Mr Trellis and his pals attended the inaugural ORG meeting on Monday night. The ORG (Open Rights Group) states its aims as “to raise awareness in the media of digital rights abuses, to provide a media clearinghouse, connecting journalists with experts and activists, to preserve and extend traditional civil liberties in the digital world, to collaborate with other digital rights and related organisations, to nurture a community of campaigning volunteers, from grassroots activists to technical and legal experts.” One can’t be completely sure, but I think it means that it produces press releases and campaigns for digital freedom.
Most people aren’t aware that digital rights are an issue, let alone know what they are. However, a good, recent example is that of multi-region DVD players. DVDs became popular at around the same time Amazon really became successful. Suddenly, you could buy US TV shows and movies on DVD months, sometimes years before they were available in the UK, via amazon.com. You could buy legal DVDs on holiday that were far cheaper than the equivalent UK ones. There was one snag, however: the foreign DVDs had different encoding and would not play on many high-end players. Fans of Bollywood movies bought DVDs in India and were disappointed to discover they couldn’t watch them back home.
Manufacturers of the hardware and software had colluded to fix prices in different regions and ensure that you could only watch something when and where the manufacturers wanted you to. Illegal downloads aside, if you have legitimately purchased a DVD and want to watch it, who has the right to say that you can’t?
Frustrated by this, ordinary people rebelled. People who would not think of themselves as software crackers found guides on the Internet, put there by TV and DVD designers and engineers, showing you how to crack the multi-region encoding and allow your player to play the perfectly legal DVD that you had paid good money for.
It was quickly discovered, and disseminated, that cheap, unbranded players that were being sold in bizarre places like Superdrug had no encoding at all and would not only play any legal disc you threw at it, but would also happily play (cough) films and TV programmes downloaded from the late, lamented Kazaa. Apparently. Ahem.
Unfortunately, we are enjoying a brief period of digital freedom. The big producers of digital entertainment also produce the hardware to play it on, and they would prefer that we had far less control over what we watch or listen to, and when. While it’s becoming more and more difficult to copy CDs (even for your own personal use) a recent conference mentioned the issue of the “analogue hole”, meaning that anyone can record anything with analogue equipment. The big entertainment companies would much rather you didn’t do that, thank you very much.
Companies like Microsoft and Sony would like to have total control over what you do with your own hardware. This is known as DRM – Digital Rights Management. In Microsoft’s future, when you purchase a PC, the DRM will be embedded in the processor. Only software officially sanctioned by Microsoft will run on the PC. It doesn’t matter if the code you run is perfectly legitimate. Unless Microsoft have digitally “signed” it, it won’t work. Companies like Sony have lined the pockets of MEPs and US politicians to ensure that commercially advantageous copyright legislation gets passed without a murmur – in the future, some works like recorded music or books will never be free of copyright. When the artist is deceased, and has been deceased so long that giving royalties to his/her family becomes laughable (Beethoven? Dickens? Robert Johnson?), who profits from perpetual copyright? Three guesses, and no, it’s not the general public.
Radio 4’s Today programme broadcast a piece earlier this year about some famous works by artists like Maria Callas. They are nearly out of copyright, and the record company boss interviewed claimed this was a worrying development but I can’t see why. If the music was recorded 50 years ago, surely it’s made back its initial investment several, possibly hundreds of times over? Rather than try and package the performance with things that give it added value in order to compete with cheaper versions, the record company wanted instead to ban other companies from releasing the same work.
This is no secret. The problem is that most people don’t know about it. The need for an organisation like ORG is clear. We need a group who can make everyone aware of how perilous the rights are that they currently take for granted. Buying the Lost Season 2 DVD from Amazon.com in the US, before Season 1 is even finished? Forget it, after the multi-region encoding has been strengthened on your new player. Copying your new CD onto your PC to play as you work or put on your MP3 player? Enjoy it while you can.
This is to say nothing of how artists will be ripped off. Already, musicians are arguing that they should get a bigger percentage of royalties from downloaded versions of their songs. They reason, perfectly sensibly, that the record companies have no real outlay with downloaded music. They do not have to manufacture CDs or records, and therefore make more profit. Record companies are holding on tightly at present, claiming that they have to bear the “initial costs of the technology”. Quite what is so expensive and new about having servers with downloadable MP3s is a mystery to me.
Run by a Nadine Barley type media node and suspected Trustafarian, Suw (sic) Charman, the ORG is a good idea that is flapping loose without a clear goal. Charman wants supporters to lobby MEPs and states that she will draft “press releases” publicising the ORGs aims. At the meeting, Sark asked her what she would do then. “Write more press releases,” came the reply.
I do not require Charman (who uses Mac OS, the neutral Switzerland of operating systems) to tell me how to lobby my MEP, for I know how to do that already. I also know how to draft my own press releases and put them on the wires. Someone who thinks that a blog using an ancient, insecure default WordPress template in monkey shit brown is a suitable campaign website does give off the impression that their heart isn’t quite in it.
A few basic pointers: a campaign site should have a clear objective, it should have links to recent articles, an “about us” page, a “contact us” page and a “contribute” page, at the very least. At the moment if you want to know anything, you have to scroll through all the blog entries.
Setting up a proper campaign site does not take long, and doesn’t involve a lot of skill. Even I (hardly l33t) would be able to set up something rudimentary that looked sort of OK, using Firefox Editor, in a couple of hours. The reason I’m harping on about this is because Charman describes herself as a “blog consultant”.
At the meeting, the idea of setting up a wiki was mooted, but Charman admitted she didn’t know how to do it herself. I think she should have set up a wiki months ago, when ORG was in its infancy. ORG clearly hasn’t heard of Paypal, as it is unable to accept credit card donations, instead asking for standing orders! Apparently they will receive £5,000 a month in donations and I have no idea how this money is spent – it’s certainly not going on ORG’s online presence.
Press releases and articles for The Register and ZDnet is not enough. Sark, Trellis and Grabcoque called it “preaching to the converted”. Journalists are not going to pick up ORGs releases from the wires because most journalists, like most ordinary people, do not understand the technology or the issues, and they’re not going to bother writing about them. It would be far better for ORG to write the articles itself and have them published or broadcast in all popular media: tabloids, TV news, magazines, supplements… People need to know what’s coming. The membership of ORG chould provide plenty of knowledgeable talking heads: something the media sorely lack at the moment.
Sark, Trellis and Grabcoque have another idea (which I think should be done concurrently) and they were shouted down for suggesting it. Rather than faff about being a “media clearing house”, they instead think that the big entertainment companies’ hands should be forced, thus causing mass revolt by a public who are startled out of their torpor by having the rights they currently take for granted removed by stealth. Trellis’s account of the evening has received many comments from ORG members and hangers-on. That the comments quickly dissolve into name calling and speculation over Sark, Trellis and Grabcoque’s educational background and sexual habits shows the sophisticated level of the debate.
Some said that Sark, Trellis and Grabcoque were unhelpful – perhaps ORGs tactics had been decided in advance and this meeting was just a bit of back-slapping for the organisers. But none of them are strangers to direct action. Trellis set up CUT some years ago. Remember when Internet access was charged by the minute, and BT was dragging its feet over broadband? Quite. Incidentally, CUT’s site was set up to accept credit card donations and ran on a tiny fraction of the cash ORG is apparently receiving.
Meanwhile, Charman is doing whatever it is she does for a living (looking at her blog, she appears to spend her time answering emails and talking to her cats) and Trellis is currently drafting a manifesto for an alternative approach to digital rights.