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Just because you say it’s wrong, doesn’t mean people will agree

One of the many debates spurned by technology has been the morality of file-sharing and piracy. David Pogue of the New York Times wrote last week about his talks to various groups where he discovered a surprising reaction to these ethical questions. First he spoke with groups of varying ages and asked which of many hypothetical situations were wrong, like borrowing a CD from the library or making a backup copy of a DVD, or replacing your 2,000 vinyl records with copies of CDs from the library. Pogue says as he went through scenarios, more and more hands went up showing a lot of gray areas to the debate.

Then Pogue spoke to a college audience. He went through the same list and says no more than two hands ever went up out of 500 people. Even when he went for the extreme “You want a movie or an album. You don’t want to pay for it. So you download it.” Only two hands.

Pogue’s unscientific but nevertheless revealing social study shows not only is the file-sharing debate more complicated than media companies claim, but there’s a generational gap in how people view the moral debate. Simply, young people don’t think file-sharing is wrong.

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4400 canceled, epidemic of stupidity blamed

4400, from USA I have been grateful for cable’s ability to let niche shows thrive.  They need smaller audiences to generate blockbusters, often a quarter of what it takes to be a success in network primetime.  But the USA Network destroyed my reality by canceling the popular and amazing series 4400 only a few months after it’s cliffhanger season finale.  The show has seen its ratings continuously drop since its record-breaking opening mini-series, but the show remained a top 20 cable hit.  The abrupt cancellation stings more as many loose-ends go unresolved.

I can’t reconcile TV network’s apparent hatred for its viewers.  Shows like Desperate Housewives and Lost have inspired a flood of overly mysterious shows with numerous plot threads meant to dangle for several seasons.  To the detriment of viewers, networks refuse to allow for long term planning, whether it means limiting the series or promising a set number of episodes.  Lost, regardless of its success has 48 episodes left told over three seasons.  This allows for the show to plan long term about how to resolve the multi-year mysteries.  Even Battlestar Galactica, which flew close to the chopping block, earned one last season to finish.  Why couldn’t 4400 have the same chance for closure?  Are there so many wrestling matches that USA needs the extra airtime?

Wii bundles are a bad thing, says Nintendo

Worldwide sellouts and piles of money haven’t stopped Nintendo president Reggie Fils-Aime from finding something to whine about. Fils-Aime told Reuters today he disapproves of retailers bundling the Nintendo Wii with games, removing the price advantage Nintendo has over its competitors.

Fils-Aime has a point. Gamestop sells the Wii with two to five games and a second set of controllers, making the $250 console cost almost $600 before shipping – more expensive than the Xbox 360 and PS3.

“We think it masks some of the price advantage we have versus our competition and, frankly, the consumer should decide what they want,” Fils-Aime said.

Now I agree bundles can be frustrating, but what’s it Nintendo’s business how retailers push the Wii. Nintendo can’t even keep Wiis in the stores. The second the Wiis are sold, they appear on eBay for 50 to 100 percent retail. So is it so wrong for the retailer to include the software in order to maximize its own profitability.

If Gamestop had 500 Wiis in every store, they wouldn’t bundle them because they couldn’t force consumers to stomach the games they don’t want. Those consumers would just go to Best Buy for bundle-less Wiis. But since supply is limited, retailers are finding ways to artificially mark-up the price, but at the same time offering more to the customer. Of course, if you don’t want the games, you can just spend the same $600 on a stand-alone Wii on eBay.

Nintendo just keeps to understand the basics of supply and demand.  Their console may be cheaper, but that doesn’t define it’s value. Capitalism does that.

Downloading comic books can do more good than bad

Marvel and DC logos Debates over file-sharing follow the same right and wrong argument.  Downloading comic books, I feel, adds a different layer to the debate.  Music companies argue they lose money because people download songs for free, which has been to be found untrue. Movie companies think people stop going to the theaters.  Comic book companies have remained out of the dialogue until their recent requests for BitTorrent tracker Z-Cult FM to pull its comic book torrents.  This new front in the War on Piracy will be another example why the war can’t be won – and why it shouldn’t be.

Much like file-sharing for movies and music, comic book downloads are spread over dozens of site and software.  PirateBay.org and Mininova.org provide hundreds of comic book torrents while programs like DC++ and eMule have huge collections themselves.  More than 90 percent of Marvel and DC’s comic books are available for free downloads from several sources.  Pirated comic books even have their own file extensions: .cbr and .cbz which are read by a free program CDisplay. Just like ending Napster did nothing to slow music piracy, neither will stifling Z-Cult FM. 

Going after Z-Cult and ComicSearch has probably caused Marvel and DC more harm than help.  Since stories about Marvel and DC’s emails to Z-Cult, online searches for torrenting and downloading comics has jumped on my site and I’ve only written two articles about it.  My own site is an extremely small sample size, but might reveal that more people are now aware they can download comics than before all the press the emails attracted.

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Writers strike continues with pranks and bitterness

Crying baby, from jupiterimages.com The writers strike is turning into an amazing case study of idiocy in big media. From obnoxious greed (on both sides) to misunderstanding of new media and the internet to giving viewers months of reasons to look elsewhere for entertainment, the writers strike will do more harm than any spin machine can handle. But that spin is months away. This week, the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) and Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) released bitter statements in regards to their recent three-days of negotiations revealing how far we are from the strike’s end.

WGA’s negotiating committee chair John Bowman said yesterday producers left talks “in a bit of a huff” in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. The AMPTP responded with a four-page statement with explaining their position. They said “Negotiations broke down [Dec. 7] primarily over one of the most old-fashioned issues of all: the desire of the WGA’s organizers to increase their own power and prestige by expanding the jurisdiction of the union over reality TV and animation writers.” The AMPTP challenged many of Bowman’s statements saying producers had wanted to start talks much earlier and do not rely on giving ultimatums as the WGA claims.

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7 biggest geek rivalries

Forget about Republican versus Democrat, Pepsi versus Coke, and dogs versus cats. Geeks love our rivalries. We are ferociously loyal to one group over another and thing anyone who disagrees must be an idiot (which, in my opinion, they usually are). So here is, in my opinion, the best, geekiest, and most fun rivalries in all of geekdom. These rivalries must be going on currently (no Nintendo vs. Sega) and it must affect a significant group of geek, meaning Ewoks versus Care Bears will have to wait for another list.

7. Cheats vs. no cheats

Passwords. Hacks. Mods. Game genie. All tools of the trade for people who want to beat the game or just skip a really hard level. But is this ethical? Does reading a walkthrough count as cheating? Who are you cheating? Yourself or the game? Message boards across the internet when asked for passwords will sometimes have users who refuse to tell on the grounds that cheating in video games is wrong. It lessens the experience. Why waste your money on a game you aren’t going to play. Well, what should you do is (for the answer, please hold R while pressing UP DOWN RIGHT UP UP A B LEFT LEFT UP).

6. Piracy vs. no piracy

Yes, another ethical debate. For some, piracy is a way to sticking it to the Man, getting lots of stuff free and easy, or maybe just trying something out before spending the money. To others, it’s stealing, wrong, and immoral. If you want to watch a movie, listen to a song, or play a game, spend the money. It’s the only way to keep more of these movies, songs, and games coming. But neither answer is as simple as the downloading on IRC (it’s not simple, if you weren’t sure). And while lawyers try to figure out the legality of piracy and file-sharing, the practice still causes ire among geeks who are easy to ire.

5. Console vs. PC

In the on-going battle for the hearts of video gamers worldwide, the television and personal computer have been fighting the longest battle. Which works better: Controlling your character with a mouse and keyboard or a home console gamepad? Which has better graphics? Which is simply more fun? In truth, the answer to the first two questions is PC. The mouse and keyboard more often than not provide more precise and customizable control (though it’s far more complex to learn) and PC graphics will long out pace video game consoles. But consoles have many advantages from always knowing your game will play on your system (no processing power requirements), simplicity in set-up and often playability, and cost. And thus far, the market is choosing home consoles over PC by billions more dollars. 2006 showed gamers spent $6.5 billion on consoles and handhelds versus $970 million on PC games. But the battle is far from over, especially as more games are released on both consoles and PCs. Then we might see who really wins.

4. Open source vs. commercial

It’s the David and Goliath battle. Should I use Microsoft Word or Open Office…or maybe even Google Docs? What about hacking my iPhone to use user made software or should I wait for the official releases? And then there’s even those piracy questions, like should I use these open source Bittorrent programs or video game emulators or use iTunes and video game consoles. This all comes down to freedom of software choice. But don’t expect others to like it. It all seems innocent until you can’t share your files. That’s when bitterness becomes anger. Yeah, you know.

Mac and PC comercial, from Apple 3. PC vs. Mac

Ah, this one separates the coders from the designers. Macs pride themselves on simplicity and a long understanding of being better with visual and video design software. PCs, while more complex (a lot more), offer more programs and a mountain of exclusive video games. Hardcore PC gamers will tell you there is no option other than a PC and they’re right. But Apple looks prettier. And does more faster. And you can escape from Microsoft’s Window’s loving clutches. Leaving you more time for Photoshopping. Doesn’t that make you feel better?

2. Nintendo vs. Sony vs. Microsoft

You know a geek fight’s big when it gets mainstream media attention. The video game console wars between the Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360 haven’t been this fierce since a little company called Atari ran the industry. And that might have not been this bad. The video game industry means a lot more to more people these days. The multibillion dollar industry can be quite the cash cow when mixing in game licensing fees, in-game advertising, and online downloads all of which didn’t exist in the 1980s. And that’s just what the companies fight over. The fans often barely have enough to buy one video game console. So when they buy that console, they want to validate that choice and will fight anyone who challenges them. Preferable in a battle of Street Fight II. That ends up on every system ever made, doesn’t it?

1. Marvel vs. DC

Yes, this little rival of comic book universes is one of the most rabid, cruel, and longest running rivalries in geek history. You either love Marvel or DC. You might like characters in each universe. A Marvel fan might even pick up a Superman comic on occasion. But each comic fan has his or her loyalties with only one. DC Comics is original universe…but Marvel perfected the comic universe. DC is too corporate…Marvel’s too corporate. Batman is the best character…Spider-Man is the best character. The back and forth is endless and likely will never end. The debates over the best comic book company and comic book universe only makes reading comics more fun.

Marvel Comics versus DC Comics, from Marvel and DC Comics

Every Monday, I force my opinion on you, my fearless readers, ranking the seven of something geeky.

Writers seem to lack understanding of the web

Looking into the writers strike again, some writers reveal that they want something between getting paid when producers get paid to every time someone views their content. At a forum at MIT yesterday, Mark Warshaw, a writer, producer, and director who works on developing transmedia opportunities for the TV show Heroes, spoke about the writers strike. He gave a rhetorical question “Is it fair that Sting gets money every time his song is played on the radio?” to prove his point. Unfortunately, he kind of mixed up his facts.

First, Sting, or any musician in fact, gets no money for playing their songs on the radio. Even the producers don’t make any money. In double fact, for decades, record producers paid radio stations to play their music for the promotional value.

Further, let’s try to understand fair compensation. No one, writers, director, producers, or actors, are paid for each television viewer. Let’s remember, we don’t pay for TV shows. Producers and networks make money on advertising, using the number of viewers to decide on how much to charge for the advertising. That money then gets split between all parties involved (with the vast majority going to the network and tiny percentages going to those hard working writers and actors). Even movies and DVDs, which are paid for in part by each viewer, have many revenue opportunities from product placement, endorsements, etc. (if a line from Spider-Man appears in a Pizza Hut commercial, does the writer have to be paid?). I’m not saying it’s fair, cause it’s not, but let’s look at the real business model.

Now the internet, the source of all our conflict. It is unrealistic for writers to expect compensation for every appearance or viewing of their work. Aside from them never enjoying this kind of business model, the internet encourages widespread use of content that trying to reimburse the original creators for every page would be staggeringly time consuming (just try to get permission to license a song legally and in three years we’ll talk).

Warshaw told MIT that NBC has 10,000 pages of Heroes content and I guess he wants a couple of cents for each page. Unfortunately, NBC is not likely charging advertisers over and over again for each page. Web advertising more often trends toward bulk buys (advertising across the entire site or section) or pay-per-click like Google AdWords. And the reason people would even come to the NBC site is because there’s 10,000 pages of Heroes content. If there was only one or ten pages, viewers would find their information other places.

Let’s not forget, writers are often paid salaries in addition to residuals on their work. Their residuals might suck (four to eight cents for a DVD split between all writers) but writers are getting paid initially for their work; work which is paid for by the networks and producers. Only the entertainment industry enjoys lifelong expectations of residuals for their work (I don’t still get checks for websites I made).

So maybe writers should reconsider how they’re demanding residuals for new media. As I wrote about before (referencing Techdirt’s excellent article), having a rock hard contract might limit revenue opportunities for writers, forcing them into a one-size fits all agreement that can’t possible cover all possible revenue avenues coming over the next several years. And the internet is still so new, media companies still need to experiment on how to make money. It’s not just throwing a video up with ads.

So writers, it sucks that I have to be critical of you guys (I feel everyone else is already beating up on those greedy producers) but be more future looking than your media company overlords and maybe try figuring out what the internet is really all about.

Marvel’s starting to get it – downloadable comics

Marvel Comics Digital Comics, from Marvel.com Comics book companies have avoided the whole new media new business plan crap for a while. Since comic books are so much fun to collect and still easier to read in print, piracy (which exists) and digital distribution are not in high demand compared to music and movies.

But Marvel Comics, publishers of Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Hulk, are moving several thousands back issues onto the internet, ready for unlimited viewing for $10 a month or $60 a year.

The selection is initial sparse but the price is shockingly almost reasonable, especially if Marvel eventually allows downloadable versions for laptops, eReaders, and handhelds. For now, I say we just consider this beta.

Marvel is not the first comic company to experiment with digital distribution. Dark Horse Comics provides its anthology series on MySpace. DC Comics has also tested putting comics on MySpace as well as launching an online comics imprint.

But Marvel has been trying different versions of online comics for years. About ten years ago, in the heyday of AOL, Marvel ran original Spider-Man comic strips with sound and animation exclusive to AOL subscribers (my, how times have changed). Over the past few years, Marvel has kept first or important issues of popular series on its website recognizing obvious promotional benefits (though again, not for download). Most impressively, Marvel has released several DVD sets filled with high-quality reprints of decades of comics. There’s one set with 500 issues of Spider-Man, one of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and more, each for a very reasonable $50. You loose the collectib-ility and resale value, but gain more comics than you could ever afford.

So bravo Marvel. It’s nice to see this attempt at building digital distribution networks before there’s need. Comic book piracy is very, very niche (yes, people can download comics). With little competition, Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and other comic book companies can experiment with what will attract more readers and fans as well as add value to current fans. Though if that doesn’t work, they can always sue the fans.

The illogic of the writers’ strike

So the writer’s strike is in full swing. Fox now plans to postpone 24 indefinitely so as not to interrupt the season and you can be sure this isn’t the last casualty. Lost only has eight episodes to air and who knows how much Battlestar Galactica we’ll get (if any).

Now I believe the various mega-media companies are being tight wads, unwilling to share their growing revenue and profits – growing not only in the current media, but in new arenas. So will all that money, you’d hope people could pay someone to teach them to be civil and share.

But no, instead of sacrificing a couple of percentage pennies from your web clicks, we have to spend an indefinite about of time without our favorite shows and should this go on long enough, seeing great movies a year or two after their intended release.

So what’s gained here? Former CEO and chairman of Disney Michael Eisner had a surprisingly logical point saying: “For a writer to give up today’s money for a nonexistent piece of the future — they should do it in three years, shouldn’t be doing it now — they are misguided they should not have gone on the strike. I’ve seen stupid strikes, I’ve seen less stupid strikes, and this strike is just a stupid strike.”

Eisner goes on to say that even if studios were to agree to digital revenue, they don’t know what to pay since there isn’t any real money there yet.

Techdirt had some excellent insight into truly why the writers’ strike is in more ways than not a mistake.

A one-size-fits-all writers’ contract made a certain amount of sense for Hollywood in the mid-20th century when it was relatively homogenous and dominated by a few large firms. But it’s looking increasingly anachronistic today. Thanks to the Internet, Hollywood is on the brink of a difficult transition…The studios will need imagination and flexibility for the old studios to maintain their dominant position. They’ll need to experiment with new technologies and business models. Given how quickly the marketplace is likely to change over the next decade, it’s a little silly to expect a single industry-wide contract to fairly determine how writers will be compensated for the next few years.

Techdirt goes on to predict unseen consequences of this writers’ strike that couldn’t have taken place during the 1988 strike. With the internet in full swing to level the playing field of independent writers and content makers, many of us missing scripted TV might find solace in original internet content. More attention might be paid to those non-guild members who produce content shockingly without a contract.

Yes the studios are exceptionally greedy. But the Writers Guild of America is just as close minded. The collective bargaining power may have a destructive effect either limiting their own profitability or worse, leaving out new revenue avenues that might develop in the next couple of years (what happens when the 30 second commercial finally dies to their precious residuals?). And from a technology stand point, media companies, already scared to innovate on the web, are going to be even more afraid since now they have larger up front costs to pay to writers instead of negotiating on a case-by-case basis depending on the size of the new product. Something like content for the big rollout of Joost might net a writer more money than a more experiment content system. But until the writer strike ends, we won’t know what could be. And frankly, no one wins in this scenario.

Politicians find new audiences (they didn’t want) on the internet

It’s hard to believe Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has much to offer online gay daters, but there was his ad on Gay.com. The New York Times reports on the trouble politicians are having buying ads on the internet. Romney’s campaign used an ad placement system that puts his ads on various sites, including Gay.com and FanFiction.net, not the conservative, religious right Romney is courting. Republican candidate John McCain found his ads on the liberal Huffington Post and Democratic candidate Barack Obama angered Jewish groups appearing next to a book the group found anti-Semitic.

These candidates are starting to discover online advertising, shockingly, isn’t the same as television and print advertising. When you let some computer pick where your ads go, as these placement systems do, you’re hoping the math always equals what you expect. As anyone who’s used any kind of search engine, the math doesn’t always equal out.

The number of gaffes makes me wonder if politicians lack of understand is coupled with laziness. They’re buying into a network of ads instead of targeting their advertising exactly where they want it. I would doubt a politician would spend the thousands of dollars on television ads, risking that their ad would appear next to a children’s cartoon show and not CNN. But web advertising is still so cheap. With some services, like Google AdWords, you only pay when someone clicks your ad. And then you’re only paying in dollars and cents for each hit. So the ceiling to advertising on the web is much lower than television. As a result, the advertising being done is being less scrutinized. But it’s a little funny for the rest of us.