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piracy

Odd Lots

It’s a Long Way from Antigua via Amphioxus

Something occurred to me this morning, regarding the whole business of the li’l teeny island of Antigua setting up a legal pirate’s marketplace of Other People’s Stuff: Dare you to get it out of there.

I looked and did not find any current indication of how much bandwidth connects Antigua (or lord knows, Barbuda) to anywhere else. (Five-year-old data here.) So picture it with me: The day after the island’s government launches a dollar store for digital content (or licenses three dozen pirate wannabees to do it themselves) everybody in creation storms down there to get Windows 7 or the Five Gazillion Pack of ebooks for the price of an Egg McMuffin. What happens next?

Nothing.

Really: Nothing. The island’s Internet connection, no matter how good it is, goes belly-up from the stampede.

Now, don’t bother reminding me that Antigua was doing a fine business in online gambling, and to do that they needed a decent connection to the world. Sure. But how much bandwidth do you need to place bets or play what amounts to animated board games? The big deal in pirated content these days is movie and TV rips, and those are ginormous compared to anything you’d see on a gambling site. Individual ebooks or music tracks could move reasonably well, assuming everybody didn’t go there at once. Which they will. However, even a relatively small number of people downloading the last forty episodes of How I Met Your Mother would bring whatever Antigua considered a backbone to its knees. An amphioxus has more backbone than a squid. But just about anything has more backbone than an amphioxus.

I wonder if anyone will set up a seedbox host provider there. Torrent like hell 24/7 with all the other seedboxes, and then take a year to download it all back home.

Not likely. All this leads me to conclude that Big Media isn’t making a great deal of noise about this because they already know it won’t work. Some handful of people might fly there with a fat laptop and encrypt a terabyte of TV shows to make it look like unused hard disk space. On the other hand, people coming back from Antigua with a laptop and no tan will be looked at very carefully by US customs.

So there’s less here than meets the eye. It’ll still be interesting to watch, and I reserve the right to be completely wrong. Bandwidth physics is one helluva harsh mistress.

Pirates of the Caribbean, V2.0

I originally thought it was a hoax when I heard about it this past January. It sure sounded like one. But it’s for real: The World Trade Organization has given the otherwise unexceptional Caribbean nation of Antigua permission to sell US copyrighted content, without any payment to copyright owners.

WTF?

It’s revenge, people. Antigua was making a pretty good living in online casinos until 2001, when the US outlawed online gambling. What was a $2.4B annual business dropped by two thirds. (Apparently, two thirds of the world’s stupidity lies within US borders.) I’d be temped to say that nothing of value was lost, which may have been true unless you were Antigua. So Antigua went to the WTO asking for compensation for the loss. The WTO gave them all American copyrights, free of charge. There’s a $21M cap on the annual take, but as best I can tell, no time limit on the grant. Basically, Antigua can sell anything copyrighted in the US at all.

This is the plot of a comic novel. It reminds me of nothing more than The Mouse That Roared, which was a 1959 sendup of nuclear weapons politics. A US firm creates a clone of the signature wine of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, which is a nanoscopic country somewhere in Europe, probably bordering San Marino on one side and Liechtenstein on the other. The Duchy goes for the throat and declares war on the US, expecting to lose and make up for lost wine revenues in foreign aid. Instead, the country accidently captures the horrible Q-Bomb from a secret lab (with a bumbling crew of Robin Hoodish bowmen) and the US surrenders.

Except that this time, it’s real. Buried in my notes on possible novels is something I called TC Pirates in Paradise that dates back to 2006. A disgruntled engineer slips something extra into his company’s “smart” wall-wart product: a powerline networking system that sets up a hidden filesharing node every time it’s plugged into the wall. Nobody notices at first. He leaves the company, and nothing happens until a billion file-sharing wall warts have been sold into the wild. Then he reveals the secret, and all hell breaks loose.

Ok, not my best idea, and people would get annoyed at me for making fun of piracy. But man, this could be a marvelous high-tech farce with a title like Pirates of the Retail Channel. The whole business was made possible by a loophole in WTO rules that allows intellectual property to be used in punitive trade settlements. The glass on your irony meter will shatter explosively when you realize that the treaties that allow this are the same treaties that US copyright interests pushed for years ago and occasionally use against other countries. If those guys didn’t know what a “petard” was before, they’re sure as hell reaching for the dictionary now.

Antigua didn’t create its own online casinos. It licensed other people to create them, and took a cut of the profits. One wonders if they’re going to license Pirate Bay clones and do the same thing. Certain issues are unclear, primarily whether they’ll be able to strip DRM. On the other hand, who would stop them? (They could just download pre-stripped copies from Usenet and sell them.) What sort of prices are we going to see? Would they dare to become the Five Below of online commerce? Windows 7 for $5? And how soon before DRM-stripped items would show up on the rest of the pirate ecosystem? Is it any wonder that Adobe is giving up on selling boxed software?

No, I don’t approve. But man, I giggled. Politics is its own punishment, as the US copyright lobby is figuring out about now. If Rockhound57 and HockWards need to flee the country, well, Antigua would be the logical place to go.

Popcorn anybody? Let’s watch.

Odd Lots

  • The length of the Earth’s day varies more than I would guess, and the cause seems to be a certain amount of slosh in our molten core.
  • PC World is shutting down its print edition. I still have early copies of both PC World and PC Magazine in boxes, including issues from those heady days when the PC universe was exploding like a supernova and the magazines could be an inch thick and heavier than some small dogs. If I could still make money in magazines I’d still be in magazines making money, but that train has left the station, the station has been razed, and the tracks sold for scrap.
  • I smell careers burning.
  • Which might be one reason the Chicago Tribune’s owners are doing this.
  • And yet another reason (among many) for this.
  • On a whim I went out and checked the Adobe CS2 download link that got so much attention this past January. Gone. I guess they calculated that anybody who was entitled to it already had it, and all the rest were pirates. I wonder if they understood that genii don’t return to their bottles once let loose.
  • How about some extreme swimming pools? Damn. I’d just like to have a really boring swimming pool right now.
  • Or maybe nine peculiar (old) vending machines. Read the comments, which contain more cool vending machine links. I saw beer vending machines on Japanese streets when I visited Tokyo in 1981. It shouldn’t be too long before a modern descendant of the Book-O-Matic actually prints and binds your book from scratch, while you watch. Alas, it will cost more than a quarter.
  • Speaking of descendants: I knew this. Did you?
  • Bill Higgins sent a link to some sort of German WWII tank training manual, written in German rhyme and illustrated in a very surreal fashion, including God carrying a tank on one shoulder and a chubby redheaded Aryan angel in leather boots, holding a cannon rammer. The Jaegermeister stag-and-cross is there too, which might explain a few things. Yet another reason I should have taken German in high school.
  • Speaking of Jaegermeister: I asked my nephew Matt what it tastes like. His answer: “You don’t want to know.” When pressed, he added, “Malort.” Only a little research confirmed that, yes, I really don’t want to know.
  • Choice is always good.

UPDATE: A little research on the Panther Primer shows that the figure I thought was God is St. Christopher; the angel in red braids is St. Barbara, and the guy chasing the buzzard is St. Hubert, who was a master hunter…a Jaegermeister. Siegfried is in there too, as are some Classical Greek figures. German tank crews must have been a pretty educated bunch.

An Ebook Piracy Mystery

For the most part, the ebook pirates have forgotten about me. Five or six years ago, I was all over the pirate sites. Now I’m not even on the Pirate Bay, and haven’t been for some time. Binsearch shows that the last time I was uploaded to Usenet was almost a year ago. It’s enough to give a guy a complex. (It’s certainly enough to make me feel like I need to write more books.)

So last week the backchannel sent me a link to an article about how several major textbook publishers have subpoenaed a couple of Usenet service providers demanding the identities of two prolific Usenet uploaders operating under the pseudonyms Rockhound57 and HockWards. Both upload technical books to a certain newsgroup devoted to technical nonfiction.

Boy, do they.

I fired up my newsreader and took a look. I’d been there before, and have gladly downloaded crufty scans of old Heathkit and classic tube gear manuals and the occasional supreme oddity, like the German-language service manual for the Nazi V-1 flying bomb. There are scans of military field manuals and much other odd junk, plus all the spam, trollery and asshattery we’ve been accustomed to seeing in newsgroups since, well, there were newsgroups. (I first got on Usenet in 1981.) Rockhound57’s posts are, for the most part, academic science books of almost vanishing narrowness. If you’re ever curious about Dipetidyl Aminopeptidases in Health and Disease, well, Rockhound57’s got it. Ditto Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings. I actually thought that “cobordism” in Algebraic Corbordism was a typo. Then I looked it up. Man, if you can make head or tail of that one, you’re a better geek than I.

If you think about what those books (and they are indeed books, and not articles) have in common, you may understand some panic on the part of the big presses: Those books have very, very small audiences and very, very high cover prices. Algebraic Cobordism has a cover price of $99. Small potatoes. Hold on to your manifolds: Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings will cost you $269. I’m not exaggerating when I suggest that there are maybe 500 people on Earth who might conceivably buy such books, most of them starving graduate students. (I suspect that the publishers make what money they make selling to university libraries.) Having perfect PDFs flitting around on Usenet is an academic publisher’s worst nightmare.

But that leads us to a very important and completely unanswered question: Where did all those perfect PDFs come from? Not a single one of the titles I spot-checked is available as an ebook on Amazon. These copies are not slap-it-on-the-glass pirate scans. They are as perfect as the print images we used to generate for our books at Coriolis and Paraglyph. If they’re not being sold, how did the pirates get them to begin with?

I can think of a couple of possibilities:

  1. They’re DRM-stripped versions of e-texts that aren’t sold on Amazon but rather through heavily protected textbook sales channels like Adobe’s.
  2. They’re the print book equivalent of “screeners,” sent out for review, proofing, indexing, etc.
  3. They’re downsampled print images lifted somewhere along the pipe leading from the publisher to the printing presses.

My gut is going with #2, though #3 is certainly possible. Publishing services have been thoroughly commoditized. Most publishers use freelancers for proofing and editing, and many outsource layout itself. Any time a print image goes outside a publisher’s doors, there’s the chance it will “get legs.”

That said, I boggle at how many perfect PDFs were uploaded by those two chaps. We’re talking literally tens of thousands. Are there that many leaks at the major presses? Or is something else going on here? I still can’t quite figure it. I do know that a number of backchannel sources have told me that ever more file sharing is being done locally and off-Net, often by passing around now-cheap 1TB SATA hard drives. There’s no stopping that. Publishers need to start taking a very close look at their own internal processes. Pulling production back in-house might help, but it wouldn’t be a total solution, at least as long as desktops have USB ports. Problems don’t always have solutions, and piracy is probably one of those increasingly common nuisances.

There were times when I miss being in publishing. Alas, there are other times when I’m glad I’m not.

Odd Lots

  • Ars has the best article I’ve yet seen on the recent ruling in the Apple ebook price fixing trial. Insight: Publishers get less under agency than they do under wholesale, but they’re willing to accept it to keep control of pricing. Book publishing is a freaky business. This may not work out as planned for the publishers.
  • Also from Ars: Weird search terms that brought readers to the Ars site. I used to publish these too, but I don’t get as many as I once did. Web search has always been a freaky business. I guess the freakiness just wanders around.
  • The sunspot cycle still struggles. Cycle 24 will be freaky, and weak–even with our modern tendency to count spots that could not be detected a hundred years ago.
  • Not news, but still freaky if you think about it: The Air Force tried building a flying saucer in 1956. The aliens are still laughing at us.
  • Actually, the best flying saucers are all triangles. In the greater UFO freakshow, these are by far my favorites.
  • There’s a quirk in the insurance industry that will allow young people to opt out of the ACA and still get health insurance–while paying much less they would buying traditional health policies under ACA. Life insurance policies often allow for accelerated payouts of benefits while the insured is still alive. My insight: Such a policy would be a way to finesse limited enrollment windows by paying for catastrophic care until enrollment opens again. (Which would be no more than ten months max.) And you thought publishing was a freaky business.
  • We thought we knew how muscles work. We were wrong. Human biology is always freakier than we thought.
  • As is washing your hair–in space.
  • Streaming is the ultimate end of the DRM debate. Music, movies, sure. Could one stream an ebook? Of course. Would people accept such a system, or would they freak out? Well, we thought DRM for serial content was dead, too. (Book publishers have become much more aggressive against piracy lately. More tomorrow.)
  • And finally, if you want freaky, consider the humble cicada killer, which vomits on its own head to keep from frying in the summer. We had them living under our driveway in Baltimore. I didn’t know what they were and they scared us a little until I called the county ag agent, who said, “They’re cicada killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.” I immediately called Carol at work to give her the good news. The receptionist at the clinic wrote down: “Jeff called. The things living under your driveway are psychotic killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.”

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

End of the Road for CS-in-a-Box

Big news today: Adobe’s CS6 product is the last one that you’ll be able to install “out of the box” from a retail copy. Much fuss is being made about a move that was lead-pipe predictable after Creative Cloud went live last year. Some of today’s new stories give you the impression that there’s some dazzling new browser-based whatchamacallit technology behind CC, but after reading the Creative Cloud FAQ I’m not sure there’s any radical re-engineering going on at alll. Creative Cloud is not a browser-based technology. It’s just a new release of a digitally delivered client-side app suite, with a difference: You have to connect to the Internet at least once every thirty days to authenticate it.

So calm down. It’s just stronger DRM, and a leakproof end-run around the First Sale Doctrine.

The DRM, like all DRM, is probably crackable. Having to re-crack it every thirty days will slow the pirates down a little, but I wouldn’t bet on it being impossible. DRM is less significant than then other half: You can’t resell bits the way you can resell discs. There’s a pathway to de- and re-registering an Adobe boxed product, but it’s a nuisance and I’m sure Adobe has wanted to eliminate the whole process for a long time. This’ll do it.

Going to a subscription model means that people will no longer be able to buy a box for $500 and then use it forever. Big shops may be able to justify the cost. Smaller shops may stick with old versions. Doesn’t matter. Adobe obviously wants to eliminate the perpetual-license home market, which has always cost more in support than it generates in revenue. Going to subscriptions means a predictable and mostly reliable revenue stream. Losing individual users and very small shops isn’t much of a loss, money-wise. I also wonder if this may be the end of the road for Adobe Resellers. CC may do for boxed software what self-published ebooks are doing for books: eliminating the middleman.

Now, one final point I haven’t seen others make so far: Without a boxed product for pirates to steal, Adobe will lose a certain number of sales from people who tried it illicitly, liked it, and then bought it. (Most people credit this model with giving Microsoft a lock on the office suite market back in the 90s.) This makes me wonder if the otherwise-puzzling release of non-authenticating copies of all CS2 apps back in January was intended to keep the piracy-driven sales channel alive. In a sense, Adobe provided a pre-stolen copy of CS for people to install and fool with, no risky cracking required. A certain number of those people will like it enough to sign up for CC for better apps and sync services. Also, don’t underestimate the value of skills developed in using a product line. Unlearning a product and learning a different product is a pain in the butt. (This is why student versions at breathtaking discounts make sense in the long run.)

And for all the talk about CC being the future of software, c’mon. There are maybe four software companies in the universe that can pull this off. The future for $20-$50 apps like Atlantis is bright, and open source software has never been better. Adobe has kicked itself upstairs. That leaves a whale of a lot more room for everybody else down here.

Odd Lots