RIAA will stop suing fans. A nation wonders what took them so long.

Good news for a snowbound morning: The RIAA has announced that it will not file any more lawsuits against alleged music pirates.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The decision represents an abrupt shift of strategy for the industry, which has opened legal proceedings against about 35,000 people since 2003. Critics say the legal offensive ultimately did little to stem the tide of illegally downloaded music. And it created a public-relations disaster for the industry, whose lawsuits targeted, among others, several single mothers, a dead person and a 13-year-old girl.

Instead, the Recording Industry Association of America said it plans to try an approach that relies on the cooperation of Internet-service providers. The trade group said it has hashed out preliminary agreements with major ISPs under which it will send an email to the provider when it finds a provider’s customers making music available online for others to take.

The RIAA plans to finish pursuing all currently active lawsuits – so Jammie Thomas isn’t safe, yet – but when the last one is over we will finally be able to close the book on one of the most absurd chapters in American copyright history.

I have to say, while the end of these lawsuits is wonderful news, especially for my employer and other universities and colleges across the country, a part of me is a little sad. The story of the crazily misguided RIAA suing its customers (and dead people) has become one of the mainstays of my copyright lectures. With the RIAA finally approaching sanity, I lose one of my favorite villains.

Hat tip to Fred Benenson via Twitter.

Update 12/21/08, 8:14 am EST: It turns out that the WSJ article was misleading about the RIAA’s phasing out of lawsuits. It claims the organization stopped filing lawsuits “early this fall”, but Ray Beckerman has uncovered suits filed as recently as last Monday. It’s unclear whether the WSJ was misleading on purpose, or simply misled by RIAA spokespeople. So nevermind, for now. Our villain remains villainous.

Why Google’s dominance doesn’t bother me that much

A few weeks ago, I gave a guest lecture in a class on intellectual property and information law (SI 519) at Michigan’s School of Information, a class in which I was a student just a few years ago. The Google Book Search settlement had just been announced, so my original plans for talking about the various ways copyright is an issue for libraries got derailed and we spent much of the class talking about Google. I got kind of impassioned about how much good I think will come out of Google’s library partnerships. I also gave the students a bit of my personal history as it relates to the Google project and my attitude towards it: I used to work at a literary agency, and when I first heard about the project I thought it sounded like massive copyright infringement. I couldn’t get over my concern for the beloved authors whose interests I was in the habit of looking out for. A few weeks in SI 519 and my mind was changed forever.

A couple days after my guest lecture, I heard from a student in the class who was troubled by Google’s power, particularly in the area of secrecy, and she asked me to explain to her what made me feel so comfortable with such a powerful corporate monopoly. She wanted me to change her mind like my mind had been changed. I haven’t asked her for permission to reprint her email so I won’t, but I put a lot of time and energy into my response, and I realized it might be worth sharing here. Most people I know have mixed feelings about Google, and this email basically outlines my current thinking on the topic.

Here’s my reply, slightly edited for clarity:

Hi [Student],

If you feel that the problem with Google is 1) secrecy and 2) potential monopoly, then I don’t think I’ll be able to make an argument that would change your mind.

When the Google Library Project was first announced, the major focus in the press, and for me, was on copyright law. The project seemed to me like massive and systematic copyright infringement, and so I was opposed to it. After a few weeks in Jack Bernard’s SI 519, I became convinced that it wasn’t copyright infringement, that it was a fair use, and that it also had the potential to contribute enormously to the public good, which is one of the foundational goals of copyright law. That’s the issue on which my mind was changed.

Is Google huge and powerful? Yes. Is Google extraordinarily secretive? Yes. Does Google’s business model have large and potentially negative implications for privacy? Yes. But these things just don’t bother me as much as they bother a lot of people. While I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought, I think what it comes down to for me is that Google got to where it is by being better than everyone else and by innovating more. When Google started out in the search business there was plenty of competition, but Google’s product was head and shoulders above everything else in the field and so Google dominated. It didn’t employ anti-competitive practices like Microsoft, and it didn’t weasel its way to the top with government favoritism like Enron or Halliburton. It was just better. And I’m very uncomfortable with punishing a company for being better and more innovative than its competitors.

If an individual is uncomfortable with Google’s capabilities, then that person can choose not to use Google products. Google may end up with a monopoly on digitized out-of-print in-copyright book content, but there are still options for just about everything else one could want to do on the web, including email, search, maps, blogs, news, and shopping.

So as I said, I doubt we’ll be able to change each others’ minds. I’ve encountered many people who feel the way you do about Google, and we’ve never convinced each other of anything. I love Google because its products make my life better, and they’re all free. Furthermore, I believe that Google’s investment in development and innovation has produced a net benefit for society. I understand that Google’s power means it might have the capacity to do bad things, but that’s not the same as doing bad things.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

I made a video!

Creative Commons has put out a call for videos inviting people to explain, in 90 seconds or less, what they love about Creative Commons. I’ve never made a video like this before, but I decided to give it a shot. I used iMovieHD. It’s pretty amazing that a piece of software like that just comes with my computer. Gives credence to Kevin Kelly’s argument about screen literacy. It took me five hours to produce one minute of video, but it’s easy to imagine that with practice the process could become almost as straightforward as writing.

Anyway, here it is.

Local Event: Creative Commons Happy Birthday Happy Hour

For my readers in the Ann Arbor area, I wanted to let you know about the Creative Commons Happy Birthday Happy Hour that I’m helping to plan. You’re all invited. Bring your friends.

Creative Commons is turning 6, and Ann Arbor is joining the worldwide celebration! We’re having a Happy Birthday Happy Hour for all of the local friends, users, developers, and soon-to-be friends of Creative Commons and Creative Commons licenses.

  • When: Tuesday, December 16th, 2008, 6pm.
  • Where: The Heidelberg Rathskellar (basement), 215 N. Main Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Map
  • More information

Plan to meet a bunch of interesting folks and talk about lots of interesting things. CC stickers will probably be available for those interesting folks who attend! If you have any questions, Greg Grossmeier (greg at creativecommons.org) or Molly Kleinman (mollykleinman at gmail.com)

For those of you who don’t live near me, this event is one of many happening worldwide; check out the CC Wiki Birthday Page to find an event in your area, or plan your own.

On “Becoming Screen Literate” by Kevin Kelly

In last week’s Screens Issue of the New York Times Magazine, Kevin Kelly had a long article called “Becoming Screen Literate.” I first became aware of Kevin Kelly and his greatness when I read another of his NYT Magazine articles in May 2006, Scan This Book, about the impact of mass digitization on the future of the book, and I’ve been following his work ever since.

I loved “Scan This Book” because of its optimistic and utopian vision for the future of books in a world of networked bits. Not only did Kelly write favorably of libraries’ participation in Google’s scanning project (for which I am totally in the tank), but he imagined a highly appealing textual landscape in which everything is flexible, linkable, and infinitely copyable. Most compellingly, the article tied Kelly’s fantastic potential future to the legal and economic challenges of the present; he called the indefinite extension of copyright terms “perverse” and titled a section “When Business Models Collide.” The article was both dreamy and grounded. Seriously, you should read it.

When I saw Kelly’s latest article, I hoped that it would do for screens what the previous one had done for pages: frame the astounding potential for a technology in the limitations of the present. I did not quite get what I was looking for. The article is great, and worth reading, but it is a more purely futuristic work.

The basic premise is that new tools will soon make it possible for many people to develop a “screen literacy” that maps very closely to textual literacy, where textual literacy is the ability of a user “to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, quote experts and sample bits of beloved artists.”

Kelly argues that “Literacy… required a long list of innovations and techniques that permit ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that make it useful,” and now new innovations and techniques will permit ordinary people to do the same with moving images.

If text literacy meant being able to parse and manipulate texts, then the new screen fluency means being able to parse and manipulate moving images with the same ease… It took several hundred years for the consumer tools of text literacy to crystallize after the invention of printing, but the first visual-literacy tools are already emerging in research labs and on the margins of digital culture.

These tools will the remix and the mashup to a whole new level, to the point where we can index, reference, and annotate moving images without resorting to screen shots. Neat, right? But then Kelly loses me. He goes on:

The holy grail of visuality is to search the library of all movies the way Google can search the Web. Everyone is waiting for a tool that would allow them to type key terms, say “bicycle + dog,” which would retrieve scenes in any film featuring a dog and a bicycle.

At which point I become irretrievably distracted from the coming screen literacy, and focus on something else entirely. Why? Because there are approximately 3,500 words in this article, and none of them are “copyright,” “intellectual property,” or “lawsuit.” It’s lovely to talk about the technical challenge of building a visual search engine for a universal library of moving images, but how can you not mention that whoever builds it is likely to face exactly the same kind of legal challenges that Google’s book scanning project did? Worse, really, because book publishers are newcomers to the “sue your fans” business model, while the movie industry has been fiercely litigious since birth.

I understand that maybe Kelly didn’t want to retread old ground, and that harping on problems with copyright law gets boring after awhile, but it’s hard for me to believe in an a vision of a screen-fluent future that doesn’t take into account the battles we’ll have to fight to get there. The vast majority of our visual culture is copyrighted; unless and until we figure out how to fix copyright law, the vibrant creative world Kelly describes will always be in danger of death-by-takedown notice.