Some of the Surprising Results of Content Piracy

May 30, 2009

Content piracy is a very controversial topic, and as a blogger focused on getting stuff on the cheap, it seem like an appropriate area to look at and discuss. As I suspect most people are deep down, I am generally anti-piracy. I feel that intellectual property is a meaningful term, and that content creators should be able to market their wares for some value in order to create additional content. I do acknowledge that industry forces put a stranglehold on some content and put it at prices that are not sustainable in the marketplace.

My solution to that problem thus far has been to simply ignore that content, but there are many out there who fell justified to in a Robin-Hood-like mentality of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Of course, there are other who simply feel that digital content should be free to sample and if you want to support a creator than you simply give them money directly in various ways.

I see value in both arguments, and I’m clearly not here to solve this issue today. Today, I want to talk about a couple of the interesting results of piracy and what effect it has a content creation and consumption. (I discuss torrents below, which are one of the most popular methods of content piracy) to find out more about this technology, check out this About.com tutorial.)

Slashdot had a very interesting post by a former indie-music producer who argues that The Pirate Bay (the most popular torrent tracker) hosting actually strengthensĀ  the hegemony of the music industry. That is to say, piracy actually keep big industry content popular. I have heard arguments that content piracy is the best thing for independent artists because it gets more people to consume their content, but do these statistics prove the contrary. It is a difficult question, and I hope you check out the argument for more details.

One other interesting aspect of this discussion is the use of language by each side to describe its habits. Those who are using unauthorized content first called themselves file-sharers, casting themselves in a benevolent light. Then, the content industry labeled these people as pirates evoking greedy thieves, but this move backfired in the sense that these users took back the term to cast it in the positive ‘Disney-fied’ pirates as romantic, swashbuckling heroes. Things like The Pirate Bay and torrents (by definition, a turbulent, swift-flowing stream) evoke this romantic sense of the terminology. I look forward to seeing what the next volley in the language war will be.

As always, feel free to leave your thoughts on the topic in the comments.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note. Since one of my most popular stories last year was on the announcement by Apple of their by a computer get an iPod deal for students and educators, I wanted to mention that it has begun again this year. You can check out the details here.


The Good Ol’ Days of Tech

May 23, 2009

Nostalgia isn’t a huge part of the technology world. Outside of the realm of video games, it is almost always about the newest and latest thing on the block. It occurred to me the other day that on some of my computers I am using ancient software that I would have a hard time replacing if I were to ever have a system failure. Why was I using such outdated software you might ask? The primary answer was speed.

The best example of this is in a program that I thoroughly dislike, Adobe Acrobat Reader. Since the early days, I always thought this was a bloated, slow to load, useless program that deserved to go away. However, it continues to grow, and instead of getting faster with newer versions it got slower. So, I decided to stick with version 5 of the software. It actually got faster as time went on, however, Adobe was able to one-up me by making certain PDFs incompatible with previous versions with new features, but most of the time Adobe Reader 5.0 worked just fine. (As a side note, since I’m usually looking at PDFs as I’m browsing the Internet I now use Foxit Reader to look at PDFs.)

Well, how would I replace it if I needed to today? There’s oldversion.com. A website with a treasure trove of download-able old versions of a variety of programs all in one place. From chat engines like AOL Instant Messenger to old security programs. Maybe you have an old machine that you want to serve as an FTP server, but only has Windows ’95. Here’s a place where you can find an FTP client for that operating system.

This website suggests other reasons why old versions can be an improvement on the “upgrades” of newer versions including, digital rights management functions of Windows Media Player, advertising in chat programs like ICQ and programs that have disappeared.

So if you adhere to the adage “Newer is not always better.” You’ll be in good company at oldversion.com. Let me know in the comments what old version of programs you still use.


When the Monolith Wobbles

May 16, 2009

At the beginning of this week, I was alerted by TechCrunch to a new service being offered to convert all of your old e-mail and contacts from places like Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail into Google’s G-mail, so that you could start to become a G-Mail user.

G-mail is a great service for e-mail and I do a lot of my e-mailing from there. I was even considering discussing with my wife moving her e-mail from Hotmail to G-Mail. Then, the monolith wobbled, and I was reminded why having too many eggs in one basket can be a dangerous thing.

Let me explain. Google, in the political language of the day, is too big to fail. There are so many services that are absolutely dependent on Google to operate that if they fail, their entire business model breaks. Even more operations are severely hampered by an interruption in service and almost anyone on the Internet is at least effected. The Google monolith didn’t tip over on May 14th, but it did wobble a moment and woe to anyone who has become totally reliant on the company.

I first heard of a problem with the trending tag on Twitter #googlefail. (As a side note, this trend of forming a compound word out of the name of something that is ‘broken’ and “fail” is not a very useful one.) I clicked on an saw some people were not able to use the main search engine or access G-Mail. I quickly checked for myself and found it working. I then went to Google’s Apps Status Dashboard, which was created after the February incident where G-Mail went down for a period of time. Google had indicated there was a small service disruption.

Satisfied for the moment, I later checked Google News (Ah, the irony) to see if anybody had written about and found a quickly put together, but well written article by CNET describing what was known so far.Ā  Included in that article is the very interesting story of someone on Twitter, who says that she was not able to access her bank’s website, because it uses Google Analytics to track user statistics.

This story, I think really gets down to the heart of the matter of where the real problem with Google lies. For many people, the first point of entry into the Internet is Google. Without it, those folks couldn’t get anywhere. For some websites like this user’s, without Google Analytics tracking your entry on to the website, you can’t even get on it. Without G-Mail, some business can’t take orders or execute their day-to-day operations.

So what does this mean for you? It means that you should think about how dependent you are on Google. I have G-mail, of course, but I also have a secondary e-mail on which I do a fair amount of communications. I also have other search engines on the ready if needed and know the addresses of many of the places I needed to go on the web manually.

Clearly, there is something to be said for not over reacting to what amounts to a couple hours worth of an outage but you should consider if the monolith ever does topple…how the Internet will look vastly different.


Wikipedia Is Not a Valid Source (Except When I Have To Look Something Up)

May 11, 2009

Wikipedia is a cluster of contradictions. It’s a site that nobody takes seriously, but everyone refers to. It’s a compendium of knowledge of the world, but has more information about Star Trek than particle physics. It’s written in most part by non-experts (at least in the academic sense of the word) but is understood to have significant content.

A couple of events in recent days has brought this resource to mind. The first is the story of French composer Maurice Jarre. After dying in late March, inevitably the obituaries by newspapers around the world came out. During the interim, according to a report from the Irish Times and substantiated by other news sources, a senior at University College Dublin named Shane Fitzgerald fabricated a quote for Jarre and inserted it into his Wikipedia profile.

In Wikipedia’s defense, the quote was removed after no source was attributed to it. However, Fitzgerald kept simply reinserting it until it remained up there for over 24 hours. At this point, several newspapers including The Guardian and the Daily Mail used the inaccurate quote. The Guardian subsequently issued a correction when Fitzgerald alerted them to the fact that he had fabricated the quotation.

One of the interesting facts about this case is that it demonstrates that Wikipedia is a source of biographical information for many journalists. While many outlets might be in a position to check that information before publication, some clearly do not, or just do not do it every time.

However, one of the more interesting things to take away from this is that under more normal circumstances (i.e. this hoax hadn’t been revealed) this quote would have a verifiable source and would then be worthy of inclusion into Wikipedia. For each hoax that has been revealed, it would be fascinating to know how many have not. One should note that there have been studies that indicate that Wikipedia is actually more accurate in certain areas than even the esteemed Encyclopedia Britannica, although some people, Britannica in particular, have claimed that at least one of those studies was fundamentally flawed.

Speaking of Encyclopedia Britannica as a blogger, I am given access to the content of the online site there for free. (This is actually the second reason I have encyclopedia content on my mind, since I had to renew my account this week.) However, I find myself using it exceedingly rarely. Why is that? I’m not exactly sure, but I think the primary reason is that I have to go through the trouble of logging in to the site before I can access the content. Concurrently, I also assume that its content of pop culture content is not up to snuff, so that when I want to look up something about Star Trek, as opposed to particle physics, I believe that Wikipedia will have better content. This combined with the impressive presence that Wikipedia articles have on Google searches means that I rarely ever use my Britannica account.

Another important aspect of this is that most of the Wikipedia’s work is done by people who are not paid. Volunteer who work on the site for the sheer enjoyment of it. I’m pretty confident that there are exceedingly few Britannica volunteer, so how does an online encyclopedia compete on this business model? That’s a question I’ll have to leave unanswered for now…unless it is on Wikipedia.


Newspapers and Too Little Black Ink

May 2, 2009

As the Boston Globe continues its frenzied negotiation to continue operating with the New York Times Company (Stock Symbol: NYT), the entire industry is in a state of flux. What’s the problem? As with many things in the digital age, it is too expensive to create physical objects to disseminate information, but people are very hesitant to pay for information that they can get elsewhere for free.

The most recent example of this is the folding of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Recently, there have been efforts underway by the staff of the newspaper to move the journalists to a digital format called InDenverTimes.com. After initially announcing that they wanted to obtain 50,000 premium subscribers for their venture, (note that this was at a newspaper that had a circulation at just over 200,000, so they needed a conversion rate of about 25%) they announced they were only able to obtain 3,000.

At this point the venture decided to downsize their operations, from what Poynter cited as 31 newsroom staffers and 18 contributors to a staff of 2 and no contributors. It is interesting that they have one staffer on “News/Business” and another on “Sports,” a noteworthy division of labor by itself. As the folks at Poynter point out, the previous line up was most certainly overly ambitious for what amounts to a start-up media venture. One might also notice on visiting the site is the lack of advertising. While there is an e-mail link to the advertising department at the bottom, nothing has come to fruition on the site yet.

As mentioned earlier, the industry as a whole is suffering tremendously and there are several factors, some obvious and some less so. The Internet is obviously a key component, but John C. Dvorak, a technology expert, and Marketwatch.com columnist, has an interesting argument that newspapers have become too flowery and aren’t doing enough local news. Given the pared down nature of the InDenverTimes, he might be a fan of simply having a news/business reporter and a sports reporter as the staff.

I believe that another important factor is simply a case of supply and demand. It is expensive and time-consuming to do actual reporting, while it is relatively cheap to do something like what I do. Basically, I just re-write and re-organize content that is already out there. In fact, it is so easy that there are many people (like me) who are willing to do this for free. This is where I think the enterprise of journalism is in the most trouble. There are enough people to do things that appear close enough to journalism to the average reader for free that the value derived from the customer for that information is cheapened to the point where it becomes not economically viable to create content.

I recognize that this is a controversial opinion, and I acknowledge that I may, in fact, be wrong. However, I’ll leave you with one final question, how much are you willing to pay for news content today? Whatever the answer, the newspaper industry thinks it is not enough.