What is copyright, exactly?

For reasons I may get into one day I recently downloaded an electronic text version of the complete works of William Shakespeare. (For the record, I obtained it from the gutenberg project — www.gutenberg.net.) Anyway there’s something darn peculiar about this particular piece of electronic text: it has a copyright notice (unlike most texts from Project Gutenberg).

Now, let’s suppose that I use this text to publish my own edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare… am I in breach of copyright? Perhaps the creators of this text file have, like publishers of tables of logarithms in the past and of maps today, inserted errors in their text so that people selling copies can be detected and sued. But in this case, the only thing copied that was not in the public domain will have been the ERROR (whereas the implication of finding a copied error in a table of logarithms or a map is that the ACCURATE data has also been stolen).

It seems to me that technology creates opportunities for people to make money from intellectual property in novel ways (e.g. the recording industry), and that it is reasonable for governments to make and enforce laws for this to be conducted in a reasonable way. However, when technology destroys the basic underlying rationale for an industry (e.g. it is more convenient to make your own CDs now than to buy them) it behooves government to get out of the way rather than to create legal houses of cards.

Consider the film industry. Disney made Snow White a long time ago. 1939? I don’t remember exactly. It came out the same year that Gone With The Wind and Citizen Kane came out, I remember that.

If it were a book, Disney’s copyright would have expired, or at least it would be likely to expire sometime soon, and we could expect to see cheap copies of it coming out (including free electronic versions from Project Gutenberg) and of people making film versions without needing to obtain the author’s estate’s permission. This is the way copyright works and is intended to work: it provides a limited monopoly on created material to encourage its creation BUT it makes it free eventually because information should be free.

But, Snow White is a film, and so: (a) all the prints of Snow White in circulation were owned by Disney. They could never be legally copied or purchased, only “rented”. (b) Disney has “remastered” the film, resetting its copyright clock (this is the main reason behind remastering stuff, as far as I can see; any thoughts of improving audio quality, or whatever, are purely secondary). In short, if the film industry were to remain theatre-centric there’s no reason we could expect Snow White to ever enter the public domain.

But, the film industry is changing. Disney sells DVDs now. Maybe even DVDs of Snow White. Despite the region restriction system on DVDs (which should simply be illegal in my opinion) and MPEG-2 encryption, it’s possible to “rip” DVDs to hard disk with a typical home computer in about 30% of the DVD’s total content duration. From there it’s a very simple process to convert the DVD more-or-less losslessly into MPEG-4 (so it takes up 1/4 the disk space) and burn DVD movies onto CDs. You can do this now (which is theoretically illegal) or when the copyright expires (which, if the film industry has its way, will be never).

It really doesn’t matter. Let’s suppose that we form a DVD club and pool all the DVDs we own. As long as only one of us is playing a given DVD at a time, we should be fine. Since a typical household might own 100 DVDs and have 0.25 of a DVD playing at any given time (do you watch DVDs more than 6h/day?), there’s pretty much nothing the industry can do except raise the price of DVDs in some kind of death spiral.

In a few years, people will be recording movies and live concerts using the cameras built into their phones anyway (with CCDs offering resolution equivalent or superior to HDTV) — and a fairly simple program will remove any perspective distortion (and shake) prior to distribution from web sites outside the influence of the RIAA; nth generation TiVos will rip TV shows to hard disk and automatically clip commercials from them (sometimes they’ll be wrong and human intervention will be required — so, at most one person will have to watch the ads); and for that matter electronic copies of books and comics will finally start to appear as digitally scanning paper documents gets more automated.

Addictive Games

As anyone who is close to me knows, I play a game called “EverQuest”. EverQuest (or “EQ”) is an addictive role-playing game — sufficiently addictive that there is at least one “EverQuest Widows” group run by people whose partners, loved ones, and so forth have lost interest in them and switched to playing a rather silly, tedious game.

OK, so I call it a “silly, tedious game” and yet I play it? Well most games are silly, that’s the point. If you’ve ever seen a perfectly happy couple or group of friends arguing over a hand of Bridge you’ll know what I mean. But tedium in a voluntary past-time seems to me to be strange.

It seems to me that the creators of EverQuest have stumbled onto a “magic balance” of entertainment, challenge, tedium, and repetition that sucks people in. I’m not sure that if the game were, say, more entertaining, less challenging, less tedious, and less repetitious it would be more successful or less. I’d like to think it would be more successful but I’m not sure.

One of the critical factors of EverQuest’s success is the camaraderie of players. One of the reasons for this camaraderie is the brutally annoying, repetitious, opaque nature of the game. For example, all of the “cities” in the game are laid out insanely, have no sign-posts, and are split into “zones” which are tedious to cross (and one can stumble into accidentally). Consequently, most players’ first experience of the game is becoming helplessly lost in their home city with nothing but an almost sadistically worthless map and nothing to do. To deal with this one needs help. One tends to become friends with people one helps or is helped by. This is your entry into the EverQuest “online community”.

Next, everything in the game takes time. A lot of time. So, for example, you might want some rags to wear and a slightly better weapon. This will take you hours if not days. For example, to make one piece of leather armor (of which you may want ten pieces) you need a skin from an animal. Not every animal has a skin, apparently, so you’ll need to kill a LOT of animals. It’s dangerous killing the animals. This will take you a LOT of time and the assistance of your friends. So by the time you’re done you’ve probably played for tens of hours with a small circle of friends, set up consistent times to get online and hook up, and are starting to feel obligations to show up, return favours, and so forth. You’re hooked.

In order to create a game a typical player will play for 20-40h, most game designers put in a LOT of content. For the 20-40h you play their game there will probably be at least 10h of original, seen-for-the-first-time, content. To create this content, a group of writers and artists will have slaved away for six to eighteen months.

Now, to give your small circle of friends their 20-40h of entertainment, collecting pelts, making armor, recovering their corpses, and so forth, the content developers of EverQuest have had to do what appears to me to be very little work. On the down-side you’ve probably only seen 5 minutes (if time is a sensible measure) of original content.

Is it good that EQ is able to “entertain” so much for so little effort. Where is the “entertainment” coming from? Is it entertainment when it starts to seem boring, repetitive, and stupid?

It seems to me that most of EQ’s entertainment comes from the players, but that their contributions aren’t being leveraged at all, while the contributions of the designers of the game (5 minutes worth of original content entertains people for 20-40h) is leveraged hugely.

I think that the game that displaces EQ from the top of the online heap will be the first game that figures out how to better leverage the creativity of players without spiraling out of control.

I look forward to playing it.