Monday, January 23, 2012

Drop the SOPA

Greetings, Fighters of the Power.

News of the recent postponement of the SOPA / PIPA bill might make this post seem a little late to the party, but as Thom Holwerda at OS News observed: "the bags of money sent to DC" by the media industry "didn't suddenly devalue, so I'm sure the next SOPA is being written as we speak."

The United States has a pretty shameful history of tabling distasteful bills which blatantly infringe on the rights of citizens and/or give blank checks to greedy corporate interests.  Greased by lobbyist dollars, these proposals often get rubber-stamped through congress in the stealthiest manner possible, frequently circumventing the litmus tests of public reading and vigorous debate in the process.

Some examples of this include the Federal Reserve Act of  1913, which scrapped the gold standard, gave a creepy cabal of central bankers the ability to print U.S. currency out of thin air and made a lot of  filthy rich a$$holes even richer:

Then there's the awesome Patriot Act, which took a hatchet to the Constitution:

And then, while we were all out getting hammered this past New Years Eve, earnest, well-spoken, snappily-dressed, Al-Green-singin' President Obama smuggled this l'il number in through the loading dock:

Which inspired this typically-hilarious reaction from Jon Stewart:

Now, I know that the mainstream corporate-controlled media has very little incentive to inform North American citizens about bills like the NDAA, but there were still plenty of ways to learn about it instead of, say, watching a marathon of Toddlers and Tiaras on The Loser Channel.  Cripes, even I knew about it and I barely even watch T.V.

Thanks to the catch-all "War On (Insert Nebulous And Unquantifiable Threat Here)" people don't even bat an eyelash anymore whenever government publicly threatens their civil liberties or personal freedoms.  But mess with people's interwebs and "Lookout Abilgail May, 'cuz here comes the blackout patrol!" 

I'm convinced that SOPA/PIPA would have been crammed through just like all those other degenerate laws in not for the grass-roots groundswell of outrage expressed by the general populace.  Yes, I'm sure a ton of people signed the petitions just 'cuz "some suit was tryin' to f#@% up my internets and I needs my pron" but I'm also hoping that a lot of people did it because it was the last straw.  They knew that if an iron jackboot came down on the very last source of free information we have, then we'll never hear about the next bit of sleazy legislation.  Which, at this rate, may very well limit the number of people we can assemble with to a number no larger then the current roster of The Avengers.  

My personal motivation to see SOPA struck down is actually nowhere near as existential or far-reaching.  I just wanted people to watch my stupid Star Trek board game video.

If you've been following this blog with any regularity then you already know that I have an unhealthy obsession with board games.  As such, I'm also a huge proponent of using instructional, informative and/or review-based videos to promote the hobby.  Board Game Geek denizens like Drakkenstrike, Undead Viking, Uvula Bob, Tom Vasel and Scott Nicholson have all saved me countless dollars in wasted purchases with their diligent efforts.  More importantly, though, they've steered me towards games that I'll cherish for a life time, all the while encouraging good designs and fostering independent game companies that can really use some free publicity.

Duly inspired, I recorded a play for one of my new acquisitions: Star Trek: Fleet Captains.   I wanted to  help folks make up their minds as to whether or not they should buy the game and also teach new owners how to play it.  Plus, I also knew that this particular game would give my pilot video a cool "narrative" feel and (hopefully) impress the considerable built-in audience!             

I entered into this knowing that I might be playing with fire.  I knew that Star Trek license owners Paramount were notoriously guarded, but if anyone was sensitive to the autonomy of intellectual property, it's me.  After all, my Dad is a visual artist and the concept of someone stealing his images and reprinting them for their own financial gain is sickening to me.  I'm also a struggling writer myself, who'd feel pretty gutted if I found out that someone had acquired my book illegally.  Personally, I don't download at all.  In fact, I own a massive collection of DVD's, CD's and Blu-Rays.

And trust me, that's only about 20% of the DVD's I own and about 45% of the CD's.

My philosophy is: don't rip-off people who create the sort of cool stuff that makes life worth living.  If you feel the burning need to one-up someone, then why not go after corporate criminals?     

With sensitivities in check, I dutifully shot my "script" over the course of several days, taking great pains to shake up the camera angles and incorporate some cool visual gimmicks. After filming a goofy intro and coda, I sat down to edit the nearly two hours of raw video that I'd captured.

I painstakingly excised all extraneous footage, micro-cut my shots to optimize the video's pace, added some silly sound effects and respectfully included some thematically-relevant music. I really wanted to make my debut video play out like a feature film: with the board and the miniatures acting as my "special effects".

So elaborate was this edit that iMovie unexpectedly crashed under the weight of my efforts, seizing up just moments before I completed the final edit. Mercifully, I was able to save my twenty-eight minute magnum opus to my desktop.  After doing a force quit on iMovie, I managed to re-import my video back into iMovie and complete the work. After three agonizing attempts to upload it to YouTube, my inaugural episode of Let's Play! finally went live on December 4'th, 2011!

Since it's release Let's Play! - Episode One - Star Trek: Fleet Captains went on to become a modest little hit with eighty-four thumbs up and forty-four (generally) positive comments on the 'Geek. On YouTube it was a similar story: quickly surpassing fifteen hundred views and garnering a slew of positive feedback.  Now I know that these aren't exactly "talking cat" numbers but the reaction was encouraging so I immediately began to formulate plans for a follow-up. 

But then, on January 17'th, disaster struck.  I received the following bone-chilling message from YouTube:

"We have disabled the following material as a result of a third-party notification from ___________ claiming that this material is infringing:

'Let's Play! - Episode One - Star Trek: Fleet Captains"

I immediately took to the YouTube forums, posting the following impassioned plea:

"Why did this happen? How it infringing, specifically? The only thing I can guess is that's it's because of the music I used, but it's the exact same music that I sourced from other YouTube clips that have a lot more views then my own.  My vid was up for an entire month with close to two-thousand views and a slew of positive comments before it got trashed.  It wasn't monetized to benefit me in any way, shape or form.  It was just a work of passion.

Since I slaved away on this for an entire week I do plan on making it available again but until I know the specific reason as to why it was removed, I'm not going to invest my blood, sweat and tears into making these videos only to have them arbitrarily nuked without a proper explanation.

Any genuine insight would be gratefully appreciated.

Thanks in advance."

Initially I received nothing but a link back in reply, which read:

"Without the appropriate licence from the publisher, use of video game or software user interface must be minimal or the associated commentary must provide instructional or educational value. Videos simply showing a user playing a video game or the use of software for extended periods of time will not be accepted for monetisation."

To which I fired back:

"Without the appropriate licence from the publisher, use of video game or software user interface (neither...I reviewed a board game) must be minimal or the associated commentary must provide instructional or educational value (the comments I received from viewers proves that my video was both instructional AND educational). Videos simply showing a user playing a video game or the use of software (board game!?) for extended periods of time will not be accepted for monetization (my vid WASN'T monetized).

What am I missing here?"

And then it came, the death blow:

"Neither YouTube nor the copyright holder is obligated to specify what individual part of a video is infringing, they only have to state that the video contains infringing content. Since you are required to know for a fact that everything you upload to YouTube is either your own intellectual property or has been used with permission (or qualifies as an exception), you are expected to know what you used that you cannot show you own or have permission to use."  

Confronted with such irrefutable iron-clad legalese I left one last, mournful gambit:   

"Okay, thanks guys.  I really do appreciate you trying to help me wrap my head around this.   

But I still don't know where to go from here.  I took a week to film and edit this video with the sole express purpose to educate and instruct viewers and promote a great board game designed from a tremendous license.   This was done merely as a work of passion, with no expectation of personal financial gain.  

The video made it past YouTube's review process and over the course of a month and a half, viewers universally praised the video's 'artistry', told me how helpful it was and said that they'd actually gone  out and purchased the game, all the while expressing their love for all things
Star Trek.

Then, the next thing I know, it gets arbitrarily airbrushed out of existence and no-one seems to possess the decency to tell me why it happened when so many similar videos exist out there. 

I'm not willing to just write off all that work and positive feedback.  I guess I just want a better answer other then: Sorry, that's just the way it is."

But then, after venting through Board Game Geek as per my buddy Andrew's suggestion, something miraculous happened.  On Thursday January 19'th fellow BGG user Alexander Bulkakov observed:

"Hm, but I can watch this video.  Maybe YouTube restored it.  Maybe cause I'm watching it from Russian IP?"

Within seconds I'd confirmed it.  My video was back up!   

I literally cried tears of joy.

But my feelings of vindication swiftly turned to anger.  It's now been six days after the video was first pulled down and I'm yet to receive an official "head's up" or any explanation as to why it was restored.

Honestly, at face value, this might just seem as if an owner of a licensed product is flexing their legal muscles. But it's so much more to me.  To me, it's an omen.

If a re-constituted SOPA does manage to sneak past us when while we're all taking a nap, then it's all over, folks.  Any picture, any link, any reference could result in a blog, website, video or podcast being airbrushed out of existence like dissidents in a Politburo family portrait.

Don't stop being vigilant, people.

And, oh yeah, for the love of God, make sure you back yer s#!% up.        

EPIC  Consider yourself duly informed:

FAIL  Welcome to bizarro world:

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