kNOw Future Inc.

law, technology and cinema, washed down with wine

Open Video: A Guide for Disorderly Imaginations

I’m in New York this week for the first public conference organized by the Open Video Alliance, which starts in a couple of hours. Participants hail from online video businesses to free software projects, filmmakers to academics.

On first hearing about the phrase ‘open video’, the first thought is naturally the suggestion of a parallel with (free and) open source software. But film of course is different from software, both as a ‘good’ and as an economy. So disentangling the substance of ‘open video’ from the slogan is a first priority. What we know from FLOSS is that success involves a combination of community construction, law, markets and technological standards. While my interests are more related to structures of  collaboration, and the intersection with copyright and the politics of p2p, I’m also interested in the technology and history of cinema. In order to clarify my own views, I’m going to post a series of pieces over the next few days dealing with what I believe ‘open video’ can be.

The Stakes

Despite the technological developments of recent years, media markets remain highly concentrated. The range of views widely broadcast remains narrow; television remains padlocked to the logic of advertising; the number and form of stories told is limited; the division between broadcaster and receiver holds fast.

Open video implies putting in place the scaffolds, and dismantling the obstacles, to enable anyone who chooses to to speak back to that world of images that has fashioned the imagination, desire, sense of self and horizon of possibility.

Overladen as that may sound, few would object to the demand for greater scope for social criticism, self-expression and creative play. But in order to make it a reality, some toes have to be stepped on, and their owners insist that if their techno-economic models are not protected, the it will be then end of audio-visual production because no-one will invest in it. So in addition to persuading our ‘imaginary public’ of the virtues of open video, we must also reassure them that we are not leading them into a cultural desert. That means understanding the types of audiovisual works that have been made historically, and assessing how they can adapt.

So I’ll begin with a crude taxonomy of audio-visual works, then look at the struggle to control the film ecology historically. Next it’ll be time to consider who are the people of ‘online video’, what design factors are important in their communities, and a short section on technical challenges. Thereafter I’ll address sources of finance, before concluding with some legal and political considerations.


Audio-visual production has many different levels, while we refer to all of the following as ‘film’, they require vastly divergent scales of resources. The possibility to create effective substitutes is not equal due to the differing scales of finance and physical infrastructure at the various points in the cycle of film production (here understood to mean the entire process from conception to consumption; the shooting of images will be referred to as origination). Of course all require labour and creativity.

Unlike information goods which can be produced anywhere so long as their inputs exist as information, film is usually site-specific. Excepted from this are recombinant works, and some experimental films. These forms have a well established history, pioneered perhaps by Bruce Conner in the 1950s, making movies without a camera through cut-ups, or Nick Macdonald’s ‘The Liberal War’, a critique of the Vietnam war filmed entirely in his bathroom. In the other cases, origination of the necessary images requires the presence of at least a camera operator.

In general however it is useful to think about the production process as composing two segments: origination and post-origination processing.

Successful collaborative production of information goods relies on the possibility to bring larger tasks into smaller units for later integration (modularity), and also on the ability to harness large numbers of contributions of different sizes (granularity). The aggregation of small bits of labour possible in wikipedia is not possible in film origination; contributors must be present and thus in itself places a bar to participation (cf economics of performance in general). It is also not generally modular, at least that has been the experience so far. Serial novels, with each chapter written by a distinct author, or exquisite corpse type collective images are certainly possible but don’t generate much excitement.

But once the images are produced then contributions at fine levels of granularity become possible, particularly in terms of distribution and marketing.

Hollywood feature: Origination required; high budget; produced for market; privately financed. This is the form whose model is least amenable to reorganization. Blockbusters will however continue to amass significant income in the cinema theatres and through the licensing market to tv, cable etc. They also have merchandizing and other revenues derived from their prominence in the social imagination and the presence of stars. Ultimately these comprise a small section of the number of films produced, even though the dominate most people’s idea of what film is.

Arthouse / Low budget features: Origination required; medium budget; produced via subsidy (europe) or private financing (US)

Television: Origination required; medium budget; privately or internally financed; produced for market

Documentary: Origination required; low-medium budget; equipment commonplace; privately or subsidy financed; produced for market

Experimental film: Some origination required; physical equipment commonplace; low/no budget; endogenous motivation – produced for pleasure/curiosity

Amateur film: Physical equipment required; low/no budget; endogenous motivation – produced for pleasure/curiosity

Recombinant film: No origination required; physical equpment commonplace; low/no budget; endogenous motivation – produced for pleasure/curiosity

Advertisements and music videos: origination required, produced on commission, privately financed

Who are the users of online video and what role can they play within an open audio-visual ecology?
To understand the dynamics behind  participation it’s important to consider both the motivations and, where they exist, the incentives which are in place.

(1) consumers in search of entertainment
(2) producers native to the online environment
(3) Amateurs
(3) Propagandists, proselytizers, whistleblowers, advertizers
(4) those trying to break into the industry mainstream
(5) industry professionals

Consumers form numerically the most important part of the online video population, but consumption a problematic term for cultural goods, as it is always in part productive. Culture is a relational good, and its market is characterized by a surplus of production. Works which succeed must be adopted by users who promote them by talking about them, incentivizing others to experience them as well. Advertising campaigns can be seen as mechanisms whose aim is to kick start this process, but the abiding importance of the relational aspect is witnessed by cultural institutions such as the NY Times bestseller list or the Top 40/100 in music or what have you. In the online environment , this importance is magnified due to the formation of many specialized communities and the possibility to amplify one’s own cultural preferences and recommendations. This productive viral aspect to consumption is essential, because absent the finance needed to generate attention on the scale practiced by the industry, open video producers must fin other means of acquiring visibility. In addition, consumers ultimately finance/provide the revenue stream fora large part of production, be that indirectly as an advertizing market, or directly through payment or donation. Users can also be key distributors as in the case of p2p networks, on which more later.

Those who come to online video production without any offline experience constitute an important part of film output. They are least likely to have incentives in line with industry models or to accept the accompanying norms. Making money is a minor concern, as they are simply taking advantage of what the technology affords them the possibility to do. Socialized in an environment with little interest in copyright rules, they make use of all materials available to them and are the fulcrum of production for what a lawyer would describe as unauthorized derivative works. This output is important as it in turn reshapes the experience of the audiovisual environment, altering again the normative baseline.

Amateurs have widely varied motives but that of commercial success is marginal. Important originators of images, this is a group which have exited sine the earliest days of cinema and whose ranks have expanded with the growing accessibility of cameras and other necessary technologies such as audio recorders, projectors and editing equipment.

As in other areas of online production, the profile of the amateur has significantly blurred. Where previously TV/Motion Picture industry practices kept amateurs at arms length with requirements such as ‘broadcast standard’, the promiscuous online environment enables more mobility for amateur production.

Distinguished from other producers by their motivation set, we could also add another group here, namely those whose production has always been driven by other incentives: proselytizers, educators., whistle-blowers. From the Rodney King camera operator – whose output is driven by being a witness, present at the scene at the right time – to the independent video activist to religious proselytizing, to the incidental producer.

Producers of advertizing, promotional and corporate videos etc have a simple incentive to produce: they are paid to do so and work on commission.

Former and current students of film and video provide a source for original productions. Their motives vary: the desire for visibility (a prerequisite for career advancement); urge for peer review; knowledge that in any case the offline environment provides little in terms of rewards for short and experimental works. Within online communities these individuals bring additional reserves of knowledge and experience and are important for the purpose of developing a ‘community of practice’.

Lastly there are the professionals; whilst sharing some of the motives of the preceding category: inability to secure offline rights sales; curiosity to experiment with the greater distribution range offered by the online environment; desire to build a community around certain subject matter (Outfoxed)

more anon

No origination required; physical equpment commonplace; low/no budge

June 19, 2009 Posted by | /, cinema, open video, social cooperation | 4 Comments

Akerman, Branco, Deneuve et al Against Hadopi and Three Strikes!

Via a comment on the blog I learned that the letter translated below was not drafted by Paulo Branco the producer, but in fact by his son Juan Paulo Branco, who is also the maintainer of the blog Pour le Cinema (For the Cinema). Sorry Juan Paolo!


Things are hotting up in France ahead of the reintroduction of the Internet and Creation Law  (HADOPI) in the French Parliament on April 29th. As I’ve described elsewhere several groups of musicians and filmmakers have made public pronouncements in support of the law. While there have been dissidents to the industry line throughout, a serious crack has opened up in the last week. Below I’ve translated the letter (French original here) drawn up by Juan Paulo Branco, and signed by over thirty figures from French cinema. Arthouse fans will be happy to see Chantal Akerman on the list, Eva Truffaut – who holds the rights to all her father’s films – documentary and narrative filmmakers, producers, casting directors and actors. One name stands out however, because it’s loaded with serious cultural capital, and that’s Catherine Deneuve. Ah, one more thing, another signatory is a certain Jean Sainati, whom you probably haven’t heard of: he was executive director of the ALPA ie the Antipiracy Board, from 1988 until 2002. Is the penny dropping yet?

Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965), by Roman Polanski.

Catherine Deneuve in 'Repulsion' (1965), by Roman Polanski.

The call came late, but hey, it came. Paulo Branco put the delay down to the time required to collect the signatories and veiled threats made to him by other members of the film industry. Serious stuff given that he’s no industry ingenue, having produced more than 200 movies for directors including Wim Wenders and Raoul Ruiz.

When the entertainment industry marshaled its troops for public display at the Odeon in Paris the parade was largely composed of aging songwriters. Note the looks on their faces. They have the support of some younger musicians as well, and Luc Besson and Bertrand Tavernier have been busy penning open letters in favour of the law, but the emergence of this schism internal to the cinema world will complicate the public debate significantly.

Entertainmanet industry troops at the Odeon in Paris

Unhappy entertainment industry members at the Odeon, Paris

Meanwhile Juan Paulo Branco has launched a blog around their call, and is collecting alternative proposals to Hadopi. Today’s contribution is from campaign group, La Quadrature du Net, titled “The necessary union between artists and internet users.” The same crowd who are coordinating an international campaign around the EU Telecoms Package. One imagines that the article must have caused some squeaky-bums moments in a few Parisian boardrooms.


An Open Letter to Citizen Viewers (Spectateurs),

Here is the open letter through which the opposition movement of the cinema world against the Hadopi law has begun. It constitutes a first step in the struggle for a more just system which takes into account the interests of all: the battle has just begun.

Committed (engagé) artists and producers, throughout our careers we have dedicated ourselves to a different cinema, a cinema which is open and challenging.

You have brought life to our work, heralding, acknowledging or rejecting it. Throughout our careers, we have pursued the same ambition: to spread our work and share it with you. Throughout our careers, we have faced a thousand obstacles, be they technical, material or economic.

Today we have the luck to live through a digital revolution which will allow us, in the very near future, to remove a number of these obstacles and open our cinema to all.

Today some fear this revolution, and fear for their monopoly. The Internet and Creation Law responds to a legitimate anxiety, which we share: that of seeing works devalued and degraded through distribution on the internet.

However this law, which claims to position itself as defender of creation, merely establishes a punishment mechanism of dubious constitutionality and opaque functionality.

Fruit of a massive exercise in lobbying and based on the presumption of guild, the Internet and Creation Law creates HADOPI, a high authority controlled by the executive which will be able to cut off an internet user’s connection for an infinitely extendible period, with neither the slightest proof nor the possibility of legal recourse,

Worse, and contrary to what has been widely written, no legislative provision enacts the substitution of criminal and civil charges with this procedure, making a ‘dual punishment’ possible .

Just as the European Parliament has almost unanimously characterized access to the internet as a fundamental right for the third time in just a few months; as ‘graduated response’ model crumbles in the United States; and while the rest of world emphasizes the pursuit of commercial pirates, the French government persists in treating users, viewers, as immature children at the root of all the cinema industry’s problems.

Demagogic, technically unfeasible, doggedly ignorant of the new methods of downloading, and purely repressive, this law is also a missed opportunity. Providing no new form of remuneration for rightsholders, the Internet and Creation Law addresses neither the cinema in its diversity, nor the viewers. Constituting just one last vain attempt to eradicate piracy through punishment, without concerning itself with the creation of legal alternatives, affordable and openly accessible via internet, it responds to none of the challenges posed today by new technologies, even though a strong and creative response is required by the cinema industry and those bodies dedicated to the protection of rights.

We do not identify with this approach, and call for a change of mentality. Fear of the internet is a mistake that we can no longer allow ourselves to make. It is time to accept that we must adapt ourselves to this “new world”, where access to culture loses its discriminatory character, and stop striving to create a society of virtual surveillance where everyone feels monitored.

Be it through a system of compulsory license (license globale) or by through the development of a unified platform for the downloading of works without DRM at reasonable prices,  positive responses to this challenge are needed today, which measure up to the expectations of the audience. Now is the time for reinvention and amazement, rather than the introduction of the umpteenth repressive mechanism….

Conscious of the needs of rightsholders, as we are ourselves, to find new forms of remuneration and get rid of piracy…

Confronted by a mechanism which is essentially conservative, demagogic and corrosive of liberty, which does not deals with what is really at stake in the digital revolution, and pays no heed to the interests of auteur cinema (cinema d’auteur). And in response to the numerous public declarations, drawn up by institutions and lobby groups to speak in the name of a profession which they represent only in part….

We, filmmakers, producers and actors, mark with this declaration our refusal of the Hadopi system, and the Internet and Creation Law.

We call on all lovers of cinema and freedom, of creation and diversity, to make their voices heard to their representatives to abandon Hadopi while there is still time, and put in its place a more just system, taking into account the interests of all.


Victoria Abril (actrice), Chantal Akerman (réalisatrice), Agathe Berman (productrice), Paulo Branco (producteur), Catherine Deneuve (actrice), Louis Garrel (acteur), Yann Gonzalez (comédien), Clotilde Hesme (actrice), Christophe Honoré (réalisateur), JP Limosin (acteur), Chiara Mastroianni (actrice), Zina Modiano (réalisatrice), Gael Morel (réalisateur), Eva Truffaut (artiste cinéaste, ayant-droit de François Truffaut), Brigitte Rouan (réalisatrice), Françoise Romand (réalisateur), Laurence Ferreira Barbosa (réalisateur), Santiago Amigorena (réalisateur), Jeanne Balibar (actrice), Luc Wouters (SRF), Jean Sainati (ex délégué de l’ALPA général de 88 à 2002), Pierre Cattan (producteur), Gilles Sandoz (producteur), Pascal Verroust (ADR productions), Timothy Duquesne (auteur), Agnès de Cayeux (auteur), Antoine Moreau (auteur), Nathalie Chéron (directrice de casting), Gisčle Rapp-Meichler (cinéaste), Sylvain Monod (producteur, cinéaste), Richard Rousseau (directeur de casting), Fabrice Ziolkowski (réalisateur), Jacquie Bablet (réalisateur), Olivier Seror (réalisateur)

To see my more recent posts on Hadopi, click here.

April 21, 2009 Posted by | /, cinema, copyright, enforcement, France, HADOPI, p2p | | 4 Comments

Steal The Film Footage Archive:
We have just released oa searchable collection of interview footage for the film, comprising nearly three hours of material with eleven of the interviewees from the film. For those interested in the themes dealt with in the film it constitutes an ‘extras’ package, but if you are interested in making a film on the subject, it is both a tool and a resource.

We are making this footage available in high quality format (HDV 1080i), having cleared permission from the interviewees to release it under an attribution share-alike license from Creative Commons. Practically this means that you can use this material for your own projects, including commercial work, provided you credit us and make your work available in turn under a share-alike license.

Each interview is accompanied by a time-coded transcript, allowing you to navigate to parts of the interview that you wish to watch. It is also possible to search the entire collection via text query, which returns clickable results pointing to the exact point of the video where the term appears. This functionality is based on the technology used to build the searchable film database 0xdb, and the footage collection at

The intention behind this archive is to try and catalyze the development of a world of collaborative filmmaking, making use of the low costs of distribution and online communication. A significant cost facing low-budget documentary makers today derives from the expense of travel, accommodation, food and equipment hire involved in filming; sharing footage is a means, albeit imperfect, of mitigating these costs. It also offers the chance to open film to criticism in a new way, by reworking the materials in a way that undermines the closed nature of the filmmaking process.

There are important differences in sharing footage and sharing code, and we are not convinced that the alternative licensing approach offers the full answer. Questions remain, such as what share-alike licenses require in terms of the conditions of access to material (in what quality?), and whether it should also mean releasing the master EDL file, so that other users can learn how you achieved the outcome. But these types of questions can be best addressed amidst a process of actively sharing footage, and are not theoretical questions which can be resolved in advance.

On the site, you will find the interviews in two formats. The first is a light Ogg Theora version which you can watch through java enabled browser like Firefox and Safari; Internet explorer is not supported.

High quality versions of these files are also available for download via Bittorrent, and if you would like to rework these materials you will need this version. Transfer speeds should be fast thanks to support from Mininova.

Firstly if you spot mistakes in the transcripts of files or the website, please let us know so that we can correct them

Secondly, if you like to edit video, download some of the HD materials and let us know if you there are problems opening them on your editing software. We know that they work immediately on Final Cut, but we haven’t tried them on systems such as Premiere, Cinelerra or any others. The interview sequences are encoded using the HDV 1080i codec, and we want to be able to document problems and workarounds arising out of this.

We want to maximize the visibility of the archive, and you can help by modding up stories of the announce on Digg, reddit and other syndication sites. This is the first time such a comprehensive set of raw materials for a film have been made available under a free/GPL style license with searchable functionality. We believe that this is newsworthy and not mere self-promotion.

Lastly, talk back to us, make a film! Respond with your own arguments! Complete our film! The value of this collection will be realized when you, the prod-users, do something with it. Let us see the results. Let’s argue, Let’s conspire.

The Future
The archive will be an ongoing project and new materials will be added, for now we want to see what type of a response we get, and how much use the archive actually receives, as it has been really labor-intensive to build.

There’s more to come from the STF2 footage and other interviews will be shot. Subtitling the footage to make it searchable is arduous, and we’d love your assistance in doing that. We will also be contacting other filmmakers in this area to ask for their collaboration. The site has an RSS feed so that you can stay informed on new developments.

May 22, 2008 Posted by | cinema, p2p, social cooperation, steal this film | 5 Comments

Steal This Film Archive Release

So we’ve finally done it: in the next couple of days we will make a public announcement with a URL for the the archive of interviews that we shot for Steal This Film 2. For the moment the details have been released to those who contacted us, donated money, offered help, or assisted the project in many ways. Of course there are thousands of unknown file-sharers who helped to seed and distribute the film, they count too, but we don’t have their emails. Our mailing list is also a bit incomplete, so don’t be offended if you haven’t received the mail. With one exception all the interviews are available under a Creative Commons Share-alike/Attribution license, with the agreements of the interviewee. Thus commercial use is permitted, as long as the subsequent work is made available to others on the same basis.

In any case, I’ll be posting a lot more about this in the next days. My RSI injury has abated and this page will now be updated frequently again.

May 20, 2008 Posted by | cinema, copyright, p2p, social cooperation, steal this film | 1 Comment

Steal This Film 2 Round-Up

Just forty eight hours after the release of the film and the web’s capacity to extend the reach of media through voluntary cooperation is being made clear. English subtitles were made available for the film on its release, a gambit which has paid off as almost immediately people began translating them into their own native languages. So far there are working subs available in Russian (tnx Beast + Lord Russian Nightmare), Finnish (tnx Janne Peltola), Italian (tnx to Chiara Micheli), German (thx Christian), Spanish (tnx Habladorcito) and Portuguese (tnx Felipe) on the website; Dutch, French, and Greek translations are on their way.

As always the gang at the Pirate Bay have been a rock of support, pumping the film on their blog, adding a download link to every page and, in fact, ye scurvy dogs may have noticed that we have taken over their front page, displacing the usual pirate ship!

At time of writing it’s really paying off as there are nearly 5,000 seeds for the three different files containing the film, providing an effective speed equal to that obtainable by any notion picture studio employing global server co-location like Akamai and local caching services like Google, not bad for a bunch of amateurs working from the grassroots! If it’s not coming down fast it may be your ISP is throttling your line, ring them up and complain, and support the fight for Net Neutrality

Naturally it’s also available at Mininova, (Erik, who appears in the film, blogs about it here), who are showing it their support by deploying a high performance content distribution network to help its distribution. Meanwhile other people have been busily re-encoding it for upload at other sites such as rapidshare, but anyone who’s reading this and wants to support us should check their network of choice (Gnutella, Kazaa, eMule, Direct Connect) and ensure that it’s made available through your shared folder.

“In the universe that did happen…” Bram Cohen, inventor of Bit Torrent in their corporate headquarters in downtown San Francisco. Whilst not in the current edit, the interview will be in the archive.

Help has also come from Bit Torrent Inc. who are hosting the film on their site both as a download and as a stream (even though they’re also working for Hollywood, poachers and gamekeepers and all that). Another version is also available on google video.

Other viewers are so enthusiastic that they want to work with us – offering help shooting in different locations, to compose music, design skills. Keep them coming, it’s really appreciated and we’ll get back to you when things clam down a little.

Mural from the Other Cinema in San Francisco.

To our delight, donations are pouring in, although obviously there is a long way to go to finance another film. If you are in an educational or arts institution, please persuade them to make a donation to us or bring us to your venue to present the film.

Filmmaker Craig Baldwin is pretty sceptical about technological optimism…

eAnd in the end, we appreciate all those who have written to us with their opinions of the film – criticizing its weaknesses, attacking aspects they don’t agree with. Likewise to those opponents who have taken the time to talk to us, and lastly to those who just wrote to tell us with information, or to say they (appreciate what we’ve done), (will spread the word), and (are in solidarity with the ideas the film professes). We did it for you, or rather, for all of us!

December 31, 2007 Posted by | /, cinema, copyright, steal this film | 5 Comments

Steal This Film 2 Released

Vanessa Renwick’s neon installation sits atop the door to Rick Prelinger’s library of serendipity in San Francisco.

After the usual last minute antics, the second installment of Steal This Film has just been released. You can download it here. There is also a quick interview with my friend Jamie on torrent freak. The film attempts to insert the conflicts over file-sharing and distributed communication in a historical context. Beginning with the book and the printing press, STF 2 tells of the disruptive consequences of new technologies of reproduction, and how these inventions are resisted by those in power.

With historian Elizabeth Eisenstein in her home, April 2007.

Of the many people interviewed there wasn’t space for everyone in the final cut, which will be remedied through the making available online of an archive of the source materials. Undoubtedly the film has innumerable shortcomings, we hope that others will appropriate the materials release, make their own versions, and deepen the discussion.

Wendy Seltzer in Greenwich Village, New York April 2007; creator of Chilling Effects and one of those who are not in the final cut but to whom we are enormously grateful for their generosity. 

Interviewed in the film: Aaron Schwartz, Adam Burns, Brokep (the Pirate Bay), Bob Darnton, Brewster Kahle, Dan Glickman, Eben Moglen, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Erik (Mininova), Felix Stadler, Fred Von Lohmann, Ghetto, Howard Rheingold, Lawerence Liang, Raph Levien, Rick Prelinger, The Grime Reaper, Seb Lutgert, Seth Schoen, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Wiley, Yochai Benkler.

Interviewing Eben Moglen from the Software Freedom Law Center in Manhattan, April 2007.

Special thanks to those who were generous enough to allow us to interview them but who are not in the film, sometimes for technical reasons (sound :() or simply because as a film takes shape it has to hug tighter to a theme. Our discussions with people were wide-ranging and sometimes the conversations just didn’t fit with what was eventually to become Steal This Film 2.

… the next film will be more visual!

December 28, 2007 Posted by | cinema, copyright, p2p | 3 Comments

“Route Irish” Documentary Feature Released on Bit Torrent

Eamonn Crudden, Irish filmmaker, Mob Manifesto writer and zombie-economy observer has just released his painstakingly assembled documentary “Route Irish” over Bit Torrent. To my knowledge it is the first time an Irish documentary feature has been released using p2p as its primary delivery mechanism. Premiered in Dublin earlier this month, the documentary is an account and critique of the movement against the use of Shannon airport on the Atlantic seaboard as part of the “war against terror”. The film is the result of nearly five years of work and is written with an attention to detail familiar to those who have seen Eamonn’s previous work, such as “Berlusconi’s Mousetrap” narrating the events of the G8 meeting in Genoa, 2001. More on this later, the torrent for “Route Irish” is available here.

November 23, 2007 Posted by | /, cinema, ireland, p2p | 1 Comment

Good Copy, Bad Copy Documentary Online

A Danish documentary, “Good Copy, Bad Copy”, about conflicts around copyright and made by Andreas Johnsen, Ralf Christensen, and Henrik Moltke, is now available online. A couple of the interviewees appear also in our documentary which will be out soon and takes a different slant. The movie can be found at the filmmakers’ website.

September 4, 2007 Posted by | /, cinema, copyright | Leave a comment

Taking out Contracts on Creators?

The organisers of the Oil of the 21st Century have a text, both poetic and inexorably accurate, where they point out that when the content industry claims to be protecting artists, they are increasingly (!) referring to dead authors:

“Human history is the history of copying, and the entirely defensive and desperate attempt to stall its advancement by the means of Intellectual Property – the proposition to ressurect the dead as rights holders and turn the living into their licensees – only indicates how profoundly recent advancements in copying technology, the adaptability and scalability they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, are about to change the order of things. …… The spectre that is haunting Intellectual Proprietors world-wide is no longer just the much-lamented “death of the author”, but the becoming-producer and becoming-distributor of the capitalist consumer.”

For ‘intellectual property’, read copyright, which extends past the death of the author, often for an additional seventy years. When the copyright industry seeks another extension to the scope and duration of exclusive rights, they are attempting to increase the licensing value of their archives rather than help the proverbial garret-dweller in the fight to pay rent, fill the stomach and buy pencils.

The point is a good one, but is ripe for additional amendment- there are after all a few artists still breathing. Successful artists and cultural creators do not need to join the deceased in order to get killed off so far as a fair share of revenue from their work, and control over its fate, is concerned. When Tony Soprano orders an OBE* contract on someone, he of course means it metaphorically – Tony is a man with clear ideas as to what lawyers are useful for, and that does not encompass the operational aspect of settling scores or negotiating with hitmen. The movie, music and software industry do, however, take out creators in a very literal way, through the use of contracts.

Principal weapons in this vile practice of elimination are the work for hire clause in both cinema and software, and unfair accounting practices in music. The former case turns the limited company created for a film production into the effective author for legal purposes, whilst the latter ensures that the risk of failure is carried by the musician. Courtney Love made no bones about the villainous nature of record contracts as some readers may remember, and the Recording Artists Coalition regularly make similar points. One doesn’t hear as many complaints about the work-for-hire clause, partially becasue the material situation in the industry is dealt with through the various industry labour negotiations. One thing is sure however, the immediately interested party as far as film copyright is concerned is rarely the director or the actor. Just a small thing to bear in mind next time you listen to Dan Glickman and other industry representatives.

*One Behind the Ear, a dark Irish pun on the UK honours system.

August 15, 2007 Posted by | /, cinema, copyright, law, music | 1 Comment

0xdb Movie Database Goes Live

Friends from Pirate Cinema Berlin went live with their software/database magnum opus yesterday evening. In order to access the full functionality of the site, you will need to register as a user and be in possession of a registration code, which you can acquire by writing a friendly mail to the administrators, whom you can contact here.

The 0xdb collects information from numerous sources including allmovies, wikipedia and the internet movie database, amongst others, and offers users the chance to search and organise it in interesting ways. Where geographical data as to shot locations is available, for example, this can be plotted on google maps.

(Location information for ‘Goodbye Lenin’)

Entries in the database are acquired through the constant monitoring of bit torrent traffic taking place on trackers around the net, and this foundation in real data objects allows queries of a type unavailable elsewhere. Apart from nifty coding, the functionality of the database relies on a key element contributed by p2p users: subtitles. Subtitle files contain time code information that enables users to search for textual references and match them with frame/sequence locations. A search for ‘Berlin‘ or “you don’t love me any more” in the 0xdb will thus return all references to these phrases within an individual film, a set of films selected by the user, or the entire database. The result can then be previewed in flash as two second quotations.

(‘You don’t love me any more’ in Kusturica’s ‘When Father Was Away on Business’, Hamer’s ‘Factotum’, and Godard’s ‘Le Mepris’)

Alternatively one can look at the film broken down into scenes; the image is taken from the first frame in each minute and the sequence is five seconds in total:

(Scenes from ‘Grands Soirs, Petits Matins’ by William Klein)

Another innovative feature allows users to preview the entire film on a visual time-line. The 24 or 29 frames in each second are averaged out and generate a composite image one pixel wide and sixteen pixels long. Effectively this creates a visual summary of the movie similar to a film print. By clicking within the time-line brings up a miniature flash movie in a window to the left, and users can navigate through the film using the arrow keys:

(Time-line for Francesco Rosi’s ‘Mani Sulla Citta’, the frame to the left of the time-line corresponds to where I clicked on the time-line, indicated by the red bar in the top left corner)

Apart from providing useful charts for browsing the film’s script and content, this form of representation can also reveal a lot regarding visual style, as is demonstrated by the example below. Benning’s Ten Skies is exactly what it sounds like: a film split into ten long sequences focused on the sky:

(Structural movies like James Benning’s ‘Ten Skies’, as never seen before).

There has even been a film especially made to play with the form of composite image creation used to create the time line, something like a form of reverse steganography.

(‘Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap’ by Robert Luxemburg)

Around 2,500 films are currently present in the database, with relatively few mainstream films and a preponderance of arthouse, documentary, experimental and classic works. In addition to its ludic virtue and usefulness for research, the 0xdb raises a lot of interesting copyright questions. This aspect, as well as what it will mean for film-making will be dealt with in a later post.

August 13, 2007 Posted by | berlin, cinema, copyright, p2p, social cooperation | 11 Comments

Pfizer’s Trovan Outrage in Nigeria on Film: Dying for Drugs

Several weeks ago the Nigerian government announced a $7 billion action against Pfizer for
performing tests on children during a 1996 epidemic without informed consent. This story was one of four cases highlighted in an excellent documentary made by Michael Simkin and Brian Woods for Channel 4 in 2003, called “Dying For Drugs.”

Kano, a town in northern Nigeria, was already in the grip of cholera and measles epidemics when another disease struck: meningitis. Infection spread rapidly and hundreds died. MSF set up an emergency operation there to treat the sick with proven antibiotics. A couple of weeks later Pfizer independently dispatched a team to Nigeria with their new drug Trovan, which had never been tested on children. Pfizer has never produced any consent forms signed by either the children or the parents, claiming that the risks were explained by a local nurse and consent was ‘verbal‘. Over two hundred children were experimented on as part of this trial.

Pharmaceutical tests are required to be cleared in advance by an Ethics Committee. In this case it was notionally based in Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, but in fact does not appear to have existed. Pfizer produced a letter dated March 26, 1996, but later their doctor admitted that he had produced the letter a year later and backdated it to reflect what he claims was a ‘verbal agreement’.

Pfizer later fired one of its child health specialists, Juan Walterspiel, after he wrote an open letter to senior management outlining criticism and concern at the way in which the trials had been conducted. He is not the only Pfizer employee to have been fired for whistle-blowing.

Apart from the Nigerian government’s action, there is a separate case underway in the High Cort in Kano, taken by the state and the families of the children involved. At least five children die, and many others have suffered from arthritis; Trovan was known to have the side effect of causing joint damage. Lawyers representing the families initially sought to have the case heard in the US under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a move which Pfizer’s lawyers fought.

The Food and Drugs Administration eventually granted approval for use on adults in the US, but not on children. Following the exposure of liver related conditions its use was further circumscribed. Trovan has not been approved for use in Europe.

Further information is available in an article published by the Washington Post in 2000, as part of its series “The Body Hunters”, “As Drug testing Spreads, Profits and Lives Hang in the Balance.”

Other chapters in Dying for Drugs chronicle Big Pharma’s modus operandi in three other areas: silencing critical medical research; pharmaceutical pricing; effects of compulsory licenses (and their absence) on the lives of AIDS patients. Director Brian Woods met John Le Carre and Fernando Mereilles during production of “The Constant Gardener” in 2005, and copies of the film were distributed to members of the cast.

July 9, 2007 Posted by | /, cinema, intellectual property, pharmaceuticals | Leave a comment

Film and Appropriation – A Very Tricky Business

In editing studios people often quiz me as to the whther they can use elements of such and such a film, and it’s becoming rather depressing not being able to give them a straight answer. Let’s take something apparently simple first: public domain works. Unfortunately there are quite a few movies cruising the internet under a Creative Commons PD licence which, well, are in the public domain at all…. This is what happens when you have an infinite number of jurisdictions and rules in continual change. Take Russia. There extended their copyright duration in 2004 from 50 to seventy year after the death of the author. Now Dziga Vertov died in 1954, so without the change, “Man With a Movie Camera” would certainly have entered the public domain in 2005. But maybe it’s public domain elsewhere, but filmmakers who want to distribute their works over the net need to theoretically be clean everywhere.

These divergence are an order of magnitude worse when it comes to fair use/fair dealing.

Then there’s the question of protection for sound recordings. Prior to 1972 they weren’t protected by federal law in the US. then you find a case like Capital Records v Naxos to tell you that in fact they are protected at least in New York by State Law! This is the stuff of hair loss – 50 more states to add to the choice-of-law soup.

Of course what happens is that on a functional level deals are done, warranties provided only for certain markets, which correspond with specific jurisdictions. But at a time when web distribution, either on demand or retail, is accelerating, it’s snubs reality. Oh well. Bandit filmmakers don’t need to worry, along with filesharers – the jurisdiction problem for business correlates, curiously, to the difficulty of cracking down on unauthorised uses where no cash is being made of the results.

June 1, 2007 Posted by | /, cinema, copyright, law, licenses | Leave a comment

Pirated Copy

Man Yan is a young chinese filmmaker who has already achieved considerable renown, His most recent work is “Pirated Copy“, a study of the cycle of production of counterfeit DVDs in China, and they way in which they cause people’s lives to intertwine.

Opening with a series of face-hidden shots of DVD hawkers I initially took it for a documentary, so it was only a police chase in which the cameraman is also involved until its conclusion that woke me up to the fact that it’s fiction. Thereafter we are introduced to the characters, a cinephile whose street-peddling allows him to meet strangers, a film professor with a penchant for Almodavar, a prostitute on the hunt for romance, and a worker high on Tarantino-style imagination who has just been laid off from his job and is desperate for money. Conveniently our friend Lawrence Liang from the Alternative Law Centre in Bangalore came to Berlin for Summit and gave a presentation about the film on sunday morning. He had visited some of the locations where it had been shot, including a bookstore/cafe adjacent to a pirate dvd shop which sells everything from Foucault to Ginsberg (not your knee-jerk idea of Beijing perhaps?), and who faced is adorned with a small mural of Lola from Lola Rennt.

I really recommend the film which is stylishly shot but whose strongest point is in conveying the type of intimate relationship that is created when people share ideas, desires, sensibilities and things.

May 31, 2007 Posted by | /, china, cinema, copyright | 1 Comment

Documentary Maker Sam Green on P2P

Whilst in San Francisco we attended a screening in Craig Baldwin’s “The Other Cinema”, compéred by filmmaker Sam Green, director of “The Weather Underground” amongst other works. The idea did occur to us to interview him on the subject of his attitude towards p2p, as his work epitomises in some ways the type of film that benefits in visibility through uncontrolled distribution, as it has a definite audience spread thinly worldwide, many of whom will never have the chace to see it in cinema or rent it at a store. However the object of our attention that night was Craig Baldwin, so we stayed focussed. Fortunately Sam was on his way to Rome to the Tekfestival organized by friends of ours, and my pal Espanz took the opportunity to shoot a short interview with him as they wandered through the streets of the city. You can see it here.

May 22, 2007 Posted by | cinema, p2p | 1 Comment

Polish Fansubs site Shut by Police, Participants Arrested

There I was in the kitchen this morning, brooding over the difficulties of representing peer production in film, a meditation catalysed by the last two months of researching, shootibg and editing a documentary. For the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that the value of fansub communties, producing subtitles for films not yet translated into other languages, is an excellent example easily graped by anyone. At this point I must admit to being something of a translator, not the greatest certainly, and distinctly part-time, but I’ve produced subtitles for documentaries and narrative films both professionally and as an amateur.

Checking my mail, I came upon my daily dose of bad news from the intellectual property world via a Polish Linux site: this week the police in Poland detained for questioning at last six participants in a community,, dedicated to the production of subtitles. Here some explanation for the uninitiated is required. This site did not distribute copies of films, ever, not even a single frame, and they are not accused of having done so. Nor did they sell or otherwise distribute audiovisual works. These people are amateur subtitlers who contribte their own time to translating movies into polish so that their monolingual compatriots can watch and understand them. Another word on subtitles on the net: there are two formats widely used, recognisable by the .srt and .sub suffixes, and it’s not too hard to transform one into the other. SRT are essentially just word processing files, which contain time-codes that indicate the moment when the title should appear and disappear. Immediately undernath you type the text that you wish to appear. If you want, you can actually just invent titles for a the film of you brushing your cat’s teeth on youtube (chapeau Craig Baldwin!) as an experiment.

Once upon a time one required dedicated machines to subtitle movies and these are still used. More recently it has become straightforward although time-consuming to insert title tracks onto a Final Cut Pro file. But neither of these systems opened up subtitling to the type of collective efforts one sees on the web. In the first case the capital costs of the machines have kept it a professional activity, in the second it’s just arduous. The emergence of .srt particularly has madde it easy for people to create amateur subtitles for movies, using basic movie players like Quick Time/mplayer to set the ‘in’ and ‘out’. Furthermore, once a set of titles was available, incrmental improvement was the norm, as much of the work lies on getting the synchronicity between the titles and dialogue correct, the text itself is easily corrected by later translators. Another consequence of this format is that once a subtitle file exists in one language, it facilitates the translation into other languages, as only the text need be changed. Here endeth the lesson. users are accused of unauthorised production of derivative works with a potential punishment of up to two years in jail. The absurdity of this hypothesis requires no emphasis here, so I’ll simply nod to the fact that the comparisons with the restriction of individual behaviour under stalinism are striking, and for once that does not strike me as hyperbole. What is going on in that country? My home town Dublin is full of Poles who have come there seeking work, whilst the only nes I ever hear of Poland is their government (i) calling for the return of the death sentence, (ii) endorsing homophobia, (iii) egging on the most depraved military operations of Bush/NATO and generally functioning as neo-conservative base in the EU. And then they go after fansubbers!

These raids were orchestrated by The Polish Society of the Phonographic Industry (ZPAV), a collective rights organisation, and German authorities shut the site which was hosted on servers in that jurisdiction. They are co-founders of the The Anti-Piracy Coalition, founded in 1998 by three organizations: ZPAV, FOTA (Polish branch of Motion Picture Association) and BSA (Business Software Alliance). My guess is that this investigation will be emabarassingly shelved quickly, but only after having scared people involved ina public interest activity. Comments to the slashdot story on the subject on elsehwere have also pointed out that in general forign-language movies are dubbed in polish, and all the dubbing is carrried out by the same person! So there it is: the official world offers you a hitty sub-standard product, which would make any filmmaker wince, the ‘pirates’ offer the real thing, free of self-interest, and are threatened with jail? WTF.

To complete the facts it should be noted that the police rousted the accused out of their beds at 6.00 AM in the morning, which would be the routine for a serious crime investigation. They also seized equipment and  claimed that they had found thousands of copies of pirated copies of films,  a claim which is by all accounts false, and hopefully actionable by the defendants.

May 19, 2007 Posted by | cinema, copyright, law, p2p, social cooperation, technology | 2 Comments