Thursday, November 13, 2003

What is copyright, exactly?

For reasons I may get into one day I recently downloaded an electronic text version of the complete works of William Shakespeare. (For the record, I obtained it from the gutenberg project -- Anyway there's something darn peculiar about this particular piece of electronic text: it has a copyright notice (unlike most texts from Project Gutenberg).

Now, let's suppose that I use this text to publish my own edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare... am I in breach of copyright? Perhaps the creators of this text file have, like publishers of tables of logarithms in the past and of maps today, inserted errors in their text so that people selling copies can be detected and sued. But in this case, the only thing copied that was not in the public domain will have been the ERROR (whereas the implication of finding a copied error in a table of logarithms or a map is that the ACCURATE data has also been stolen).

It seems to me that technology creates opportunities for people to make money from intellectual property in novel ways (e.g. the recording industry), and that it is reasonable for governments to make and enforce laws for this to be conducted in a reasonable way. However, when technology destroys the basic underlying rationale for an industry (e.g. it is more convenient to make your own CDs now than to buy them) it behooves government to get out of the way rather than to create legal houses of cards.

Consider the film industry. Disney made Snow White a long time ago. 1939? I don't remember exactly. It came out the same year that Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane came out, I remember that.

If it were a book, Disney's copyright would have expired, or at least it would be likely to expire sometime soon, and we could expect to see cheap copies of it coming out (including free electronic versions from Project Gutenberg) and of people making film versions without needing to obtain the author's estate's permission. This is the way copyright works and is intended to work: it provides a limited monopoly on created material to encourage its creation BUT it makes it free eventually because information should be free.

But, Snow White is a film, and so: (a) all the prints of Snow White in circulation were owned by Disney. They could never be legally copied or purchased, only "rented". (b) Disney has "remastered" the film, resetting its copyright clock (this is the main reason behind remastering stuff, as far as I can see; any thoughts of improving audio quality, or whatever, are purely secondary). In short, if the film industry were to remain theatre-centric there's no reason we could expect Snow White to ever enter the public domain.

But, the film industry is changing. Disney sells DVDs now. Maybe even DVDs of Snow White. Despite the region restriction system on DVDs (which should simply be illegal in my opinion) and MPEG-2 encryption, it's possible to "rip" DVDs to hard disk with a typical home computer in about 30% of the DVD's total content duration. From there it's a very simple process to convert the DVD more-or-less losslessly into MPEG-4 (so it takes up 1/4 the disk space) and burn DVD movies onto CDs. You can do this now (which is theoretically illegal) or when the copyright expires (which, if the film industry has its way, will be never).

It really doesn't matter. Let's suppose that we form a DVD club and pool all the DVDs we own. As long as only one of us is playing a given DVD at a time, we should be fine. Since a typical household might own 100 DVDs and have 0.25 of a DVD playing at any given time (do you watch DVDs more than 6h/day?), there's pretty much nothing the industry can do except raise the price of DVDs in some kind of death spiral.

In a few years, people will be recording movies and live concerts using the cameras built into their phones anyway (with CCDs offering resolution equivalent or superior to HDTV) -- and a fairly simple program will remove any perspective distortion (and shake) prior to distribution from web sites outside the influence of the RIAA; nth generation TiVos will rip TV shows to hard disk and automatically clip commercials from them (sometimes they'll be wrong and human intervention will be required -- so, at most one person will have to watch the ads); and for that matter electronic copies of books and comics will finally start to appear as digitally scanning paper documents gets more automated.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Lying Begins at Home

I've just finished reading Al Franken's "Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them". I read this book after considerable internal debate. I know I pretty much agree with Franken's point of view, since I've read snippets of "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot", and I really don't see the point of reading books that preach to the choir. In fact, I've seriously considered reading either Anne Coulter or Bill O'Reilly on the basis that one should "know one's enemy", but both of them just make me feel angry.

In general, it seems to me that the media treat Al Franken as being the "liberal equivalent" of Anne Coulter (a woman who claims all liberals are traitors to the USA, while conveniently forgetting that Ronald Reagan broke his oath of office and then perjured himself about it -- or was simply unfit for office -- and all in the interests of Hondurans and Nicaraguans having the right to work for $0.10/h in sweatshops). Aside from technical differences -- e.g. Al Franken is funny; Anne Coulter isn't -- I really don't think they're similar at all. The real difference is that Al Franken is actually quite "fair and balanced" -- he is reasonably well-informed (with a definitely liberal viewpoint) and has a grip on reality -- while Anne Coulter is either a bald-faced liar or completely nuts. Or both.

So where are the liberal liars? Or if liberal liars are less common or less popular, why is this so?

I have a theory!

The really nutty right wingers in the US seem mainly to be a peculiar form of Christian who thinks that Jesus Christ was in favor of tax cuts for the rich, upholding the establishment, and that anyone they consider socially undesirable should be locked up in overcrowded prisons. In other words, people whose core beliefs involve willful ignorance or self-deception. To paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith, part of the popularity of the Bible stems from its inconsistencies: it's possible to read into the Bible almost any set of prejudices. For example, it's easy to find excuses for sexism and racism and slavery and exploiting animals in the Bible (and many have). But there's really no way to read tax breaks for the rich into the teachings of Jesus. Jesus doesn't say "That thing about a rich man getting into heaven and a camel getting through the eye of the needle, well I was exaggerating." The only way to be a right wing Christian is to be (a) utterly ignorant of the Bible, or (b) self-deceptive. Or both.

It's just a theory.
Another long ramble on EverQuest and game design...

About a month ago my wife and I returned to EverQuest after a hiatus of about eighteen months (we've actually been free of the dread addiction for nearly two years if you discount coming back for about three evenings when Planes of Power was released).

EverQuest has (or until recently had) a very simple-minded content model. (Its new content model is merely simple-minded.) Almost everything seems to be one-off and hard-wired. For example, a weapon is essentially a name and a whole bunch of statistics. There's no relationship between one shortsword, for example, and another. A "fine steel shortsword" may or may not be better than a "rusty shortsword" (it happens to be better, but there's no actual constraint on it to be so). Similarly, in order to represent a vast pebbled plain with scattered trees they model a vast pebbled plain with scattered trees. They don't, for example, re-use instances of trees or pebbles. For a game which leverages creative input so aggressively (see my earlier post on the subject) there's very little "bang for the buck" here.

The latest addition to EverQuest, and the thing which attracted us back, is the Lost Dungeons of Norrath expansion, which promised to improve EverQuest by actually leveraging content in a way previously seen in rival games such as Anarchy Online and Diablo (I and II).

The model of adventuring in EverQuest used to be that some parts of the world looked a bit more like dungeons than others and that if you found some spot where a bunch of creatures "lived" (i.e. spawned repeatedly) from whose deaths you could benefit then you and a bunch of buddies would hang out there until you grew bored or exhausted, sometimes having to fight your way in and or out. The problem was that there are 5000 players on each server, EverQuest has very little creative input and leverages what creative input there is badly or not-at-all, and so there might be fifty desireable spots (add a new spot and some other spot ceases to be desireable...) to hang out in the entire world at any given time and split among 5000 players this makes for a lot of contention.

LDoN has "instanced dungeons", i.e. when you and your buddies go to a dungeon, you visit an instance of a template dungeon and have it to yourselves. Almost all of these dungeons are highly desireable in that the loot, experience, and other rewards for hanging out in these dungeons is as good or better than the rewards for doing almost anything else in EverQuest. What's more, these dungeons feature more variety than you tend to see in other dungeons, drop a random but reasonable assortment of goodies, and are actually fairly challenging to operate in. There's really only a few things wrong with them:

(a) They're incredibly repetitive;
(b) The missions you collect are simple-minded and alike;
(c) The more interesting missions are unreasonably arbitrary and hard;
(d) Missions have strict time-limits, even when it makes no sense;
(e) All missions require a pretty much balanced group to do, meaning that the problem of setting up a group (often the worst part of EQ) is if anything exacerbated.

One of the problems EverQuest has always had is that there's no point in putting in clever content because 99% of players will read a spoiler site before attempting to deal with it.

It all comes down to leveraging player creativity (without just going PvP).