A Best Buy no longer?

Wired argues that the decline of Best Buy’s business is linked to the decline of exurbia generally:

You can’t trace a precisely parallel line charting Best Buy’s decline alongside exurbia’s economic cratering. Technology and consumer preference have also taken a toll. Sales of physical media like DVDs and the players to play them have dropped as consumers stream more and more movies and music. Apple stores have seduced customers with a boutique approach that Best Buy plans to copy in some locations. Amazon and other online retailers have likely siphoned even more.

Despite these factors, the twilight gathering around Best Buy feels more than anything like part of the darkness that snuffed out the exurban dream. These signature outposts of [David] Brooks’ new world [described in his 2004 book On Paradise Drive] filled new homes with flatscreens bought with home equity loans that have since left victims of the crash drowning in debt. Like so many exurban homeowners, Best Buy banked on false promises of perpetual prosperity as contrary economic realities lurked.

I would also add that Best Buy has has to contend with expanded (and cheaper) electronics offerings at other big box stores, notably Walmart and Target.  Given the number of factors involved, is it really fair to characterize this as a “exurban problem”?

Photographing Detroit for something more than “ruin porn”

Pete Brook over at Wired profiles Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart, two photographers whose project “Can’t Forget the Motor City” argues that “Photos of Detroit Need to Move Beyond Ruin Porn“:

As a symbol of the U.S. economy in general, even before the crash of 2008, Motor City has been the subject of much “ruin porn” – photography that fetishizes urban decay.

“The portrayal Detroiters are used to seeing – crumbling buildings with no people to be seen – is frustrating because they know their city is more than that,” says Detroit photographer Brian Widdis. “Nobody here denies that those things are real, but seeing the city portrayed one-dimensionally – time and again – it’s like hearing the same awful song being played over and over on the radio. Detroiters want to hear a different song once in a while.”…

Ruin porn worships the 33,000 empty houses and 91,000 vacant lots of Detroit and overlooks the 700,000+ residents. It doesn’t come close to describing the city.

“I still do not understand her. The complexity of Detroit makes many give up, move out or move on, if they can. But for others, we want to further that relationship with her,” says [Romain] Blanquart….“Detroit is not a tragedy. We attempt to show its humanity[.]”

Widdis and Blanquart’s photographs are indeed beautiful and, generally, full of people.  While I’m not convinced that there’s anything inherently “pornographic” about photographing urban ruins (and underscoring the now-absent humanity those ruins imply), I agree that there is something wrong with hitting this same point to the exclusion everything else, especially insofar as this singled focus implies that there is nothing else to show or say.  However small Detroit’s population may be compared to its heydays, the city is still home to hundreds of thousands of people whose lives–and stories–are still ongoing.  I applaud these photographers’ efforts to document Detroit’s continuing stories through their artistry and not simply focusing on architectural echoes from the past.

Copyrighting time

David Kravets at Wired reports on a copyright lawsuit that seems to attempt to enforce a copyright over data about time itself:

The publisher of a database chronicling historical time-zone data [Astrolabe] is claiming copyright ownership of those facts, and is suing two researchers for re-purposing it in a free-to-use database relied on by millions of computers….The researchers’ publicly available database was being hosted on a server at the Maryland-based National Institutes of Health, which apparently has removed the data at the request of Massachusetts-based publishing house, Astrolabe. The publisher markets its programs to astrology buffs “seeking to determine the historical time at any given time in any particular location, world-wide,” and claims ownership to the data in its “AC International Atlas” and “ACS American Atlas” software programs.

Wired posted a copy of Astrolabe’s complaint.  Digging into it a bit, here are the main facts alleged:

9. Defendant [researcher Arthur] Olson’s unauthorized reproduction of the Works have been published at ftp://elsie.nci.nih.gov/tzarchive.qz, where the references to historic international time zone data is replete with references to the fact that the source for this information is, indeed, the ACS Atlas [emphasis added].
10. In connection with his unlawful publication of some and/or any portion of the Works, defendant Olson has wrongly and unlawfully asserted that this information and/or data is “in the public domain,” in violation of the protections afforded by the federal copyright laws.
[11. and 12. The same as 9 and 10, except naming second defendant Paul R. Eggert.]

In other words, based on this complaint, it seems that the researchers simply took facts (e.g., “in 1900, Greenwich Mean Time +3 was defined as the longitude running from…”) and incorporated them into their own database.

If this is true, Astrolabe, as Wired points out,

faces the tough challenge of overcoming a 1991 Supreme Court decision [Feist v. Rural Telephone Service Co.], concerning a company that harvested listings from a phone company’s telephone book and re-published them. The court ruled that “copyright does not extend to facts contained in [a] compilation.”

Unfortunately, I’m guessing that Astrolabe filed this lawsuit simply to scare Olson and Eggert into a quick settlement well before a judge rule on the merits of their claim to use this data under established copyright law.  In part, my surmise is based on the counsel Astrolabe retained.  Their complaint is signed by Julie C. Maloney, an attorney who appears to be a solo practitioner based out of a small town in Cape Cod in Massachusetts.  Although she doesn’t have a law firm website, a bit of Internet searching appears to confirm that land use/zoning rather than intellectual property is her legal specialty.

While I don’t know Ms. Maloney or her professional reputation and am sure she is a capable advocate, these facts don’t suggest that Astrolabe is seeking a discussion on the legal merits of copyright law.  On the contrary, Astrolabe appears (1) primarily concerned with saving money by going with a solo practitioner rather than a bigger law firm, (2) incapable of finding a copyright-specializing attorney willing to take their (weak) case, or (3) both.

No new lawsuits for Righthaven

David Kravets over at Wired notes today that Righthaven appears to be on “life support” since it hasn’t filed any new lawsuits in a while:

With [a bunch of sanctions and adverse fee awards] now on appeal, the litigation factory’s machinery is grinding to a halt. A review of court records shows Righthaven has not filed a new lawsuit in two months, after a flurry of about 275 lawsuits since its launch at the beginning of last year. A court filing indicates there have already been layoffs (.pdf) at Righthaven’s Las Vegas headquarters, and even some already-filed lawsuits are falling by the wayside because Righthaven isn’t serving the defendants with the paperwork.

I think Wired may be a bit premature in its prediction of Righthaven’s demise.  Litigation factories have a tendency to rise again and again from the ashes.  Still, it’s nice to hear that no new bloggers are being hassled by Righthaven, at least at present.

Head in the cloud

Amazon launched its Cloud Player yesterday which, as Wired explains,

can stream your music library to any web browser or Android mobile device. Cloud Player also allows you to download files and create playlists through its web-based interface.

So Amazon lets you store your music on a remote hard drive and stream it to local devices?  Sounds pretty straightforward.  Of course, the record labels don’t think so.  From Ars Technica:

We wondered aloud how Amazon managed to strike such an impressive licensing deal with the record labels, given the fact that Apple seems to still be working out the details for its own digital locker service. It turns out that Amazon hasn’t struck a deal, and seems to be hoping that the record companies will be the ones to blink.

“[W]e do not need a license to store music in Cloud Drive,” Griffin added in an e-mail to Ars. “The functionality of saving MP3s to Cloud Drive is the same as if a customer were to save their music to an external hard drive or even iTunes.”

That’s certainly not what the music industry seems to think, though—at least in regards to Cloud Player. In an interview with Reuters, Sony Music spokesperson Liz Young said the company hoped for a license deal but that it was keeping its “legal options open.”

Amazon certainly has made a gutsy play here.  The major labels are currently embroiled in a lawsuit against MP3tunes for providing essentially the same service as Amazon.  According to an amici curiae brief (PDF) in that case, the primary legal issue turns on whether or not Internet streaming necessarily constitutes a “public performance” (which would violate copyright owners’ rights unless licensed).  There is a powerful argument that it does not:

MP3tunes does not transmit music to the general public, nor to all of its subscribers. A particular work in a particular locker will only be transmitted to a user who has placed it there—in other words, after he or she has averred to MP3tunes that she either legally owns the file and have uploaded it to her locker, or that she has legal authorization to access the file on the Web and has sideloaded it into her locker. The subset of MP3tunes users who have uploaded or sideloaded any one particular track (and thus have stated to MP3tunes that they are authorized to do so) still falls far short of the “public” required by the transmit clause.

Of course, the simple fact that it has become necessary to make this legal argument illustrates just how broken copyright law is.  The statute is long, complicated, and muddled enough to lend at least some plausibility to virtually any argument imaginable.  Even an argument claiming that storing one’s own music on a private, password-protected server for convenience violates the letter (if not the spirit) of copyright law.

Stay tuned…

Updated 3/31/2011: Ars Technica has a follow-up piece today that quotes from their interview with MP3tunes’ CEO Michael Robertson (bio from his blog):

The word “streaming” and the word “download” are nowhere in copyright law.  It may be a very logical, common sense position, but all that matters is what the law says. Can you store your own music? Can you listen from anywhere? What if your wife or kids want to listen to it? All those things are completely unchartered [sic] territory.

Of course, as we routinely point out around here, “logic” and “common sense” have absolutely nothing to do with the current state of U.S. copyright law.

Pivoting toward greater competition

Ryan Singel over at Wired magazine writes about a new start-up called LawPivot that helps start-ups with their legal questions:

LawPivot’s solution is to create a Q&A site where startups can ask legal questions confidentially and then get recommended lawyers to answer the question, which can lead to the former hiring the latter.

While California-based startups can now ask three free questions a month, LawPivot will soon be charging companies $80 for each question. For lawyers, the benefit is being able to land new clients for themselves or their firms, and to build a reputation — though they don’t get paid to answer a question.

Despite potential ethical issues and haughty dismissals by certain blogs, this certainly is where the legal profession is heading.  In a globalized world with plenty of lawyers looking for work, more competition is inevitable.  Fees are going to go down.