Against Copyright

The issue of music piracy on the Internet has reared its head again, with the entertainment industry blaming the likes of Napster, AudioGalaxy and Kazaa for the decline in CD sales. This should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they are quick to blame piracy for any and all ills. Witness the MPAA website, which says: “One real-world example of piracy’s devastating impact on the legitimate marketplace is with the 1999 release of the film Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. Pirate copies of the film (created by using camcorders in US theaters) flooded the Asian marketplace while the film was still in U.S. theatrical distribution. When the film opened legitimately in Asian theaters, attendance was far below expectations.” Er, could this perhaps be because it sucked? I should also point out that the film still grossed over $920m worldwide, the majority of it outside North America. As the original Star Wars took barely 1/3 of its money overseas, it thus hardly seems in need of protection.

With regard to music, the actual evidence – largely ignored by the mainstream media for obvious reasons – appears to be that people who use file-sharing networks are twice as likely to spend more on music as they are to spend less. But regardless, I imagine few people feel particular sadness for the record companies; those with long memories will remember them saying when CDs arrived, that they would drop prices once the new medium caught on. Their failure to do so, preferring to price-gouge consumers mercilessly, is certainly one of the direct causes of any decline in sales.

Ilsa Spears vs. Scissorhands Jackson

They are also guilty of force-feeding the market with garbage, for which it certainly isn’t worth paying $14.99, and up – indeed, if local phone calls here weren’t free, neither would it be worth the cost of downloading. I just don’t care about an industry for whom Britney Spears and N*Sync (anyone else praying for a rerun of the Challenger disaster?) are the cutting edge, and where hype and image are more important than substance and talent. Keep cramming crap down anyone’s throat, and they will eventually gag, throw up and refuse to eat any more, no matter how good you tell them it is.

So what if Eminem loses a million sales of his new CD? While his previous LP was amusing enough, all he now seems to offer is whines about how screwed up he is (it’s all his parents’ fault, naturally) and how everyone hates him. Mr. Enema badly needs to Get Over Himself. Who cares if the executives at his record company have to cut back on their coke habit?

The entertainment industry already hated the Internet, largely because it renders them redundant. You need $20m to start a radio station, $200m for a newspaper and $2000m for a network TV station. But any idiot can start up a website (even me!), and use it to promote and distribute their book, CD, film, or whatever. It’s a level playing-field, and that infuriates and threatens media cartels. There’s no denying that the vast majority of musicians, who are at the bottom of the pyramid, benefit from the Internet and the exposure it permits. Those at the top are the only losers, and I would certainly say they deserve as little sympathy as the baseball players who threatened to strike while earning an average $2.4m per year.

The concept of copyright, as currently applied, no longer has any resonance for me. I can see why creators of work should be entitled to some protection during their lifetime, though no-one has a “right” to get paid for their art, any more than I have a “right” to get paid for writing these words. However, the principle has been utterly corrupted by the likes of Disney and the others who are largely responsible for the (soon-to-be-challenged) Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which packed another couple of decades onto the time before material become public domain – thereby saving Mickey Mouse from becoming fair game for one and all. This is merely the latest in a series of corporate land-grabs, which have extended the period of copyright from 14 years to over a century.

Jack bravely defends Hollywood
from the public domain

What moral justification is offered for this? Here’s Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America – conspiracy theorists might care to note that Valenti was in JFK’s 1963 Dallas motorcade, and within hours of the assassination, became the first special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson. Hmmm. In testimony to Congress, he said: “The core copyright industries, movies, TV programs, home video, books, musical recordings and computer software…gather in some $45 billion in revenues abroad, and has grown its employment at a rate of four times faster than the annual rate of growth of the overall U.S. economy. Whatever shrinks that massive asset is NOT in America’s interests… The case for copyright term extension is that simple.

Yes, it begins and ends with nothing more than bare-faced greed. We want to make more money, so you will change the law to let us do so. You don’t think the media companies’ $6.5m in political contributions had anything to do with the bill getting passed, do you? I’m sure it’s mere coincidence that, of the 13 sponsors of the original bill in the House of Representatives, ten took money from Disney. Indeed, the very same day Senator Lott of Mississippi signed on as a co-sponsor, his campaign committee received a Disney check for $1,000.

It is double ironic that it’s Mickey’s hands which are grasping, given how many Disney films are based on public domain works – or in the case of The Jungle Book, came out one year after author Rudyard Kipling’s copyright expired. The laws which they lobbied to pass, would have prevented them from making such films freely, and as it currently stands, copyright doesn’t protect, it suppresses. It’s acknowledged that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is based on Arthur Brooke’s poem Romeus and Juliet/ This was written less than 30 years previously and would, under existing law (the creator’s life, plus 70 years), have led to Will being smacked with a plagiarism suit faster than you can say, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Readers with long memories may remember the “Home Taping is Killing Music” campaign begun by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry in 1978. [On the nostalgia front, there was also the bizarre and highly amusing British Video Association claim in the following decade that video piracy financed terrorism. As yet, the MPAA have yet to claim that downloading Rush Hour 2 off the net is aiding Bin Laden, but after the “Drugs = Terrorism” adverts – which conveniently forgot the CIA funding pumped into Afghanistan when they were fighting Commies rather than us – it can surely only be a matter of time. (2010 update: And so it proved) Anyway, where was I…? Oh, yes…]

Funnily enough, home taping didn’t kill music: it survived, just as it’ll survive the Internet. In even the worst case scenario – the absolute and final death of the music industry – musicians would have to go back to playing live, as they did for the great majority of recorded history. They will have no option but to succeed or fail on their talent, rather than how many times MTV plays their video. It’s hard to see why anyone could realistically view this as a tragedy.

Wedded Bliss

It’s our first anniversary already. First month that is, of course, it being precisely 31 days ago that I walked down the aisle at King’s College Chapel in Aberdeen. Except, technically, it was Chris that did the walking down, I just kinda slid in from the side. We both walked up the aisle though. Technical quibbles about which no-one cares in the slightest aside, it was an amazing, incredibly memorable day, not least for the torrential rain which poured down all morning – probably more than Phoenix managed in the entire first six months of the year.

We didn’t let that dampen our spirits though, despite one or two near disasters on the day, most notably Chris getting her wedding dress jammed in the front door of the apartment, without a key to open it. Much fervent application of wet-wipes by her and bridesmaid Abigail followed to remove the grease – to such success that they deserve a career endorsing moist towelettes. I was, fortunately, blissfully unaware of such things, being shut in a small subroom at the church with best man Steve and minister. Luckily, the room did not permit nervous pacing.

Chris’s trip up the aisle was in itself a tad nerve-wracking, since her veil proved rather more of a hindrance to vision than expected – I realised this when I saw her shoving the hymn sheet up under the veil, as it was the only way she could read it. Her journey might well have ended in a trip if it hadn’t been for my father (in his “giving the bride away” role) assisting her to negotiate the tricky chicane round Bishop Elphinstone’s sarcophagus.

Elphinstone was one of the founders of King’s, and as befitting his position, he is buried in the middle of the church, though his final resting place is so plain and unostentatious as to make it almost a stealth tomb. Apparently, they did have an ornate cover for it, but when they brought it to the church, it was too large to fit through the doors. It’s been sitting outside for several centuries now, testimony to the difficulty of getting a good workman in Aberdeen.

The actual ceremony was mercifully brief, or perhaps it just seemed that way, for I don’t remember much of it, and will be heavily reliant for my memories on the surreptitious video being recorded from the lap of a relation. I don’t think I embarrassed myself too badly during the hymns, even if it was rather like trying to karaoke a song you don’t know, and I found myself going in a different direction to the tune more often than I wanted. At these points, I kinda wished I hadn’t chosen the “make up for in volume, what you lack in musical ability” approach.

Before it really sank in, I was married, and the month since has flown past. In some ways, nothing much has changed, and I still find myself looking around when people refer to “your wife”, unsure whether they are talking to me. But this stasis is for the best. I don’t want anything to change, so it’s a relief to see that nothing appears to be. And there’s only 31 more days to our second anniversary…

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 2: Drowning in Berlin

Previously: Sex, Drugs and Clogs ‘n’ Grolsch

We arrive in Berlin after the first night train of the trip, at some ungodly hour. You’d think they’d make some allowance for honeymooners, but no, all the timetables are designed to suit the business travellers. So, we pull in several hours before the tourist office (and its hotel reservation bureau) is open. The first thing we do is get our night train to Munich booked, since we have no desire to end up in Moscow, simply because there is no room anywhere else.

Are lucky not to end up there anyway, as the ticket clerk speaks no English, so we have to rely on a combination of my German, and her infinite patience – Dutch Railway personnel, please take note. We are first in the queue and get a room in the Hotel Remter, just off the Kurfurstendamm, up the street from both a strip-club and a transvestite revue. Bet that causes confusion to inebriated customers. We turn up at our abode, two hours before the room is ready (it’s still early!) but Dunkin Donuts occupies the time, and we look at the map and plot. It’s such a large city, we opt for an early bus-tour, so we can scope out the land and then go back tomorrow to interesting places.

I’m curious to see what Berlin is like, since the last time I was here was just before the wall came down (at the time, the Eastern Bloc border was cracking elsewhere, but not in Berlin). At that stage, you had to change DM25 into their currency when you went across into the East, but there was so little to buy, I ended up getting the best seat in the house for a performance of My Fair Lady. In German. Thanks largely to souvenir hunters, there’s now very little of the actual wall still standing, and what there is, is carefully fenced off as a monument. Elsewhere, there’s just a double line of cobble-stones which mark its path. As we travel round, it’s as if the division had never existed – life has just gone right back where it left off, with an incredible amount of construction.

The Bear Wench Project

We notice a lot of psychedelically coloured bears lurking around the city. Before you discard this apparently bizarre hallucination, should point out we’re talking cast from some kind of plaster. There were about four different poses, but no two were alike; turned out to be an art project, and one we fell in love with. Just done a quick count, and approximately 10% of all our honeymoon photos are of Berlin bears. 🙂 One statue was sent to New York in May, and was placed on Wall Street – this may not have been wise, given the bear has long been a symbol of market pessimism. And lo, the market did duly plummet, and accounting scandals did flourish!

That night, we head off to a Goth club, with the delightful name of Golgotha – not without trepidation, since we have no real idea of how to get around after the subway closes! The area it’s in is very quiet, but the address is on a main road, which soothes our paranoia somewhat. We walk past an incredibly spooky park, which looks like something out of Brotherhood of the Wolf, and laugh – wouldn’t it be funny if the club was in there!

We pass the park and check the house numbers. Guess what? It is in there. We go back and stand at the path (all badly-lit and tree-roots) peering in, nervously. Is that howling I can hear? I tell Chris I won’t make her go in there if it bothers her, thereby artfully concealing the fact that I’m scared shitless. We see two figures looming up out of the mist towards us, and prepare to defend ourselves. It’s an elderly couple. We figure if they can cope, so can we…

Ist das Lola?

Lola’s bank

Run Chris Run

Of course, nothing happens. The club is friendly, doesn’t charge admission and has good beer, though the music largely sucks. We are too happy to be with living people to mind, but are careful to leave in time to catch the last subway, and with other humans. This last plan goes down in flames when they go in the opposite direction, leaving us to make our way out alone through the park. RUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNN!!!!

The next day, we head to the Post Office, and send back to Phoenix a box of stuff no longer needed. With hindsight, we should have delayed this until after the immediately following trip to World of Music; the space freed up is rapidly consumed by CDs and DVDs. Happy times… Thereafter, we turn to the main business for the day – retracing Lola’s steps from Run Lola Run.

We had done some quick research on arrival here, Chris having found a website which lists locations used in the movie. Had we known we were going to be here, we’d have made the effort to watch it beforehand, but Berlin was not on the original plan. This lead to much “Er…is that the building?” questioning of each other; we take pictures anyway, just to be sure. [Subsequent inquiry back in London revealed we were usually pretty close to the mark!]

While running around odd corners of Berlin (and discovering that Lola would have to be an Olympic champion, or possess a teleport device, to cover all her route in 20 minutes), we stumbled across a couple of cool places. First up was Fassbender and Rausch, allegedly the world’s largest chocolate shop, which uses it to create, much like Mini-Europe, large-scale creations of famous buildings. I presume they’re varnished rather than actually edible (one hot day, and boom, the Reichstag is reduced to a puddle) but you can only admire the concept.

In the Babelplatz, opposite Lola’s bank was a window in the ground, onto an underground library, without any books on the shelves. This was a chilling monument to the Nazi book-burnings in the 1930’s, reminding me of Heinrich Heine’s prophetic quote from a century before: “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.”

On a lighter note, we found the mother lode of bears: 125 in a circle on the site of the future U.S. Embassy, with each representing one country and decorated by an artist from there. Kind of a Uni-teddy Nations… [Go on, groan – I’ll wait here for you] Also stumbled into a street festival, with food, entertainment and, of course, beer; one of the personal highlights was hearing them play Kraftwerk over the PA. Chris amused herself with some bubbles, and going by the trail of small children she acquired, it seems that you don’t need any musical ability to be a Pied Piper.

We left Berlin that evening with a feeling that we’d only scratched the surface of the city. Chris – particularly impressed with the public toilets – said it was somewhere she’d be happy to live, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a place with enormous potential, busy without being overcrowded, and the train to Munich reinforced our overall happiness and satisfaction with Germany. Never have I ever seen a sleeping car possessing its own bathroom, including a shower. Sheer luxury, with even a ladder that comes out of the wall so that the top bunker doesn’t have to engage in Lara Croft-ian maneouveres to reach the bed. With such attention to our comfort, it seems a shame to go to bed, but Munich beckons…

Next: The Hills are Alive…

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 1: Sex, Drugs and Clogs ‘n’ Grolsch

Apart from obvious, being-utterly-devoted-to-each-other-for-the-rest-of-our-lives justifications, there are many reasons why Chris and I got married. The chance to have a really good party – or, indeed, several. The acquisition of presents (with fortunately, not a toaster to be seen). I no longer have to be Chris’s employee; she no longer bears the mark of Satan, in the form of her ex-husband’s surname. But perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to take five weeks off work, the longest break I’ve had since graduating in 1987.

Technically, it wasn’t five weeks holiday. Not the twelve days prior to the wedding, certainly, given the amount of running around that had to be done, arranging stuff e.g. suddenly realising, the day before, that we’d forgotten to choose hymns for the service or print up orders of service. Oops. Every day, new challenges to be met – meeting the minister, and hoping he wouldn’t ask tricky questions about religion (for the record, he was great. The subject of God never came up at all). Every day, we’d fervently vow never to go through this ever again. No, whatever it was, a holiday was not it.

After the big day, we could relax, though it was some time before we lost that wild, hunted look, and the fixed smile that goes with being photographed approximately 400 times in one day – I now have the utmost respect for supermodels. Indeed, for the whole female race: wearing a kilt showed me the difficulties faced by the skirt-wearing sex on a daily basis, with “sitting” and “getting out of cars” top of the list of problematic scenarios. I’m also here to tell you that pure wool chafes.

Once we picked up the marriage licence and got out of town, felt like the wedding was actually over and the honeymoon could start. First stop was Edinburgh, since Chris’s experience of it was limited to me poking her head above ground at Waverley Station (“Look! A castle!”) and my last significant trip there was for a job interview after university, which was followed by a pub-crawl, me losing my glasses off the Forth Rail Bridge, and a vow never to drink cider again.

This time round, no such disasters, and we’d both like to get back and spend more time there at some point. The highlight was the City of the Dead walking tour, which is centred around the Black Mausoleum in Greyfriars cemetery. It’s home to the Mackenzie poltergeist, one of the most active spirits in Britain and is certainly a spooky site. After numerous tales being recounted, you can understand why some customers faint – if only through the power of suggestion. The whole effect was, however, greatly diminished at the end, by some guy in a mask leaping out and going “Boo!” at the party. Oooh, I’m so scared.

The next day saw the ‘moon proper start, as we began our tour round Europe on the trains. I’d done this kind of thing several times before, as a student; this time, we were doing it properly: a first-class rail pass, no sleeping on benches, and with actual bathrooms. Still bearing rucksacks, mind you: it was a joy to see the snotty business travellers in first-class look down their noses, as we T-shirted ragamuffins heaved our rucksacks up there, fully expecting us to be thrown out when the ticket inspector turned up. No, fuck you… 🙂

Enough class war. Brussels. The number of famous Belgians I can name might stop at about five (including three members of Front 242), but I like the place. The equation is quite simple, and involves beer and chocolate. They take especial delight in the former, and it’s great to see restaurants where the beer list is longer than the wine list, or even the menu itself. Each beer seems to come with its own glass: we were particularly impressed by Kwak – cue jokes about “Kwak addicts” – served in what looks like an hour-glass with the top of the upper globe sliced off, and Chimay, a serious death-beer of 9% alcohol (compare Guinness at around 4.3%), brewed by Trappist monks. No wonder they don’t say much.

The main tourist attraction is the Mannekin Pis, a statue of a young kid urinating, whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Probably deliberately, if I were them. Dressed in a different costume every day – Peruvian gaucho on this occasion – it is to Brussels’ souvenir shops what the Eiffel Tower is to those in Paris. The corkscrews were particularly mind-boggling, like the result of some bizarre human/pig genetic experiment. So were the Mannekin Pis lollipops – Belgium must be the only country in the world where it’s legal to suck off small boys. And moving rapidly on…

Outside of the ancient city centre, there isn’t really that much to see, Brussels largely being a bureaucratic centre for various bits of the EU. We did venture out to Heysel for the Atomium, a large-scale (x 165,000,000,000 to be precise!) model of an iron crystal, built for the 1958 World Fair. It’s now filled with a lot of retro/kitsch stuff from the period; the views from the top would be spectacular if the windows weren’t so grubby.

At the other end of the scale spectrum, nearby is Mini-Europe, a model village designed to promote the idea of a united continent by…showing you 1/25 models of landmarks. No, the logic of this escapes me, too. It does save you the bother of having to visit any other countries, for which we were kinda glad, having just realised that we actually had four less days left than we thought. We cross off France and Italy (having seen the 1/25 versions), and head North into Holland.

Or is it the Netherlands? No-one seems sure. Even the official site of the Netherlands Board of Tourism is On the train in, we see as many McDonalds arches as windmills, a depressing thought as we arrive in Amsterdam. I must be getting old, as it takes almost twelve hours before anyone offers to sell me drugs – about 100 times as long as when I was there as a student. Instead, the hotel accommodation offers come thick and fast from dubious-looking individuals outside the station, but we decline them all and head for the tourist office, who set us up with a lovely city centre hotel for 60 Euro/night.

[Swift detour. The whole Euro thing is great, especially when you’re whizzing through multiple countries like we are. No need to worry about flushing out loose change every other day, working out what notes to use, or coming to terms with multiple different exchange rates. One Euro = One Dollar, everywhere (except Switzerland, where chocolate remains the main negotiable currency). The bureaux de change must be hating it, hahaha!]

That night we go to the Korean State Circus, which is actually very good, it’s the Russian horse troupe who support them we can’t stand. I’m no PETA-phile, but equine legs are not supposed to go in the directions they’re made to here. We walk home through the red-light district, an experience in itself for Chris – not exactly having led a sheltered upbringing, the sheer in-your-face-ness of it all still has her initially looking like a deer caught in headlights, though she soon returns to her usual unflappable self.

Next morning, we go to the train station to discover the left-luggage is way too full, with a long queue even to put your bags in. To make matters worse, when we try to book our tickets on the sleeper to Munich (after a 45-minute wait, during which we become disturbingly familiar with adverts, in which Dutch guys of questionable sexuality put mayonnaise on their chips), we encounter Ilsa, Ticket-seller of the Dutch Train Service. She single-handedly nails dead the myth about the Dutch being friendly, laid-back and helpful. The Munich train is full, so tonight we will end up going East, to Berlin. Our carefully-planned schedule is now unrecognisable.

With the afternoon to kill before departure, we cheer ourselves up with some educational museum visits. Specifically, the Sex Museum and the Torture Museum. Who said travel didn’t broaden the mind? We also, totally by chance, bump into my sister, who is independently in Amsterdam. This was bizarre enough, but doubly weird is discovering that she has been staying in the same hotel – and paying almost twice as much, too. That really cheered us up… 🙂

Next: Germany calling…

In the Flesh: The infamous Body Worlds exhibition

A gruesome display of preserved bodies, thinly disguised as art? Sign us up – where do we get tickets? The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, deep in the heart of London’s curry community, providing opportunity for a post-mortem poppadum or two, should you be capable of facing any kind of foodstuff. The exhibition had courted controversy since it opened, with protests from the usual quarters, and acts of vandalism including someone taking a hammer to one of the exhibits – always a good alternative to argument and debate – but this had not deterred the crowds from coming out in force, with several million served around Europe. Make that several million and two…

The procedures involved were pioneered by Prof. Gunther von Hagens, an creepy-looking dude who seems never to be without his black Homburg hat [The only photo of him without it I’ve seen is from his Stasi police record – he was arrested for trying to escape East Germany]. In the 1970’s, he invented the basic technique of infusing bodies with plastic, replacing the fluids. It’s a form of embalming that preserves the inside of a body as well as the outside, allowing both to be displayed for the education, and, let’s face it, gross-out entertainment, of the general public.

Criticism has come from many areas, labelling the exhibition as not much better than a sensationalistic freakshow which exploits the dead and degrades life. But much of it seems hypocritical, when mummies and other preserved corpses are part of the collection in most major museums. The medical profession too has a fondness for collecting dead bodies, and then there’s the whole business of religious relics. And in the Middle Ages, a business is exactly what it was – at one point, Christ’s foreskin was on display in 14 different churches.

The exhibition starts off tamely enough, with cross-sections of bones, etc. All very educational. Not particularly interesting. We joined the throng flocking past the cases, towards the main course…

The hardest things was having to keep reminding yourself that these were not wax dummies, and not latex. These were once living, walking people like you or I. As someone who views his body as a black box – feed one end, wipe the other – it was amazing to be reminded of how complex we all are. We can’t even build a computer that doesn’t crash at least once a month, yet possess an infinitely more intricate piece of machinery that runs for 70 years without a break.

Other things I learned from Body Worlds:

  1. Smoking is bad. Early on, we stumbled across a comparison of the lungs of a smoker and a non-smoker – it was, literally, like black and white. Thereafter, every time we saw lungs, we’d go “Smoker…smoker…non-smoker…smoker…” If I had ever smoked, this exhibition would have cured me instantly.
  2. Rethink that position on abortion. One of the galleries had a succession of preserved foetuses showing them at different stages of pregnancy. The legal limit for most abortions in the UK is 24 weeks. Looking at the 24 week specimen, it was largely indistinguishable from a newborn baby. Personally, however, I don’t have a problem with this, since I figure abortion should be entirely legal at any point up until the foetus gets off the couch, finds a job and moves out of the house.
  3. You too can have an eight-inch penis. At first, I thought the specimens in the show were hung like Clydesdales. Hey, if I had equipment like that, I’d want my body preserved for posterity too. Then I realised where the testicles were. I always thought they were attached snugly to the body, but noooooo…there’s a long dangly cord. It also seems that much of the dick is tucked up inside too, so you just need to measure from the pelvis, and hey presto, a career in porn beckons.

Aesthetically, I confess that certain models did make us feel uneasy, though there was no consensus as to which ones. Chris was disturbed by the flayed guy with his skin draped over his arm like an overcoat. I got wobbly at the “exploded” specimens, where the body was split and separated, giving the appearance of, say, multiple heads. On the other hand, we were awestruck by the work on the circulatory systems. They replace the blood flowing through the veins and arteries with coloured plastic, then remove everything else. The result is a feathery shadow of the body that definitely enters the realms of art.

We bought the book. We bought the DVD. We bought the postcards. We bought the T-shirt. We even, heaven help us, bought the watch – though the strap fell off as soon as I opened the box. Cheap Oriental crap. We did, however, balk at the forms whereby you can donate your body to the exhibition. I can see why people do – it confers a kind of immortality, and means you don’t have to deal with the whole “getting eaten by worms” thing. But it’s not for me. The prospect of Japanese tourists poking my genitals and giggling is more than this mortal flesh can bear…

Open daily, 0900-2100, until Sept. 29th 2002: £10 adults.