Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Google as part of the job process?

Lately I've seen a couple of posts, including this one on John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog, about using Google as part of the employment screening process.

Makes sense, right? If you're looking to hire John Smith you want all the information you can get, and Google is a rich source of information on just about anything, including John Smith.

Fine, only which John Smith are you looking at?

In fact trying to use Google to get serious information on someone is usually a really, truly, really bad idea. Without a lot of extra effort and additional identifying information you can't be sure who you've got.

Now "Rick Cook" isn't a terribly common name, but a Google search reveals that I've done a lot of stuff I was totally unaware of.

My favorite is making custom furniture in a little shop in Port Orford, WA.

The close runner-up is my time as a spokesman for a Florida national forest where I'm worried about escaped pet pythons growing to enormous size and eating all the wildlife -- not to mention the tourists.

I also like my time as an engineering manager on the Mars Rover project at JPL.

And I'm doing my bit for the environment as one of the leading "green" architects in America.

Did I mention I am head of security for a casino near New Orleans? Or that I'm the ex-mayor of a small town in California.

And speaking of California I'm also a fairly successful basketball coach in the Los Angeles area.

Oh yeah, I died in a helicopter crash in Scotland several years ago.

Now no one who knows much about me as a computer journalist and sometime writer of science fiction and fantasy novels full of bad computer jokes is likely to confuse any of those people with me. But there are some Rick Cooks out there who can be confused with me -- to the detriment of us both.

For example, I'm a partner in a major high-tech public relations firm. And I'm an expert on the OS/2 operating system. And I'm a regular poster on several newsgroups related to computer technology. And I'm active in the gaming universe.

Those are harder to disambiguate.

In fact unless you have a really good method of singling out your "Rick Cook" from all the other "Rick Cooks" out there it's just about impossible to know who's done what. This is especially true in areas like arrests that don't involve information that would be on a job application.

Even geographical proximity won't do it. There are at least three Rick Cooks in my urban area. The one who I really don't want to be mistaken for is the one who's a prison guard.

Googling your own or someone else's name may be a fun party game, but as a method of gathering information for serious purposes like employment it represents an abuse of the new media.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


As I write this the screenwriters’ strike is edging toward its second week and no end in sight.

In one sense that’s beneath the notice of this blog. After all, we’re concerned with the new media and society, not with who’s going to get what percentage of which products. In another sense, it represents yet another example of the inability of big media companies to adapt to a radically changing landscape.

My prediction is that sooner or later the strike will be settled more-or-less on the writers’ terms. And it ultimately won’t make a damn bit of difference.

If you’re not sure what all the fuss is about, WebPro has a good video summary

Of course WebPro’s story is mostly from the standpoint of the writers. The media companies aren’t saying anything, which is probably the best thing they can do. First, they’re going to be cast as the bad-guys in this by hordes of drivel-starved television fans no matter what they say.

Second, they’ve been talking out of both sides of their mouth about the revenue potential of the internet, telling their investors that there are huge profits in internet entertainment while telling the writers no one is making money off it.

I’m willing to believe no one is making money off internet television, but that’s irrelevant. The writers are asking for royalties, not an up-front payment and sooner rather than later the entertainment companies are going to be making money off the internet. And more and more of it as time goes on.

Strategically the studios’ position smacks of the kind of especially myopic lawyers and accountants who infest big corporations. This wasn’t planned by strategic visionaries at the studios for darned sure. (Assuming that the phrase “strategic visionaries at the studios” isn’t a completely oxymoron.)

What is going on here is essentially another performance of the Dinosaur Follies. The media company dinosaurs are so busy trying to jostle the writers away from the tasty new growth in the swamp that they’re ignoring the much larger issues screaming down on them out of the sky.

The real problem the entertainment companies face is the same as the one faced by their music industry subsidiaries. Their business model is less and less effective in the world of the new media. You can see this in declining television viewership, stagnant numbers of moviegoers and the faint scent of desperation beginning to waft out of Hollywood and New York.

The decline in television watching has received a lot of attention, but the state of the movies has received much less attention, especially since numbers were up slightly in 2006 after declining in 2005.

In fact the 2006 movie attendance report from the Motion Picture Industry Association of America shows an industry in trouble and heading for crisis. This isn’t just the fact that movie admissions are still off from the 2002 levels. (This is the important number since it represents tickets sold and it dropped from 1.4 billion in 2002 to 1.33 billion in 2006.) It’s the pattern.

What that pattern shows is an industry increasingly relying on its best customers (frequent moviegoers) because it is having trouble attracting customers in general. The numbers also reinforce what everyone has known for the last 20 years. You’ve got to have a blockbuster to succeed.

Rising costs and stagnant ticket sales have pretty much killed the moderately successful movie, just as they have eliminated the moderately successful television series. Increasingly the only way to survive in either industry is to hit a home run with nearly every at bat. (In the case of television it’s generally accepted that if a show doesn’t last for three seasons – the magic number for syndication – it’s not going to make money.)

This need for home runs is a classic sign of an imploding industry being squeezed between rising costs and stagnant demands. Eventually most such industries are either squeezed out of existence or reduced to tiny niches.

The semi-morons running the entertainment industry may not be able to read the writing on the wall, but they can read a balance sheet. One of the reasons for their intransigence in the current strike is that they’re desperate for more revenue – and they’re stupid enough to think they can get it by squeezing the people who make money for them.

Nor is this the most ridiculous notion the entertainment industry has come up with. the MPAA is pushing for bizarre schemes like licensing home theaters (basically any house with a couch and a 29-inch television screen) for $50 a year.

"Just because you buy a DVD to watch at home doesn't give you the right to invite friends over to watch it too,” an MPAA spokesman explained in defending this piece of lunacy. “That's a violation of copyright and denies us the revenue that would be generated from DVD sales to your friends."

Not even a Congress bribed with millions in campaign contributions ($217 million since 1990) would buy that one, but it’s a measure of the studios’ desperation that they’d even propose such nonsense.

However in pushing into the world of the new media, the studios face a more fundamental problem. They don’t understand the differences between internet based media and movies and television. For the most part they’re still thinking in terms of episodic television and movies and ignoring the kind of interactivity and community that comes from with the media they’re trying to invade.

Ironically part of the problem is that the price of poker is going down. It’s getting cheaper and cheaper to produce videos of decent, or at least interesting, quality. What’s more the tools are getting simpler and more powerful, which makes it easier to “break into the movies” online.

To get a tiny hint of where the technology is taking us, take a look at Beowulf, which is hitting theaters this week. With its incredible graphics and blends of animation and actors, Beowulf is anything but a cheap home-made production. However inside a decade those kinds of effects will be readily available to anyone who wants them, just as the breathtaking effects in the original Star Wars trilogy can be reproduced pretty much at will by amateur video makers today.

The critical point in this for the future of the movie industry is that what you can do in a computer you don’t need to do on a sound stage, complete with the large number of experts and associated expenses. Need to fix the lighting? That’s a couple of mouse clicks on the computer, not a crew of highly paid electricians fiddling with the lights for a couple of hours.

Of course there are other features that will play an even bigger part in these new online entertainments. One of the most important is interactivity and the resulting community. Increasingly entertainment is going to be about communities interacting in created worlds. The model is going to more closely mimic World of Warcraft than Beowulf.

This is utterly alien to the ‘sit back and take what we push at you’ model of traditional studio products. That mismatch alone is going to make it hard for the studios. And there are a lot of other problems I’m not going to try to go into just now.

So how will the writers come out of these fundamental changes? Probably better than the studios but not as well as they will out of the strike. Writers are a notoriously adaptable bunch, and most of us are able to turn our hands to a lot of different kinds of writing. While screenwriting is about the most highly specialized form of fiction writing out there, and screenwriters are in their own way prisoners of the system they’ve enjoyed over the decades, the flexible ones will do all right.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


While think of wholesale copying in terms of file sharing and novels posted without permission, there are a lot of other ways copyrighted material is misused on the web.

Over at TechCrunch, Erick Schonfeld notes that his posts are being ripped off wholesale by sploggers.

Splogs, in case your cave doesn’t have broadband, are spam blogs. They are the parasites of the blogosphere and they leech off legitimate blogs and bloggers to drive traffic to their sites and make money off the efforts of real bloggers. The ‘content’ of such blogs is either noise or stolen.

What Erick is complaining about is stolen content. Sploggers are stealing TechCrunch’s content wholesale and posting it without attribution on their splogs, surrounded by ads. This generates ad revenue for the splogger with virtually no work.

This is not a trivial problem for some blogs. In Erick’s case a single post was reposted in whole or in part nearly six hundred times. In itself that’s not surprising since TechCrunch is a popular source of technology news and comment. Most of these sites merely quoted extensively from TechCrunch articles and a few reprinted the articles in their entirety with attribution and links back to Michael’s site.

However there were a lot of sploggers who used the material as splog fodder. As Erick notes: “And of those, 115—or 25 percent of the original—were plastered with ads, making money off our work without so much as a link.”

It wasn’t just individual posts. Some of the sploggers were stealing TechCrunch posts repeatedly and presenting them without attribution to generate page views and ad revenue.

Judging by the responses, TechCrunch isn’t alone in the problem. Several other bloggers chimed in on the forum to report they have had material stolen by sploggers as well. And indeed anyone who does much web surfing will find these sploggers all over the place. I ran into one last week following up on a mention of one of my articles.

Equally predictably there was a small band of the morally tone deaf who roundly criticized Erick for complaining about being splogged while TechCrunch opposes the RIAA and others who are trying to crack down on free distribution of copyrighted material such as music. Attempts to make the critical distinctions were roundly ignored by the “intellectually lazy” (in another poster's phrase) who just wanted to run up their snark scores.

What follows started as a response to Erick's original post and has been suitably edited, emended, and (perhaps not so suitably) expanded for this post. I’ll start with the practicalities for someone who’s being splogged in this fashion and then we’ll get back to the distinction between this and file sharing.

Note also that none of this deals with bloggers who quote extensively from other blogs with proper attribution and linkbacks. We’re talking about scammers who are making money by stealing other people’s work and using it to generate ad revenue.

The practicalities
I do have a few practical (?) suggestions for anyone whose content is being stolen wholesale.
  • The first is to watermark your copy. Not your pages, your copy. Embed the watermark in the text file, not as a separate background layer. That way any robot who scoops it up will also get the "TechCrunch" (or whatever) all over it.
  • The second suggestion – which should really be the first – is to personalize your posts. That is, make the material truly yours by things like repeated mentions of your site in your posts, multiple links to related articles on your site, adopting a more personalized slant in your posts, etc.

Sploggers aside, this is a good idea anyway because it helps to distinguish your ‘product’ from all the other blogs out there. Vanilla prose, like vanilla layouts, are much less effective at attracting and keeping readers that something that is truly yours. This is true even in technical blogs.

Blogging is a form of communication that works best when your readers have a sense of who you are. That’s true of web interaction in general. Among other things, it helps to build a sense of community if your readers feel they know you. And community is one of the most important generators of repeat views, word of mouth and all the other happy little marks of blogosphere merit.

These suggestions go to the problem of attribution. The sploggers aren't going to go to the trouble of teasing this stuff out of your posts, especially the rewritten copy. That's too much like work after all. On the other hand, the misguided bloggers who think of themselves as legitimate are likely to make the effort. Which provides a useful distinguishing characteristic. Perhaps the misguided ones are susceptible to a gentle note about blogger etiquette.

There are also a couple of legal-type things you can do without turning into a junior-jackboot version of the RIAA or spending a ton of money.

  • The first, and most important, is to copyright your blog. Make sure every post is copyrighted and include a statement of terms of use in the TechCrunch site. This can be as copy-friendly as you want to make it, but specifically deny things like posting without attribution and requiring things like linking. Also include a phrase about the posts being free for non-commercial use. This puts you on a firm footing legally.
  • Next, and almost as important, is complain long and loud to Google about all the AdSense ads the sploggers are using to make money off the stolen material. Under the AdSense agreement, Google has broad authority to terminate the agreement – and the ad revenue if it feels the blogger is misbehaving. With luck Google will pull the splogger’s AdSense agreements. Even if Google does nothing on your specific complaints, if enough bloggers complain about the misuse of their posts, Google will be forced to deal with the problem.
    • Like any scheme of theft for profit, the sploggers’ greatest vulnerability is the money and the trail it leaves behind. Going after the sploggers advertising agreements is the most direct form of attack and it hits them where they live.
    • If you decide to go this route it’s important to establish that there is a pattern of misuse. Google or other ad services aren’t going to care about a single stolen post. However if you can demonstrate that the splogger has repeatedly stolen large chunks of your work and used it without attribution, Google or whoever is going to be a lot more receptive. For one thing they understand quite well that there’s the potential for a lawsuit against them based on a pattern of supporting bad or illegal practices.
  • And finally, there's that ol’ debbil the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. File DMCA takedown notices against the egregious offenders with their ISPs or blog services and force them to remove the offending articles. The DMCA makes this extremely easy to do. All it takes is a letter containing the appropriate language and the site or its ISP is virtually forced to comply. You can automate the process and keep doing it every time one of these guys reposts another of your articles. The sploggers will find easier prey soon enough.

Which leaves us with the purported hypocrisy of being angry at sploggers while supporting, or at least tolerating, file sharing and such. I've preached from the very beginning in Heresy Pornography and Treason that while free copying of material is an inevitable part of our brave new online world, theft for profit is not.

For the morally tone deaf among you: I'm saying it's unstoppable, not that it is all right. As an author I've had stuff ripped off and posted on the web (in Russian, no less!) without payment or permission. I may not like it, but I recognize I can't stop it and I'm not losing any sleep over it. Okay?

But that's not what's going on here. Unlike people randomly reposting TechCrunch articles with or without attribution, people who steal content to sell it, whether directly or by loading their stolen content with AdSense ads, are in a different class, both practically and, at least in my mind, morally. Sploggers can be stopped because there's a money trail.

But what, some of you ask, about the torrent sites that are loaded with ads? Why aren’t we upset about them? First, I don’t know anyone who has any particular soft spot for the ad-supported sites. A lot of people will reflexively defend them when they come under attack by the RIAA or other copyright Nazis, but you’ll notice that shutting down even a popular site doesn’t arouse one-tenth the rage that the RIAA going after welfare mothers and teenage girls does.

Yet like the sploggers these sites are terribly vulnerable. Why doesn’t the industry mount a concerted campaign to shut them down instead of more-or-less randomly going after the most popular file sharing sites? After all, the sites are vulnerable because unless they're doing business through the late, unlamented, Russian Business Network they can be tracked and shut down.

Why aren't they being shut down en masse? Because the RIAA and their ilk have chosen instead to conduct a campaign of legal terrorism aimed at intimidating the average downloader in the hope of scaring them out of the practice. In other words they're crazy as a gang of bedbugs and not behaving rationally.

And copiers for profit should be stopped. Copying and reposting without economic gain is, perhaps, homage. Reposting for profit is theft and should not be tolerated.