Amazon Autorip – A Game Changer In The Intellectual Property Debate

January 25, 2013 at 10:53 am


Yesterday, I got an email from Amazon. It read:

Dear Steve Skojec,

We thought you’d like to know that eligible songs from 3 CDs you have purchased from Amazon are being added to your Cloud Player library. This means that high-quality MP3 versions of these songs are available for you to play or download from Cloud Player for FREE. You can find your songs in the “Purchased” playlist.

In addition, we’re excited to announce AutoRip. Now when you buy any CD with the logo, the MP3 version of that album will instantly be delivered to your Amazon Cloud Player library for FREE.


I don’t know if I squealed in excitement like a girl, but I probably should have. This is a major development in intellectual property distribution, and it will undoubtedly influence any number of other decisions in the ongoing debate over who owns content, and in what form.

It doesn’t matter whether you buy a CD or a digital version of music, you bought the music. Having Amazon recognize this and ensure that you have access to both after purchasing the physical medium is a logical step. First, because it’s likely to curtail piracy. Think about it: have you ever lost or damaged a CD you bought and downloaded the album illegally to replace it, figuring that you already owned it? Don’t lie.

Secondly, it’s undoubtedly a strategic move to shift more content in the direction of digital and away from physical media as painlessly as possible. This will win over many of Amazon’s customers who like having actual CDs of their favorite albums on their shelves and aren’t yet ready to move to digital. Many of those people probably still buy physical albums out of habit, or even distrust of new technology. Once they become familiar with the ease and convenience of non-physical media, any number of those individuals may make begin making future purposes of digital media alone, thus alleviating shipping costs for Amazon, reducing overhead and fulfillment center staffing, and increasing profit margins.

This needs to happen with books. You may recall that I wrote something a while back about this very topic, albeit from a different angle. My proposal was intended to give print an extended lifespan by providing free ebook copies of any work to a person buying the hardcover. I wrote:

I got a Kindle Touch for Father’s Day, and I absolutely love it. The compact size, the convenience, the built-in book light in my case, the ability to store hundreds (or thousands) of books all on one tiny device – all of it is very appealing to me. Since I got it, I haven’t picked up one of the many, many physical books that are piled around my house.

At the same time, I wouldn’t dream of replacing them. Books that are worth owning are worth displaying, and if I read a good ebook I want a physical copy on my shelf. I want to know that when the EMP strike comes that will take out the American power grid and all of our devices, I can still read. Books are a status symbol. Books should be seen by the people who visit your office or your home. There’s nothing like the smell, feel, and heft of a book. When you have your head buried in the pages, everyone else gets an advertisement about what’s inside by looking at the cover.

But they say the print industry is dying, and the sales numbers I linked to are hinting that this is more than anecdotal. So here’s my proposal to book publishers:

With every physical copy of hardcover book you sell, package a free copy of the ebook as well.

That’s it. Simple. No magic there. It doesn’t cost anything to distribute an ebook. You can charge more for a hardcover. But if you’re like me, you want the hardcover on your shelf or for your lazy afternoon Sunday reading, and you want the ebook for the plane, the train, and the trip to the beach. I want to know that if I’ve purchased a book, I can read it in whatever format I damn well please. That doesn’t mean I think I should get a free hardcover if I buy an ebook; I understand that there’s a cost to produce something and that it needs to be covered. But if every hardcover came with an ebook version free of charge, I guarantee it would shore up the print industry in a real and immediate way.

Interestingly, my opinion on physical books is beginning to change. Now that I’ve had a Kindle for half a year (and with a recent upgrade to the new Kindle Paperwhite, I’m moving even faster in this direction) I am losing the impetus I had to keep buying physical copies of books just so I can display them on my shelves. It starts feeling like a waste of space because I now absolutely prefer, every time, to read on my Kindle. That said, I still like to display the cover art, be able to hand someone a copy (I’m no fan of DRM – I want to be able to loan books I own to anyone, even if they are in electronic format) and to know that if the power goes out, S.M. Stirling-style, I still have a library of good reads at my disposal.  There’s a real value to physical books in a way that there isn’t to CDs. CDs still need a power source to be used. Paper books will be good even after the bomb.

But I do believe that regardless of whether print is doomed or you want to keep it alive, the idea Amazon is applying to music simply has to also be applied to books. The time has come. And honestly, if you give me an ebook with the hardcover, I’m probably going to spend the extra dough on the hardcover more often than not, because I’M GETTING TWO THINGS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE. Decision: made.

I doubt the product strategists at Amazon are reading this, and if they are, they probably already know this is an inevitability. So get to it! Let’s make it happen. And if that just means that people transition away from print (thus fulfilling the profit motives I intuited above) and toward digital, well, that’s a consequence I’m prepared to deal with. There will always be a market for paper books, even if it’s small. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Video Games: Opiate of the Mass Effect?

April 23, 2012 at 10:36 am
Achievement Unlocked

If you want this shirt, you need help.

No matter how you slice it, gaming is huge business. Over $10 billion annually in sales, and the vast majority of American households play video games. (For a bunch of interesting stats, check out this handy infographic from the ESRB.) An ever-increasing number of us could probably be considered gamers, whether it’s as simple as our Angry Birds addiction or the Wii Tennis Parties we have when there’s a family get-together, or a more serious habit like that fostered by the MMORPG fanboys (and girls). Even the music industry is getting in on the action. If you haven’t heard it before, good luck getting this song out of your head:

Gaming was a staple of my life as far back as I can remember. I don’t know if the memory is accurate, but I distinctly remember riding on my dad’s shoulders out of the mall at about age 3 while he carried a shopping bag with our brand new wood-veneered Atari 2600. I remember nights spent playing Stampede! and Air Sea Battle and Chopper Command and, of course, Pac Man. When I made it into school, we had educational games in the classroom. I was a huge fan of games like The Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. When we got our first home PC (An 8086 with 640K RAM, CGA graphics, two 5.25″ floppies and no hard drive) the Christmas after I turned 10 years old, I started hunting for games everywhere I could find them. Shareware bins, friends houses, and the growing software section in retail stores. By the time I was 17, I had bought a much nicer computer, a Sega Genesis and Sega CD, and was reading gaming magazines looking for the newest and best. I had also by this time routinely begun to play games for 6-10 hours at a clip, immersing myself in the experience and tuning out the world. By college, I knew how to build and fix computers, run them faster, make them play better. During my senior thesis (which I did during Spring Break, because I was lame) I took a break and bought myself a Sega Dreamcast, and we had alcohol-fueled Soul Calibur tournaments into the wee hours of pretty much every night thereafter.

I didn’t know it, but I had a serious problem. My wife figured it out after I was let go from my job upon returning from our Honeymoon, only for me to lay around on the floor of our unfurnished condo playing Unreal Tournament all day while she supported us. Oh, I looked for jobs, too, but it was a half-assed attempt. I was much more interested in improving my Capture the Flag rankings. Games had been such a part of my life for so long, such a consolation from the disappointments of the world and my own inadequacies as a clumsy, non-athletic nerd, that I had come to depend on them as a coping mechanism without knowing that this is what I was doing. I was simply hot for the chase, the thrill of solving the next puzzle, shooting the bad guys, driving at breakneck speeds to outrun the cops, and in general just living out the exciting life and sense of purpose that I was ultimately lacking in the real world.

In “meatspace,” I was a loser. In games, I was a badass. It couldn’t be simpler. And so, during the times of my life when I was at my lowest, when I needed to be out busting butt and clawing my way forward to provide for my family, I would instead devote my considerable intellectual capabilities toward planning effective airstrikes in Command & Conquer: Generals.

This is the insidious thing about video games. They allow every washed-up, lazy, ambitionless slacker to feel the euphoria of accomplishment without ever doing anything in real life. This pushes an endorphin button in your brain so hard that you come back again, and again, and again. And if you were destined to really become someone and share your talents with the world, but you used video games to salve the sullen times when you were busy schlepping burgers so you could pay your dues, you may have in fact doomed yourself to become the washed-up, lazy, ambitionless slacker you were never meant to be. Because the allure of the game will always call you back. Just one more level. Just one more mission. Just one more…

I pretty much quit video games cold turkey a couple years ago. I started finding real, actual things to do that felt productive and pushed some of those same endorphin buttons in my brain. So I began replacing video games with these activities, and I hardly experienced any withdrawal. I’d plop down for the occasional tryst with Fallout 3 or Portal 2, or every now and then fire up my copy of The UrQuan Masters (which you can get for free and relive one of the best sci-fi action RPGs ever, and which really helped define the genre) for a bit of interstellar fisticuffs, but nothing that rose to the same level as before. I was free!

Then came this past weekend. I had come down with some kind of nasty, ache all over and feel completely exhausted cold that makes you just want to do nothing. With plenty of rain in the forecast and not much that needed doing, I gave in to the temptation and cracked open a copy of Mass Effect 3.

A word about Mass Effect – it’s just about the most well developed and interesting popular science fiction universe since Star Wars, and the whole series is a work of artistic and gameplay genius. Someone gave me a copy of Mass Effect, and I liked it so much I actually showed up at Target the morning Mass Effect 2 came out and plunked down whatever they were asking so I didn’t have to wait. I had more restraint with the third installment in the trilogy, but I knew I couldn’t resist forever.

So there I was, just giving it a little spin to see how it felt. I’d play for a little bit then take a nap. Maybe get some reading in or a movie with the boys. I would just get warmed up, catch up on the story, get a couple missions under my belt, etc. 10 hours later, I wondered why my body hurt so much, and why it was so dark in the house. And I did the same thing again on Sunday. I racked up at least 16 hours of gameplay in two days. I Could. Not. Stop. At one point last night, I actually heard myself saying to my wife, “I’m just going to finish this mission, and then we can do whatever you’d like.”

I’m just going to finish this mission? SERIOUSLY?!? AM I FIFTEEN YEARS OLD AGAIN?!?!?

I suddenly remembered why I had lost so much of my life to these games. They just take you away to another place, where you can have adventure safely, meet new and interesting people, and shoot them in the face with cryo-bullets that freeze their bodies and make them shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. Unless you’re Richard Branson, chances are very good that video games are a lot more interesting and exciting than your life is. And that’s why they will completely replace it if you let them.

I wonder how many amazing writers, composers, filmmakers, and artists we’ll never know about because their parents bought them an XBOX as a seemingly harmless Christmas present. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I can only imagine how much more I would have accomplished if I had pursued my fiction writing instead of immersing myself in the fiction of others. I’d probably have finished several novels by now. Maybe even gotten one of them published. When cyberpunk novelist and legend William Gibson was asked how he has been able to write so many books, he responded, “I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.”

What he says about TV goes doubly for games. They take longer to consume, and they lure you so much deeper in.

So, will I finish Mass Effect 3? Yes. I’m fairly confident that I will, because I want to know the rest of the story. And because it’s fun.

Will I pick up another video game soon? Probably not. It’s just not worth getting addicted. I’ve got some real-life leveling up to do, and I’d rather not let anything so purposeless get in the way.

No Time to Stop and Smell the Microchips?

March 27, 2012 at 8:02 am
Atari 2600 Entertainment Console

Oh Yeah, Baby! Look at that Veneer!

The other day, my 14-year-old daughter and I were driving to school, passing the time listening to “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. When it got to the part that says, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture,” something dawned on me. I reached over and turned down the volume, and posed a question:

“Do you even know what a Polaroid picture is?”

“No.” The blank look on her face (though unfortunately common to teenagers) said more than her response. I then spent the next five minutes explaining what an impressive development Polaroid photos were at a time when you had to take your film in to get it developed, and how people would shake them to get them to develop even faster. It then dawned on me: I could give a long list of technologies that I’m nostalgic for. But things move so fast now, kids don’t even have the time to develop an emotional attachment to them. I’m only 34 years old, and there has been monumental development in tech during that time. Do you remember:

  • Having friends whose parents still had black and white TVs?
  • The leap from broadcast TV to cable?
  • The advent of VCRs (let alone DVDs)?
  • The time you got your first microwave?
  • Small floppies replacing big ones?
  • Hard drives becoming standard on computers?
  • CD-ROMs replacing floppy drives?
  • Computer graphics that consisted of only 4 colors? 16 colors? 32 Colors? 256 Colors?
  • MS-Dos?
  • The significance of 640K?
  • BBSes?
  • 2400Bps modems? 9600? 14.4K? 28.8? 56.6? The switch to DSL, then Cable, then Fiber Optic connections?
  • Prodigy? Compuserve? AOL as an online portal? Juno? NetZero?
  • Telnet? IRC?
  • The first ISP in your area to offer a real internet connection to the World Wide Web?
  • The WWW when it was still mostly just a collection of unadorned hyperlinks?
  • Rotary phones?
  • Pulse-dial touch pad phones?
  • Old-school cordless phones (with the big antenna)?
  • The first time you saw a cell phone?
  • The first time you knew someone who had a cell phone?
  • The first time you bought a cell phone?
  • The first time your cell phone became Internet capable?
  • Atari, ColecoVision, Commodore64, Tandy, Amiga?
  • The enormous leap from Atari > Nintendo 8 bit?
  • The enormous leap from Nintendo 8 bit > Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis
  • The idiotic purchase (which I made, natch) which was the Sega CD?
  • The first time you saw real 3D graphics in a console game?
  • The first time you saw real 3D graphics on a game you played ON YOUR PHONE?!?!

This list is, of course, only partial. All of these changes have happened in my lifetime, and most of them have happened within the last 10-20 years. Kids that are in high school today don’t remember a time when high-grade technology wasn’t ubiquitous. They don’t remember life without the Internet. They never had to understand the Dewey Decimal system well enough to look up a book in a library card catalog. They don’t even know what it’s like to try to figure things out in a world without Google!

Space Invaders (1980)

Screenshot of Space Invaders (1980) - Taken From Stella, The Atari Emulator

And since the saturation of technology in society is so complete, they don’t have time to get attached to certain platforms or devices. 30 years from now, do you think people will wear shirts with the Xbox 360 or PS3 logo on them? Not a chance. But just last weekend, I saw an Atari logo t-shirt in the graphic tees section of Target. Atari was cool so long ago that they thought it was a good idea to put faux wood paneling on it. How is it still part of pop culture? Because it was all we had. It was new, unique, and exciting. And it didn’t get replaced by something else for quite a while. There really was no such thing as console wars back then. Moore’s Law hadn’t really kicked in to high gear. Nobody was imagining the kind of computing power we’d have in our toys in the 21st century, let alone in actual computers.

It makes me sad to think that generations only a little bit younger than my own take the breathtaking speed of technological advancement for granted. They don’t recognize the sound of a modem handshake, and they have no idea how thrilling it was when the public Internet was young. For heaven’s sake, most of them have never even seen, let alone used, a pay phone. Everything is different. And it will continue to change at an astonishing pace.

I’m glad I grew up when I did. I’m glad I saw this all unfold – slowly, awkwardly, attaining grace and proficiency over time. I’m glad I knew what it was like when every processor upgrade meant a noticeable boost in speed, and you measured RAM in kilobytes, then megabytes, never dreaming of what would come and how it would blow your mind. And now with the advent of advanced robotics, nanotechnology, exotic materials, solid state devices, and more, I’m certain that I’ll see an entirely new revolution of new science unveiled before another 20 years go by. I’m happy to know that through it all, I’ll never lose my sense of wonder as I watch technology progress. It’ll always be new and exciting, with a sense that science fiction is becoming science fact, right before my eyes.

It’s a pretty cool time to be alive.

Hatsune Miku = Idoru

November 12, 2010 at 11:36 am

“We could begin with a music called enka,” he said, “although I doubt you’d like it.” Software agents did that, learned what you liked. “The roots of contemporary Japanese pop came later, with the wholesale creation of something called ‘group sounds.’ That was a copy-cat phenomenon, flagrantly commercial. Extremely watered-down Western pop influences. Very bland and monotonous.”

“But do they really have singers who don’t exist?”

“The idol-singers,” he said, starting up the hump-backed incline of the bridge. “The idoru. Some of them are enormously popular.”

Idoru, by William Gibson.

I’ve been a William Gibson fan for many years. In terms of style, he’s like a cyberpunk Faulkner, and while I’m no fan of Faulkner, I find his consumerist, tech-ubiquitous vision of the future fascinating. And often enough, he gets a number of things right. One of my favorite Gibson books has always been Idoru, with a plot line I can’t succinctly summarize here (so go read Wikipedia on that if you’re interested.) Point is, the book revolves around the idea of a mega pop-star, a Japanese singer who is nothing more than a construct. She exists as a hologram, a mashup synthesis of the looks, voice, and talent of others, powered by an artificial intelligence that gives her an awareness of her own.

The idea of celebrity as a manufactured thing is nothing new. A look at the latest bands appealing to adolescents reveals no small amount of calculated artifice. But it seems that in Japan, an actual Idoru has arisen, and her popularity is not insignificant. Her name is Hatsune Miku, and she is a singing, dancing, Anime hologram:

Her voice is synthetic – the product of a piece of Yamaha voice software. (For more about the tech behind the hologram, go here.) Nothing about her is real, and yet the concert-goers seem remarkably enthusiastic. In the strange Venn Diagram between reality and virtuality, the overlapping section continues to grow larger. The appeal of this sort of thing, beyond the novelty, eludes me. If the cult of personality surrounding celebrities is nauseating, at least it’s a cult of personality. These constructs can’t have anything like a real personality, because they’re not persons. They’re simply an orchestration of anthropomorphized parts. And yet, something tells me that if we can continue to customize our celebrities to be exactly how we want them to be, the popularity of these idoru will only increase.

Gibson himself weighed in on Hatsune Miku on Twitter this week: “Hatsune Miku doesn’t really rock me. I want higher rez, less anime.”

Still, it’s got to be weird to watch your stories coming true.