Over the years, we've noted time and time again that people seem to think that if a book, movie or TV show comes out that has some basic similarities to a project they worked on, it simply must be copyright infringement. But, of course, copyright is supposed to apply to specific expression, rather than mere ideas. As we've noted, over the years, the line on this is unfortunately blurry, but for some cases, it's pretty clear that there's no infringement at all. Such is the case in a legal fight over a Disney movie (direct to video, of course) about a dog who helps Santa Claus. Three guys came up with a similar idea, which they wrote as a short story (it took three guys to come up with such an idea?) and then decided that the movie must have infringed on their copyright. It did not. I'll let THREsq's summary explain:
The court acknowledged that the short story and the Disney movies had some elements in common: they all feature a threat to Christmas and a talking dog; all feature a dog named Paws, Santa Paws or Puppy Paws; they all have magical icicles; etc. There also is some similar dialogue. However, "apart from these abstract similarities, the remaining elements of the plaintiffs' short story and defendants' movies are substantially dissimilar," the court notes. "Furthermore, most of the aforementioned similarities between plaintiffs' short story and defendants' works are not protected by copyright law."
While we can point to cases like this and say that the system is working, just the fact that such cases so often get filed shows a real problem. We've so built up this perception of copyright-over-all and "ownership society" that people really do think that anyone having the same idea as them must have infringed -- and are so sure of it that they're willing to go to court. That's a symptom of a much bigger problem with the system and the way people view it today.
Generally speaking, the press has something of an implicit agreement that they don't use underage Presidential offspring in politically tinged stories. For obvious reasons, it's considered to be a pretty cynical move. Of course, if they actually do something newsworthy, it might be a different story. This afternoon a bunch of stories started appearing, talking about how President Obama's daughter Malia was traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico as part of a trip with some classmates (and 25 secret service agents). This story was reported on by the AFP wire service, and some tied it to the fact that the State Department recently issued a travel advisory urging Americans to stay away from parts of Mexico. Not surprisingly, some picked up on this story to suggest some sort of... something. Double standard? Hypocrisy? Of course, the details suggest this really was not much of a story. If you actually read the State Department warning, it makes it clear that there is no warning in place for Oaxaca -- so this trip doesn't appear to go against that warning.
It seems likely, then, that the AFP decided to pull back the story once someone pointed that out, but the story is now rapidly disappearing from a variety of online publications (big and small), leading to questions and easy political points about how the story is being "scrubbed." Google News listed about 27 versions of the story when I looked, and later, following the links, I found almost every single one of them was flat out gone. In most cases, they were replaced with a 404 (including The Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Australian) or sometimes just redirecting people to a front page (Huffington Post and International Business Times). The only version I still found up was at TurkishPress.com, but it might not last very long.
Now, I tend to think that using the President's underage kids for a political story is generally a low blow and not particularly nice, but if there is something newsworthy happening, it should be fair game. I also think that, from the sound of it, this story got blown out of proportion by those who didn't bother to actually read the details of the destination or the State Department's specific warning which notes no problem at that destination.
But, having said all that, simply having the article disappear completely, rather than putting up a correction or an explanation of what happened, simply fuels both the conspiracy theories and the interest in the story. It's exactly the wrong way to go about dealing with the situation. There are a variety of possibilities here. The administration may have asked the press to pull the story, which would only generate more interest in the news. The AFP, upon realizing that it shouldn't have posted the story, may have issued a kill order/retraction of sorts. Or perhaps there's some other reasoning. But there are good ways to handle these situations and ways that are guaranteed to backfire. Simply making the articles disappear is pretty much guaranteed to backfire and generate more interest in the story, even if it's a total non-story. Replacing the original story with a "hey, we thought this, but we got it wrong," would have been much more effective.
Yesterday morning, I was on a panel discussion at an event, where at one point I was asked about how I choose what to write about. I explained a little bit about the kinds of topics we cover, and then finally said, as I've said for years: "In the end, it comes down to whether or not I find something interesting and if I have something to say about it." I then said: "If there's a story everyone is covering, but I don't have anything to say about it, I don't feel the need to cover it." Hopefully this isn't surprising. We're not a "news" site, but an opinion site. But there's really more to it than that. There's something a little strange in seeing a ton of publications all rushing to cover the same news. There is this focus, these days, on the so-called "SEOing" of the news, where various sites act as "content farms," focusing on writing about whatever's "hot" to try to get the pageviews. As an example of this, earlier this week, right after the East Coast earthquake, I saw someone Twitter joke about an infamous tech news site (who shall remain nameless), saying that its staff were probably rushing out dozens of stories about how the earthquake news spread on Twitter. Anything to get the "pageviews" on searches about the earthquake.
But, as I've said over the years, this strategy makes no sense to me. Why would you ever focus on a strategy of trying to downgrade your content to commodity level, rather than working on content that is unique and actually stands out? Writing the same story that everyone else writes about, without adding anything of value to it just seems like a fool's game. I can recognize that "news" sites feel the need to cover such stories on a completist level, but does the online news reader really need so many stories about a single event? Isn't part of the point of the internet that we can link without having to recreate the wheel thousands of times every time some big news breaks?
Which brings us to the title of this post. When the news broke that a certain famous and visionary tech CEO was retiring, I honestly couldn't think of anything to say about it that wasn't being said everywhere else. But, of course, everyone else felt the need to write something. Just a quick look at Google News on the topic shows nearly 5,000 stories on just that:
And that doesn't count the sections below that main one, where tons of folks tried to come up with other takes on the story. There are, as I write this, 157 stories on how various stock markets reacted to the news. There are another 50 or so stories on his health history. Obviously, this is big news and it's important, but should everyone cover it?
I asked, via various social networking platforms, if anyone minded if we just didn't cover the story at all. And I was a bit surprised at how the near unanimous reaction was to thank us for deciding not to cover the news. There were a few people who disagreed. Only one person seemed really surprised that we wouldn't, saying, "he is significant, why wouldn't you" cover the story. One person offered to give us money if we could go three weeks without covering the story (I'm guessing this post may disqualify us). A few people did say they would like our take on "the impact" of the story. In this case, the answer is I have no idea.
So this post isn't about his resignation. It's about this question of how people cover the news online today, and the desire for everyone to "have the story" just because everyone else does. I'm wondering if that really makes sense. I am, of course, quite comfortable with not covering the story at all. There are lots of stories we don't cover. But I'm wondering about the value of so many publications all writing the same basic story. Yes, some (perhaps many) do add value or different perspectives. But the basic facts are pretty much the same.
So, if we don't cover a story, it's not because we didn't see it or don't know about it. Sometimes, it's just because we think it's pretty well covered by everyone else already -- perhaps too well covered -- and our time may be better spent doing something else where we can actually add some value.
Last year, we wrote about a fascinating "art" project, called "Significant Objects," that involved a bunch of writers buying up random cheap/worthless trinkets, but then listing them on eBay along with a creative (fictional) story about the object. The "story" was given away for free, but the object cost money. What those involved in the project quickly found was that these worthless trinkets were suddenly selling for a lot more than their nominal "price." It was a perfect example of how an infinite good (the story), when properly attached to a scarce good (the trinket), can make that scarce good much more valuable. This is a point that many have trouble grasping. They think, when we discuss the economics of infinite and scarce goods, that the price on scarce goods always remains the same, and never seem to take into account how a connected infinite good can greatly raise the value and the price of a scarce good. A hit song (infinite) heard by millions increases the price of a concert tickets (scarce). A brilliant blog post (infinite) can increase the price of a consultant (scarce) who wrote it. A sterling reputation (infinite) for an automobile company can increase the price of the cars (scarce) they sell. It goes on and on and on.
The Significant Objects experiment was just a neat "pure" example of this in action, clearly showing how objects that otherwise would have been valued quite low by most potential buyers, could gain in value when an infinite element (a good story) was attached.
It's cool to see that those behind the Significant Objects projects are still trying to do more with the concept. The auctions apparently are still going on, but now they're trying something different as well. They're taking those stories and compiling them into a book (scarce). In fact, the story behind the book (infinite) makes the physical book more valuable as well. To make it even more "valuable," they've brought on some top artists to illustrate the stories -- so even if you read them for free online, there's now more value in buying the physical book to have the physical artwork as well.
People really have an incredible ability to assume that only they could possibly have a very common idea. Lots of people have pointed out that James Cameron's Avatar seems similar to all sorts of stories. In fact, the site io9 put together a giant list of books and movies that some claimed were copied by Cameron. And, of course, we've already mentioned two separate lawsuits. Well, now we can add a third one to the list, and it has just as much a chance to succeed as the others. In this case, it's made even more ridiculous by the fact that the book in question was written after Cameron was already working on Avatar.
In most of the cases with these types of lawsuits, it seems like those suing are really just filing what they likely know is a bogus lawsuit to get publicity for their book/movie/etc. (which is why we're not naming the book in this case). But, it does highlight an important point that we've discussed plenty of times in the past: lots of people have ideas that are similar. Ideas, by themselves, are neither unique nor protectable. It's the execution or (within the copyright realm) the expression that is unique. Yet, too many people overvalue the idea and assume that only they could possibly have had it. The idea behind the story of Avatar is pretty simplistic and common, really. It's been done plenty of times before. The reason the movie is getting so much attention is because of the execution.
Rupert Murdoch and his minions at News Corp. have been going around banging the drum that Google and others are "stealing" from News Corp. newspapers by linking to their stories and sending them traffic. But at the same time, they seem to have no problem totally taking credit for stories that they source from elsewhere. Late last year, the Times (of London), which is a News Corp. paper was caught publishing someone's blog post without their permission at all. And then there's the News Corp.-owned NY Post, which last year had a reporter admit that it was the paper's "policy" not to credit bloggers as the sources for stories. After that story came out, the NY Post insisted that wasn't true, but it appears the paper has been caught doing it again.
Andrew Fine alerted us to the news that suggests the NY Post used one of his posts as inspiration for a story. Fine had written about the rather disconcerting sign in a Chuck E. Cheese in Harlem. That blog post got some attention on various other blogs... and then just a couple of days later, the NY Post had an article about the very same sign (apparently, it took two reporters to write that article), with nary a mention of Fine's original blog post (or even any of the other blog posts that promoted Fine's original story).
Now, to be clear, while I do think it's good manners to cite where you sourced a story, it's certainly not required (legally or otherwise) by any means. But where it gets hypocritical is for this to come from an organization that claims that other sites merely linking to its articles are somehow "stealing." But when the NY Post comes in and blatantly borrows an idea from someone else, and does so without credit, that's perfectly fine? It seems like Murdoch and News Corp. have quite the double standard going.
In the last post, I showed the video of my presentation at the NARM event full of music industry and music industry retailers. I recognize that not everyone wants to sit through a 30 minute presentation (even though I promise that it goes quickly!), so I did want to highlight two parts of it separately, here in text, that I think are worth calling out. Both show companies that seem to (implicitly or explicitly) recognize what we talk about in terms of enabling artists to better connect with their fans and give those fans a reason to buy -- Topspin and Nettwerk. We've certainly talked about both in various posts, but execs from both companies were kind enough to share some data on some of their experiments that have not been reported elsewhere, and which I thought was worth sharing.
Topspin, of course, has built up a platform to better enable artists to both connect with fans and to give them a reason to buy, and has been able to work with some fantastic artists, both big and small, including Eminem, Paul McCartney, the Beastie Boys, Metric, Beck, Van Hunt, David Byrne and a bunch of others as well. The exciting thing is the level of success Topspin has found with these artists:
The average transaction price across all Topspin artists has been $22. Compare that to the average price of a CD, which remains between $12 and $14. If you give people a reason to buy, they're willing to pay more. It's obviously not just about "getting stuff for free" as some contend.
Even better, two separate artists using TopSpin have found that their average transaction price is between $50 and $100.
Finally, one artist using Topspin has found (amazingly) that the average transaction price from what was being offered was greater than $100.
And, on top of that, on one recent project, they found that 84% of the orders were premium offers (meaning above the lowest tier).
The idea that people just want stuff for free? Debunked. Give people a reason to buy in the form of real value they can't get elsewhere, and they absolutely will. About an hour after my talk, Ian Rogers, CEO of Topspin did a keynote interview at the same event. You can watch it here:
Separately, we've definitely been quite impressed with what Terry McBride has done lately with some artists who work with Nettwerk, the indie label/artist management company. Terry's very much been a believer in the mantra of connecting with fans and giving them a reason to buy, and has even talked about how the whole concept of copyright has become outdated. His view isn't that this is necessarily a good or bad thing, but it's just the way it is, and in helping the artists he works with, they have to figure out ways to work with it. To date, that's included a lot of creative ideas for better connecting with fans and then giving them a reason to buy. One experiment he did was with the artist K-OS, who did a few different experiments, starting with allowing the fans to create their own "mix" of his latest album. Not a remix, but a mix. They released the stems of the songs before the album was released, let the fans create their own mixes, had them vote on the best, and then released two albums at the same time. One was the "pro" mix and the other was the "fan" mix. Then you could buy either one separately, or both together as a package.
The second experiment was the "pay on your way out" concert tour. Realistically speaking, this was a series of ten "free" shows. You could get in for free, but they asked you to pay what you felt was reasonable on the way out. Given the insistence by people that fans just want something for free, you would expect that very few would actually pay anything at all. Of course, that wasn't what happened.
Terry was kind enough to share with us some data from the experiment. Despite being free to come and go without paying anything, 63% of people attending ended up donating money on the way out. Now I'm sure some folks will mock this and say that he could have made more by charging everyone, but it seems quite likely that a lot more people came out to these free shows than if he had made people pay in advance. Almost two thirds of people ended up paying, totally voluntarily -- and their average donation was $6. Again, some will claim that this is low, but you have to look at the bigger overall picture. During this tour each of the two K-OS CDs were separately in the top 50 list of best sellers.
So, he gave a series of free shows that ended up bringing in tens of thousands of dollars combined (average attendance at each show was approximately 1,000 people) and it helped get a lot of people to buy both the CDs that were being offered in support of K-OS. Some people are going to nitpick the numbers, of course, but the evidence remains clear again: it's not that fans just want stuff for free. If you give them a reason to buy, an awful lot of them will absolutely buy.
To hear some in the industry tell it, the music industry is falling apart. Except, we're not seeing that at all. What we have seen is that sales of one particular element of the industry have come under much needed competitive pressure, and that's caused a few companies who relied too heavily on that area of business to finally start to recognize the inefficiencies in their business model -- which they're falsely blaming on "piracy." However, the rest of the industry is thriving. A couple weeks ago, I presented at the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) event, held in San Diego, about "success stories from the music commerce frontier," highlighting both artists and companies that were finding success, despite the "woe is me" complaints from both the big record labels and certain music retailers. Parts of the presentation come from older presentations, but about 2/3 of it is entirely new material, including the opening bit, built off of Clay Shirky's wonderful analysis of what comes next for the newspaper industry -- but applied to the music industry. The presentation itself runs about half an hour and you can watch it below (if you're in an RSS reader, click through to the page to see it):
from the someone-check-with-f.-scott-fitzgerald dept
Following the story of multiple authors all claiming credit for creating Hannah Montana, a few folks have sent in the news that an Italian writer claims that she actually wrote a story that was the basis for the hit movie, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The woman claims she wrote and copyrighted (but never published) a short story in 1994. That should strike quite a few people as odd, as most people know that the movie is very loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story that goes by the same name as the movie... which was published in 1921. You would think that if the filmmakers really wanted to make a movie based on this unknown Italian office-worker's story, it would have been a hell of a lot cheaper than paying for the rights to the Fitzgerald story. Again, though, like the Hannah Montana case, the basic conceit of the story (someone aging backwards) is hardly that original, and is an idea that lots of people have had over time. It seems pretty silly to claim ownership of it.
Christopher Best: He was a disturbed individual, and a disgruntled software developer. There's explicit tax law that treats software developers very unfairly if they try to work as independent contractors... yaga: that's very true CB Alana: AJ Seriously just compared arguments against copyright infringment to rape. ... Yeah, nobody should take him seriously at this point. err, against copyright* silverscarcat: seriously? Jay: Glenn Beck asking for a 9/12 movement isn't the least bit suspicious? Along with all of the other issues with the IRS right now? Ninja: I am honestly amused that the community is marking the comments of that "horse" guy as funny silverscarcat: Who takes Glenn Beck seriously? Jeff: did the 'new' comment color bars go away? dennis deems: ya I hadn't noticed until you said that. I don't recall seeing them the last couple days. Mike Masnick: new color bars ran into some big technical problems. :) we took them down while we fix them. fix is currently going through testing and should be back (and better than before) soon. dennis deems: yay! the color bars rule! Jeff: whew! Thought I was going... wait for it... "Color Blind" thanks! I'll be here all day... :-) Jay: @ssc I'm talking more in 2011 at the peak of TP hysteria TheResidentSkeptic: @mike - mod for your business model - CwF+RtB+DoP..too many miss the "Deliver On Promises" silverscarcat: Piracy will destroy software! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlniehU08ks Back in 1985