Fire at Jeff

I’ll bet you all thought I was going to use today’s post to talk about Amazon’s amazing, astounding, [insert your own superlative starting with “a”] Fire TV.

Sorry.

I am going to talk about Fire TV, but–not to give away the surprise ending of the post–I don’t see anything there that warrants those “a” words.

For those of you who don’t obsessively follow the tech news,* Fire TV is Amazon’s entry into the “set-top box” space. Pause for question: why do we still call them “set-top”? I don’t have a single box small enough to fit on top of my TV. Even the Raspberry Pi is too big–and my TVs are far from the latest, skinniest models. End of digression.

* Frankly, I hope that’s most of you. Better yet, all of you. There are plenty of more worthy objects for your obsession. Off the top of my head, how about baseball, cats, and food?

Fire TV is mainly intended as a media streamer, competing against Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, and their ilk. Naturally, the focus is on Amazon’s own video offerings, though other sources are supported. Since other streamers also allow you to play your Amazon videos, the Medium A* needs to give you a reason to pick up their box. They’ve got three: UI, instant streaming, and games. Let’s take a quick look at those in reverse order.

* The Big A is, of course, Apple. How much of Amazon’s aggressive moves into spaces Apple controls is simply a desire to swap nicknames?

  • Games – Yep, it’s got ’em. In theory, since the Fire TV is running Android under the glitzy UI, it should be easy for developers to port their existing games over. In practice, Amazon heavily customizes Android on its tablets; there’s every reason to assume that they’ve done the same here. That could plant some significant landmines under developers’ feet. On the other hand, Amazon has a slick-looking game controller available for a mere 40% of the cost of the box. If they sell enough controllers, the size of the audience demanding games optimized for the controller would be a powerful incentive for developers to dance in that minefield.
  • Instant Streaming – This may prove to be the big winner for Amazon. The Fire TV caches heavily. That should cut down on streaming failures and “Buffering…” delays. More immediately visible to users, however, is the device’s predictive caching. It predicts which videos you are likely to want to watch next and starts downloading them before you even make the selection. The result is that when you do hit “Play”, the video starts instantly. As long as they don’t pre-cache so heavily that they blow through users’ bandwidth downloading video they never watch or interfere with their other network activities, instant streaming seems likely to grab a lot of eyes.
  • UI – Amazon is proud of the interface they developed for their Fire line of tablets. It’s graphic-heavy, puts their own library of titles front and center, and pisses the hell out of Google. What’s not to like? They’ve brought the same visual interface over to the Fire TV (suitably modified to allow for the fact that few TVs are touch-ready) and added voice searching. Speak into the microphone built into the remote. Your voice is uploaded to Amazon, stored, voice-recognized, and (in theory at least) appropriate search results are displayed*. The problem is that the market isn’t as excited about the interface as Amazon is. Despite Amazon’s mighty marketing muscle behind the Kindle Fire, they haven’t grabbed a major share of the tablet market. Even with a significantly lower price than the iPad, people are not flocking to Amazon’s offering. Even if one ignores Apple, Amazon isn’t dominating the rest of the market: Samsung and Google are at least holding their own.* I’m sure the NSA is salivating at the thought of a microphone in every bedroom and living room in the country. I’m sure they’re equally happy about the microphones in Xboxes and PS4s, but the key difference here is that Amazon will store recordings without anonymizing them. That’s so they can personalize the voice-recognition and improve its accuracy over time. Amazon’s customer data is already a huge target for criminals (and probably the NSA too, though that hasn’t been proven). Adding more data only makes it more desirable and harder to secure.

Bottom line: It doesn’t offer the ability to mirror your phone to your TV as Apple TV does. It doesn’t currently have nearly the same range of video sources that Roku does. It’s three times the price of Chromecast. But it may have found a sweet spot in the middle of that cluster. If you’re in the market for a media streamer, the Fire TV is certainly worth considering. Just don’t go applying all of those superlatives. It’s not at that level, and may never be.

Banned

Honestly, I try not to be a complete grumpy curmudgeon, rambling on about Doom, Gloom, and The End Of Civilization As We Know It. I really do. The universe sure makes it difficult, though.

Between the NSA, Caltrans, BART and AC Transit, and the Baseball Gods, there’s a lot of depressing stuff going on out there. I know last week’s posts were on the grumpy side, and the subject I’ve got lined up for Thursday leans that way as well (or at least towards the curmudgeonly*), so I figured I should talk about something lighter today. I started looking for something cheerful. Instead, I found this.

* Blame Lior. He’s the one who sent the link that set me off. He’s frighteningly good at that.

Last week, The Kernel, source of “tech, media & politics for enquiring minds” published an expose of the fact that Amazon sells “depraved amateur literature that glorifies rape, incest and child abuse”. Apparently this is new information to them. They also revealed today that Amazon also sells Holocaust denial works. But I digress.

The story was picked up by other British news providers, most notably The Daily Mail, which pointed out that several other ebook vendors also sell “pornography”, much of it self-published, and that at least one store mixed erotica and children’s books in search results.

So what happened? Amazon removed a few specific titles listed in the various articles, then decided that didn’t go far enough and began dropping any book whose title or description used certain key words such as “babysitter” or “sister”. Barnes and Noble is doing the same. WH Smith blamed the “problem” on their partner Kobo and shut down their entire site until “all self published eBooks have been removed”; Kobo is deleting all self-published titles.

Yes, you read that correctly. All self-published titles.

Keep in mind that all of these sellers’ terms and conditions for self-publishing specifically ban pornography. But rather than enforce their own policies, they would rather throw out the entire concept of self-publishing. After all, that’s much easier and legally safer than reviewing works at some point during the publication process. And it’s definitely cheaper than adding a filter to the site search functionality to hide material tagged as “erotica” unless the searcher specifically requests it.

Of course, if one has a publisher (even one that exists only on paper or operates out of your garage), you should be safe from the ban, since Amazon and the other sellers assume that a publisher is exercising editorial oversight*. As several commentators have pointed out, that means that “50 Shades of Gray” and many works that straddle the ever-finer line between “romance” and “erotica” are safe, at least for now.

* I don’t blame them for making that assumption: having them pass judgment on what constitutes a “real” publisher would be just as slippery a slope.

What makes this even more depressing is that Banned Books Week was only three weeks ago.

*sigh*

Here’s something to cheer you up. Kotaku is reporting that a Japanese company has introduced “Nyan Nyan Nouveau”: wine for cats. It seems to be a non-alcoholic, catnip-infused grape juice.

Now you and your faithful feline companions can sit down together and share a toast to Doom, Gloom, and The End Of Civilization As We Know It. Kampai!

Strike a …

Beginning next month, Amazon will be rolling out a program called “Amazon Matchbook*”. Put simply, Amazon will let you purchase a discounted ebook of any physical book you’ve bought through Amazon since 1995. Some limitations apply; the main one is that publishers need to sign on. (Amazon promises that at least 10,000 titles will be available when the program begins.) Prices for the discounted ebooks will range from free to $3.00.

* What is it with Amazon naming its book-related hardware and programs after things related to burning? “Kindle” and “Kindle Fire”. “Matchbook”. Was Jeff Bezos traumatized by “Farenheit 451” as a child? (I hope Urban Dictionary’s definition of “burning amazon” isn’t relevant here…) Not only does it not make sense in relation to books (which was, as you may recall, where Amazon’s business started), but it shows a great insensitivity to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest via slash and burn agriculture.

What do I think? I think it’s a great idea: anything that reduces the price of ebooks and makes it easier to buy them will reduce piracy (as we’ve seen with music, we’ll never eliminate piracy, but we can cut it back). We’ve seen over and over that cheap or free availability of ebooks actually increases sales of physical books for backlist titles. That’s all good for authors.

I’d like to see the publishers take the next step and make this kind of plan common across the industry. Not everyone has–or wants–a Kindle. If I could get a similar plan for ebooks in non-DRMed epub format so I can move them freely among all the devices and programs I use to read ebooks, I’d certainly be willing to pay a couple of bucks a piece.

I’m not blind to the potential problems here. If publishers jack up the price of physical books to “cover the cost” of making ebooks available, I’m going to resent it every time I buy a book when I don’t want an ebook edition. (Note to publishers: Raising the price of the physical book and charging a fee for the ebook would be just plain greedy. Don’t do it.) Given that the cost to create the ebook edition is fixed, I would hope that the fee would be the same regardless of the format of the physical edition: I shouldn’t have to pay more (or less!) for the ebook bundled with the paperback edition than with the hardback.

There are also some oddities in Amazon’s plan. Most notably, I don’t see anything that requires a customer to show that they still own the physical book in order to get the ebook. If someone bought the book and then sold it to a used book store or gave it away, should they still be entitled to a discount on the ebook? Even if I still own the physical book, do I have a legal or moral obligation to dispose of the ebook if I dispose of the physical book later? Can I sell the physical book and give the ebook away? (My take: right of first sale should apply. I should be able to sell, give away, or destroy either or both editions.)

Interestingly, it looks like it’s steamship time: a company called BitLit is preparing to launch a discounted ebook service for books purchased anywhere just about the same time that Amazon Matchbook launches. Since they don’t have purchase records, their model requires that you demonstrate your ownership of the book by uploading a picture of your signature on the copyright page. An interesting approach. I see some significant problems with it: can they detect if you’ve signed a slip of paper and laid it on the book? Is there an alternative if you don’t want to write in your book? BitLit’s model would presumably let you purchase the discounted ebook even if you bought the physical book used — though the requirement to sign the book may cause problems: if the model catches on, there are going to be issues when books start showing up with multiple signatures on the copyright page. I suspect that just the possibility of using a used book to get the ebook will scare off more than a few publishers.

So in short: there are technical problems and unanswered questions, but on the whole I regard Matchbook, BitLit, and their siblings as steps in the right direction.

The New Land Rush

What the heck is going on in Europe with regard to copyright these days?

The Register reported a couple of weeks ago that the UK now assigns any image that lacks information identifying the owner to an “extended collective licensing pool”. The upshot is that anyone can essentially take any picture that lacks metadata and use it for any purpose, including commercial. (OK, I’ll grant you they’re not the most staid, reliable journalistic outlet, but in this case they do seem to have the core facts straight. Other news outlets are reporting similar facts.)

At the moment, the only sure way to keep your photos out of the pool is to register them with the UK’s PLUS registry or the US Copyright Office. Correction: the other way is to not put them online. Keep in mind that many hosting sites routinely strip out image metadata either when the pictures are uploaded or when they’re displayed.

In fairness, I’ll note that the UK Intellectual Property Office disputes the interpretations of the act in The Reg’s article. Putting on my “I Am Not A Lawyer” hat, though, I’ll note that even in the UK IPO’s document, it notes that anyone not wishing to allow their work to go into the pool would have to opt out. This seems like it would impose a significant burden on anyone not in the UK.

Meanwhile, across The Channel, the French have their own pool going. As the SFWA-affiliated “Writer Beware” blog reports, the ReLIRE database is now online. The database is intended to list all works published in France prior to 2001 that are currently out of print. If a work is not removed from the database within six months of its listing, the right to digitize it and to exploit that right (i.e. to publish it in digital form) will transfer to a collective management organization. Note that the database includes not just works by French authors, but all books published in France.

As is usual with a database project on this scale, the data is apparently filled with errors (books still in print, books published after 2001, and books that are already available in digital form have been listed). This means that anyone who has ever had a book published in France needs to check the database and opt out in writing prior to the deadline – for each book. In other words, it’s an ongoing effort, and for many authors, an effort that must be conducted in a language they don’t speak at all. Oddly enough, French is far less of a universal language today than it was a few hundred years ago. (But I digress.)
Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m part of the lunatic fringe that thinks the current state of copyright protection is excessive*, but this sort of preemptive grab and the use of opt-out schemes sets my teeth on edge.

* For those not in the know, in the US copyright protection currently lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years for anything created since 1978 and any work-for hire (typically works copyrighted by corporations) get 95 years from the first publication; works created earlier have varying terms of protection, but the upshot is that very little is entering the public domain. Barring further changes to the law, it looks like there will be a bit of a public domain land rush in 2047.) Various international treaties have resulted in most countries offering similar protections; a quick perusal of Wikipedia suggests that life plus 50 years is most common. I’d prefer not to start a discussion of what I think the correct span should be (at least not right now), but just to give some context to the current discussion, I do think that it should be at least for the lifespan of the creator.

The main thing these two schemes (and others like them) have in common is that they set aside a small portion of any proceeds from the licensing of the affected works to reimburse any creators who might manage to prove ownership of included works, with the lion’s share of the proceeds going to the government and independent company that runs the licensing pool. And in the course of establishing the schemes, they force creators to monitor laws in foreign countries and deal with foreign languages – which takes time away from creating new works.

Does that latter complaint sound familiar? It should – I made a similar point in talking about electronic self-publishing and the need to be your own publicist, bookkeeper, copy editor, and several other roles traditionally filled by publishers. This would be another role added to the list.

Just to invoke the maximum amount of paranoia here: I note that Amazon, like many large, web-based companies, has arms in France and the UK among others. Could a good lawyer make a case that publishing through Amazon’s self-publishing arm constitutes French publication?

One final note before anyone suggests that I’m ignoring similar efforts in the US, such as the Google Book Search project (now in its eighth year of raising hackles). The difference is that Google Book Search is an entirely private project. While some of the issues being argued are similar, there is no federal involvement. Corporations are designed to maximize profits. Governments should not be.

The parallels with the great land rushes of the 1880s should be obvious. Then, the US government carved out large chunks of land in “Indian territory” and gave it to whoever got there first. Seems like in Europe, photographers and authors are the new “Indians”.