborative user-created content. The paper examined four different collaborative content communities, distinguished along two axes:
- Blauereiter, community creating and sharing “micro movies” for cell phones (commercial, users own content)
- Neverwinter Nights, MMPORG with user mods (commercial, users license content)
- The Melrose Mirror, collaboratively edited newsblog for the elderly (non-profit, users own content)
- Habbo Hotel, avatar chat space (non-profit, users license content)
The thrust of Marko’s presentation was that there are many unresolved legal questions about user-created content, particularly around decision-making structures and liability. It remains to be seen whether existing laws are flexible enough to handle the kinds of situations that are arising in this area.
Next John Banks of the Creative Industries Research Applications Centre gave a fascinating talk about his work on opening the production pipeline with Auran, an Australian games company. Specifically, he talked about Trainz, a railroad simulator which a few years ago made the quite radical decision to allow rail fans to create models for the game, and keep all the IP rights in their creations. This was well before Second Life made a similar decision. The results have been quite positive: Trainz went from nearly being pulled off the market to becoming the number-one train simulator, even forcing Microsoft to pull their offering off the market for lack of interest. Fans are involved in every aspect of the game, from designing models for it to marketing and distributing it. Furthermore, Banks claimed that the fans, far from being exploited labor, are quite aware of and reflective about their relationship to Auran, and very vocal about their displeasure when they don’t like how things are being run. Banks used Scott Lash’s concept of disorganizations to describe the networks of fan content creators and suggested that development processes and their associated organizational structures need to be radically reorganized to support them.
Great stuff, and a wealth of scholarly trails to follow. These two sessions alone were worth the trip to DIGRA. Next year it will be in Korea, so I don’t know if I’ll make it–but if you have the time and money to attend, I highly recommend it. Biggest regret: missing the presentation on Nethack.
I noticed that amazon2melvyl wasn’t handling some of the Amazon links at CiteULike, so I tweaked the link matching logic to better handle affiliate links.