Monthly Archives: April 2006

Umlauts. What are they good for?

Moben, a Manchester company that makes fitted kitchens, has been going around with an umlaut over the ‘o’ since 1977 but a few years ago someone (who exactly?) managed to persuade a court to stop them using the two dots because it made the company appear to be German which would obviously be a bad thing. Anyway, Möben just won a new ruling and they’ve relaunched with the umlaut back where it belongs, serving an entirely appropriate (although confusing) marketing purpose. Can’t think why they’d want to go around with a redundant umlaut in their brand name but good luck to them.

Clarke: you’re a lightweight. You’re fired

Ask any leader, anyone who’s ever led anything. Sometimes you have to fire someone. Sometimes you have to fire them even if it doesn’t really make any sense to do so. This is elementary Machiavelli but also common sense. Blair should fire Clarke tomorrow (he should have fired him yesterday). He should do it publicly and with extreme prejudice.

Anyway, Clarke’s already entered the tertiary phase of ministerial paranoia. He just made the speech: the one about the media that you make after you’ve had a hard time from the media. He’s deep in his personal bunker and the only way out now is a good firm Prime Ministerial sacking. Go on Tony. Show us what you’re made of. It’ll cheer us all up.

My life as an author

Josette Garcia is O’Reilly‘s UK Press Office – and before that she worked for another, significantly less groovy, tech publisher. She worked there, in fact, when I got my first (and only) book deal. I was paid an advance (the figure £400 comes to mind) to write a book about Mosaic. Yes, Mosaic. Naturally enough, by the time I’d written the first couple of chapters Mosaic was no more. And so was my book deal.

Anyway, Josette has sent me another box of lovely books for review so here are the highlights: I reckon you could actually do the whole podcasting thing using just Kirk McElhearn, Richard Giles & Jack D Herrington’s very slim Podcasting Pocket Guide without going out and buying its companion – the much fatter Podcasting Hacks (and it’s got a mini-directory of podcasts at the back like those directories of web sites we used to buy in the old days).

I really want to have a go at learning to program in Ruby using Chris Pine’s Learn to Program but I think his informal, not to say chummy, style might drive me crazy before I can (not that I could anyway – I’ve tried to learn to program several times going all the way back to an effort with Modula 2 in about 1990). Rich Gibson & Schuyler Erle’s Google Maps Hacks is deep, very deep. Too deep for me but probably right up your street for that mash-up you’ve been banging on about in the pub. Get on with it.

Warning – very long sentence about very boring topic

Stephen Newton, a Manchester PR guru, correctly points out (in a comment) that my long reply to Nicola Stanbridge’s long but slightly off-the-point reply to my long (and witheringly to-the-point) email to The Today Programme about her tendentious interview with disingenuous pop fossil Cliff about copyright term extension is actually quite boring.

That’s the thing. Copyright, the public domain, the history of hard-won access to ideas and all that is actually a real drag. Dry as dust. So, what we need, says Stephen, is better stories. Stories about actual orphan works and actual suffering amongst actual readers and learners or whole communities and nations denied access to their intellectual birthright by rapacious big media. Got any?

My reply to that BBC reporter

Hi Nicola,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I don’t want to sound like an obsessive or a copyright geek but I think ownership of intellectual property is important in modern cultures and economies and I think the media owners’ efforts to extend protection essentially indefinitely are potentially very damaging to our idea of ‘the public domain’.

There is a large and growing body of criticism of existing copyright law from people and groups identified with the public domain. The Internet, digital media in general, low cost grassroots media and other trends make these issues more important and more visible than ever. I’d be very happy to talk with you about all this. Give me a call if you’d like to.

In the meantime, here are some disconnected thoughts!

* The public domain is important. As a concept, it was essentially invented here in Britain when authors were first offered protection for their works in the 17th C. Copyright law, since then, has balanced the short-term economic interests of creators and the long-term interests of the public domain.

In copyright law a creator is granted a temporary monopoly in their work so that they can recoup the investment they made in creating it. After that it reverts to the public domain. Many people think that the continuous extension of copyright terms erodes the value of the public domain and provides excessive returns on initial investment for creators.

* Whether you like it or not, Cliff’s position *is* the industry’s position. The potential economic benefit to the industry of extending copyright protection to cover essentially the entire history of recorded music is incalculable. By comparison, the benefit to the tiny handful of artists who are a) still alive and b) still selling is irrelevant.

By the way, Sonny Bono’s campaign to extend copyright protection in the US was conducted not on behalf of artists but on behalf of his sponsors in big media. His campaign was more about permitting Disney to keep Winnie-the-Pooh and Mickey Mouse out of the public domain than about happy retirements for singers. You can be sure that when Mickey comes round to his 95th birthday Disney et al will be campaigning for another extension.

* Your question to Cliff about cheap CDs was valid but of secondary importance: copyright expiry returns a work to the public domain, making countless derivative works, remixes (‘mash-ups’ as they are now called) and reworkings possible. The Internet, open source software and the culture of free and accessible media point to the possibilities inherent in the public domain.

* ‘Use it or lose it’ is a real and useful concept but not in the way described. Public domain advocates, including, for instance, Larry Lessig, a law professor and inventor of ‘creative commons’, an alternative to conventional copyright, has proposed a very simple ‘use it or lose it’ rule for copyright owners.

Lessig proposes *reducing* protection to the original 14 years but permitting copyright owners to renew protection indefinitely on expiry on payment of one pound. This is a great idea because it minimises the risk of media ‘orphans’ – works which are protected and thus unusable but not currently available to anyone because they’re out of print or deleted. If a publisher or record company doesn’t want to protect a work someone else can pick it up and make use of it. In Britain, the Royal Society for the Arts is advancing a similar template for copyright reform: http://www.adelphicharter.org/

* The public domain is diminished whenever a work of value to someone (a business or an appreciative customer) is ‘walled up’ behind copyright protection and inaccessible. There are literally millions of such works – ‘orphans’ – across all media. Publishers, for instance, hold prisoner hundreds of thousands of books which they’re not interested in publishing but which have automatic protection for many decades. This is damaging not only to individual artists (like your Darts man) but to the economy at large.

Thanks again,
Steve Bowbrick

What Beavers do on St George’s Day

The Beavers, Cubs and Scouts gathered in Radlett to celebrate St George's Day
I spent part of the afternoon at one of those simultaneously anachronistic, life-affirming, frustrating, funny and frankly nauseating events that we’re good at in suburban Britain. It was St George’s Day so Olly’s Beavers troop, plus the local cubs and scouts, marched through the village, from the car park at the back of Budgens to the library and then on to the church for a service and a speech from the deputy mayor (then back to Budgens, of course). During the church service we were treated to lots of singing, fidgeting and giggling plus a short play about the merits of being tolerant of people different from ourselves. Afterwards, on the march back to the car park I was chatting to one of the older leaders. She told me this was her 35th St George’s day parade: “34 actually. They did one in a synagogue but I wouldn’t go in there”…

I’ll be honest: the scouts are screwed. They’re an institution on the verge of annihilation. An essentially 19th Century source of authority and discipline whose legitimacy has all but disappeared – dwindling numbers, vanishing volunteers and an isolated, ageing leadership (like our anti-semitic friend) – they’re a bit like the Chinese Communist Party… only slightly less successful. Various top-down efforts at reviving the brand have all failed. Renewal is impossible while the current cohort of fossils is running the shop locally and it’s impossible to recruit young, interested people while they’re still going around in woggles and nasty brown shorts.

I’m certain there’s a place for an organisation that brings kids together outside school and provides structure, learning and a bit of the outdoors. I also think that the kind of positive adult role models an organisation like the Scouts can provide (don’t laugh) could really help keep difficult kids on the straight-and-narrow. I’ve also met several brilliant, young, committed and inventive leaders who give up their time for no apparent reward. Still, the scouts are finished…

The BBC replies

I got a reply to my letter to The Today Programme – from Nicola Stanbridge, the reporter involved, in fact. I haven’t replied yet but will do so tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s her email:

Dear Steve,

Thank you for your email to the Today Programme. To answer a couple of points:

- I talk to a range of people, from all points of view, for background information in relation to every story.

- We were not promoting the industry position, we have no interest in doing that, instead we were looking at the Gowers review, which is hearing evidence until the end of the week, and picking up on a current campaign which highlights the disparity between songwriter and performer & other countries. We approached Sir Cliff because he has wide appeal and his main objective was to stand up for those 1950s stars who can’t get by and would like copyright royalties extended.

- My first question to Sir Cliff looked at when a recording is out of copyright, anyone can publish it , often at bargain prices which benefits the consumers.

- One point given some time in the piece was that some musicians want a “use it or lose it rule.” Horace Trubridge of the Darts explained how he felt his record company had let his band fall into obscurity, while there was a market for their records and while the band could’ve capitalised on that.

- On your final point if you know of historic, creative works under threat or an expert concerned about such a situation maybe we could do another piece on that. We are a very interactive programme with our email audience and always open to ideas.

Regards
Nicola Stanbridge

More excellent PR from the record industry

The BBC’s flagship daily news programme, Today, has, over the last few years, been a reliable mouthpiece for the music industry. Yesterday morning, Nicola Stanbridge interviewed Cliff Richard (yes, Cliff Richard) about copyright extension. Cliff advocates an extension of protection for recordings (like his Living Doll) to 95 years.

Stanbridge’s item advanced the case for extension without once mentioning the industry’s over-riding economic interest in the matter and managed to caricature opposition to extension by including no public domain advocates at all – just the rather sad voice of a member of Seventies chart-toppers Darts whose position is informed by the fact that his record label deleted all his recordings years ago. Here’s the email I wrote to Today:

Dear Today,

Nicola Stanbridge’s piece about extending copyright protection for musical recordings (Tuesday 18 April) suggested more than a little music industry spin.

Cliff and the handful of artists whose recordings are still selling after 50 years will not be the main beneficiaries of an extension of copyright protection. The music industry will benefit most because copyright protection takes in entire catalogues, not just a few recordings.

Might I ask Ms Stanbridge to declare any contact she had in the preparation of her piece with music industry PR departments? I ask because her piece essentially promoted the industry position while, strangely, not quoting a single industry representative nor more than obliquely mentioning the industry’s evident interest in an extension.

Meanwhile, the principle victims of an extension – the general public – were not represented at all, despite the fact that all of the best arguments against extension come from people who think that copyright extension directly impoverishes the public domain by reducing public access to historic creative works.

Best wishes,
Steve Bowbrick
Radlett
Herts

Here’s an MP3 of the interview.

A neat SMS application

Jag put me onto Spinvox. I love it, although I understand it hasn’t been a hit. Carphone Warhouse just took a 17% stake and I guess that might have been a rescue operation. I pay £5.00 per month for the service and I’d pay more because I find that standing on a railway station platform in a howling gale trying to take down a phone number from a voicemail message on the edge of a damp newspaper with a broken biro is no fun at all.

The way it works, you switch to Spinvox for voicemail and they intercept your mobile voicemail, transcribe it and send it back to you as a text message. The resulting text apparently comes from the original phone number, which is handy and makes replying very easy. Spinvox‘s… er… spin is that they somehow automagically translate your voice messages into text. Of course, they’re doing nothing of the sort. Nice people in a call centre in the West of Ireland are typing them up for you.

Once your callers know this, it influences what they say in their messages: my wife, for instance, doesn’t swear quite as much as she used to when she calls. This is a good thing. Some people, on the other hand, swear a lot more and one friend never misses an opportunity to malign the Irish when he leaves a message (you know who you are!).

Broadband access providers want to subsidise your business

There’s never been a better time to start an Internet business.

In Britain, we’re about to have a broadband price war. This is of course a good thing. Clever Carphone Warehouse, a successful mobile phone retailer, then a successful local loop unbundler and – if they keep this up – a successful broadband vendor, has decided to take on the entire market and push out ADSL (between 1 and 8Mb, depending on where you live) as a free add-on to their landline telephony products. The package looks good but the wise thing to do would probably be to wait for your own broadband supplier to fall into line as things hot up later in the year: Carphone’s package requires you to sign up for a super-long 18 month minimum contract with big penalties if you disconnect early.

The price cut is great news for Britain, already shooting up the charts for broadband take-up (in Q3 last year Britain added more broadband connections than every other country except China and the US). Broadband competition here is already very healthy. We’re seeing the payoff for some smart regulation from Ofcom and its predecessor Oftel. BT (the former monopoly) was obliged, first, to wholesale ADSL lines at reasonable prices to competitors and, later, to open up its telephone exchanges for those competitors to install their own kit. This pushed broadband and, more important, broadband competition out to the majority of British homes almost overnight.

As a result, where I live I can buy broadband access from at least a dozen competing ADSL suppliers (including BT) plus the local cable franchise (whose 10Mb offer is hard to beat) and the party’s not over yet – several major businesses are expected to join in this year, not least Sky, whose aggressive pricing and supreme packaging skill can only help. Hardly anyone in Britain is now out of reach of broadband and many interesting businesses are adding value to vanilla broadband – with video-on-demand, community IPTV and specialist gaming services, for instance.

For Carphone Warehouse, the announcement has already done the trick – analysts from Bear Stearns, Credit Suisse, Merrill Lynch and West LB have all upped their ratings or their forecasts or both. The company’s timing is impeccable. The mini-boom surrounding next generation Internet applications is picking up, usage is climbing fast in response to cheap access and new consumer kit (digital cameras and networked consoles, for instance) and that drives the virtuous circle. The truth is we’ve wound up in the place the doubters and professional industry whingers thought we’d never reach. Britain is among the most competitive broadband markets in the world and prices are falling fast while usage climbs faster.

Two insights: one, if you’ve been thinking about starting a business to soak up some of the super-cheap bandwidth that’s going to wash over British homes and businesses in the next five years, you’d better get your skates on: the warring access providers probably won’t subsidise your business forever. Two, if you were thinking of starting that business on some other platform (mobile, PS3 or, God forbid, interactive TV), think again. Price competition, booming customer take-up and rapid cultural change (like kids not watching the TV any more) means that the net is still the sweet spot for business innovation in Britain at least.