Category: Technology

4

Video Games as Art?

Half-Life CoverSo I’m listening to one of my favorite soundtracks — from the game, Half-Life. Video games are becoming more and more like cinematic experiences. (In many cases, they are being converted into really bad cinematic experiences, such as the Doom movie or Alone in the Dark, but that’s not my point right now.) In addition to soundtracks, video games like Half-Life have plots, scenes, characters, and dialog. A lot of this is rudimentary — the dialog, for example, is pretty limited, and character development is sparse — but it adds a level of depth and complexity to games that only recently were as simple as Space Invaders.

Still, as Roger Ebert pointed out last year, it’s silly to think they rival movies as story-telling formats:

“[V]ideo games [are] inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

Ebert got a lot of hate-mail from gamers for this comment, but I think he’s essentially correct that games are inferior story-telling devices, at least given today’s technology. The more interesting question is whether the loss of “authorial control” that Ebert correctly ascribes as the fundamental difference between a game and a movie makes games “inherently inferior” as narrative devices.

Half-Life and Half-Life 2 illustrate both my points and Ebert’s.

Read More

8

Cyberspace as Marchland

Wind Farm at South Point, HIThe picture I provided to Dan for his introductory post was taken at South Point on the Big Island of Hawaii, which my wife and I visited last month on our honeymoon. South Point is, as the name implies, the southernmost point on the Big Island and therefore the southernmost point in the United States. It is accessible only via an 11-mile-long, one-lane, barely paved road that cuts directly through a sparsely inhabited, windswept plain to the ocean. At the end of the road, the only signs of life are the makeshift parking lot for visitors, a nondescript navigational beacon, and a rickety pair of boat launches. The area is as isolated as it looks. Although other parts of the island are booming, particularly the area around Kona, the south side of the island, and South Point in particular, has been left behind. The guide books all warn against paying for parking at the nearby “Visitor’s Center;” in fact it is an abandoned building, and the people charging are squatters, not state employees. The proprietor at one of the B&B’s we stayed at told us that people go to live at South Point when they don’t want to be found.

The area is also littered with the remains of failed business ventures. One of the more spectacular of these is the wind farm just north of South Point, pictured above. I have no idea who built the wind farm, or why. But there are now several dozen wind mills standing in various states of disrepair. A few still spin, making a plaintive low whistle that you can listen to if you stop the car and turn the engine off (your entertainment mileage may vary). Most are rusted in place. Several have one or more blades missing. The scene reminded me of what Shelley must have had in mind when he wrote Ozymandias, thinking of Luxor and knowing little of ancient Egypt’s history:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The whole thing strikes me as an apt metaphor for cyberspace. Getting there requires tying South Point and Ozymandias to colonial America, turbulence, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and peer-to-peer filesharing.

Read More

1

The Political Wikipedia

Confused about the latest Propositions on the ballot? Wonder who the heck is on Team America? What is the One America Committee? And to what the Center for Responsive Politics responds?

printing press 2.JPG

Jimmy Wales has come to the rescue and declared independence from the hurly-burly of FoxNews, CNN, talk radio, and the like by launching Campaigns Wikia.

He declares: “I am launching today a new Wikia website aimed at being a central meeting ground for people on all sides of the political spectrum who think that it is time for politics to become more participatory, and more intelligent.”

And in what strikes me as a Yocahi Benkler-evoking moment Wales writes:

This website, Campaigns Wikia, has the goal of bringing together people from diverse political perspectives who may not share much else, but who share the idea that they would rather see democratic politics be about engaging with the serious ideas of intelligent opponents, about activating and motivating ordinary people to get involved and really care about politics beyond the television soundbites.

Together, we will start to work on educating and engaging the political campaigns about how to stop being broadcast politicians, and how to start being community and participatory politicians.

So what do you all think? Can a Wiki or Wiki approach change the way politics runs in the U.S.? While you formulate your answer note there is an irony here. Remember that a little while back Wikipedia changed its anyone can edit policy to have protected and semi-protected pages. Furthermore, Wikipedia had to investigate and block edits from certain Congressional IP addresses precisely because the politicians has been editing content with spin and the like.

There is also the question of just how well Wikipedia and the Wiki method work. I will get to that after I have read some articles I have found that tackle the question in an engaged way and I think merit some reflection.

1

New Casebook (Privacy, Information, and Technology)

Spinoff Cover 2e.jpgApologies for the self-promotion, but in time for this fall semester, Paul Schwartz, Marc Rotenberg, and I will be publishing a short paperback casebook of about 300 pages entitled PRIVACY, INFORMATION, AND TECHNOLOGY (Aspen Publishers, forthcoming mid-July 2006), ISBN: 0735562548.

This book is intended to be an inexpensive volume that adapts the cyberspace and technology materials from our full-length casebook, INFORMATION PRIVACY LAW (Aspen Publishers, 2d ed. 2006). The full-length casebook is about 1000 pages; the shorter paperback book is a more streamlined volume of about 300 pages, focusing exclusively on cyberspace, databases, and technology. Aspen informs me that this shorter paperback adaptation will probably sell at a price between $30 and $35.

The book might be useful as a supplement for cyberlaw or information law courses for instructors who want in-depth coverage of information privacy issues for between 2 to 5 weeks.

More information about the book is here. If you’re interested in getting on the list to obtain a review copy of the book (available in mid-July), please send an email to Daniel Eckroad.

The table of contents is available here. A summary of the book’s contents is after the fold.

Read More

7

Baseball, books, and property rights

Alan Schwarz has an interesting new article in the New York Times on the baseball statistics case. (The article cites, among others, Eugene Volokh.) A few of the more interesting snippets (this is all fair use, I tell you!):

“If anything, this case is even more impactful if the court rules for the players, because it will speak to any time you use a name in a commercial venture,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at U.C.L.A. “What if you use a historical figure’s name in a historical novel? Or other games, like Trivial Pursuit? How about ‘Jeopardy!’? Would they be liable as well? That seems to be the logical consequence of this. How do you identify what is news, and other times when there’s communication of factual information?” . . .

“Fantasy leagues are an intermediate case,” said Rod Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond Law School. “This could become like the Grokster case in the music-downloading world, where the Supreme Court could be asked to draw that line between the benefits of public use and ownership of property.” Fame, Mr. Smolla said, “belongs in part to the people who earn it and the public that gives it.

There you have the basic arguments. The difficulty comes in determining the place of baseball statistics on a continuum. On one end of the continuum are items that look a lot like property, such as detailed compilations of Derek Jeter’s batting average over the past ten seasons. On the other end are basic facts known to every Tom, Dick and Harry at every sports bar in America, like the fact that Ted Williams was the last player to hit .400. A detailed list of World Series winners back to 1901 looks more property-like; “the White Sox won it last year” doesn’t. And so forth.

Complicating matters further, the statistics case will play out in a world where ideas about property itself may be somewhat in flux. An interesting piece by Kevin Kelly ran in the NYT magazine last Sunday, about the effects of digitizing intellectual property. Kelly’s article argued that:

In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work. . .

Copies don’t count any more. Copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won’t mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain in meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library.

There’s a lot of truth to Kelly’s argument, and it applies to much more than just books. It certainly applies in the baseball statistics case, and that reality is going to be the backdrop that determines how the case affects property rights.

Thus, Eugene’s ‘Jeopardy!’ example is a good one. We can all imagine Alex Trebek and a ‘Jeopardy!’ answer of “This baseball player was the last to hit .400.” (“Question: Who is Ted Williams?”) The real emphasis is not on the definition of property per se, but rather on what are acceptables uses of the property. This is because in a world of low-marginal-cost copying, no one can prevent me from going to MLB.com and assembling lengthy lists of player statistics. And I don’t harm MLB or anyone else if I collect such copies. What MLB wants is control over how I can use such lists.

Single-Payer Music Care?

Les bon temps roulez! It appears the French legislature has picked up on the conversation started by one of Christine Hurt’s posts here a few weeks ago on the iPod, and wants to do something about Apple’s iTunes lockout of rival music sellers and players. The IP blogosphere is abuzz over the move, which directly challenges Apple’s aggressive efforts to leverage dominance in the portable-player market into a monopoly over digital music retailing.

Libertarians are likely to applaud moves like this, as this Cato Institute Report demonstrates. But I want to push the dialogue in an even more market-oriented direction. Since we’re thinking big here, why don’t consumers take some self-help measures? The recording industry is extraordinarily concentrated, provoking antitrust investigations left and right. So why don’t consumers form buyers’ cooperatives? If the “big four” own 90% of the music, why don’t consumers form four or so buyers’ groups that will negotiate access to music? Each would manage a library with about one-fourth of recordings. That seems to be the model behind Europe’s efforts to hold down health care costs—have one or a few big players form a monopsony (or oligopsony?), and bargain down the price.

Now I’m not saying that’s always the best solution for health care—as Cutler, DiMasi, and others have noted, a lot of innovation is funded by the fragmented buying pool in the U.S. system. But while I care a lot about innovation in health care, I’m a bit agnostic about innovation in music. Can we reliably say that the whole lot of music composed and performed after 1980 is worth more than J.S. Bach’s oeuvre? I don’t know. So I don’t care if “single-payer music care” ends up reducing revenues to the culture industries. Admittedly, in the end, I think it would actually help those industries, as William Fisher so skillfully documents in his Promises to Keep. But that’s another post…

2

The right to life, liberty, and a favorable ranking

Google uses its algorithms to set the Page Rank of websites. Anyone with a google toolbar can immediately see that Concurring Opinions has a pagerank of 5. Pageranks are determined based on Google’s algorithms, which are supposed to related to a site’s popularity (and to some degree, to longevity, as links build up). The system seems to work pretty well. Volokh.com has a pagerank of 7; the brand-new Orinkerr.com has a pagerank of 0 at present, but will doubtless climb the pagerank . . er, ranks . . . as it develops a track record of links.

Pageranks are more than just bragging rights, however. They affect how one’s site is listed in search results; this means dollars. And so we see this lawsuit:

A parental advice Internet site has sued Google Inc., charging it unfairly deprived the company of customers by downgrading its search-result ranking without reason or warning. . . .

KinderStart charges that Google without warning in March 2005 penalized the site in its search rankings, sparking a “cataclysmic” 70 percent fall in its audience — and a resulting 80 percent decline in revenue.

It seems problematic to suggest any right to a particular rank from a third-party ranking service. After all, there’s no contractual relationship here. And torts, like interference with business relationships, seem like a real stretch. Google isn’t a common carrier or anything else; Google is a third party, which happens to rank websites.

This isn’t such an unusual activity; entities create rankings all the time. If we chose to do so, we could rank something here at Co-Op — law blogs, perhaps — and I don’t think that we would have a responsibility to any of the entities we ranked. If our (hypothetical and non-existent) rankings listed Volokh.com at #1 and Conglomerate at #10, I don’t think that Gordon Smith could sue us — even if those rankings drove more traffic from Co-Op to Volokh than they did from Co-Op to Conglomerate. After all, we have no contract with any of them. (Similarly, if U.S. News lowers the rank of my law school, I don’t think that I’ve got an action against them.)

But I’d love to hear otherwise. And I’m ready to adapt with the times, if needed. I fact, I’ve got a complaint against Eugene Volokh all ready to go — you see, I don’t think he’s been listing Co-Op high enough up on his blogroll . . .

Boutique Medicine: Tax it, Don’t Ax It

Sick of waiting weeks for a doctor’s appointment? Or hurried visits? Well, “concierge physicians” have got a deal for you. Just pay a retainer to a practice (usually between $2,000 and $5,000 annually), and you’ll get immediate attention, long visits, and personalized preventive care. There’s just one catch—when you and, say, 400 other health care “consumers” sign-up at a given practice, it drops the other 1500 patients it had been serving to concentrate solely on retainer patients.

Is this problematic? Some important Democrats say yes, and have moved to kick “concierge physicians” out of the Medicare program. Tommy Thompson resisted that move when he headed HHS—and now he’s on a leading concierge franchise’s board. But since he’s left, some lower level officials at HHS have been raising concerns about “boutique medicine.”

After thinking about retainer care for a while, I have a few conclusions about these efforts. In a nutshell: I think it’s unwise to try to ban concierge care outright. But I do worry about it. It’s consonant with a larger movement that TNR describes: “to radically transform health insurance altogether, so that risk is gradually transferred away from large groups ( i.e., the government and large employers) and onto individuals (i.e., you).” If health insurance starts to move from a “defined benefit” to a “defined contribution” model, we can count on a diversion of scarce medical resources from a common risk pool to pockets of well-heeled consumers. Here’s why I think so…

Read More

Three Cheers for Categorizers!

gursky.jpg

Dan mentioned an indefatigable blogger who’s now taxonomizing over 600 law-related blawgs. I’ve heard a lot of critics of bloggers complain about “navel-gazing” in this field. But this type of work is exceedingly valuable, as I try to demonstrate in a recent piece on “information overload externalities.”

In my view, categorizers are a uniquely beneficial “genus” in the information ecosystem, and they deserve special solicitude from copyright law. Categorizers should be able to provide small samples or clips from whatever works they organize or index, without begging for licenses from the copyrightholders who own the sampled work.

Unfortunately, categorizers have been getting some rough treatment by courts lately. For example, Google recently lost a battle against “erotic image purveyor” Perfect 10 because the low resolution images on its “image search” might reduce Perfect 10’s sales to the “cell phone viewing” market. The Author’s Guild (which appears neither to represent all authors nor to be a guild) is suing to stop Google’s digital book indexing project—even though Google permits any aggrieved copyright owner to opt out! They believe Google should have to work out, individually, permissions for each of the millions of books they want to index.

Imagine if uber-taxonomizer 3L Epiphany had to ask permission to quote or cite to any of the blawgs he compiled. Are we really going to let a few cantankerous holdouts veto an effort to archive and index the world’s expression? I hope not, for a couple reasons…

Read More

17

Internet Censorship and the US Military

marines1a.jpgIf you learned that certain blogs and websites are being censored for having political content, you’d say: “That’s no surprise. China does it all the time.” Well, it’s not just China . . . the US Military appears to be taking some lessons from the Chinese government. A few days ago, Wonkette discussed an email it purportedly received from a soldier in Iraq complaining of Interent censorship. The email stated:

Just to let you know, the US Marines have blocked access to “Wonkette” along with numerous other sites such as personal email (i.e. Yahoo, AT&T, Hotmail, etc), blogs that don’t agree with the government point of view, personal websites, and some news organizatons. This has taken effect as of the beginning of February. I have no problem with them blocking porn sites (after all it is a government network), but cutting off access to our email and possibly-not-toeing-the-government-line websites is a bit much.

Another email posted recently on Wonkette is even more troubling:

Anyway, I had a few minutes today and thought I’d look and see what else was banned on the Marine web here. I think the results speak for themselves:

* Wonkette – “Forbidden, this page (http://www.wonkette.com/) is categorized as: Forum/Bulletin Boards, Politics/Opinion.”

* Bill O’Reilly (www.billoreilly.com) – OK

* Air America (www.airamericaradio.com) – “Forbidden, this page (http://www.airamericaradio.com/) is categorized as: Internet Radio/TV, Politics/Opinion.”

* Rush Limbaugh (www.rushlimbaugh.com) – OK

* ABC News “The Note” – OK

* Website of the Al Franken Show (www.alfrankenshow.com) – “Forbidden, this page (http://www.airamericaradio.com/) is categorized as: Internet Radio/TV, Politics/Opinion.”

* G. Gordon Liddy Show (www.liddyshow.us) – OK

* Don & Mike Show (www.donandmikewebsite.com) – “Forbidden, this page (http://www.donandmikewebsite.com/) is categorized as: Profanity, Entertainment/Recreation/Hobbies.”

If this email is true, I find it to be quite troubling. It is disturbing enough that the government is censoring political views from US soldiers. It is ironic that we are denying democratic discourse to our troops who are busy attempting to spread democracy in the Middle East. And it is really alarming if only certain political viewpoints are being censored while others are not. Anyway, this story just seems too outrageous to be true, and I sure hope it isn’t.