If all content is just data, what does that mean for quality television?

Why AT&T Killed Google Voice” by Andy Kessler in the Wall Street Journal is an insightful piece that’s been making the rounds lately. It’s worth reading. I’ll wait until you’re done.

The basic principle is that old media delivery companies–phone companies and cable TV–are trying as hard as they can to hold back universal fungibility of data pipes. TV and voice streams are just data, but cable and phone companies can charge a whole lot more for those services than they can for pushing the equivalent generic bits over the network.

I agree with most of the article, but I’m worried about the implications for TV. Today we are seeing a lot of really great television being made, subsidized by the station model that aggregates a wide array of content for a single station and then further aggregates a set of stations into a standard subscription package. So under this model, HBO can make a high-caliber show like The Wire–reported to be a money loser in terms of viewership and direct sales–and still be happy to make similar shows that build the network’s reputation. Cheaper shows make more immediate financial sense, but shows like The Wire are loss leaders for stations (or packages of stations).

The current digital crisis of the news business–disaggregation of unprofitable journalism and profitable miscellanea–is going to hit TV sooner or later. Disaggregation of TV content might make it harder to make great complex serial television (although we’d be paying less for it).

On the other hand, it might make it easier to mobilize audiences to finance really great projects. To Fox, Firefly‘s set of rabidly dedicated fans were no valuable than the same number of wishy-washy viewers of some lesser show (less so in fact, if they represented a demographic that brought lower advertising prices). There was no way to translate the intensity of the fans’ devotion into enough revenue to justify continuing the show. In a world of disaggregated TV, things might have turned out differently, with higher prices compensating for smaller audiences.

Then again, the movie industry relies by choice solely on audience size, with tickets to each movie the same price (varying by theater, but not by movie), and the blockbusters are rarely very good.

LOLcats as Soulcraft

Apparently Clay Shirky is working on a new book. He tweeted a possible title today: LOLcats as Soulcraft. I’m not sure what the book will be about (or whether that was at all a serious suggestion) but as I interpret it, it dovetails with some ideas I’ve been thinking about.

“LOLcats as Soulcraft” appears to play off of the essay-turned-book “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew B. Crawford, which argues that working with one’s hands, craft work, is intellectually and emotionally satisfying in ways that other kinds of work–either abstract-but-circumscribed “knowledge work” or routinized physical work in the industrial capitalism mode–are not. Crawford argues that craft work connects makers to the objects they make and fosters, in the face of a consumer culture based on disposability and black box technology, an ethic of upkeep and repair and respect for fine workmanship.

Shirky, I imagine, would take that argument for the virtues of craft work and extend it to the virtues of building the virtual commons. Participation in the digital commons, creating LOLcats and YouTube videos and fan fiction and Wikipedia articles and citizen journalism and free software, etc., creates a new sort of relationship between cultural works and audience (or former audience, if you prefer). “If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.”

This line of thinking naturally leads to one of the main questions both Crawford and Shirky think deeply about: what will/should society look like in the future? In particular, what will economic life be like? The digital commons–as resource, but even more so as an ethic–has the potential to basically cut the legs out from under the knowledge economy that has been increasingly prioritized in rich-world culture (especially in education). Already, as Crawford points out, the logic of scientific management is being applied to “knowledge work”, essentially routinizing it and taking the soul out of it. And the more the digital commons can replace its capitalist counterparts, the harder it will be to find any paid work in areas like software and mainstream media, much less fulfilling work.

In the long run,the democratization of the tools of digital production and the extremely low costs of “mass producing” digital products means that we will be getting nearly everything that makes up the knowledge economy for free. So we may see an economy in the rich world that swings back towards physical goods and physical services. Modern mass production obviously can’t absorb many of those who will be displaced by the digital commons, so we will have to find new ways of getting by. Crawford’s hoped-for craft renaissance may part of that. Learning to use less stuff may be another part. Alternatively, we might see massive concentration of wealth in those companies that make most of our food and our physical stuff (and then possibly reforms to the political economy to redistribute much of that wealth). As long as people can meet their basic needs in the future economy (up to and including rich access to the digital commons), LOLcats–and everything else they symbolize for Shirky–could go a long way toward displacing the consumer culture need for limitless economic growth.

It’s pretty hard to imagine what changes are being sown by the rising digital commons, but I imagine Shirky has some good ideas.

The most insane bit of U.S. copyright law?

I knew about many insanities in U.S. copyright law, but I just came across something that is so absurd and unjust it makes me queasy.

My dad is a professional musician; he plays blues and jazz and original piano music, and has made five records. For professional musicians outside of pop music (and often in pop as well), copyright law is already simply a burden to the point that it is almost universally ignored. Gigging blues and jazz musicians have long used “fake books“, unauthorized charts of the melodies, lyrics and chord structure of jazz standards. No one is worried about other musicians infringing on their copyrights, because jazz and blues (among other genres) are rooted in a culture of borrowing and adaptation. It’s inimical to creativity to draw sharp lines between what can and can’t be borrowed or adapted, and indeed in academic jazz programs one learns to improvise by practicing the great “licks” on classic recordings.

But my dad, being the upright citizen that he is, has stuck with original compositions and reinterpretations of public domain classics on his albums. One classic he put on a 2004 album is “Love in Vain Blues”, a Robert Johnson tune that was first recorded in 1937. Johnson died in 1938, and the original recording was published on vinyl phonograph in 1938 or 1939 (without a copyright notice) and not renewed after the then-standard 28-year copyright term had ended.

But as the result of a series of utterly insane laws and court decisions, it turns out that the song may be under copyright through 2047. Today, issuing as sound recording is considered publication. But according to the 2000 decision in ABKCO v. LaVere, sound recordings published before 1978 don’t count as publication. So despite the publication, re-publication, and widespread adaptation of Johnson’s “Love in Vain”, it was never “published” before 1978 because there was no sheet music. And because it was created earlier but “published” first between 1978 and 1989, the crazy rules go into effect. (ABKCO is the record label for which The Rolling Stones recorded some Robert Johnson songs; LaVere is the man who in 1974 tracked down Johnson’s surviving heir and made a deal to pursue royalties for Johnson’s music in exchange for half the takings.)

Here’s a great article on the Robert Johnson copyrights: “Borrowing the Blues: Copyright and the Contexts of Robert Johnson“, by Olufunmilayo Arewa.


Here’s another excellent article, arguing “that ABKCO, as well as the 1997 amendment to the Copyright Act that precipitated ABKCO, are legal anomalies that frustrate the intent of the Constitution.”

I just talked to my dad about it. He says “bring it on”. You can hear his version of “Love in Vain” at thesixtone, and on Wikipedia as soon as I transcode it. It’s pretty clear to anyone who a) knows how blues works, and b) knows anything about Robert Johnson and the lack of documentation about whether he even composed any particular song attributed to him, that there’s no basis for copyright claims on this stuff.