Neil Gaiman is Awesome

Neil Gaiman writes a wonderful blog. I love most of the things that he stands for and supports- and very much amongst the things he supports and discusses are libraries.

Imagine my surprise to read that “librarians” were upset over his speaking fee (former link mysteriously moved). Basically, it seems that some people- presumably at least one anonymous librarian- were very upset by his $45,000 speaking fee at a public library. Gaiman’s response, however, is incredibly enlightening- and I certainly question why the newspaper with such a problem *didn’t just ask him or the library to explain what was going on.*

So. I was asked if I’d come and talk at Stillwater, and be paid $40,000. I said, “That’s an awful lot of money for a little library.”

“It’s not from the library. It’s from the Legacy Fund, a Minnesota tax allocation that allows the library to pay market rates to bring authors to suburban libraries who otherwise wouldn’t be able to bring them in. They have to use the money now as it won’t roll over to next year and expires next month.”

“Ah.”

And he gave the freaking money to charity. His blog post talks about the situation a bit more, but the stories and a number of the more pointed comments are just silly. I’d be amazed if people in the library community were seriously upset by his actions, and in my opinion they really shouldn’t be- Gaiman does a lot of libraries, not the least of which is writing some pretty amazing works.

Amazon and the Kindle 2

Oh, Amazon. Every now and then you do things that make it difficult for me to be a fan (and customer) no matter how much I like your stuff. (This is a characteristic you share with Blizzard, so you’re at least in interesting company.)

First, the Kindle 2.

My house is filled with bookshelves and books, perhaps unsurprisingly. Holly has been very interested in the potential for electronic books to serve as a replacement for physical books in certain circumstances- for example, for travel, ease of storage, and the possible replacement of some of MY books. :P We bought the Sony Librie from Japan some years back and have had a mixed experience with it. For her birthday we bought a Kindle 2. That one didn’t work out so well, so Amazon sent a replacement, which is what I’m basing “the good” below on.

The Good:

-Readability. It’s a good device for reading standard text- without killing your eyes.
-WHISPERNET. Free access to the Internet, just about everywhere, without a monthly charge. This isn’t all good (elaborated below), but it’s been useful for using sites like Wikipedia.
-Text to Speech. The “experimental” text to speech feature is surprisingly decent. It’s not as good as a regular audio book, naturally, but it’s certainly been usable when set with the male voice at the fastest speed. H has been using it regularly, and it is by far her favorite feature.
-Images look surprisingly good. One of the things we’ve been very interested in is the use of the Kindle 2 as a manga reader, and it does that job adequately (with a couple of caveats I’ll address below).
-Free books. There are several free public domain books available from the Kindle store, as well as some newer free books (usually the first in a series). For example, the first book in the Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon, is free.
-It’s easy to buy things. This can be dangerous (see “the ugly” below).

The Bad:

-The manga selection sucks. There’s about one.
-The overall selection could be better.
-Book organization could be better. It would be nice to have folders or better ways to view your books instead of a big list that you can only organize in a limited number of ways.
-The browser. The Kindle is in black and white, and not all sites render well- not even sites that are mostly text.
-I wish they’d kept the ability to use memory cards with the Kindle.
-I keep on comparing it to my iPhone and trying to zoom in and out to no avail. ^_^;

The Ugly:

-DRM. I disagree with the idea of tying a specific copy to a specific device. This alone almost caused me not purchase the Kindle 2. That’s the basic reason for my dislike of DRM, which goes beyond that- my experiences with DRM with games, music, and the work of libraries and archives have made me very distrustful of its use.

-Having to zoom in each manga page to get the best image possible. Really, they should just allow you to keep it zoomed in at all times. (Zooming basically takes away the top and bottom information bars.)

-It’s easy to buy things. Possibly too easy. We returned the first Kindle 2 we received because it would freeze when we did certain things (such as, oh, hitting the “back” button on the first page of any chapter). When this first occurred, we pressed various buttons to try to get it to unfreeze, and nothing worked- not even a hard shut down. After about 10 minutes or so, the screen started responding again- and somehow, during this time of non-response, we purchased the then best-seller 3 times. Oops. Amazon promptly refunded the purchases, and after a week or so and a number of phone calls I convinced them to send us a replacement, which has worked much better.

-Amazon’s capitulation on the text to speech issue. I submitted feedback and received their standard reply, part of which is excerpted below.

We’ve looked carefully at the legality of Kindle 2′s Text-to-Speech software, and it is clearly legal.

Nevertheless, we believe many rights holders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver’s seat. With text-to-speech, Kindle can still read every newspaper, magazine, blog and book out loud to you, except if the book is disabled by the rights holder. We believe most rights holders, usually the publisher or author, will decide to keep text-to-speech enabled.

Here’s the thing: if it’s clearly legal, then rights holders don’t deserve to be in the driver’s seat. In this case, users do. You’re not doing us any favors; quite the contrary, your stance can hurt lawful use in the long run. I realize that you’re probably doing this in order to convince publishers to put their books on Kindle in the first place (not to mention possible contract disputes), but I’m pretty unhappy with the decision.

Also, Neil Gaiman’s take on the subject seems eminently sensible.

-Amazon’s attack on the ability to place other legally purchased books on the Kindle. If Amazon wants electronic books to succeed, I think they’re doing it wrong.

All in all, despite the problems we’ve had, we both agree that we like the Kindle. We truly hope that Amazon changes its practices, and we hope that the Kindle continues to improve.

Cross posted at the Copyright Advisory Network.

Censorship of Media; Copyright and Video Games

I came across two articles today that aren’t explicitly connected to one another, but are certainly evocative of similar issues.

The first is from CNN: The Pictures that Horrified America.
The article discusses the big push to censor comic book publishing in America, because critics alleged that these materials were corrupting the youth of the day. It certainly directly affected the industry, which took many years to recover.

I’m reminded of a trend we notice in copyright and technology: The New is Scary.
Phonographs? Evil. Cable? Evil. VCRs? Evil. MP3s? Evil. Etc., etc. The emergence of “disruptive” technologies shakes up the status quo, and the powers that be in the status quo respond fearfully- in the case of copyright, sometimes to save their existing power structures and business models. In the case of media, it’s generally to save society (or “the children”).

So video games are the new comic books. Or rock and roll. Or film. Or television. Or television show. Or cable. Or book. We’ve seen the same types of arguments used, the same types of language used, and the same types of “reform” proposed. We’ve seen many, many attempts at the passage of state legislation- that have been found unconstitutional.

The role of research in these arguments- copyright and media alike- is an important subject that needs to be addressed.

Moving on, Law of the Game is a great blog to learn about video game related legal issues. The author, Mark Methenitis, communicates clearly to a wide audience. In his most recent column for gaming weblog Joystiq, he provides a solid introduction to how video games and copyright interact. Because the subject is copyright, naturally there’s a lot more to it- but it’s a great starting place.

There is an occasionally acknowledged tension between copyright and free speech. One thing that makes video games different from other types of entertainment media is that they are generally interactive experiences that require the mediation of technology. Video games themselves are directly attacked as a new media in the manner I mentioned above- that is, there are clear free speech concerns dealing with the publication and expression in games themselves and those that seek to stop such expression for whatever reason. In the copyright realm, though, it’s the end-users who are most affected by law and policy.

Like other forms of software, video games begin their digital lives as digital objects, making them subject to some of the strictest areas of copyright law, such as the DMCA- which prohibits what might otherwise be fair uses. All digital technologies have to deal with those issues to a large extent- particularly when it comes to the preservation of older technologies- but video games are particularly difficult to deal with because of their interactivity. It is difficult to preserve interactivity, and one of the more obvious ways- copying- has a big hurdle to jump in existing copyright law.

Recent actions by the publishers themselves haven’t made this preservation any easier. DRM is both illegal to circumvent- even with what would ordinarily be legal uses- and provides significant technical barriers exacerbated by the commercial lifespan of a game. For example, it’s been announced that console hit Mass Effect is going to have a- well, silly- amount of DRM in its PC release in the form of software that requires one to be connected to a network in order to check the validity of your copy every 10 days or so. Of course, that means the game itself is only playable while those servers are supported. We’ve seen problems in this approach with music or video services that are ended- for example, when Microsoft ended MSN Music, MLB’s changing of access mechanisms, or Google ending Google Video’s purchasing programs. Furthermore, a person is restricted to installing the game on three computers (shades of Apple’s authorized iTunes computers…). This isn’t particularly friendly to end users, and it’s a sure way to destroy the longevity of your work. If I want to play Planescape: Torment now- nearly 10 years after it was originally released- I can. I won’t be able to say the same thing about Mass Effect. That is to say, I wouldn’t have been able to say the same thing had I purchased it- which now, I’m not going to. I’ve got a limited amount of money to spend on entertainment, and I don’t particularly feel like spending it on something I can never return to.

Yet more reasons to respect Neil Gaiman

http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/04/fair-use-and-other-things.html

Neil Gaiman comments on the Rowling Lexicon case, fair use, and the nature of creation. Plus, he’s heavily involved with the Comic Book Defense Fund.

Lots of emails from people asking me to comment on the JK Rowling/ Steve Vander Ark copyright case. My main reaction is, having read as much as I can about it, given the copyright grey zone it seems to exist in, is a “Well, if it was me, I’d probably be flattered”, but that obviously isn’t how J.K. Rowling feels. I can’t imagine myself trying to stop any of the unauthorised books that have come out about me or about things I’ve created over the years, and where possible I’ve tried to help, and even when I haven’t liked them I’ve shrugged and let it go.

He follows up here:
http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/04/few-final-copyright-thoughts-before-we.html

and he makes a lot of great points.

Fantasy & Copyright News

Two separate things, for the most part- although I can see some intermingling approaching.

I’m unabashedly a fan of the fantasy genre. I read the final installment of Harry Potter the day it was released; for those of you looking for more news, Rowling has provided more details about what happens to the crew in the future in a few places. Naturally, there are a few odd contradictions in there. Prior to that, I read Victor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End- really, any librarian-type interested in SF should read it; it’s got some interesting ideas, like the “Friends of Privacy” who spread disinformation on the Net, and a few interesting takes on digitization in the library. Since then I’ve read Jim Butcher’s Dresden series and Sergio Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series (the three of the four translated into English). All in all, good times. ^_^

Well, here’s a Potter derivative work I can’t get out of my head at the moment, via Youtube, the Potter Puppet Pals and the Mysterious Ticking Noise.

Lots of things going on in the copyright front, including some backing off on the improperly pressuring universities I mentioned earlier. I’ll share a couple of things that are sticking out in my mind at the moment. First, rumor has it that individual members of Congress are being lobbied to reform the DMCA in such a way that removes some of the safe harbor provisions for OSPs. No big surprise if it’s true.

Beyond the rumor stage, the Computer and Communications Industry Association has filed a complaint with the FTC against groups including the NFL, the MLB, NBC Universal, Morgan Creek Productions, DreamWorks, Harcourt, Inc., and Penguin Group, Inc. The complaint and more information can be found at defendfairuse.org. The complaint deals with one of my personal pet peeves- copyright statements that are far beyond what the copyright holder has a right to claim. For example, “no part of X may be copied without the express written permission of Y.” Or “any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game without the Z’s consent is prohibited.” They’re not accurate in the slightest, because of the copyright exemptions that they neglect to mention and/or are attempting to ignore. For some unexplained reason- I suppose in a misguided attempt to get “the other side” of the story- the New York Time’s coverage gets a response from one of the attorneys in the Google/Viacom suit, who claims that this move is just trying to to take away attention from that suit and that Google is looking for free use rather than fair use. The issues are separate, if related, and Google is by no means the only player here. The ol’ rumor mill again says that the content industries are not happy about it. I’m fine with that- unlike many copyright situations, I feel pretty strongly that they’re in the wrong. Of course, I’ve read more than a few of the licenses that certain members of the CCIA have out there as well, so there’s a few things they can also work on.

Speaking of licenses, the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that a company couldn’t change it’s contract without notification on it’s Web site. In a move that seems like a victory for common sense, the court stated that “[e]ven if Douglas had visited Talk America’s Web site to pay his bills, he would have had no reason to look at the contract posted there,… Parties to a contract have no obligation to check the terms on a periodic basis to learn whether they have been changed by the other side.” Now, I haven’t had a chance to read the decision yet, but it sounds promising when thinking about the ridiculous terms of use and portions of EULAs that have become so prevalent.

Eminem’s publishing group is suing Apple over offering his songs on iTunes without their consent. Apple does have consent from the Universal Music Group, which does own the recordings, but not from Eight Mile Style, which apparently owns the score and lyrics. Apple has been sued by Eminem’s representatives before, for using a song in an Apple advertisement without permission. Various news sources on the Internet have stated that the earlier case was won by Eminem, won by Apple, or settled, which I guess says something about various news sources on the Internet… but I believe it was settled.

In other interesting news, the Texas Digital Library now has a blog dedicated to scholarly communication in the networked world, the Scholar’s Space. Georgia Harper is blogging there, among others, and it already has some interesting posts about publishing, open access, and other issues.