Our Work Here Is Done

[13 Jun 03] The patents underlying the GIF image format are about to expire [thanks, Jerry], and it turns out that the whole heavy-handed patent-enforcement fiasco of a few years ago was for our own good. You thought the purpose of patents was to encourage the innovative by offering a reasonable period of protection to their innovations? No, no, no—it's to encourage the innovative by protecting other people's innovations:

Unisys credited its exertion of the LZW patent with the creation of the PNG format, and whatever improvements the newer technology brought to bear. ... "it remains to be seen whether the new version [of PNG] will have an effect on the use of GIF images," said Unisys representative Kristine Grow. "If so, the patent situation will have achieved its purpose, which is to advance technological innovation. So we applaud that."

Coming soon: belated enforcement of patents on exclusive 'wheel' technology cripples small car manufacturers, but encourages innovators to invent new, smoother-rolling device. Applause!


It Was All A Frame

[12 Jun 03] I've been scattering comments about copy-controlled disks far and wide lately, mostly at Graham's place, and s'pose I should round them up into a single post here.

It's all been brought to a head by the release of Mike Oldfield's 2003 remake of Tubular Bells. What's that, I hear you cry? A remake of one of the biggest selling albums of all time? A remake to go with the orchestral version, the quadraphonic version, the 7" single version, the live version, the alternate live versions on video, the sequel, the numerous singles from the sequel, the live video version of the sequel, the sequel to the sequel, the CD-S techno remixes of the sequel of the sequel, the video of the concert of the sequel of the sequel, the DVD set pairing the concerts of the sequel and the sequel of the sequel, the tangentially-related millennium-themed addition to the whole series, the concert DVD of the millennium-themed addition, the remaster of the 1973 original, the SACD of the original, the remaster of the orchestral version, and the remastered best-of version of the entire series?

But of course.

And like the sad die-hard fan that I am, I want to hear it, if only to satisfy my lingering curiosity. After all, I once doubted the need for a sequel to the sequel, and it turned out to be Mike's best album in almost a decade. I don't particularly want the limited edition with bonus DVD, or the 'complete' box set with the sequel, the sequel of the sequel, and the remake of the original, but what's a tenner or so for the CD itself?

Except it hasn't been released on CD; it's been released on copy-controlled disk, a format I'd sworn to avoid. Dilemma. A dilemma made worse by knowing that Mike approved this crippling of his recording, with the result that an album recorded using G4 Macintoshes can't be played on them. (Guess what I use at work. Guess where I would have been listening to it, given that my wife doesn't like Oldfield's music.)

Things have been heading this way all year, though. With apprehension I've been awaiting each new release from EMI (which has sworn to uphold its reputation by treating paying customers like potential criminals), watching out for one of the copy-protection stickers they've been slapping on new releases in Australia. I'd reluctantly avoided new disks on other labels from Massive Attack and Spiritualized, but could I resist the lure of the Dandy Warhols, Blur, or Radiohead?

Those albums duly appeared, free of warning stickers, and all of them played on my home iMac and work G4; the fateful day had been postponed, it seemed. And then: the remake of the prequel of the prequel of the sequel of the sequel stabs me in my multi-instrumentalist-loving heart.

Luckily, the Canadian release turns out to be unprotected, and I've now ordered it; saved by the Internet once again. But how much longer before everywhere in the world succumbs to this blight? The multinationals are trialling the technology in small test markets like Australia, and as soon as they figure they can get away with it, they'll roll it out everywhere. It already looks like some of those unprotected UK releases I've bought are actually just unlabelled protected ones (ineffectively protected, but still). And so I'll be reduced to looking for a second-hand copy of the remake of the sequel to the orchestral version of the b-side of the 7", just so the record companies don't get a penny for it. While music still comes on physical objects that can be sold and bought second-hand, that is...

We're all screwed.

[Further ranting reading: comments at VM; more comments at VM; prequel to the comments at VM; sequel to the VM comments at MeFi. Or read the handy edited version.]


Tangerine Dream

[16 Apr 03] More and more of those copy-controlled I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-a-CD!s have been turning up in record stores here, and I've been trying to think what they remind me of—apart from the thousands and thousands of dollars (and now pounds) that I've given to short-sighted record company executives over the past twenty years.

In fact, they remind me of twenty years ago: of the first year I properly listened to pop music. If it had been up to record company marketers, it would have been the last year I listened to pop music, because I got sick of the Top 40 pretty quickly. But thanks to friends with good record collections and access to evil copyright-infringing technology, I discovered a whole world of albums to explore, by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who, and so on, all lovingly hand-recorded onto magnetic tape. Albums I've long since bought on CD in order to have a 'proper' version, an authentic artifact, with a proper cover and the sweet smell of permanence.

But it's not the tapes that copy-controlled disks remind me of.

At around the same time, I was into RPGs, when RPG meant 'geeky pastime involving funny-shaped dice' and not 'heavy weaponry used in Iraq'. Role-playing games involve a lot of books and booklets, all of them exactly the right size for a photocopier, and in those penniless student days a fair bit of copying and swapping went on. It would be hard to argue that we were depriving the publishers of money, because my friends and I already spent all of our pocket money on new manuals and modules; all we were doing was fuelling our obsession even more, fanning its flames enough to burn up all of our cash and whatever advances we could wangle out of our parents. Teenage obsessions far outstrip teenage income.

But publishers in the early '80s saw the advent of cheap plain-paper photocopying as the End Times, and some of them took measures to prevent it. The most memorable was the Tangerine Game. It wasn't actually called the Tangerine Game; this was a game with a manual printed on tangerine-coloured paper. Which photocopies as a sheet of solid black.

This masterstroke was, unfortunately, self-defeating. Tangerine paper is incredibly hard to read, and rules that can't be photocopied are hard to share with friends—the same friends you want to play the game with. So we never bought or played the Tangerine Game, and now I can't even remember its name.

As friends moved on, our game-playing circle broke up, and I switched my pocket-money allegiances to music. My friends and I educated each other by sharing tapes of favourite albums, and our names were forever associated in each other's minds with those albums, long after the tapes were gone and replaced. The music wasn't just music, it was social glue. Music was our never-ending game.

Now I stare at these copy-controlled non-CDs and think: corruptions of long-established manufacturing standards are not 'proper'; crippled versions of proper CDs are not authentic; data that can't be reliably accessed by high-end stereos and digital devices is not permanent; and the people who would sell these fruits of paranoia to their customers of the past twenty years are not my friends.

A copy-controlled disk is a Tangerine Game.


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