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Monthly Archives: March 2013

In Kavita Philp’s article What is a technological author? The pirate function and intellectual property, Philip brings up the legal case MGM v. Grokster, which concerns a file-sharing dispute between MGM and p2p company Grokster. She speaks to the effect which the ruling in the case had on the general public:

Although the Grokster case is represented by film studios as a war of survival against rogues, thieves, and pirates, it is seen by a (largely western) technologically-imbricated public as a threat to emerging parameters of individual creative authorship, in amateur, educational, and entrepreneurial contexts. Thus a broad middle-class consuming population appears on the verge of being classified as inherently criminal.

I do not profess to have a strong knowledge of U.S. law (admittedly I know relatively little of it), but at a surface level the issue of online file sharing appears to cause an unbridgeable rift between the right to private property and some combination of rights to personal privacy and freedom of speech. In its current form, I do not think the internet can be reasonably policed in a manner that will eliminate (or even drastically reduce) online privacy while preserving any semblance of basic online rights. Philip’s remark that “a broad middle-class consuming population appears on the verge of being classified as inherently criminal” seems accurate, and is quite concerning. The free exchange of information is an absolutely critical aspect of the internet; limiting the ability to transfer this information in any manner would be quite problematic. Additionally, it is important to note that different sorts of files are all shared in exactly the same way (at the most basic level any given file contains the same kind of information as any other file – what differentiates one from the other is simply how that information is encoded/decoded); you cannot limit or monitor the sharing of a specific type of file – movies, for instance – while ignoring any other traffic.

Yet it is also important to acknowledge that intellectual property in digital form should not be treated in a fundamentally different manner than intellectual property in any other form; the rights of the individual or group that created a given piece of digital content must be protected as well. There is no obvious way to reconcile this requirement with the preservation of free exchange of information over the internet.

Google AdSense is one of the leading advertising solutions for web developers. It is extremely easy to create an account and to incorporate AdSense into a website, and the user is only shown ads which are deemed “relevant” to his tastes. This is the classic web advertising paradigm that we’ve been examining.

There is a ring of websites whose purpose is to “game” AdSense. The owners of these websites, which often take the form of a blog, connect their website to other “fake” sites (often “friending” them through a feature in the blogging system). Every day, the owners of these websites visit all of their “friends'” sites, building up pageviews, and sometimes clicking on the AdSense links. (AdSense notes the ratio of page imprints to ad clickthroughs – if this ratio is too low [a suspiciously high number of ad clicks], Google investigates.) The users are not at all interested in the ads, but merely using AdSense for easy profit.

Where does this fit into the concept of free labor? The users are feeding the system of free labor (the feedback loop of AdSense) with false input. I think that this negates the system, reducing it to an estranged algorithm, able to be viewed critically in an irrelevant (and powerless) form.

(Going back to past topics: The networking/spread of these blogs is fascinating to me. How does one distinguish between a real blog, and one that exists only as a facade? Many of these blogs will shamelessly self-promote through comments on other blogs [“like your stuff, check my blog out!”, etc.] – promoting, not content, but an individual’s direct means to profit.)

In lecture this week we briefly discussed the romanticization of pirates, beginning with a clip from Pirates of the Caribbean, in which Johnny Depp’s entertaining and endearing Captain Jack character is clearly the hero. Our culture tends to romanticize pirates as going against the norm, surviving difficult circumstances, and expressing their class differences through action against the wealthy, robbery and violence, for example. We tend to glaze over the wholly unpleasant aspects of piracy, conceptualizing them as what we want them to be. While I thoroughly enjoy the romanticized vision of the pirate, I believe productive conversation about the nature of pirates in society today can only be had if we dismiss some of our cultural prejudices in favor of pirates and recognize the flaws of their ideology and our perception.

Almost everyone today pirates music, television, film. I do it myself; I personally know several industry professionals who have admitted to doing the same. And because it is behavior that is widely enacted, it becomes necessary for us as a culture to legitimize the action. If everyone does it, we think, it can’t possibly be wrong. We romanticize illegal downloading practices in the same way we romanticize notions of the old-fashioned pirate. We are democratizing the industry, people and new movements argue. Art should be free and accessible for all.

I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think such a notion could only become reality if we lived in a fundamentally different society. The basic fact is that we live in a capitalist nation, one in which survival often depends upon the acquisition of money. Artists, musicians, and filmmakers are doing what everyone else in the country is attempting to do: make money in order to feed themselves, make money doing something they care about. By touting free art as a way to democratize our society all we are doing is romanticizing our illegal behavior in the way we romanticize the ruthless murder and theft of history’s pirates.

The only way I can imagine free art and media working effectively in our society is if people were to pay taxes to fund the creation of institutions that provided art for free and were able to provide the artists with a decent wage, which of course, isn’t truly free art. As previously stated, I am part of the problem, which I think is, at the end of the day, pure selfishness: we enjoy music, film, and art, and we don’t want to sacrifice the money we need for other things we desire in order to obtain it.

What happens when everything becomes a game? While Milburn’s paper is ultimately joyous, I have the words “Ender’s Game” scrawled in the margins of the tenth page. Milburn states that, “we must all become gamers.” What would it mean if we all “became gamers”? Could there be a dark side to this seemingly win-win situation? Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, is essentially the story of the gaming mentality gone wrong. The main character, Ender, believes he is simply playing a simulated war game when really this game is not a game at all—Ender is actually commanding a fleet of ships, and in the end unwittingly commits “xenocide” of an entire race of alien beings.

Broadly we can say that the dark side of the gaming mentality stems from loosing sight of the broader context of the game—the function of the game in the world outside the game. In Ender’s Game, this information is intentionally hidden from Ender in order to ensure his success. Ender sacrifices almost all of his own fleet, made up of his own friends and comrades, to win the “game,” believing it to be nothing more than a simulation. Ender commits xenocide with zero hesitation because he is completely unaware of what he is doing.

Although it is highly unlikely that anything similar is the case with programs like Fold-It, we cannot rule out an “Ender’s Game” scenario. Perhaps users are unwittingly designing viruses for biological warfare. After all, the aliens in Ender’s Game are portrayed as a vicious threat to the human race who must be terminated at all costs, when in reality, these aliens are just as morally “good” and “bad” as the average human being.

One could argue that the “biological-warfare-Fold-It” example is impossible, because a user with knowledge of molecular biology would pick up on the fact that these proteins are not what they appear. This brings us to the related dark side of edutainment. Edutainment takes knowledge out of context or changes its context to render it more digestible, and, obviously, more entertaining. If, in the future, we attain the majority of our knowledge via edutainment, this information can be presented in a context that informs whatever function the designers desire the information to be ultimately used for. So, if the designers of molecular biology edutainment and a hypothetical nefarious Fold-It program were to work in tandem, then who is to say that even an “educated” Fold-It user would not recognize the true objective of the program? Theoretical conspiracy theories aside, information presented via edutainment inherently looses any connotations of gravity and seriousness. Although “it’s a game!” may motivate many users, the same mentality of “it’s just a game” can lead to a sort of a moral apathy on the part of the user, and cause us to disregard the game’s consequences.

We also must ask ourselves if we limit the creativity of the gamer by framing all information in a gaming format. Ender excels in cadet school because he uses tactics “not previously seen” in the program. These tactics are then incorporated into the strategies of other cadet squadrons. Often the most skilled gamers are those who have read numerous cheat gives, played numerous different games, and have gotten a feel for the format and strategies generally employed by game designers. However, there is always the first “cheat guide writer” who is able to think creatively about how to solve problems within the game in the absence of prior experience (his own or that of others). When our focus becomes highly concentrated on only the game and the world of the game itself, we can no longer “think outside the box” to solve problems: the box of the screen and the world it creates.

Although Milburn’s paper shows the merits of the gaming mentality and edutainment, perhaps there is a darker side to these new forms of scientific progress. In this vein, some food for thought: the Wikipedia page for Ender’s Game states that a video game modeled after the battle room in the novel was under production, but in 2010 development stopped and the project was put on indefinite hold. One has to wonder why. And if perhaps it was for the best.




Though I sometimes wish there was no such thing as piracy it does make life a bit more interesting, especially when you have something that your not suppose to have. I also don’t get the “the horror story” that these large corporate companies and government agencies use to try to scare people off from pirating, it “does not seem to work in terms of achieving its objective of generating a sense of anxiety and fear in countries like India” or even America. Come on, you think that with all the buzz about illegal downloading, ripping of media, and mashing and using of other peoples material, they would have figured out by know how to put an end to piracy. But to this day more than 70% of the software used in India is illegal. It’s as though we all are pirates and no one really wants to stop being one.

A Prime example of people who say that they want to stop piracy but are still pirates are some of the main producers of cassettes in India. Though they say they are trying to stop piracy from seeping deeper within the market, they’ve also been “known to have colluded with pirates in production and marketing so that they could minimize cost, as well as the taxes and royalties payable by hiding the extend of their sales.” I mean even good-old Walt Disney who absolutely despises piracy has been deeply involved with the movement since day one. Two of his biggest productions of all time, the Lion King and Snow White were based on other people’s ideas, and he just found a way to animated them. Though Disney spends millions a year protecting from piracy threats, piracy is what ultimately fueled the creation of Disney.

Everyone is doing it and it seems to be doing more good than bad. I do agree that there needs to be some sort of a control on piracy, but there needs to be more acceptance of the issue because most of the time piracy leads to new creation.

Technologically-challenged as I am, I find the concept of torrents and peer-to-peer filesharing beyond my scope of understanding..  I couldn’t help but wonder at the label “piratebay” – by explicitly calling this forum for sharing/piracy a “piratebay,” I wonder what the participants/sharers and sharees/pirates in this website call themselves and whether they know or believe that their actions are, in fact, not legal.

Beyond the usual file-sharing, file-transferring, and downloading though, this week’s readings and discussions made me wonder about a different kind of piracy, if it can be referred to as such.  On Youtube and sites like 9gag, there is a proliferation of music video parodies and memes.  I think one can argue about what value these parodies actually add to the original song/music video; similarly, it’s debatable what a new caption for a popular meme adds to the existing value of that meme.  On one hand, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of parodies and memes as more than just entertainment and harmless fun.  On the other, this week’s discussions made me wonder whether these are actually a form of piracy (whether good or bad) as well.

In terms of Youtube videos, let’s take the popular Korean song, “Gangnam Style” as an example.  There are countless (fun) parodies of this music video – some for pure entertainment (Brown Koreans style) and some with other motives (Mitt Romney Style).  These variations may not necessarily be adding value to an existing cultural phenomenon, but they are indeed adding to the phenomenon.  Further, although I don’t know the specifics of this process, some Youtube videos generate profit for the uploader.  Then, what happens when a certain parody video becomes popular enough on its own right to be worthy of generating income?

Memes are basically all over the internet and even in print.  Where do the originate?  People use, copy and alter these images to their liking and attach captions to them, but have the individuals featured in these memes actually authorized such free use of their photos?  Do they even have the right over their photos?

In class on Monday, we explored the idea of free labor, where people do unpaid work simply because they find the work intrinsically rewarding.

As a software engineer, I encounter, directly or indirectly, open source projects all the time. People dedicate many hours to optimizing the Linux kernel, which forms the foundation for the Linux operating system. Popular programming languages such as Python are also developed by volunteers. I find that this sort of volunteer work is amazing, given that a programmer could get paid a very high wage to do the same sort of work for a company. And this type of work is highly valuable to society. The computer science department at Brown, for instance, runs Linux on its computers, and so do most web startups. Python is now widely used as an educational tool to teach kids how to program, and it is also a very powerful all-around programming language for professionals. Personally, I am very grateful that this free labor exists, and hope to contribute to an open source project in the future – not just because it’s fun, but also because I feel an obligation to give back.

The idea of the user as a flâneur wandering (or surfing) through the webpages of the internet perhaps grows out of the perception of the world wide web as an open and democratizing global network—a gift economy valuing the presence and interactions of the user. In a similar fashion to the way that Bobby Quine streaks through layers of ICE in ‘Burning Chrome,’ on the internet the user careens from site to site, from server to server. To preserve this sense of entitlement to immediacy in the ‘age of access,’ online advertising must remain relatively subtle and unimposing. Though the user remains the core of the internet, the web navigator has been somewhat commoditized and stripped of individuality by the process of monetization. For years, generic impression-based banner advertisements have dominated webpages. In a way they effectively dehumanize much of the user’s interactions with the site, reducing the user’s online journey to a simple presence––another figure in a sea of advertising algorithms. For online advertisements to remain a profitable endeavor they must avoid detracting from the user’s perception of freedom and accelerated wanderlust. Read More »

Lawrence Lessig states, “Creative work has value; whenever I use, or take, or build upon the creative work of others, I am talking from them something of value.  Whenever I take something of value from someone else, I should have their permission.  The taking of value from someone else without permission is wrong.  It is a form of piracy.”  I would like to amend Lessig’s statement, by saying you should get permission only if you intend on making a profit.  For example, it would be impossible for every fanfiction writer to a secure permission to write the millions of ‘fics’ there are.

However, Lessig does not differentiate between taking and building upon; which I believe are two different things which materially effect the legality and morality (though the film Steal this Film, disagrees that this is a moral issue) as regards the issue of pirating.  Burning copies of The Hunger Games and selling it from the trunk of your car is completely different from filming a Hunger Games parody with a group of friends and earning money from ads on YouTube.  One requires creativity, while the other involves working around the copy protection software on the DVD (which I am sure is a skill in it of it self, though not ‘creative’ as most would defined it).

The issue with pirating media stems from the fear companies distributing the media have that consumers will not actually purchase the media, that is, reimburse them for their intellectual property; so for each person that downloads for free or buys the media from someone not affiliated with the company, the company looses from 1.99 for a song to 24 dollars for a DVD, per person.  It is then understandable from the standpoint of a company to want to crack down harder on pirating media.

However, parodies or riffs on media do not do this; they do not steal customers from the companies distributing media.  In fact, parodies could potentially boost sales of the media in question, if someone unfamiliar with the media comes across the edited/parodied media.  And yet, main stream media companies also are very much against this as well.

For example, the University of Michigan theatre group Team Starkid made their YouTube debut with A Very Potter Musical.  They put up the musical for their friends who were not able to see it and 24 hours later it went viral.  A week later, Warner Brothers ordered the theatre group to take it down or risk a lawsuit, because they were infringing on copyright.  After meeting with Warner Brothers, Team Starkid was allowed to put the musical back on YouTube, only after demonstrating they would not profit from it.

A Very Potter Musical drew on the Harry Potter franchise for inspiration for characters, storylines, and songs; however, the plot did not follow what actually happens in the movies or books.  There was no way someone would watch the musical online thinking they were watching a Warner Brothers production, and possibly not purchase one of the books or not see the movie.

It is understandable that companies are upset with the pirating of actual films, tv shows, and music, which clearly cut into their profits.  However, I do not understand why a company of creative individuals who use a cultural phenomenon as inspiration for a show cannot receive money from the songs they write or charge money for a performance.

Legally there should be a differentiation between stealing a intellectual property for resale and making a parody of it.  There are ways parodies can be protected from lawsuits under the fair use doctrine.  However, more often the legal system favors major corporations with huge legal staffs and deep pockets.  In the end, talented people are dissuaded from pursing an inspiration and we the audience lose out on the opportunity to share their creative work.

While one would hope that an idea that has free work associated with it would also have free culture, these two ideas do not always overlap nicely.  To use the example from class, the creators of the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic promote the use of free work and culture when it is convenient for them, but not when it goes past that.  For example, the website is a licensed distributor of My Little Pony merchandise.  While it did not start that way (they initially sold shirts that were not explicitly allowed), they eventually worked out a deal with Hasbro that allowed them to sell shirts and give Hasbro a portion of the profits.  These shirts are designed by members of the community who are not compensated, and are therefore free work.  This work has been a boon for Hasbro, as they get to avoid paying designers but can still sell shirts to the brony audience.  On the other hand, the community can go too far and reach the point of creating free culture that Hasbro is not okay with.  An example of this is the arcade-style fighting game known as Fighting is Magic.  This game was being developed for months and only when they were nearing completion did Hasbro actually tell them to cease and desist.  This game was not disrespectful of the source material and the developers thought that they would be able to get away with making it (and distributing it for free).  This was not the case.

While it is easy to call Hasbro hypocritical for something like this, they are not entirely to blame.  They are unfortunately forced by copyright law to shut projects like this down when they find them, because otherwise people would be able to make any game that they wanted with the characters from the show and Hasbro would have no legal recourse, since they allowed this one to be made implicitly.  Since there is a wide variety of games that people could make that would be objectionable to the company (for instance one filled with blood and gore) there is no way that they could let that happen to their copyright.  This is the problem with the copyright system that is in place in the U.S.  Hasbro has shown that they are the type of company that does not have problems with the kind of free work that comes from the fanbase of this show and have in fact profited from it.  However, even though they are the company that created the content, their hands are tied in what they can do for this game.