Am I A Pirate?

I certainly don’t dress like a pirate, and I only talk like a pirate one day a year. So why do I feel like a criminal?

Well, what is Internet piracy? As defined by YourDictionary.com:

“Using the Internet to illegally copy and/or distribute software, which is an infringement of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or DMCA) in the United States.

This week a magazine writer, who I follow on Twitter, posted a link to a You Tube video. He called the link “One of mankind’s greatest ever achievements:

Here is the video:

As a professional TV producer, and someone who has been taught a lot about ethics, I found myself confused about how I felt towards the video.

On one hand I loved it for its creativity and thought it to be almost inspirational. The idea of all these people, who are mostly strangers, coming together to make this video is so amazing to me. On the other hand, it breaks the law. Those students especially(being TV students), know what they are doing. In the TV field, you are taught the rules, and the rules clearly state that without written consent, you don’t have the right to take this music and do what you like with it.

Here is the basic definition of what copyright infringement is as defined by Wikipedia:

“Copyright infringement (or copyright violation) is the unauthorized use of material that is covered by copyright law, in a manner that violates one of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights, such as the right to reproduce or perform the copyrighted work, or to make derivative works.”

These students had no malice in mind as they set out to make this video. They simply wanted to create something fun and creative. They wanted to entertain and excite people. While they may have wanted to get noticed on the world stage, they certainly we’re not looking for any monetary profit from this. If any profit were sought it would be a good grade from their professor for such an innovative idea. So why should these students be punished or charged with any criminal act, or sued? They shouldn’t.

As someone who produces content, here is my take: I am all for the continued sharing of information on the Internet. After all, that’s why the Internet exists. Let me be clear though. Sharing “information” should remain free, not profiting from others work. Specifically, I’m talking about produced entertainment that is original content seeking to make a profit.

In the field of news, we produce for the user. The point of all that we are producing is to share information with the viewers. They should then be allowed to share that information with as many people as they like. I also feel that as a producer of information, I should be allowed to use whatever resources I can. Sadly, copyright law does not agree with that thought, even in the news world. For example, my company doesn’t pay for ASCAP or BMI rights. So if I don’t have the permission directly from a musical act to use their music, I can’t.

If I create an original video, and the elements of that video are all mine, and I choose to share that video with the world on the Internet, then that is my choice and I should be free to always have that right. That work should also be protected as mine. Yes, I want as many people to see it as possible, and no I don’t want to charge them. But if someone else wants to use it, they need to ask for it. It’s a simple rule we were taught in grade school: sharing.

I want to share with you. If you have something, of your own, you would like to share, then I would be open to that. However, it is wrong for you to take my work and make it yours.

Just because I enjoy watching a TV show, doesn’t make that show free for me to edit. Even if I buy a copy, I still don’t have the right to re-edit the outcome or re-distribute it. To claim that I do have the right online just because the Internet is an open place to share information is simply wrong, and hardly an excuse.

Artists create work to be seen, not to hide it from the world, but that doesn’t give us the right to change the work after we get it, unless we have consent.

Here is another perspective.

I am obsessed with the British TV show “Doctor Who.” The show has been around since the mid-1960’s, and came to an end in the early 1990’s, but was resurrected in 2005.

When the show came back I couldn’t wait to see it, but the show was only broadcast in the UK. A friend of mine downloaded a few episodes and then burned them to a disc and shared them with me. I viewed the discs and fell in love with the show all over again. Was this illegal? The action of my friend was illegal, but I argue that had there been any legal way for me to view it, and even purchase the video right away, I would have agreed to it. To further that point, as soon as the show went out onto DVD I have bought every season. When the show was broadcast domestically I paid for the cable channels to view it. Does that make up for my previous actions? I feel I could argue yes. The viewing British public is allowed the option of viewing the show again as many times as they like via the web, but if you are outside the UK, then you are denied that access. I would be happy to pay a reasonable fee to have that access, to see it right away.

Over the summer, a British actor and writer named Stephen Fry was asked to give a talk at the iTunes festival in England. He spoke on the history of copyright law and where he saw the world going in this digital age. He highlighted each time in history a piece of new technology came along that allowed people to reproduce original content. Fry outlined all the different arguments and legal fights that also accompanied these technical advancements. As he talked about his business, the film and television industry, he stated that he still didn’t know exactly how he felt about the current state of things, but did feel strongly that the industry is doing the wrong thing in taking strong legal action against those who illegally download. He went on to say,

“I think that most of us would agree that someone who downloads on the industrial scale in order to sell and make a profit probably should be prosecuted, but what I have tried to make the people in my own business understand, and many of them refuse to understand it, is that it does no good whatsoever to label people as criminals. We all know that preposterous, irritating, commercial that is on every f***ing DVD, ‘You wouldn’t steal a handbag.’ No, you want to find the person who made that commercial and say can you not see the difference, are you truly so blind, as to think that all moralities is so absolute, that someone who bit torrents an episode of their favorite American TV show ‘24’ so that they can see an episode before anybody else, is the same as somebody who steals somebody’s handbag? Do you not see the difference? Do you not see that when I was illegally taping it didn’t mean that I crossed a line into criminality from which I can never escape, that I am now a criminal I will never be a good citizen. I am the enemy of the copyright makers, the enemy of the creative artist, I am destroying live music, do you not see it was because I was a student, cause I love music, because I wanted a good compilation, because I was excited about the possibilities of having my own compilation, and that the moment I could afford to buy music I bought music. Because I wanted to, and that is what 98% I would submit, at the very least, all of you are like. I bet most of you have illegally downloaded at sometime, but that does not mean that you are now the enemies of society. That does not mean you should be characterized as criminals and pirates and destroyers of art, and enemies of musicians, and enemies of filmmakers, and the idea seems to me so stupid, it’s simply psychologically because it seems to misunderstand how human beings are. We are not nouns, we are verbs, we are processed we are being things through our life. We are not now suddenly criminals.”

Fry goes on to cite a study that shows how this action can alienate the people who do buy the work, and asks, how could any artist feel this way? People want to enjoy the work, he says, but the average consumer has been left out of this debate. Fry says we all just want a reasonable price and that at the core we are not all out to steal from the artist. He says we just need to work out how this can be done in a reasonable way, in the current technological world.

Stephen Fry is not alone in this specific line of thought. Mega-star and U2 lead singer Bono feels the same way. In Earlier this year, during a publicity tour for their newest album, “No Line On The Horizon,” Bono was being interview by Simon Mayo of BBC Radio 5 Live. The band recently agreed to allow their music to be a part of a new website called “Spotify.” The website is just like Hulu or TV.com except it’s for music. For citizens of the UK, the music is posted for free and open to be listened to as often and the user likes, just as an artist might post it on MySpace. The user is restricted from downloading the music for free and will hear a brief commercial every half hour.

Bono spoke about how the band, as artists, want their music heard, and if people can’t afford to buy their music right now, then listen all they like. But as soon as they can afford it, then please go purchase it. He went on to say that people want to be apart of the music and the band.

Here in the United States, entertainment companies are slowly starting to get the idea. In the last couple of years we have seen a slew of new websites owned and operated by the copyright owners. We have Hulu, TV.com, and so many more added each week. These websites allow for the user to go online and view their favorite TV shows. You can even share them on social networking sites.

Now, there are considerable limitations to these sites, but it’s a start and the message they are sending back is clear, “we get it.” It gives the user the option to view their shows as often as they like until the content is available to purchase for a reasonable fee. This is the direction we have been craving for years. The response has been very positive and more and more content is added to these sites everyday.

In a perfect world these steps will continue to evolve and balance will be restored to the Internet, and people like me won’t feel like criminals, but the debate over net neutrality might bring all that to a screeching halt.

So what is Net Neutrality and how will it determine the future of the Internet?

As defined by Google:

“Network neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet… net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet. “

Basically, the companies (or Internet Service Providers), that we pay to access the Internet, now want to further their control over how we use the Internet. They want end to the unlimited use of the Internet as we currently know it. If these companies got their way, I may never be able to enjoy a TV show for free on the Internet. They would require all of us to pay them extra to gain access to use sites like Hulu or TV.com. It wouldn’t stop there either. It’s unclear just how these companies would charge us depending on the different sites we use. With billions of websites in the world their charges could be endless.

The future is still very uncertain for net neutrality. Our government is still debating the outcome. So in the meantime I will enjoy the new technologies that the copyright holders have developed, and soak in as much (legal) entertainment as I can. So far my telepathic campaign to get international shows available domestically for a small fee, has made very little progress (surprisingly).

To answer the original question, am I a pirate? I don’t feel that I am… Yarrr!


Commercial Media Versus Consumer Media

Should the commercial media converge with the consumer media to better serve the public?

As I write this, the landscape of the digital revolution has two distinct sides, “Commercial Media” which represents legitimate news-gathering organizations such as the network news, local news, newspaper companies and so on. These are the companies, that, combined, we call the “Main-Stream Media” or the “Media Conglomerates.”

The other side is called, “Consumer Media.” Consumer Media is the everyman. The “Joe the Plummer” types, the people who have no background in journalism or any experience in news or entertainment. These are the people who make up the blogosphere, the watch-dog groups, the grassroots campaigns, the organizations that want to get a story out there into the world, and they are only armed with an idea, a computer, and an internet connection.

Do an internet search on any topic and thousands upon thousands of pages will load. Is any of the information true? Maybe, or maybe not. How can you tell the difference between the factual sources and the ones who are simply inaccurate. Do you know? How do any of us know? How do we know that certain outlets are to be trusted and not others. What is keeping me from posting lies on any topic on to the internet? Nothing. Recently, Stephen Colbert from The Colbert Report demonstrated how easy it is to change Wikipedia:

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Stephen made his point clear, but in the process was banned.

Whatever chaos he may or may not have caused was beside the fact. There was no safeguard system put in place to prevent someone from posting clearly false information in a place that is considered by the average web surfing public to be a reliable source.

Commercial media is trying to reign in the wild west effect that the internet has created. The problem is they decided to start their campaign far too late in the game. For that matter they began the “convergence” of the media and the internet too late as well. For far too many years, newspapers and television stations (and networks) would have websites, but have no idea what to do with them. The idea was not to give anything away for free. Now in 2009 that’s pretty much all they are doing. Yes, one must sit through a brief commercial, or see banners plastered all over a webpage, but you can pretty much find whatever you need, (and today) directly from the people who made it. The media conglomerates have joined forces with pages like Hulu or TV.com. There are still barriers, but they are mostly international. One cannot log onto the BBC and watch any of their programming if they are not in the United Kingdom at the time of logging on. YouTube still reigns supreme in the world wide web.

In 2006 M.I.T. Professor Henry Jenkins wrote that our current state of technology has developed a “Convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.”

Professor Jenkins went on to say this about convergence:

“I don’t think we can meaningfully critique convergence until it is more fully understood; yet if the public doesn’t get some insights into the discussions that are taking place, they will have little to no input into decisions that will dramatically change their relationship to media.”

This lack of communication with the public on the commercial media’s part has helped generate, a now very large, consumer media presence. This form of media is more often opinion based from people who want to call or refer to themselves as news and information providers, all via the internet.

Often times consumer media comes about through a feeling of irritation with commercial media for “not reporting the story.” Commercial media can’t report on airwaves every story that everyone wants. Yes, everyone has story to tell, but there isn’t enough time in the day to tell it. Plus not everyone’s story is compelling enough to share. News must be selective.

The cost is that sometimes important information slips through the cracks. Sometimes more details are required for the story, and can’t be told through commercial medias outlets. In “The Wealth of Networks” Yochai Benkler refers to it as “oversimplifying complex public discussions.” Benkler calls for more people to have access and to participate in an open flow of “observations and viewpoints” uncontrolled “by media owners and not as easily corruptible by money as were the mass media.”

So we see more and more blogs, or independent websites, reporting the stories they feel need to be told, but often make clear an opinion. Some are legitimate sites like the Huffington Post. Others go out of their way to fabricate the truth and even go as far as lying to their readers. They may believe the stuff they are telling people, but it may not always be true. For example, we know President Obama is NOT a Nazi, and is not trying to turn our youth into Nazis.

There are no real ethics in consumer media. One can post anything one wants anywhere on the web without being called out for accuracy. This is not to say that Commercial media doesn’t get information wrong from time to time, or even make things up, like Jayson Blair did with the NY Times. There are, however, checks and balances to catch this. The FCC can reject a broadcaster’s license, media companies can be held liable and be sued. Can the same be said for consumer media? Where are their checks and balances? Who holds them responsible for something that isn’t true, or for instigating fear mongering?

Commercial Media is going further and further to welcome the consumer media into the fold. Almost every cable news channel or local news asks it’s viewers to comment on a story, link to this, email us your photo’s, “If you see breaking news send us your photos or cell phone video of it, and other ways, “encouraging the consumer to become part of the story. This can blur the line between the professional media outlets and the amateurs.

Many media organizations call this “The Return Path.” The idea is to not lose the viewer. Keep them with you. By encouraging them to send their photos to you, or comment on the story, so they are involved, and they keep coming back. They, in turn, talk about it on social networks, generate water-coolor buzz, link and email the story to everyone they know, demonstrating that the power of the commercial media still exists.

More and more stations have producers dedicated to working on the return path. Rather than having viewers start their own webpages, commercial media would prefer that you utilize their webpages to tell your story. If one has a breast cancer walk they want to tell everyone about, use their space so you get noticed, as opposed to starting ones’ own blog to report about it, where very few may see it.

This action is a small, but an important one. It gives everyone a legitimate outlet to share their stories, but can catch any people who may spread incorrect information. People must register and attach their names to their comments. If a comment is rude, cruel, or hurtful that person is blocked from being allowed back to that site. That doesn’t stop them from going off and creating their own website, but does keep them off the trusted news source.

So does this convergence better serve the public? There is still lots of potential for the wrong information to be reported. Giving the average person a direct path to report their own news on an outlet that is charged with being the trusted brand, without checking their sources, is dangerous. Commercial media feels this is the needed action to keep people with them, and not lose viewers or readers to other sources.

Consumer media is only going to get bigger. Commercial media and consumer media will never fully converge, but the public must be better educated so they understand the difference between the two. I propose a “Better Business Bureau” type system where a trusted name in news, or a legitimate news organization, is allowed a ratings system, or certification, to show to the public they are indeed a real news organization. Commercial media outlets must get together, and put their rating wars on hold long enough to figure out a clear system to explain to a viewer or reader that they are the legitimate news organizations.

If a page wants to be taken seriously or be considered to be a real source of information that is checked and verified, then they must meet a certain amount of standards. Should this webpage or source meet the standards, then they are allowed in. Should they violate the standards then they must be reported and investigated.

This is not to say a webpage is banned or not allowed to exist. Under this idea if a webpage wanted to be considered a legitimate source of information they need to stand by it. It could be as simple as a logo on the web browser. Much like the logo of a pad-lock when one is on a secure website.

The public needs, and relies on, educated journalists who know what they are doing, and not rogue consumers who may have the best intentions, but may not fully grasp the consequences of their actions should they report something that isn’t true.

The convergence will continue between Commercial Media and Consumer Media, and there are a great many benefits, but the line should never be so blurred that the public cannot tell the difference between what is fact and what is fiction.