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Collaborative Futures in NYC and some notes…

Readers in New York may be interested in attending a presentation of “Collaborative Futures”, a text composed over a week in January by six writers, myself included, and published as book for the Transmediale festival in Berlin. Mushon Zer Aviv and Michael Mandiberg will present the book, and Stephen Kovats, who commissioned the work for Transmediale, will also be present. The event is hosted by Upgrade! New York and will take place at Eyebeam (540 W21st Street) this Thursday at 7.30 pm There’s even a live video stream!

Given the result has attracted a bit of attention, I’d like to add a couple of impressions about both the process of working together, and the future (if any) of the resulting book.

Booksprinting

Much has been made of the accelerated pace of  the books production. When I arrived on the monday morning, the only participant known to me was the facilitator, Adam Hyde. Thus the first day was spent introducing ourselves and making notes – basically teasing out a shared language and framework within which to work. Although we had assembled a basic outline by late that night, in reality the structure was revised right to the end. The following morning we sat down to write but the patter of the keyboard was constantly punctuated by conversation, negotiation and clarification.

Negotiation in this context requires willingness and good faith, qualities which were happily in plentiful supply. I wondered also if the freshness of our acquaintance may have been a help: sometimes working with people we know well can elicit competitiveness and oversensitivity. Amidst all of this there is a physical aspect: long days spent together nourishes trust, while the shadow of an imminent deadline instills an urgency that encourages compromise for the sake of completing the task.


The irony of being asked to sign the book was not lost on Marta Peirano and I….

This obviously modified what we would have otherwise written individually, but also enabled each person to work on the others’ outputs sensitively. Most sections were initially drafted by one person, others would then edit, add and rephrase where necessary. Being able to discuss and tease points out together provided a means to grasp the acceptable extent to which one could revise other people’s contributions – to refine for clarity, whilst leaving the ‘thrust’ of their sense intact. Here we encounter an issue that arises repeatedly in collaboration: the need for a framework which functions at the level of the collective whilst enabling individual initiative within its own boundaries.

The result entailed an interesting modification to the relationship with the act of writing. The romantic theory of authorship places enormous weight on the concept of expression as inhering to the personality of the writer, insisting that from their inherent subjectivity comes forth a uniqueness which makes it uniquely their property. Whilst I never adhered to this school of thought, it was nonetheless interesting to live its practical contradiction. Writing together in this manner displaces the connection between the individual and the text, as some ‘pure product of the self’, but relocates it to an identification with the subject matter and the methodology employed to elaborate it – peculiarly appropriate for a book about collaboration. On this point it’s safe to say that none of those involved in writing the book would stand 100% behind its contents, whilst nonetheless insisting on the value of the endeavour.

Overall I think what we ended up with is useful overview with some good insights. Those expert in the areas won’t find much that is really fresh, but writing like this leaves no time for original research, but rather leveraging what we already know and trying to fit it into a coherent framework. Regarding its deficiencies: if you care enough to be bothered, please help to remedy them, sign up to booki.cc and get cracking!

Possible Futures…
Other books written under the auspices of FlossManuals focus on technical subject matter, making the question of their upkeep relatively straightforward: as the field progresses, or new functionalities are added to a software, the book can be updated to reflect that. Given the conceptual nature of our subject, a roadmap for revision and maintenance seems trickier, but the chance to solicit new contributions makes me think it worthwhile.

1. The opening section outlines some assumptions and sets out the limitations of the subject we address. Collaboration is an infinitely extendible concept, and we ended up focussing on mostly large online collaborations. How it pertains to art, political movements and a more traditionally conceived notion of economic activity were put aside. Training the gaze on these areas, examining their specificities and distinguishing them from one another might be one worthwhile approach.

The rest of this section is  dedicated to the motivations of participants and how the decision-making process is structured. Given the wide variety of collaborations out there, this is just a fragment and much could be added and/or qualified. We were not fully satisfied with the placing of process here in terms of the overall structure, but couldn’t come up with a convincing alternative either…

2. Next we attempted to distinguish collaboration from apparently similar phenomena such as sharing or aggregation. We also propose a set of criteria to place interactions on a continuum corresponding to degrees of participation, and offer some examples.

3. Following this, there is a section titled ‘Edge Cases’. For my money, this is the part most amenable to expansion. First of all because it needs it: there are too few case studies! Secondly because anyone interested in this subject has their pet examples, and there isn’t just one way of dealing with knotty topics like ‘ownership’, ‘attribution’ and ‘decision-making’. Additional descriptions of communities together with a problem they faced, or successfully overcome, would fit very neatly here. ultimately I think this section could function as a form of scrapbook, where snapshots of positive and negative experiences can be memorized.

4. We closed with ‘Futures’, where we speculate on how these forms of production may transform realms so far less affected, and on the wider issue of what forms of individual and group identify may be prefigured in what we observe at the moment online. This would be the place to let oneself go with futurology, utopian projects and experimental proposals.

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March 2, 2010 Posted by | social cooperation, technology | 2 Comments

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.

Types

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

With Roger Wallis in Stockholm

Amongst the denizens of the filesharing universe, Roger Wallis is the man of the hour. A successful composer, who in recent years has dedicated himself to researching the politics and economics of the music industry, he took the stand at the trial of The Pirate Bay in Stockholm to argue that the aggregate effect of sharing music was to increase musicians’ revenues by raising  income from live performance. Needless to say, this point of view did not ingratiate him with representatives of the music industry, who attempted to question his credibility as a researcher.

At the conclusion of his appearance, on being asked by the judge whether he would like to be reimbursed for his expenses, he responded only that he would like some flowers to be sent to his wife. What happened next is already folklore: supporters of the Pirate Bay inundated his wife with hundreds of bouquets, and when they discovered that there was an excess of flowers they started sending chocolates, donations to charities and letters of appreciation.

Simon and I spent a couple of hours in the Wallis home today shooting an interview, which I will post sections of as soon as possible, as well as providing some links to his work. In the meantime here’s a photo of him at the piano playing us a couple of bars. The eagle-eyed will note the musical scores bearing his name on the piano easel.

March 2, 2009 Posted by | copyright, material culture, p2p, Pirate Bay, social cooperation, steal this film, Sweden | 5 Comments

Anthropology of P2P: “A Day in the Life…”

Much hullabaloo has been raised by the disregard of internet users towards the sanctity of copyright law. “A Day in the Life…” is concerned rather with the anthropological change in how we discover culture, and how we use it to relate to others. As individuals join communities more closely attuned to their interests than the commercial offering, their choices change, the economy of time of their daily life shifts and new problems emerge. Following a participant in one of these communities through a 24 hour cycle, the text explores these processes and their social spaces, taking a snapshot of 21st century subcultures with the occasional nod to the past.

A first version was prepared for Transmediale in Berlin earlier this year, and was then revised and abridged for a performance organised by EXGAE/Conservas and their gala event Los Oxcars in Barcelona last night.

A Day in the Life…
It’s midnight in Berlin. Not a fact of particular importance in the global 24 hour all-you-can-eat buffet that is the file-sharing world. The community is always awake, and the participants are as likely to be up at 6AM GMT+1 in Britain or Taiwan. The significance in it being midnight is simply that it allows us to measure how much activity takes place in one small file-sharing community, and to watch the daily life of the community during a 24 hour cycle.

I browse the list of files available, organised according to most recently posted: in the last 24 hours 55 new files have been uploaded, 40 older files have been bumped back up the list, having been reseeded by someone who had previously downloaded the file.. Perhaps it doesn’t sound like so many, but here there are rules: A maximum of two copies of any file are allowed, a DVD version and a compressed version. No films are allowed which have not yet been released on VHS or DVD unless it’s so long since their production that the owners have clearly decided not to bother. Mainstream cinema of the Hollywood type is discouraged and often actively eliminated, unless the work is considered to be a classic, which means that a certain amount of time must pass.. Those 55 files then, join the existing 25044 in the library. 25099 in all then. About 32,000 hours of uninterrupted viewing, or three years and seven months.

Continue reading

October 29, 2008 Posted by | /, copyright, p2p, social cooperation | 6 Comments

http://footage.stealthisfilm.com/

Steal The Film Footage Archive:
http://footage.stealthisfilm.com/
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.

What?
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 Pad.ma

Why?
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.

How?
On the site http://footage.stealthisfilm.com/browse, 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.

Help!
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

Copyfarleft: An Anarchist Gema?

I covered elements of Dmytri’s political critique of Creative Commons in the post below. For the full version I’d recommend the article that he co-authored with Joanne Richardson, Copyright, Copyleft and the Creative Anti-Commons. Now I want to move on to Kleiner’s proposal for an alternative approach to CC which eh outlined at the Oil event, as it is not dealt with in the paper. His approach takes existing organizational structures in copyright, and gives them a marxist twist.

His suggestion is to establish a form of cooperative which would function in the same way as the copyright collection societies, such as GEMA in Germany which collects licenses for musical performances. Members would assign their copyrights to the cooperative, which would issue free non-exclusive licenses to other members.This is a similar modus operandi to that used by the Free Software Foundation who collect copyright assignments from their contributors, and then grant back a series of guaranteed permissions which form the crux of software freedom. Non-members could still use the works but would have to negotiate and pay a licensing fee in the normal manner. The original twist is in the criteria for membership of the cooperative, which would be limited to those who do not employ wage-labour or capital-intensive technology in producing cultural works; Dmytri referred to these as the non-alienation clause, and it’s worth unpacking it a bit.

It is well documented that the vast majority of those using alternative licenses (Creative Commons, Free Art License etc) choose to apply restrictive non-commercial clauses to the reuse of their work. Effectively this negates the potential of the licensing system to impact on the mode of cultural production. As a (re)user you still have to get permission and are subject to what economists call transaction costs. Free software successfully altered the economic landscape of programming by enabling the accumulation of a large arsenal of code which any programmer could use for the purposes of their own work, thus saving them time, provided they complied with the terms of the General Public License. Kleiner locates people’s unwillingness to surrender control in their fear of exploitation, and at least in some parts of the Creative Commons ‘constituency‘, he is obviously on the button. It pains me to remember innumerable number arguments with video-makers unwilling to release their work for fear that they be ‘ripped off’ by a television station, as if Rupert Murdoch was just waiting for them to lower their license guard to give them a good shafting… He argues that if free use is only available to those following a method of production available to any cultural producer, regardless of their means, these fears can be assuaged. To give a practical example, this would mean that someone making a film on their own using off the shelf (probably pirated!) software on general purpose computers would be free to use images or music produced by other members of the co-operative, and would also be allowed to sell the resulting product and support themselves. On the other hand, a production company with fifty employees, using bespoke systems and dedicated animation workstations, would never be allowed ‘free use’ and would have to negotiate fees to clear the use of any works made by members of the co-op. In Kleiner’s framework, any license fees colected in the use way would flow to the co-op rather than the ‘individual’ creator, and would be reinvested in the expansion of the resources of the internal commons.

Problems

I

Copyfarleft essentially reformulates familiar problems from the creative commons discussion but arguably succeeds in framing them in a more interesting way. For those who use the non-commercial clause as an avatar for ‘keep satanic corporations away from me!’, he actually provides a means of identifying the ‘satanic’. But at a practical level, as a license, it would undoubtedly finish in the same theological attempt to ‘count the ‘number of angels you can fit on a pin’ which lies at the core of the non-commercial clause’s inanity. Let us recall at this point some of the basic issues raised by the latter. Site A offers works available for free and makes money off them by monetizing public attention through advertising sales. Site B sells .avi video files with printed covers at the cost of production and postage. Are either, neither, or both of these sites commercial? If one thinks about the alienation clause for ten seconds similar problems emerge: I make a film using unwaged labour, from youngsters who don’t have the money to buy a computer suitable as a basic video-editing machine, and then trade on the reputation gains of the output so as to make money in secondary activities (speaking, teaching, punditry) – has alienation take place? Has anyone been exploited?

II.

Whilst the proposal has obvious conceptual difficulties, my real critique is a bit more unkind, which is that I think it projects desires from another political age onto an unwelcoming terrain. Effectively this framework expects people to apply a high-level political analysis to their online production, and this dies not jive with my perception of people’s motivations, which are complicated, contradictory and far from having the consciously contestational intention that Kleiner’s proposal implies as a given. In short his demand is for politics with a heroic capital P, in an age where the small ‘p’ is the fertile field of agency. Let me put it another way: there’s no problem in loosely aggregating millions of people around a diffuse pro-piracy/anti-copyright program, because it rhymes with their own interests, is composed of (a) negative thinking and (screw the industry!) (b) small homemade constitutive acts (rip!), and (c) the absence of heavy ideological baggage (all political shades love it!). Try and interest the same people in drawing up a political program that addresses the complexity of modern social organization and you’ll retain the attention of about .1% of them. Maybe 1.1%, if you can make them laugh with reasonable frequency.

III

In addition to the political problem, there is the matter of the lessons of recent history. Scrutiny of the story behind GNU/Linux, Wikipedia and any of the other really successful attempts to create functioning economic resources for their users, have proceeded by putting usability first, and limiting the political dimension to that which is directly pertinent to that field of activity. A totalizing critique of capitalist social relations simply has provided the base for a large-scale collaborative enterprise in the web so far. And there are some groups who are giving it a crack.

But now it’s late, so I’ll conclude. At a later point it will be worth taking a moment to consider how useful the contributions of Carol Rose, Elinor Ostrom and the scholarship on common property regimes/common pool resources could be.

Notwithstanding my criticisms, I really enjoyed Dmytri’s talk, and found the terms of the discussion much more stimulating that the usual drivel which is uttered when rooms fill up with pseudo-lawyers floundering around technical terms of art. With Mako and Jamie King, I used to joke that licenses should either be precise in their purpose like the GPL, or so outrageous as to open up other dimensions of reflection or satire – I always imagined it as a dadaist subversion of legal boilerplate. In Copyleft, Kleiner has managed to apply a similar method to good effect.

November 22, 2007 Posted by | /, berlin, copyright, licenses, oil21, social cooperation | 8 Comments

Codes is Written, The Future is Not…

So goes the legend of this year’s Italian Hackmeeting currently taking place in Pisa. Even before the official opening on thursday evening a large crowd of people had arrived at Social Center Rebeldia, right in the centre of the city and excellently self-managed; we knew it was going to be good….

A full schedule of seminars had been scheduled, with three sessions taking place concurrently. The majority were concerned with technical questions around practical security, distributed networks and anonymity. In addition however there was plenty of fare for those kore interested in the social and political aspects of network culture. A couple of discussions demand further comment. Armin Medosch, who truth to tell is an old accomplice, gav a very provocative tralk on the history of technology and how it relates to possibilities to change social relatiions. This was a whistlestop tour which began with the french revolution, sidestepped to haiti, tarversed the invention of the telegraph and the birth of photographt to finish up with the birth of distributed network topographies. He posited a tentative claim that the decentralised nature of these architectures reflected the ideas behind grassroots networking which were so conspicuous in the Bay area during the 1970s. The attitudes of Berkely hackers (who included the TCP stack in their BSD distribution) were contrasted with those of their counterparts in MIT, who embarassingly, had to build a steel door to keep protesters against the Vitnam war at bay. In addition he evoked the story of the Community Memory project in Berkeley, which was put together by leftist hackers such as Lee Feldstein. This lore is documented in Steven Levy’s fundamental work “Hackers“, and Armin is right to say that now is the moment to seek out and verify or disprove this possibility, these people still being alive. You can read a longer version of his talk here.

Another interesting discussion was tabled by Andy Muller from the Chaos Computer Club. His talk focussed on the increasing encroachment of data body by law enforcement, and the use of tools such as legal interception (tapping) and data retention. It must be said that this was a pretty dystopian talk, but what was most stimulating was his reflection on the current politial economy of lawmaking in the technological sphere. He was explicit that the diplomatic work undertaken in the last ten years has produced almost no dividends, that what privacy protections had been put in place were rendered dead letters post 9-11, and that a new approch was required. His intriguing proposal was for a renewed focus on building autonomus structures capable of delivering the privacy and data freedoms that we require, outside and beyond the nipple of the state. Coming from someone whose experience spans most of the moments of technological conflicts of the last fifteen years, who had previosuly believed that a more formal, presentable, approach would work best, his reflections provide important food for thought.

Lastly, I spent a lot of time talking with Emmanuel Goldstein of 2600 fame. The conversation was wide-ranging (and we discovered a shared passion for the TV series “The Wire“) but alas, I had to leave Pisa before his talk whichreports tell me was exhilirating. Hopefully audio files will soon be available.

Overall I was really happy to have made the trip, not only for these stimulating talks, but for all the small moments with hackers from all over Italy which have made my life so rich over the last years. Special thanks to phasa and the Rebeldia crew for their hospitality.

September 30, 2007 Posted by | /, italy, social cooperation, technology | Leave a 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 | 9 Comments

Another Subtitles Site Under Investigation

Searching for updates regarding the Polish police’s raids on participants in the fansub community Napisy, I came across a similar incident which took place shortly afterwards in France, but received little international attention.

At the end of May, Jethro, administrator of fan-sub community series-vo.com, was called in for questioning by the police in Poitiers regarding the subtitles being generated by the community for US television serials not yet broadcast in France. In subsequent days he closed the site. His various statements regarding the affair are to be found here in french. From some of his remarks he seems to suspect that individuals involved in a competing fan-sub community made a complaint regarding the site to the police, introducing some murkiness into the matter. No prosecution has yet been initiated but the police have apparently not excluded the possibility. At least some members of the legal profession reckon that they could genuinely be at risk (though they could be just promoting their own services); Anne Stutzman, the head of the audiovisual and intellectual property department of the legal practice Alan Bensoussan made pessimistic noises (in french), stating that “a series’ dialogues and script are protected by copyright…. translating them, even on a volunteer basis, without the author’s permission constitutes infringement.” According to the article the offense is punishable by up to three years imprisonment and 300,000 euros in fines. Over the top? For you to judge. It’s a mad world.

August 8, 2007 Posted by | copyright, enforcement, France, p2p, social cooperation | Leave a comment

Hackmeeting 2007, Pisa

The tenth annual Italian hack meeting will take place in Italy this year between the 28th and 30th of September in the wonderful city of Pisa, Tuscany. Due to sickness and force majeur I’ve missed two since attending “Hack Your Brain” in Bologna in 2002, and it’s my favourite tech event. The lion’s share of the presentations are in Italian but there are always a few seminars in english, and people there are friendly and happy to help out the linguistically bamboozled. Oh, I forgot to mention that it’s free, and the event is entirely self-organised by the participants, and that visitors can sleep on the premises. Naturally there are people coding, drinking, tinkering, chatting 24/24, and the whole extravaganza is being hosted by the occupied social centre Rebeldia.

Among other participants this years meeting will include presentations from Emmanuel Goldstein, Andy Mueller and Armin Medosch.

August 1, 2007 Posted by | /, events, italy, social cooperation, technology | 1 Comment

Polish Fansubs site Napisy.org 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, Napisy.org, 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.

Napisy.org 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

P2P v Web 2.0

At the moment we’re going through the interviews recorded in the United States during April, and there’s tons of interesting stuff. Two interelated issues that we returned to repeatedly were the legal battles against P2P developers and the capture of user-created value by so-called Web 2.0 . The popularity and reach of culture or information in a network hinges on three points:

(i) Having the storage and bandwidth resources to maximise the potential distribution capacity that the scope of the internet enables. In the analogue world, popularity can be expensive if you get the economics wrong: newspapers which don’t sell enough advertising lose money on every additional copy of the paper they sell. Likewise on the net, the bandwidth necessary to deliver the music/book/film can turn into a massive bill for the creator. Youtube and myspace are built to solve this problem, and use the content to manufacture advertising opportunities.

(ii) The ability to get people interested in your work: bestseller lists, record chart top 40s, cinema box-office figures, reviews are all essentially recommendation systems means through which people select their preferences in a super-saturated market. Lasfm or Digg are good examples of this. P2P systems allow you to add comments to files and rate their quality, but the most advanced cases of preference re-customing are occurring on the web platforms linked to p2p networks. Weblogs and RSS can interact in a fertile manner with p2p infrastructures but it would be interesting to see what functionality can be created within the p2p clients themselves.

(iii) The costs in terms of time and knowledge required to find something that we are not already aware of but are interested in, also known as search costs. The best example is one which I still have time for: Amazon. Google however do the same thing by tailoring your search results. P2P systems other than Bit Torrent allow you to search and previously offered the chance to look inside the folder of users whose other offerings tickled your fancy. Litigation has made people shut off access to this, out of fear of being prosecuted by the media industry.

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Both web 2.0 and p2p systems address each of these questions. The difference is that web 2.0 absorbs users contributions to capture value and make money. This could be acceptable if users were getting something in return, and guarantees as to the protection of their privacy and the integrity and pesistence of their data. P2P systems offers the possibility of a similar, but distributed, platform to achieve the same result without the risks implicit in ceding control to one company. The problem is that the relentless litigation against p2p developers has essentially paused experimental innovation on p2p platforms.

It’s only a matter of time before conflicts involving users ‘generating content’ and web 2.0 combine harvesters become much more visible; they’re happening already. For now it will be enough for someone to come up with a trendy concept with decent functionality, married it to a less than wholesale expropriation of user-created value. This will appear comparatively noble and win some audience. Take sellaband.com or revver.com for example: manifestly imperfect yet attractive compared to the competition.

But the real hope on the horizon is that a next-generation p2p system will arise that can enable a user-operated and controlled media distribution platform, taking our fate (and potentially our revenues) out of the hands of web 2.0 operations.

May 7, 2007 Posted by | /, p2p, social cooperation | Leave a comment

Steal This Film 2: The Sequel

At the beginning of April I hoped that I was returning to a regular writing schedule. Between EMI’s abandonment of DRM (okay, that’s an exageration, but it’s a watershed) and the Viacom suit against Google things are really hotting up. I hadn’t reckoned on the total engagement required to make a film. At the moment I’m in the US interviewing people for the second part of Steal This Film, and it’s been great fun, exhausting and extremely satisfying. When we enter the editing process in early May, I’ll be reviewing the content of our conversations with people around the world and extracting some nuggets. For the moment I’ll simply list those we have spoken to so far.

First up was Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian specialising in the cultural history of copyright and, increasingly, information policy in a time of war and the contraction of civil liberties. Next up was Eben Moglen, historian, head of the Software Freedom Law Centre, General Counsel to the Free Software Foundation and our undeclared Clausewitz. Or perhaps Nechayev or Roberspierre. Yesterday’s interviewee, Yochai Benkler, is th most rigorous theorist of all the lawyers critical of IP, but his virtuoso work is on postive forms of social cooperation and the explosion of production outside of market and state structures; we used to work together, and there is a special magic to our meetings. On Saturday we drove five hours to Washington DC to see an amazing woman, Elizabeth Eisenstein, historian of the first two hundred years of the printing press and its social consequences, who is also a tennis ace known for her lethal drop-and-lob. She is still writing, even though she retired nearly twenty years ago, and was wonderful to us – it was a genuine privilege. The day before we were in the West Village to meet Berkman Fellow and founder of chillingeffects.org, Wendy Seltzer. Lastly, we passed a biblical sunday, where the inundation of rain raised anticipation of the appearance of Noah’s Ark, with our dear friend and coleague Mako Hill, talking about free software, the media wars and the nature of networks.

Some times are good; the mind feels alive, you watch the world in flux and feel a protagonist in its mutation. Being with, and talking to, all these people, makes me feel alive. Tomorrow we travel to Princeton — on little sleep– to interview Robert Darnton, a historian of the book and eighteenth century france. there we will discover why nearly thirty percent of those incarcerated in the Bastille prior to its liberation in 1789 were imprisoned for ‘offences’ related to the book trade.

There’ll be time to sleep later.

April 18, 2007 Posted by | /, cinema, communication, copyright, p2p, social cooperation | Leave a comment

Bulgarian Torrent Tracker Zamonda.net Shut By Police

p2p demonstration in Sofia

Legal action against trackers, emule indexing sites and individuals is so commonplace these days  that people scarcely bat an eyelid. But similar to what has happened on occasion in Sweden in recent years, this raid is notable for the response it generated in Bulgarian society. P2P users took to the streets in impressive numbers and the word is that user-groups are preparing to launch new Bit Torrent trackers in defiance of legal and police operations. This is all the more impressive occurring as it does in a society with a bitter and disbused attitude towards poilitics easy to comprehend when one considers their experiences under stalinism followed by the corruption of the ‘new’ political class. Indeed it is notable that one of the slogans echoed by Bulgarians on the net is: “Piracy doesn’t rob… politicians do!”

Zamonda.net, the second most popular Bulgarian torrent tracker, was closed by a raid at the offices of their host ISP Linkos Ltd on March 12th last. The raid was conducted by the Metropolitan Investigation Office together with the GDBOP (General Office for Fighting Organized Crime). An employee of Linkos was also charged with having been the Zamonda administrator. According to Linkos, Zamonda had recently been sold to a Syrian national but the polcie weren’t happy with the explanations furnished and proceeded to sequester the company’s equipment. The raid was carried out at the behest of a company called Amotera, registered in the Virgin Islands, and alleged to be a flag of convenience for sections of media industry.RThe operator of another torrent site ‘Arena’ was also arrested in the same week, but subsequently released for lack of evidence.

A pro-p2p demonstration in Sofia on March 24th drew the large crowds pictured above.

April 7, 2007 Posted by | enforcement, p2p, social cooperation | 3 Comments