Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for July 2009

Dear Bioware, Please save me from your new Star Wars game

I’m going to write about the new Star Wars game today, but this is not a preview. This is a cry for help.

I spent three happy years playing “World of Warcraft,” and three years playing “Ultima Online” before that. I could hedge my language and try to wiggle out of it, but the technical term for my condition is “addict.”

I kicked my Warcraft habit last year when the novelty finally wore off. I played every class in the game and even tried my hand at high-level raiding for a while. Then the Lich King expansion came out and I realized if I wanted to keep up with my guild I would have to have to work my way through 10 more levels of crap.

I did everything I could to relieve the boredom but at that exact moment the game became work. Kill 20 of these, collect 10 of that. Carry this item to this person and spend 30 minutes watching an animated bird carry you across the world. I couldn’t take it anymore. I actually grew to resent the game. Logging in felt like a job, a duty — a chore I had to complete before I was allowed to do anything “fun.”

It was a strange feeling, to feel contempt for something I used to be addicted to — like I had suddenly developed an allergy to ice cream or come to despise the sight of cupcakes. Perhaps I should thank Blizzard Software for ruining their game. They killed something I loved and let me get my life back.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

July 30, 2009 at 15:24

Posted in Games

Kindle users revolt as Amazon erases George Orwell books

You know that George Orwell book you bought last week? Turns out the publisher didn’t actually own the rights when he sold it to you so we’ll need to come into your library and destroy it. Just ignore the smoke while we process your refund…

Sounds like a bad joke but this is what happened to Kindle users last week when Amazon discovered that a publisher who had been selling copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm” didn’t actually own the rights to it.

Actions that would seem absurd in the realm of physical books can happen in the blink of an eye with electronic ones. The same technology that makes these books easy to distribute allows them to be snatched back by the distributor — sparking a philosophical debate about what it means to really “own” a book.

Indeed, the Orwell recall seems to violate Amazon’s own terms of service, which states that users are buying the right to keep a “permanent copy of the applicable digital content.” So, ownership of purchased e-books is permanent, except when it’s not.

In practice, the purchase is only permanent as long as the publisher retains the right to sell it. A muddled or dishonest contract signed upstream can end up snatching books away from customers who purchased the products in good faith.

Amazon has had similar rights issues with Ayn Rand and Harry Potter editions, but the sheer irony of this recall has made it national news. Of all the books they could choose to recall, they have to pick the most eloquent treatise on information control and history revision ever written.

Amazon is promising to change their system so books will not be recalled in the future, but the PR damage has already been done. E-books are a very tenuous market, hindered by rights issues, publisher perception and genuine technological barriers as manufacturers try to build a digital device that works as well as a book.

Amazon’s Kindle is a step in the right direction, but the device is still too big, too fragile and too expensive to replace our venerable paperbacks. Writers and publishers have spent 20 years waiting for the e-book explosion – a revolution in publishing that promises to eliminate ink, paper and fuel costs.

Publishers could escape from their fixed costs and writers could finally escape the tyranny of the mid-list, where a few big-name authors subsidize printing for emerging authors who may not sell enough copies to justify their print runs.

The e-book revolution is still just out of reach, and Amazon’s Orwellian misstep threatens to set the cause back – discouraging early adopters who may be willing to spend $299 dollars on a Kindle, but are not willing to put their libraries at the mercy of contracts that haven’t been written yet.

Amazon will recover from this debacle and publishers will learn from their mistake, but I think the real danger here is not the recall of content but the revision of content. Amazon doesn’t just have the power to distribute and take back books, they also have the power to revise them.

Under the guise of “updating” and “maintaining” content, publishers will have the power to edit books after your purchase them, removing “offensive” stories from short story collections, adjusting inconvenient facts in textbooks and sanitizing movies that are deemed unfit for children.

Think it can’t happen here? Try to find a copy of a novel called “Rage” by Stephen King. It tells the story of an emotionally-disturbed high school student who takes his class hostage at gunpoint. While it wasn’t explicitly censored after Columbine, it has quietly been dropped from publishing rosters and artist anthologies since.

What’s to prevent a publisher from replacing your existing Bachman books with an “improved” collection that includes 60 extra pages from “Thinner” but mysteriously omits “Rage?” What prevents a movie publisher from replacing your original edition of “Star Wars” with an “improved” version that updates the effects and redefines the characters?

Electronic distribution is challenging our perceptions of ownership, pushing us to a world where all media is owned by publishers and simply “rented” to consumers at the end of the line. Customers must be able to trust the companies they do business with, and media companies need to get their contracts in order before they put things up for sale.

Just because they can erase their mistakes from our machines doesn’t mean they should.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 24, 2009 at 11:10

Posted in Amazon, Columns

Are all comments created equal? Gawker says no.

Americans love the idea of free speech, but in practice, we don’t understand it very well.

Most people interpret “free speech” as the freedom to say whatever you want, whenever you want, whereever you want, without regard to context, obscenity or property rights.

Too many people interpret our constitutional right of free speech as something that puts an obligation on strangers: “I have the freedom to speak, so you can’t remove me from this porch, this street corner, or this microphone stand I’ve set up in front of your house.”

But of course, the Constitution wasn’t written to impose obligations on citizens; it was written to put restrictions on government, to make sure the government couldn’t silence voices that disagreed with people in power.

Most people can grasp this difference when a conflict arises in real life but it’s harder to see property lines on the Internet. Everything comes through the same web browser on the same pipe, so it’s easy to forget that these packets of information belong to different people, and that each person who sets up a web site on the Internet owns that site just as much as you own your porch, your patio or your front yard.

Now Gawker Media is putting that concept into practice in a way that is drawing praise from Internet experts and rival publishers, even as it threatens to alienate its user base.

Last Thursday, Gawker Media announced a two-tiered comment system. Tier 1 commenters are selected by the editors and given permanent gold stars to indicate their status. Tier 2 includes everybody else.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

July 16, 2009 at 15:15

Posted in Columns, Gawker