What does video tool Vine have in common with iconic rappers like the Beastie Boys and the Notorious BIG? More than you think. Like hip-hop, Vine is way to sample and collect culture — and it may have to run the same legal gambit that rappers did a decade ago. If you haven’t tried it, Vine is a tool to make looping, six-second video clips and post them on social media or a website. The company, which is owned by Twitter, launched in January and its videos have already become a part of the Tribeca Film Festival, the U.S. Senate and major marketing campaigns.
A new video mash-up culture
Vine exists because of new smartphone technology but it also replicates older forms of mashup culture. In particular, it mirrors what pioneering hip-hop artists started to do in the 1980s — taking sounds from myriad sources and sharing them through records like Paul’s Boutique and Ready to Die. Those hiphop records are aural tapestries that today stand as monuments to a new form of music and community. In the 2000s, however, copyright collectors came along and sued the rappers — resulting in a drawn-out debate over where to draw a line between culture and intellectual property theft. Hip-hop largely prevailed but was damaged in the process. Now, a fight over a Vine video last month suggests history may repeat itself but this time, on the video front. The dispute involved the musician Prince using a law called the DMCA to force Vine to take down six-second concert clips posted by a fan. The fan didn’t oppose Prince’s takedown demand, meaning no has ruled on whether a six-second clip actually infringes copyright. But if a court did look at the Vine case, the decision process would lead right through hip-hop.
Hip hop, copyright and six second samples
In the 1990s, hip-hop artists called the sounds they use “samples.” Copyright owners, however, called it theft instead and sued the musicians. The conflicts led to important court decisions about music, but whose principles apply equally to Vine. As the Disco Project explained in a thoughtful analysis of the Prince case, the most relevant precedents involve the Notorious B.I.G. and the Beastie Boys. Both were involved in famous cases involving short samples. In the case of the Notorious B.I.G., a Tennessee court shut down store sales and radio plays of the late rapper’s “Ready to Die” album, and a jury awarded $4 million in damages — all over a three note horn riff. An appeals court, which had earlier written “get a license or do not sample,” upheld the verdict in 2007. As law professor Tim Wu explained at the time, the case and others like it were especially absurd because the copyright owner was not even a musician but a one-man corporation who had obtained the music rights under shady circumstances. Fortunately, in the case of the Beastie Boys, a California appeals court took a more rational approach to the issue and ruled that a six second (the same length as a Vine video!) flute sample on the song “Pass the Mic” didn’t infringe on copyright. The Supreme Court, in 2005, refused to reconsider the decision. The upshot, however, is that today we still don’t know for sure how long a sample can be before it infringes copyright. Twitter declined to comment on whether it believes Vine videos are covered by copyright law’s “fair use” exception, but a source familiar with the company told me that the decision to make the videos six seconds long was not a coincidence.
Chilling our new visual culture
The trouble with Prince’s request to take down the Vine videos is not so much the disappearance of the videos themselves — but instead that Vine and other forms of visual expression could meet the same fate as early hip-hop. When the Beastie Boys released their sample-stuffed 1989 masterpiece, Paul’s Boutique, the law was still in a gray area and no one was suing hip-hop artists. That’s no longer the case. As copyright scholars have explained, the threat of lawsuits and the astronomic cost of clearing samples means, today, no one could make an album like Paul’s Boutique in the first place. And that’s the danger posed by Prince. Right now, we’re enjoying a rich new age of images — everything from Vine videos to BuzzFeed cat GIFs that are shared, recast and then shared again. If lawyers began to throw copyright grenades into this mix, these splendid strains of creativity could be quickly snuffed out. Does this mean that all Vine videos should be fair use? It’s hard to say. People are already using the platform to produce clever and original works of art — the sort of thing copyright law is meant to reward. Likewise, big companies who use Vine for marketing have a case for using intellectual property law to protect their brands. It seems inevitable that these issues will get resolved sooner than later. The biggest task for now, though, is to find a way to do so without resorting to the harsher tools of copyright law, including the $150,000 damage demands that are a common feature of cease and desist letters. Congress is right now reviewing the Copyright Act. The process presents a perfect way to protect and foster this emerging age of visual culture — rather than try to smother it like hip-hop. But let’s give the last word to the rappers (click on the Vine vid below) : (Image by R. Gino Santa Maria via Shutterstock)
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Work from his oeuvre.
“Galleri Riis is pleased to present enclosed circuit, Morten Andenæs¹ second show with the gallery. It consists of 35 new photographic works from his ongoing project Regarding the Middle Class and can be viewed in opposition to his exhibition observance in 2011. Up til now, the works in this project have been marked by a consistent yet undetermined point of view. The reproductions of scenes from everyday life, people and objects have been sober and apparently neutral. The images have mirrored a gaze, an attitude and a stance which tries to domesticate the world without admitting to this motive. Thematically the project has dealt with the constraints, both in the sense of responsibilities and “liberties” imposed on the individual by the family and society, as well as the ensuing violent impulses such restrictions and straightjackets might cause. The viewer enters a seamless illusion of reality, analogous to the way the situation or thing was perceived originally. This sense of presence creates both a closed circuit and a kind of recognition; we see the image, and in turn we ourselves are seen.
Although the overarching theme is the same, the exhibition marks a shift in his project¹s direction. Rather than mirroring a specific gaze or stance, a main concern of this exhibition are those things which do not easily lend themselves to photographic representation – such as pain, sound, or the lack thereof. Referenced here is the role photography played in the late 19th and early 20th century with regards to classification, the creation and fixing of identity and the drive towards making the invisible visible. The latter becomes evident in an oversized image of a female subject undergoing a clinical trial about pain at the National Institute of Occupational Health.
At the centre of this exhibition is an extract from a series of handguns against a chroma-green background, a “greenscreen”. Here, violence and fantasy are no longer just implicit as destructive potential or unfulfilled desire, but become an injunction and public spectacle. At the same time the systematic approach, especially visible in the serial works on display, point towards another kind of violence: In order to avoid the chaotic and potentially shattering ambivalence at the heart of language and images, things are forced into categories; not based on intrinsic properties but on the grounds of superficial markers. Nina, as a recurring title in differing works, becomes such an instance. Without any explicit connection between them, a short circuit may occur.” – Galleri Riis
Seven years ago, my wife Alaina Browne and I were living happily in San Francisco when she went off to NYC to visit with our friends and attend a party. By the time she flew back, we were on a path that not only led to our return to New York City, but to getting a front-row seat to the birth of what would become Tumblr. Along the way, I’ve had the chance to see Tumblr from the perspective of a user, a competitor and a fan. Since so much of the conversation today is about the dollar amount of their sale, and the speculation about their future with Yahoo, I thought it’d be nice to look back at a few distinct moments in their evolution, as seen by an interested outsider.
Before the Beginning
Alaina had come back excited from visiting New York, telling me about having been introduced to Ed Levine by our friends David Jacobs and Meg Hourihan. Ed wanted to build a food community site called Serious Eats, and had hired two young guys recommended by Fred Seibert to build out the site. I heard secondhand from my friends about the content management system that was being built by Davidville, the consulting company run by David Karp and Marco Arment. David and Marco were building a tool to power Serious Eats, but I didn’t know anything about them except that they were really young.
Serious Eats had gotten a launch sponsorship, and as a result needed to get up and running by the holiday season. But by October, all that I’d seen of the publishing tool they were building was a very simple single-column blog that presented photos really nicely, but had no way to show standard banner ads at all. After debating whether the ads that needed to be delivered could be fit into the simple structure of the tool that had been built, the team decided in favor of just launching Serious Eats on off-the-shelf technology because they needed to get running quickly. As David Jacobs described in his post on the Yahoo/Tumblr deal, the team picked Movable Type since they were all very familiar with the software and knew those of us who worked on making that app.
In short, some of the fundamental constraints that shaped Tumblr in its most nascent stages was that publishers weren’t yet able to get advertisers to buy native, in-stream ad units, and that traditional ad buys made units that were not easy to integrate into super-simple tumblelogs. Hmm!
Update: I think Marco had some objections to my characterization of this point in the evolution of their work. His tweets on the matter follow:
As usual, Anil Dash is wrong: dashes.com/anil/2013/05/s…Serious Eats and Tumblr shared no code except our generic PHP MVC framework.
— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) May 20, 2013
What we built for Serious Eats wasn’t too simple — it was too complex and overreaching.It wasn’t a single-column blog for photos… at all.
— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) May 20, 2013
Given that I made no assertion over how much code was shared between the two companies, and since a simple CMS is usually little more than a nice wrapper around an MVC framework, it seems there’s little in dispute here except whether the content management system was a poor fit for being too complicated or for yielding output that was too simple. I’m happy to believe Marco has a better memory of the project than I do, since he worked on it and I barely even visited.
Marco also offered some other snarking at Meg about whether the client or consultant was to blame for an underspecified set of goals for the content management system, but these things are almost always everybody’s fault, and that’s sort of beside the point which is that the ideas of Tumblr were in tension with conventional blogging of the era.
Tumblelogs Take Off
Meanwhile, David and Marco took that simple publishing system they’d built and kept refining it. They were insistent even in those early days on calling the output “tumblelogs” instead of just “blogs”, which I mentally filed away as “those sites like projectionist“.
At the time, Tumblelogs had been around for a little while, best known to us old-time bloggers due to Jason Kottke’s seminal post on Tumblelogs, which defined the format just as it was about to take off, and featured project.ioni.st as its leading light. But in a classic case of geeks looking at a thing from a technical standpoint instead of from a cultural one, many of us who were familiar with blogs already saw tumblelogs as “just a simple blogging template”, similar to what we were already doing on Movable Type or WordPress at the time, rather than a fundamentally different medium.
Despite that myopia, there was a lot of momentum around simplified, media-rich blogging at that moment in history. Twitter had launched just a few months earlier in mid-2006, without any of its current photo or video capabilities, but with a super-simple posting experience similar to what made Tumblr so easy to use. Much of the early team behind Movable Type had moved to working on a platform called Vox, which was a simpler blogging tool for sharing media from other services, but included privacy features similar to the Flickr or LiveJournal, which kept it from being as dead-simple to use as Tumblr. WordPress, too, had incorporated a feature called “Asides”, based on a popular plugin from Matt Mullenweg, and it made regular posts of photos, quotes and video clips easy to integrate into a more traditional blog.
At a technical level, many of these efforts were descended from a super-geeky concept that folks had been kicking around a few years earlier, called structured blogging. The technical focus of people in the community resulted in it having the super-nerdy name “structured blogging” and yielded a set of poorly-adopted technical specifications rather than a usable experience for normal people. But the fundamental idea behind structured blogging was that people would want to easily post the cool stuff they were finding on other sites and publishing in other media such as photo or video. And Tumblr proved that the idea of this kind of sharing was exactly right, even if the “structured blogging” name and implementation was exactly wrong.
One of the most important justifications for putting “structure” around different kinds of content was so they could be aggregated together into a reader, something like Google Reader, or earlier tools like Bloglines or My Yahoo or Userland Radio. The difference with Tumblr was that David and Marco very early on built in their reader, just like Twitter and LiveJournal had done, making viewing and creating take place in almost the same environment, and forming better connections between users on the site.
Tussling With Tumblr
By the time Tumblr opened up to the public just a few months later, it was clear they’d hit a perfect mix of features to connect with an audience that cared more about expression than technology. Gina Trapani was one of the early, enthusiastic users, and as Marco rightly pointed out in a podcast the other day, part of what made Tumblr so popular early on was that they let people use their own domain name, with a beautiful design, for free. Other free tools were either more complicated, or like WordPress or Blogger, they charged extra to use a domain name and/or constrained the template customization that a user could do.
Since I worked at the time for a company that mostly made its money by selling paid software and support for blogging, I didn’t really see Tumblr as a threat so much as an interesting new entrant that offered the best free product for many users. I jokingly made a reference to Tumblr a year later on a promo page for TypePad, which I worked on at the time and after Fred Wilson and Bijan Sabet picked it up, Marco took offense, to my great surprise. In retrospect, it was obvious that Marco would see us as competitors and my joke as disrespect, but at the time I really had thought it was clear I was being playful but respectful because Tumblr had made something cool and I had met, and liked the founders.
Elbow to Elbow
When I say that I knew Marco and David a little bit, it’s impossible to overstate how close the NYC tech community was at this point. The office where Tumblr was still based back then was 419 Park Avenue South, and Tumblr shared the space with Serious Eats, Next New Networks (now YouTube Next Lab) and Frederator, Fred Seibert’s studio.
When I ran into David around that time a few blocks away at Shake Shack, I excitedly pulled him aside and said “I really think Tumblr is like LiveJournal 2.0”, which is another one of those endorsements that probably sounded to him like a slight or an insult or some willfully obscure reference, but to me was about as high a form of praise as I could offer — LiveJournal is and was the most seminal social networking platform that’s ever existed, and almost nobody had captured the addictive, expressive environment of its friends list as well as Tumblr’s dashboard did.
Part of what I learned in my very-limited interactions with David and Marco in those early days was how disconnected and arrogant my own view of blogging and social software could be. Because Tumblr recapitulated many earlier ideas, albeit in a vastly superior way, I had thought it wasn’t really as new as it has turned out to be. And some of this is just generational; My very first impression of meeting the then-20-year-old David and 24-year-old Marco was “Wow, these guys have a really good eye, and are really full of themselves.” I still think both those things are true, and that those traits have served them very well.
But there was also a half-generational gap between me and these millennials, a cultural difference I hadn’t yet understood or reckoned with. It led me (and many others I know) to underestimate what Tumblr’s importance was, and actually retroactively made my analogy to LiveJournal seem more apt than perhaps I’d intended.
In the case of LiveJournal, I got to watch first hand as many of the most fundamental parts of social networking and blogging were invented and then mishandled as advertising was introduced. But I never thought those mistakes were intrinsic to this kind of evolution in communities – it just required leadership that understood and truly respected a community.
In the case of Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr, I mostly don’t have a lot to say — my Activate cofounder Michael Wolf is on the board and we’ve done work that makes me far from objective in this regard, but even if we hadn’t, I’d be optimistic about this deal. For me, it’s the concepts I wrote about in Stop Publishing Web Pages — we’ve found a model for user interaction and social connection that really works, and it feels like the more places that’s adopted and embraced, the better. Whether that’s on Yahoo’s homepage or Tumblr’s Dashboard, or in some new app on my iPhone, we’re reaching a consensus around how we want to connect with each other.
It’s been fascinating to watch Tumblr evolve, and as a member of the New York tech community, I am thrilled for the whole team (and its inestimable investors) on the success of the company. As a blogger, it’s still a really sweet moment to watch the medium of blogging be validated in this way, since a huge number of dollars is a clear signal even to those who don’t understand the artistic and expressive importance of blogging. And as someone who still loves hacking on these kinds of software, it’s been tremendously useful to see my own assumptions and preconceptions be challenged by a new generation of young entrepreneurs and creators who take this medium I’ve watched since its inception, and push it to fascinating and inspiring new forms.
URL-shortener web utilities such as bit.ly, tinyurl, etc, which convert well crafted blog titles into Mxyzptlk (Superman’s foe), messed up the whole naming scheme of the web, what was left of it, and the forced anonymity, duh, provided yet another tool for phishers and scammers to hide behind.
So, instead of the logical thing, which is to go back to clear and comprehensible URLs such as http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2013/05/23/short-urls-for-tiny-minds/ (which aren’t really all that long), what we need is… another web utility to find out what long URLS are hiding behind short URLs! Behold once again the genius of Silicon Valley.
Cloud Face, 2012 by Kim Yong Hun_
“Human sees figures in clouds: animals, faces and even god. This kind of perception also appears in computer vision. Face-detection algorithms sometimes find faces that are not. It is because human’s knowledge of a face and understanding of human vision mechanisms affect the development of the computer vision.
The original .png file of the above was posted on Computers Club Drawing Society.
Initially it was on a spare, light blue background but then I decided it needed something like the surface of Venus.
Seeing Rick Silva’s “En Plein Air” show at Transfer Gallery and the large-format 3D landscapes on his blog inspired me to enlarge the above to 800 x 800. Am generally not a bicubic smoothing fan and am still weighing whether the scale boost adds anything.