Copyright and media in the new millennium

At the end of October, the US Library of Congress (Copyright Office) published the results of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) comments process. To the surprise of few, the vast majority of submitted comments were rejected and the act was left essentially unchanged. The Library prefers to let Congress and the courts deal with any changes.

To those who may not be following the current battles, the DMCA was enacted by the US Congress in 1998, and has been in the process of being ratified by individual states since. The DMCA is an attempt to give better control of copyright material to the copyright holders (publishers) in this age of perfect digital copies.

The DMCA basically says that when you buy a copy of a copyrighted product (DVD movie, a CD, etc.) you are not allowed to try to reverse engineer any copy or access protection on it. It is also illegal to distribute any device (hardware or software) which removes the protections. Legally you’re still allowed to make a backup copy under the existing copyright laws’ “fair use” provision, but since the tools needed to make the backups are illegal, in reality even this right has now been revoked.

A manifestation of the panic the music and movie industries are currently feeling because of the ease of copying and sharing high quality music and movies now provided by modern computers and the Internet, the DMCA has US civil liberties and consumer rights organizations up in arms. Even the act’s original backer, Senator Orin Hatch, is beginning to question if it goes too far.

But don’t think this insanity is limited to the US — the DMCA was created as a result of an international framework; the World Intellectual Property Organization, specifically the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty. As a result, every country involved (175 as of September) is obligated to enact similar laws.

Canada has already implemented some of this, including an ill-planned levy against all recording media. Although passed as a law, the actual implementation is no where to be seen. If (when) it is enforced though, everyone buying a blank cassette tape or CDR will be charged an extra $1 or so. This will be given to the poor, starving media companies, as obviously the purchaser of the blank media was planning to pirate their copyrighted material.

The presumption of guilt. It’s enough to drive ordinarily honest individuals to piracy. “If I’m being forced to pay for it, I’m going to do it.” was a common thread heard during discussions on the matter when the Canadian law was being passed.

Ironically, there are many who feel that the current ability for anyone to download and “evaluate” MP3s of commercial music content can actually be shown to increase CD sales. Further, the Genie’s out of the bottle; there are already too many of the newly illegal tools out on the web (some from out-of-jurisdiction sites) to be able to really prevent their redistribution.

But most of the players in the entertainment industry don’t seem to be able to see this. They’re desperate to maintain the status quo, even with “disruptive technologies” being introduced all around them every quarter. Instead of adapting to the technology, they lobby for laws making it illegal to use it instead.

Meanwhile, MPEG4 is now able to compress a full length, full screen movie down to fit on a standard CD-ROM. A new, free (as in speech) compression algorithm is being finished called Ogg Vorbis which compresses audio as well as MPEG3, but with much better reproduction of the sound. This comes just as patent holders of the MPEG3 algorithm plan to start charging royalties for encoders and players.

I’m betting on the technology to win out. The Internet adapts dynamically, routing around censorship almost as quickly as it does around a network connection which is down. It’s not going to be overnight, but no-one holds back a tsunami. They may die trying, though.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

Big Glass

It’s striking — while our processors have grown from running at 20 MHz (or below) to over 1 GHz today, our monitors have only increased from a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels (300K total) to 1600 by 1200 (1.9M). Our actual processing ability (as calculated from www.distributed.net statistics) has increased over 489 times while our display technology could only deliver a 6.25 time increase.

Why? Because traditional display technologies use the last type of vacuum tube in common deployment, and big vacuum tubes are hard to make, are heavy, and are delicate. It has taken years for the production lines be able to produce the larger tube sizes in large enough quantity for them to be affordable for the average consumer. While 19″ monitors used to be something to drool over, they’re now available for less than $450 retail, and are included with many new computer purchases.

For anyone who’s currently using an older display (personally or in an organization), upgrading the monitor should be high on the list of considerations for improvements. It is quite easy to demonstrate an improvement in productivity with a better display over a slightly faster processor, and a good monitor can last for five years or more.

When shopping for a big monitor (”Big Glass”), make sure you only consider models which can support 1600 by 1200 at 75 Hz or better (higher), and have a dot pitch of .26 mm or better (lower). Keep in mind that an upgrade of the existing computer’s video card might be needed to be able to drive the new monitor at its highest resolutions, resulting in approximately 100 dots per inch, or “DPI”.

Generally, a monitor should be driven at the highest resolution that it can support, enabling the largest number of pixels to be controlled by the computer. Most systems have preference settings which can increase the font and icon sizes to make them more readable. This should be done instead of running at a lower resolution; anything less than a 1280 by 1024 pixel display on a 19″ monitor is a waste.

What about LCD panels displays? Except for special circumstances — mobility, space/heat constraints, need to project “high-tech leading-edge” image — they should be avoided. LCDs are still very expensive, largely because of production limitations and a huge demand in the mobile (laptop, hand-held and cell phone) markets. They also have a problem displaying any resolution other than what they’re designed to.

The smart buyer will wait for the new LCD production lines to come online and begin to saturate the market a bit with ever better gear. Also, by that time (two to three years) new high resolution display technologies will begin appearing at the mid-range, and start applying price pressure to LCD products.

An example of this is a new display from IBM, which offers 200 pixels per inch in a 22 inch screen. The first models aren’t even available to purchase — they’re being used for military research in nuclear weapons simulations. Other technologies on the horizon include “electronic paper”, which promises a 300 DPI black and white (not gray) in a thin, flexible, paper-like form. It won’t be “live”, but can be “printed” upon as many times as desired.

Examining the non-traditional display options, head mounted displays promise the ability to project high resolution images. Although consumer level products are currently limited to 640 by 480 pixels or less, unclassified military grade equipment is now in the 1600 by 1200 range. Combined with head tracking, even higher effective display resolutions can be achieved (different display is show depending on where you’re looking).

Back in today’s world, one option for increased display space which is often overlooked is the ability to add a second monitor. All modern operating systems have the ability to map their desktops across two (or more) display devices, so long as the hardware can support it. Most contemporary motherboards and video cards will allow this, and the results are most impressive.

Whether adding a second monitor to a workstation, or simply upgrading from an older, smaller model to a 19″, the improvement in the environment will be tangible immediately. Its that “new phosphor” glow, the modern analog for “new car” smell.

The wall mounted TV and head mounted display? They’re a ways off. Until then, the vacuum cube will live a while longer. It has served us well, perhaps it deserves to.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.