Friday, February 23, 2007

File sharing doesn't hurt music sales

A new study demonstrates statistically that the effect of file sharing on music sales is negligible, despite the recording industry's claims of staggering losses as a result of digital music swapping. This is the first hard evidence of my own long-held belief that attempting to restrict free exchange of copyrighted digital property (be it music or software) is not only ineffective, but in probably even counterproductive.

There has been a real drop in music sales in the last few years, a fact which the music industry has often pointed towards as proof of the impact of P2P file sharing. The author suggests several possible explanations of this trend, which are reasonable, although it does not attempt to analyze this side of the equation in detail.

There are other costs that are not even accounted for in this study. The entertainment industry has undoubtedly spent staggering sums of money on developing and implementing copy-protection schemes for music and video. This real cost is of course built into the price of every CD, DVD and DVD player you buy. Windows Vista includes DRM code at every layer of its functionality, at the behest of the entertainment industry. Every modern TV and DVD player must include circuitry whose only purpose is to manage encrypted digital information. All these technologies, which add no value to the consumer, impact the bottom line when you buy something -- and in some cases, the complexity of the technology causes things to just not work even when used in a perfectly legal manner.

Another consideration is that DRM reduces the value of music purchased online, by restricting its utility, which certainly has an effect on sales as well. Finally, the RIAA continues to file thousands of lawsuits on the basis of their so-called losses, again at great expense not just to the recording industry, but to society as these essentially frivolous suits must be brought to trial. This also comes back as a real cost; and since suing your own customers is akin to biting the hand that feeds you, there is certainly an impact from the ill will generated by these actions.

These other factors are probably difficult to quantify, but taken with the hard data presented in this study, it is clear that the ongoing fight against "piracy" of this kind is not just ineffective, but probably actually harmful to the industry. It will be a great day when the entertainment industry starts focusing it's resources on actually entertaining again.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Sometimes you gotta just love the news. In "Sword seized after man mistakes porn for rape," we read the story of James Van Iveren, resident of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, who charges into his neighbor's apartment after hearing screams that he believed to be a woman crying for help. Actually, he heard his neighbor's porn video.

This is so deliciously lurid. CNN, in a sidebar, bullets out the story highlights:

  • James Van Iveren says he feels "stupid" after breaking into neighbor's apartment
  • Neighbor says Van Iveren held him at sword-point, demanding proof he was alone
  • Neighbor says he played part of the pornographic movie for police
  • Van Iveren charged with criminal trespass, criminal damage, disorderly conduct

You really can't make this kind of stuff up. But at the same time, where's the human interest here? This is cast as News of the Weird, and surely it qualifies. But I believe James Van Iveren is a true American hero. This is a man who ran to the aid of what he believed was another human being in peril, with no regard for his own safety or the possible consequences of his actions. Instead of raising him up as in icon of the good that can be found in humanity, he is being slapped with a bunch of criminal charges.

There is very little doubt, in my reading of this story, that Iveren acted in good faith, even if he does look like a serial killer. Yet instead of forgiving him for what appears to be an honest mistake, the outcome just reinforces that people should mind their own business and not get involved. The absurdity of the story on the surface belies the truth: we are a society that increasingly mistrusts itself, and punishes altruism.

Then again, maybe he's just crazy as a crack-house rat.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

One Nation Under God

I was listening to this story on NPR yesterday morning and was struck by a comment that one of the interview subjects made, related to GOP values. She says we need to "..stick to the basic issues of the family. Do away with abortion and the gay business. We are one nation, founded on God."

Coincidentally, I am reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and had just read a chapter that directly addressed this notion. This country was not, in fact, founded on (or under, or inside, or anywhere to do with) God. Who has never heard of the notion of separation of church and state? The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In 1797, in a treaty with the Muslim nation of Tripoli, George Washington wrote "As the Government of the United States of America was not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..."

Our president is a born-again Christian. He has been often quoted as receiving guidance from God, believing that God speaks through him. While a handful of different religions are represented in our senate, there is not a single atheist in the U.S. Senate - and the vast majority are protestant Christian - despite the fact that 15% of the U.S. population describing themselves as secular or atheist in the 2001 census.

This country was founded as a free country, not a doctrined one. But it looks like we were more enlightened two hundred years ago than we are today as far as freedom of thought goes. The biggest legislative issues in our country are exactly about religion - gay rights and marriage, abortion, evolution. The founding fathers enacted a treaty with a Muslim nation in 1797 that affirmed our lack of prejudice against any religion. Today, prejudice against non-Christian or non-religious thought is practically mainstream thought in our country and our legislation.

How much is too much?

In the complicated world of interpersonal relationships, there are givers and there are takers. I think I've always been more of a giver. What makes me happy most (other than a vintage chateau margaux on a cool autumn evening) is helping my friends.

One of these friends recently observed that I probably do that too much. This was not meant so much as a criticism but a comment about my character. The problem, she explained so succinctly, is that sometimes you have to say "no" simply so that people understand that you can -- and also so they can learn to help themselves. The end result is this sort of vague notion that I allow myself to be taken advantage of, by nature of being nice.

Do I do my friends, and myself, a disservice by always being available to help - with a project, a favor, a personal situation, a crisis? Does being a nice guy too much make one a pushover? And if so, then what are the consequences of this? There's obviously a line somewhere. Maybe I'm too far on one side.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Barack Obama Announces Candidacy

I just watched Obama's speech announcing his candidacy for the 2008 Presidential race. He denounced the war in Iraq in clear terms, and spoke against the petty politics that he believes prevent our leaders from coming together to solve big problems. This was quite a contrast to Hillary Clinton's speech.

I am no pundit and will not try to be, but I want to make one simple observation: this is going to be an incredible race. Hillary Clinton, a white woman, and Barack Obama, a mixed-race black man, are the front-runners for the Democratic ticket. The speaker of the house is a woman. I don't think I would have believed that even 8 years ago that we would be here.

Maybe this is just coincidence. Or maybe the country is just feeling like it needs something _really_ different to happen at the upper echelons of our government. We are actively rejecting the old-boy network. We are tired of the power-grabbing and manipulation. We want something that really feels different, fresh. Is the U.S., and the world, ready for a woman or a black man as Commander in Chief? Ready or not, it's coming, and it's about time.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Long Cold Winter

According to NPR this morning, this has been the coldest February in something like 75 years. A fact that was not lost on me when I decided to go running for the first time in three weeks last night. Now, I've never been a huge fan of winter running. Call me crazy, or lazy, but when I wake up at 5:30 AM, the sun is not even thinking about coming up, and the thermostat says 9 degrees, going for a jog in the Iraqi desert in full combat gear sounds more appealing.

Anyway, I just finished replacing or refitting just about every piece of clothing I own following losing four sizes last summer. I'm happy to be a smaller version of myself now, and don't have any intention of slipping back to those bad old days. That said, with winter comes a lot of eating a drinking, and, as I mentioned, not so much running. So the most compelling reason to try to get a little exercise while I wait for warmer days has become my wardrobe. The pants that fit me well, even a little loosely in some cases, were starting to feel a little tight.

So there I was, pounding the pavement at 6 PM, in the dark. It was 19 degrees in the city. I saw exactly one other jogger while I was out, and I couldn't help wondering if I looked as deranged as he did. My route takes me by two metro stations on the way out, so there's a lot of foot traffic at this time as people return from work. Most people seemed to either ignore me entirely, perhaps not even noticing. It has been demonstrated that, sometimes, human beings can actually convince themselves to deny the presence of something that is completely improbable in a given situation. I suspect this is what was happening with most people; they just didn't see me. A handful of people would look at me quizzically from behind their enormous winter coats and scarves, wondering what sort of drugs I must have taken.

In any event, I got through a paltry 3.5 miles. The half-hour run itself was not bad. The 45 minutes of dry-throated hacking afterward, on the other hand, was bad.

In conclusion, this is an experiment I am not anxious to repeat. On the other hand, the waistline problem persists. As much as I hate treadmills, I am seriously considering exploring this as the only sensible option I have if I want to remain a reasonable size through the winter. Running on a treadmill is about as much fun as watching Barney and Friends, but at least I won't be scarring my lungs with arctic air.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

DRM 2.5 - Apple Strikes Back

Steve Jobs has posted this essay, which appears to be a response to a growing consumer outrage about the pain that is digital rights management, known as FairPlay in the Apple world. He does a very nice spin job of blaming the music industry for Apple's business decision to have a single, proprietary DRM standard (ensuring that iTunes stuff only works on iPods).

His main points about why Apple is such a great company that's just doing it's best to look out for the music industry (as opposed to doing it's best to sell zillions of ipods) are essentially a crock:

SJ: Through the end of 2006, customers purchased a total of 90 million iPods and 2 billion songs from the iTunes store. On average, that’s 22 songs purchased from the iTunes store for each iPod ever sold. It's hard to believe that just 3% of the music on the average iPod is enough to lock users into buying only iPods in the future.

So, Steve is basically arguing that what amounts to a minimum $30-$35 competitive advantage per unit out of the door is unimportant. Additionally, his figures in all likelihood far underestimate the investment per user, since not all those 90 million iPods ever sold are in service. How many of you are on your first one...

SJ: The most serious problem is that licensing a DRM involves disclosing some of its secrets to many people in many companies, and history tells us that inevitably these secrets will leak.

Steve himself noted, elsewhere, that pirates routinely hack the existing system. What possible additional threat could come from a legitimate company, when the system is far from secure already? A single, centrally managed DRM system would be far more secure than many different systems.

SJ: ...Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store.

Well. Of course they would switch, because they'd have no choice!! Who would ever shop at iTunes again, if you could buy a non-DRM version of all the same music elsewhere? But to blame this on the record companies is a bald-faced lie. At this moment in time, Apple encrypts ALL music they sell on iTunes, even when the copyright holder does not require it (and, indeed, sells it elsewhere without encryption.) For example: They Might Be Giants, and a number of other non-major-label bands. If Apple is so anxious to embrace the free world, then why DRM stuff that doesn't have to be DRM'd?

Apple has nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, if DRM goes away. This is all PR designed to blame the music industry for their anti-consumer business model and try to come out smelling like roses. But I can't think of a single proprietary standard in history that didn't go the way of the dinosaur before too long, and obviously the backlash is starting to swell.