Thursday, May 11, 2006

Why Warner Brothers May End Up Killing BitTorrent

A nerdly angry post today. One thing that never fails to make me angry (I've posted about it before) is when big companies screw over ordinary consumers in the name of "copyright". I love writing and I would love to earn a bajillion dollars through some creative endeavour. Obviously I need some level of protection for work I create or the only money I'd ever make from this sort of work would be from donations. At the simplest level, the idea of copyright and patents are good things in a capitalist society.

Essentially, this sort of proposition (at its best) is a type of bargain. You, the inventor, are given a certain set of protections for your creation so you can make money out of it which will encourage you to create new things which may in turn inspire others to create so they can similarly profit. Eventually your invention will be put into the "public domain" which means anybody can copy it and/or modify it then re-sell it without giving you any money. The wheels of commerce turn. Where this all goes wrong (and this is going to make me sound like a commie) is when big companies (or greedy individuals) get in on the act. They see massive commercial potential in saying I own that and controlling your access to whatever "that" may be.

Over the years these big companies (through politicians they have bought and paid for) have extended copyright and patent terms with the simple goal of trying to prevent things from ever returning to the public domain. It's a simplification, but essentially a true statement, to say that the driving force behind the continual extensions of copyright terms in the USA is Mickey Mouse. By any historical standard, Mickey Mouse should have been public domain years ago. We could all be making our own Mickey cartoons and, if we were good enough at it, making pots of money.

On the face of it, many people think that sounds fair enough. Disney should be able to protect Mickey Mouse - I don't want my kids getting confused by the existence of a Mickey porn film. The arguments against copyright are complex and I won't go into them here; but here's a simple reason why it's wrong. The entire Disney empire (Mickey included) is based on other people's work. All their big movies are public domain stories, by their own standards they make their millions by "stealing". To be polite, their arguments for copyright are disingenuous and hypocritical. To be a little more direct, they're a bunch of two-faced lying fucking thieves.

So, I'm about 500 words in and I haven't mentioned Warner Brothers or BitTorrent. Who are they and what do they have to do with each other? Okay, Warner Brothers = big publishing company, ditto for them everything I said about Disney. BitTorrent = very clever software for distributing and downloading large file over the internet. I won't bore you with the technical details (geek out with a Google search on BitTorrent if you want to know) but essentially BitTorrent solves the problem of large files (e.g. full-length movies) taking a long time to download, even over broadband.

Warner Brother have just announced a deal where they will be using BitTorrent to distribute movies online. This is in contrast who uses BitTorrent to download pirated copies of everything under the sun via Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks. This legitimisation of BitTorrent has been coming for a while, BitTorrent's founder, Bram Cohen, has been working towards cutting this sort of deal with a big studio for more than a year. On the surface, this is a good thing. A big studio is finally facing the reality of the net being a distribution platform. BitTorrent is getting some deserved recognition as a valuable tool with legitimate uses.

So why do I think this could kill BitTorrent?

It all depends how it plays out. Warner Brothers have not released a lot of details yet. How much will they charge? What digital rights management (DRM) will be applied to downloads? In short, how are they going to screw us, the consumers? Rumours so far (and, being rumours, these could turn out to be completely wrong) are that downloaded movies will cost the same as a DVD and have a lot of restrictions placed on them. Restrictions like you can't burn them to DVD, you're only allowed to watch them on your PC. And you can't move them to other devices; not your 2nd PC or laptop, not your iPod and not your PSP. While throwing in the "rumour" disclaimer again, based on the historical behaviour of the big studios, this double-barrel blast of cost and restrictions is likely to be the way things turn out.

In business terms, this is doomed to fail.

Who is going to pay the price of a DVD with no physical media and a bunch of asinine restrictions on what you can do with a movie you purchased legally? The idiocy of this approach is mind boggling but the record of movie and record studios in recent times is a combination of stupidity, lies and greed. So I don't hold out high hopes for this deal. Making the download cheap but with a bunch of restrictions might work. Making a download a similar price to a DVD but including a bunch of restrictions might work. But there is no way offering a consumer a shit product at a shit price is going to work.

So what happens when it doesn't work? Well, maybe they'll get smarter and offer a better option. I'm not holding my breath. More likely they'll say it failed because the net isn't a viable legal delivery system, there's no point in trying to make it legal, let's keep suing our biggest fans instead of giving them what they want.

It seems obvious to me that there is someone in Warner Brothers who is forward-thinking enough to see how many billions they could make if they do this right. But I'm just enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe that there are stupid, greedy people who see this as an opportunity to kill BitTorrent by "proving" it can't work. And I think the greedy fuckwits outnumber the smart people.


zenstar said...

the whole "not allowed to burn to dvd," and "not allowed to move to another device" arguments don't actually work.
copyright includes a "fair use" clause. basically: if you legitimately own a copy of the media and you are useing it in a fair way (ie: not ripping it off for ca$hs) then generally you're ok.
successful cases have already been won (in america i think... i looked this up a while ago so you'll have to confirm my facts again yourself) stating that "format-shifting" is fair use.
ie: its fair use to copy a cd to a tape so that you can listen to it in your car.
(video machines use "time shifting" to say that its fair use to record a program off tv... to watch later).
now there is no way that they'll be able to uphold not burning the movie to some sort of reliable media. if you pay for it you should be able to back it up in case of a system crash. i can understand not being allowed to back-up dvds because they give you the physical media. be careful and it'll last forever. but electronic media is just so much more fickle.
never listen to what a company says when it comes to law. they always show the biased viewpoint. the actuall law normally is a little more lenient to the legit user.

Mr Angry said...

Zenstar: you may be able to fight the "no burn" rule legally but I'm talking about them putting "locks" on the product, which several hardware and digital distributors do already. Sure. it'll tack a hacker 5 seconds to come up with a crack (which is illegal under US law - DMCA) but that just helps people with hacker contacts. Ordinary people get screwed. Again.

I hate those bastards.

zenstar said...

while walking home from varsity, mulling over your post, i suddenly stumbled over some glaring problems with your mickey mouse analogy. so here i am on dial-up to respond.
(yes yes... a large portion of south african internet users are still on dial-up. i blame the telecoms monopoly telcom. thanks telcom, i hope you die!)
anyway: mr mouse is not copyrighted.
he's a trademark.
his cartoons are copyrighted.
the reason why disney are still the only ones allowed to make mickey mouse cartoons is because they hold the trademark to the character.
as long as they maintain that trademark they will keep it (i'm not 100% on how long they last and what the renewal process is).
basically, if they do not maintain the trademark then it can be weakened and lost.
however copyrights last a certain amount of time and cannot be weakened.
(i'm not 100% on how long they last or if they can be renewed, but they last a hellishly long time)
so, in theory, mr mouse's cartoons will eventually enter public domain.
this means you'll be able to copy them and watch them for free.
it does not mean you can create cartoons with mickey in them as disney will still hold the character's trademarks.

similarly: while disney creates stories using public domain stories, they can copyright their work (and they do put a lot of work into them) and they may even be able to trademark their representation of the characters therin.
the copyright doesn't stop you from creating your own version of the story and selling it for money.
it just stops you scamming their version and selling it.

copyright and trademark law is a very complicated whatsit.
and i agree with you on the locks thing.
i have a korn cd which i own legitamately and have never fully listened to because i can't rip it to mp3 to listen to on my mp3 player and i don't listen to cds at home.
why? because they've got some very clever anti-rip stuff in there.
they allow you to create WMAs through software on the cd, but they're signed and you need to transfer them to your mp3 player via windows media player. the problem here is that my make of mp3 player isn't supported by windows media player and so i get the big "F U!"

pigeon weather said...

if you haven't seen this blog yet, check it out, i think you'll like it:

Blueprincesa said...

Hhhmmmm... I can't imagine them thinking that they could get away with charging what they would charge for a regualr DVD. That would be absurd.

Mr Angry said...

Zenstar: sorry dude, you're confusing your terms. Mickey is a work of fiction and subject to copyright. He's also based on a previously existing character. It should be possible to create derivative works by now by Disney keeps buying off politicians to extend copyright.

Tom: Thanks, I'll check it out

Blue: The problem is - it isn't a dvd. No extra features, language options, subtitles and you can't move it from player to player. It's stuck on the pc you download it to. They are taking away a huge amount of features (and reducing a huge amount of the cost to them) and charging the same.

Dr. Nazli said...

Mr Angry - how are you? Your points are well taken - and as angry as they make you, causes me amusement. I actually think that WB might be greedy enough to not "kill" BitTorrent and if they do, a better model will come out of the mess. For example, the equivalent of iTunes in it's current form.

Cheers my angry friend! :-)

zenstar said...

i could be wrong but i found a couple of definitions here:

copyright defenition:
The exclusive right to make and dispose of copies of a literary, musical, or artistic work.

trademark defenition:
A name, symbol, or other device identifying a product, officially registered and legally restricted to the use of the owner or manufacturer.

and i know that licenses can be sold / rented seperately from the content already made with those licenses.
eg: i can sell you the license to make an indiana jones film, but that doesn't allow you to touch my already made indy films unless i sell those rights to you too.
(except i don't own those rights, so: sorry for you).

after a bit of a google search it seems that characters can be both copyright and trademark.
now eventually the copyright (under normal circumstances) runs out... but the trademark can be maintained...

i'm not 100% on all this, but in theory this should allow indy movies to eventually fall into public domain, but the indy character (if maintained) would still be trademarked and unusable even though the movies were free.

zenstar said...

i found an interesting post on the topic here:

quote from the mentioned source:
" I say all of that to say, that copyright does not protect the characters, but trademark may (Harry Potter is trademarked, for example). BUT there is certainly an exception for literary and artistic purposes in writing or else these rules would stifle creativity as long as it is clear that the owner of a particular trademark is not the source of the book and has not endorsed it in anyway."

as far as i understand: mickey is a trademark and his cartoons are copyrighted.
if he weren't trademarked (as far as i understand) you may use his character as long as its obvious that you aren't the originator of that character (with all sorts of legal-ese i presume).

or something to that accord.
like i said before: complex.

disclaimer: i do not own the rights to, nor have i ever created content about either mickey mouse or indiana jones and in no way mean to infringe on their copyright or trademark or whatever the hell governs the use of characters.

i think the easiest way of resolving this is to make a mickey cartoon and sell it.
then read whether the lawsuit is copyright infringement or trademark infringement.

Mr Angry said...

The old 100% method always works zenstar. Bags you get the psycho entertainment lawyers suing you rather than me.