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How one musician took on the world’s biggest TV network over copyright—and won

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A dramatic moment from Glee maybe isn’t the first thing you expect to see in an Ars story, but promise there’s a point here.

You’ve heard Kerry Muzzey’s work (Bandcamp, Spotify), even if you haven’t heard of him. The 50-year-old classical music composer from Joliet, Illinois, who now lives in Los Angeles, produces haunting orchestral scores that soundtrack some of the most poignant moments in film and television. When Finn Hudson kissed Rachel Berry for the first time on TV’s Glee, it was Muzzey’s stripped-back piano playing in the background. Some of his works have been choreographed and performed on So You Think You Can Dance?, too.

The use of Muzzey’s music across pop culture has no doubt brought the veteran composer some success and acclaim. And around 2012, he decided to see for himself, searching for his name on YouTube. Muzzey recalls the site’s algorithm surfaced 20 or 40 videos. The majority were fan compilations that teenagers obsessed with Glee had painstakingly put together to memorialize their two favorite character’s love story–and they were all soundtracked to the full version of Muzzey’s music.

“It was really kind of cool and validating, especially for someone who was a complete independent, to have a kid finding a piece of instrumental music, which is the most uncool kind of music for a kid to find, and to make a tribute montage using it,” he explains. “It was stuff nobody would have a problem with.”

No one had a problem, that is, until a few years later when Muzzey gained access to YouTube’s ContentID system, the platform’s automated copyright tracker.

That handful of Glee fan videos just scratched the surface. Unbeknownst to the composer, waiting beyond a YouTube search for his name was a seeming subindustry that consistently used Muzzey’s music without his knowledge. ContentID surfaced roughly 20,000 videos for Muzzey in the first month–200 or 400 more got flagged every single day.

Many of these works weren’t from amateur obsessives tinkering around with video editing software. Some were annoying but smallscale, like professional wedding videographers who had decided Muzzey’s music was the perfect backing track for a bride’s big day, but they didn’t want to pay for the rights. “Things like that were mildly angering,” he says.

But other video makers clearly should’ve had no issue shelling for a license. There were projects from ad agencies producing spots to hawk bottled water, hotel chains, and car commercials. Yet the thing that annoyed Muzzey the most were the pages upon pages of full TV episodes uploaded to YouTube that returned a positive hit through the ContentID system. They came from all over Asia: Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. China was one of the biggest offenders.

“It was overwhelming,” Muzzey tells Ars about the hours spent poring over the results. The list of offending work was growing so fast that by the time Muzzey had looked at a couple of videos to ensure YouTube’s copyright infringement system wasn’t misfiring, another page of 25 search results had been appended to the end.

A neverending stream of videos from across the world was evidently co-opting Muzzey’s work. And the list of infringers eventually included one of the world’s biggest TV networks.

Copyright and wrong

Copyright infringement on the Internet is as old as the Internet itself. Lax rules and the free spirit ethos that embodied the early days of the Web made it seem almost acceptable to share illicitly-obtained copies of materials with fellow users, and every digitally-connected generation since has its own memories of getting files and footage illegally. For early Internet users, IRC channels were one main method; later browsers will still swell with pride when Kazaa or Limewire are mentioned.

Today, those wanting free access to pirated material are spoilt for choice: they can gain access to free books through Lib-Gen, movies and TVs from sites like Putlocker, illegal streaming services, or through torrents, and Internet users in 2021 can even educate themselves for free—Sci-Hub’s one-woman battle against the tyranny of paid-for access to academic papers means it’s possible to get almost any research paper you could want without handing over a single penny. As the coronavirus whips up a perfect storm of people stuck at home because movie theaters and concert venues are closed, coupled with less disposable income because of the mass ranks of unemployment as a result of the pandemic, piracy is on the rise. There wasa 33 percent piracy increase in the US and UK within the first month of lockdown, from February 2020 to March 2020, according to Muso, a company that tracks piracy online.

So even today, the Internet is built on a remix and republish ethos—a mantra that has laid waste to copyright and the ability for copyright holders to lay claim to their work. The reason we all log on to YouTube now and not any number of its oddly-named competitors like Revver or Vimeo is in part because of the site’s willingness to look the other way about copyrighted material uploaded onto the platform. Notably, a Saturday Night Live skit called Lazy Sunday was one of YouTube’s earliest viral successes.

Of course, YouTube has attempted to clean up its act since. It’s now as much a site for professional production companies to post full TV shows, documentaries, and music videos as it is an online repository for hobbyists with video cameras. ContentID has been praised by those who own the rights to works and lambasted by those who think the commercialism of the site has robbed it of its creative streak. Though Alphabet, parent company of YouTube and Google, doesn’t break down copyright removal requests on YouTube specifically, across Google it received requests to take down content from more than 220,000 individual copyright owners in 2019. (YouTube declined to comment for this story.)

While this copyright system is strong in theory, in practice there are loopholes. “Power asymmetries mean YouTube is not really incentivized to care about an appropriate resolution when problems crop up for individual musicians,” explains Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition, a Washington DC-based lobby group campaigning for musicians’ rights. That asymmetry means there are still people—companies, even—who get around the system, and who think copyright doesn’t work for them.

Surprisingly, global entertainment behemoth China Central Television stands firmly within this copyright antagonistic group.

Enlarge / A technician works inside China Central Television’s (CCTV) satellite Olympic broadcast facility for the Beijing Olympics.

Nelson Ching/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Three strikes

China Central Television (CCTV) is a network of dozens of TV channels that broadcasts video content to more than a billion people inside China. As you’d expect from a monolithic media outlet in the centrally-controlled Communist state, it’s an arm of the government. The public service broadcaster is nominally like the UK’s BBC, or America’s PBS, but in reality it’s closely connected to the Chinese state. And CCTV has repeatedly shown it’s more than happy to breach copyright.

Among the huge numbers of results that Muzzey found when he ran his regular ContentID searches were scores of hits from TV shows broadcast on CCTV. In all, he found 17 TV programs and movies emanating from CCTV that used some of his music. Some of those videos weren’t posted by official CCTV channels; instead they came from third party uploaders wanting to share episodes of their favorite shows more freely. Muzzey was infuriated: he had previously pursued a large TV production company based in China through a lawyer years ago because some of his music ended up being used on their programs–unlicensed. The case was pursued by the Chinese arm of the law firm and ended up in an out of court settlement that netted Muzzey precisely zero dollars. “I didn’t realize how expensive it was to use a law firm like that,” he says. But he had thought that would be the end of his need to pursue legal action in China. It turned out it wasn’t.

A <a href="https://twitter.com/kerrymuzzey/status/1215314324077436929">long (35 posts) Twitter thread</a> from Muzzey when he was in the thick of learning about CCTV's approach to copyright.
Enlarge / A long (35 posts) Twitter thread from Muzzey when he was in the thick of learning about CCTV’s approach to copyright.

Through the third-party uploads, Muzzey was able to match back the use of his music to certain TV shows, then to specific episodes. That led him to the official uploads that CCTV would occasionally post themselves on YouTube. “I found quite a few usages,” he says. “My music was in anything from silly reality TV shows to dating shows, but then also scripted dramas and movies.” He started using YouTube’s built-in copyright claim system to strike each one of the videos under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA); most of the videos had at least a million views already. (A copyright strike under the DMCA is treated differently to a ContentID claim on YouTube: ContentID claims can result in the offending material being taken down, or any profits made from it redirected to the rightful copyright owner. DMCA strikes result in warnings against the channel owners.) At the same time, Muzzey also laid strikes against a handful of other Chinese TV networks.

That angered the TV network.

Muzzey hadn’t considered the chain of events that was set off every time he pressed a button to claim copyright over music used in a YouTube video illegally. It triggers an alert that gets passed through YouTube to the uploader, warning them that someone believes they’ve acted against the law. YouTube cautions uploaders alleged to have breached copyright rules through a three-strike system. Three strikes, and your channel is terminated. For rank-and-file YouTubers, the strikes can pile up quickly. But, according to Muzzey, YouTube “do acknowledge that if it’s a highly monetized YouTube partner, or one of their premium uploaders, that uploader gets something of a grace period to resolve the problem.” YouTube provides seven days to members of its YouTube Partner Program to rectify the situation, during which time the channel remains live.

In this instance, the scale of the strikes Muzzey was filing against CCTV blew through any grace period to resolve the problem. It was clear there had been a pattern of persistent, unrepentant copyright infringement of Muzzey’s works—alongside potentially hundreds of infringement incidents against other creators.

The sheer volume of copyright strikes ultimately compelled CCTV to engage with Muzzey.

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New handwriting analysis reveals two scribes wrote one of the Dead Sea Scrolls

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Enlarge / Photographic reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the best preserved of the biblical scrolls found at Qumran. It contains the entire Book of Isaiah in Hebrew, apart from some small damaged parts.

Most of the scribes who copied the text contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls were anonymous, as they neglected to sign their work. That has made it challenging for scholars to determine whether a given manuscript should be attributed to a single scribe or more than one, based on unique elements in their writing styles (a study called paleography). Now, a new handwriting analysis of the Great Isaiah Scroll, applying the tools of artificial intelligence, has revealed that the text was likely written by two scribes, mirroring one another’s writing style, according to a new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

As we’ve reported previously, these ancient Hebrew texts—roughly 900 full and partial scrolls in all, stored in clay jars—were first discovered scattered in various caves near what was once the settlement of Qumran, just north of the Dead Sea, by Bedouin shepherds in 1946-1947. (Apparently, a shepherd threw a rock while searching for a lost member of his flock and accidentally shattered one of the clay jars, leading to the discovery.) Qumran was destroyed by the Romans, circa 73 CE, and historians believe the scrolls were hidden in the caves by a sect called the Essenes to protect them from being destroyed. The natural limestone and conditions within the caves helped preserve the scrolls for millennia; they date back to between the third century BCE and the first century CE.

Several of the parchments have been carbon dated, and synchrotron radiation—among other techniques—has been used to shed light on the properties of the ink used for the text. Most recently, in 2018, an Israeli scientist named Oren Ableman used an infrared microscope attached to a computer to identify and decipher Dead Sea Scroll fragments stored in a cigar box since the 1950s.

A 2019 study of the so-called Temple Scroll concluded that the parchment has an unusual coating of sulfate salts (including sulfur, sodium, gypsum, and calcium), which may be one reason the scrolls were so well-preserved. And last year, researchers discovered that four fragments stored at the University of Manchester, long presumed to be blank, actually contained hidden text, most likely a passage from the Book of Ezekiel.

The current paper focuses on the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the original scrolls discovered in Qumran Cave 1 (designated 1QIsa). It’s the only scroll from the caves to be entirely preserved, apart from a few small damaged areas where the leather has cracked off. The Hebrew text is written on 17 sheets of parchment, measuring 24 feet long and around 10 inches in height, containing the entire text of the Book of Isaiah. That makes the Isaiah Scroll the oldest complete copy of the book by about 1,000 years. (The Israel Museum, in partnership with Google, has digitized the Isaiah Scroll along with an English translation as part of its Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project.)

Most scholars believed that the Isaiah Scroll was copied by a single scribe because of the seemingly uniform handwriting style. But others have suggested that it may be the work of two scribes writing in a similar style, each copying one of the scroll’s two distinct halves. “They would try to find a ‘smoking gun’ in the handwriting, for example, a very specific trait in a letter that would identify a scribe,” said co-author Mladen Popović of the University of Groningen. Popović is also director of the university’s Qumran Institute, dedicated to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In other words, the traditional paleographic method is inherently subjective and based on a given scholar’s experience. It’s challenging in part because one scribe could have a fair amount of variability in their writing style, so how does one determine what is a natural variation, or a subtle difference indicating a different hand? Further complicating matters, similar handwriting might be the result of two scribes sharing a common training, a sign the scribe was fatigued or injured, or that he changed writing implements.

“The human eye is amazing and presumably takes these levels into account, too. This allows experts to ‘see’ the hands of different authors, but that decision is often not reached by a transparent process,” said Popović. “Furthermore, it is virtually impossible for these experts to process the large amounts of data the scrolls provide.” The Isaiah Scroll, for instance, contains at least 5,000 occurrences of the letter aleph (“a”), making it well-nigh impossible to compare every single aleph by eye. He thought pattern recognition and artificial intelligence techniques would be well suited to the task.

First, Popović and his colleagues—Lambert Schomaker and grad student Maruf Dhali—developed an artificial neural network they could train to separate (“binarize”) the ink of the text from the leather or papyrus on which it was written, ensuring that the digital images precisely preserved the original markings. “This is important because the ancient ink traces relate directly to a person’s muscle movement and are person-specific,” said Schomaker.

They next created two 12×12 self-organizing maps of full-character aleph and bet from the Isaiah Scroll’s pages, each letter formed from multiple instances of similar characters. Such maps are useful for chronological style development analysis. Fraglets (fragmented character shapes) were used instead of full character shapes to achieve more robust results.

The results indicated two different handwriting styles, an outcome that persisted even after the team added extra noise to the data as an additional check. That analysis also showed the second scribe’s handwriting was more variable than that of the first, although the two styles were quite similar, indicating a possible common training.

“We will never know their names. But this feels as if we can finally shake hands with them through their handwriting.”

Finally, Popović et al. created “heat maps” for a visual analysis, incorporating all the variations of a given character throughout the scroll. They used this to create an averaged version of the character for the first 27 and last 27 columns, making it clear to the naked eye that the two averaged characters were different from each other—and hence more evidence of a second scribe copying out the second half of the scroll.

“Now, we can confirm this with a quantitative analysis of the handwriting as well as with robust statistical analyses,” said Popović. “Instead of basing judgment on more-or-less impressionistic evidence, with the intelligent assistance of the computer, we can demonstrate that the separation is statistically significant.”

The authors acknowledge that their analysis doesn’t completely rule out the possibility that the variations are due to a scribe’s fatigue, injury, or a change of pen, but “the more straightforward explanation is that a change in scribes occurred,” they wrote. They also concluded that their study shows the added value that scholars engaged in paleographic research can gain by collaborating with other disciplines.

The next step is to apply their methods to more of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “We are now able to identify different scribes,” said Popović of the significance of their findings. “We will never know their names. But after seventy years of study, this feels as if we can finally shake hands with them through their handwriting.”

DOI: PLOS ONE, 2021. 10.1371/journal.pone.0249769  (About DOIs).

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PS4 owners lament the shutdown of beloved “Communities” social network

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Enlarge / Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead…

In the world of social media, new networks are constantly popping into existence and then fading away when they fail to become the next Facebook (or Twitter, or TikTok, etc.). Still, last week’s shutdown of the PS4’s Communities features (and the lack of a suitable replacement on the PS5) has left many PlayStation fans bitter about the death of a vibrant space they used to connect with fellow gamers.

For those who never had a chance to join a PS4 Community, the groups served as a kind of player-created and moderated message board system, accessible directly via the PS4’s system menu (and through the PlayStation Mobile app, before that connection was shut off last year). Members could share text messages, screenshots, wallpapers, and more on a shared “Community Wall” or form parties to chat and play multiplayer titles together with other online members.

Specific PS4 Communities could form around a single game or series, a geographic area, a cultural grouping, or just shared general interests (“Smoke&Play” and “Vaping Gamers” were popular Communities at one point).

“My reaction to the Communities going away at first was quite a shock if I’m honest,” said Alex Richards, who said he belonged to 15 different PS4 Communities, some with tens of thousands of users focused on PS4 trophy hunting. “Overall, I felt like it was like having to say goodbye to a virtual family of sorts, as I had met some fantastic people through being a part of the Communities, and knowing that the platform we all shared as people and gamers [would] suddenly disappear was a real shame.”

Richards was so upset by the shutdown that he put together a “RIP PSN Communities” video on YouTube, complete with maudlin music and sad gray raindrops casting a pall over the proceeding. “Thank you for the memories and the good times we shared,” he wrote in a video chyron.

A few examples of PS4 Communities that were available before their shutdown last week.
Enlarge / A few examples of PS4 Communities that were available before their shutdown last week.

Welcome to your PS4

Richards is not alone in mourning the PS4’s Community features and the unique ways they let players connect with others. “It was an extraordinarily convenient setup,” Australian PS4 owner Ian Mackinder told Ars. “If you wanted to send a picture or make a comment or whatever during play, it was just a few seconds’ work to flip from the game, do [a] post on whichever Community you chose, then return to play.”

That simplicity led to PS4 Communities forming around some interesting and unexpected shared interests. “The best example I can think of is one guy who set up a Community specifically for pictures from all PS4 games,” Mackinder said. “There was even a regular weekly competition where a theme would be specified (e.g. “emotion,” “black and white,” “heights,” etc.). Entries would come in from all games imaginable. No prizes, just… positive feedback and seeing who’d get first, second, third, etc.”

For others, the appeal of PS4 Communities was more utilitarian. “For games like Destiny 2, some [high-level] activities don’t have matchmaking, so it was the only way to squad up for endgame content,” PS4 Communities user Lesvix told Ars. “On the big Community, you had posts every minute so it was very convenient to find people.”

“Also, as an adult, I don’t like to play with children, so the community helped find people of the same age,” Lesvix continued. “When searching for people, you can mention 18+ in the post [and get] no children.”

“A tribute to a fallen hero”

For many, PS4 Communities were a welcoming way to get acclimated to a new title in the same place you were playing it. “Picture yourself a new gamer with a new game. Where do you turn for info?” PS4 Communities fan Blackdwag07 (who asked to go by his PSN handle) asked rhetorically. “YouTube is great, but it’s a video, maybe years old. With Communities, you could go to them [and easily find] info, news, wallpapers, and groups and friends to play with. I could ask any questions and get answers faster than searching Google, and better answers also.”

“The Communities were a valuable means of meeting fellow players, for new arrivals seeking guidance, and for both seeking and providing general advice/assistance,” Mackinder added. He cited the PS4 Communities for No Man’s Sky in particular as “very positive places. Any newbie who fronted up asking for advice could be sure of getting a response.”

Not every PS4 Community was so welcoming, of course. Many languished from a lack of activity or quickly got filled with spam or toxic harassment. But the players I talked to suggested that the PS4 Communities they stuck with were much less prone to abuse than other online spaces.

“There were many communities where the ‘owner’ had, for some reason or another, basically abandoned the community and left it completely unmoderated, meaning that pretty much any troll or griefer with the energy would have free rein for as long as they chose,” Mackinder said. “Communities that were properly looked after had no such problem.” Mackinder suggested that a basic check-in from Sony to see if Community owners and moderators were still engaged could have prevented a lot of the worst abuses in unmoderated spaces.

“I also owned a couple of communities myself, including one called PlayStation Network Addicts, which was more of a variety community,” Richards said. “It was a safe and inclusive space for all kinds of gamers and for the time in which it existed, I feel like it served its purpose well.”

Where to now?

When Sony announced the pending PS4 Communities shutdown last month, users were left scrambling to maintain their connections to the friends they had found through the network. “We thankfully have PSN Messages, including group chats and parties, but… a group chat allows up to 100 people, whereas PSN Communities allowed up to 100,000 people,” Richards said.

Aside from personal group chats, Discord seems to be the main beneficiary of the shutdown, with many PS4 Community users telling me they had moved their social groups to the gaming-focused social service. But Mackinder lamented that these replacements are “not nearly as convenient as what we had. But there you go. Thank you, Sony.”

Many former PS4 Communities users have moved on to Discord, though some find it less convenient.
Enlarge / Many former PS4 Communities users have moved on to Discord, though some find it less convenient.

“Since I do have [other] social media, [Communities] being deleted didn’t affect me that much,” PS4 Community user Scourge HH told Ars. “But I have to imagine, people who are more wary or shy regarding social media are probably feeling it much more, since they lost a huge social interaction feature, connected to the very games they play. I used to see a lot of people posting gaming compliments or finds on the different Communities.”

In the end, many PS4 players (and new PS5 owners) may never even realize that PS4 Communities are gone—Sony’s removal of the feature certainly suggests it wasn’t popular with a critical mass of the user base. Still, among the PS4 Communities users I talked to, Sony’s decision to shutter the feature has generally left them with a more negative view of the PlayStation as a whole.

“If there is no social space on PSN, I am thinking of switching to PC, and I have been using Sony since the PS1,” Lesvix said. “It’s funny how PlayStation gave free games as part of ‘Play at Home,’ but without Communities, it is more like ‘Play alone!'”

“I’d also add that there is a lot of bitterness about Sony’s actions,” Mackinder said. “No one expected much basic consideration from them, but a very common sentiment now is ‘My next console will be Xbox.'”

“In short, Sony has removed a huge quality-of-life feature from its services and has made sure that I at least will not purchase a PS5,” Blackdawg03 said. “Honestly, [Communities] made Sony games so much better because there was this huge group you could turn to. Other players would give their time, game materials and currency, help, and friendship to help you master your ‘lifelong game.'”

“I’m sorry for being emotional, but we lost our place to belong.”

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PlayStation Plus Video Pass: Sony may be one-upping Xbox Game Pass

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As the battle of subscription gaming services heats up, Sony appears poised to offer a new perk to PlayStation console owners: Sony movies with your Sony games.

A logo for a new service, dubbed PlayStation Plus Video Pass, is live on Sony’s PlayStation.com servers as of this writing, and it was part of a Polish-language PlayStation promotion spotted by Video Games Chronicle before being taken down. The page in question suggested a two-day test run for this new service, available exclusively to subscribers of Sony’s paid PlayStation Plus service, on April 21-22.

While the description of the service was vague, merely mentioning PS Plus Video Pass and a date range, an attached image clarified what PlayStation console owners should expect: three recent films released by Sony Pictures Entertainment (Venom, Bloodshot, and Zombieland: Double Tap). PS Plus Video Pass thus might revolve around films from Sony-owned companies like Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures—but whether additional studios might participate, and exactly how films would be doled out to paying customers, remains unclear.

As VGC’s report reminds readers, this development follows Sony’s decision to stop selling individual films and TV series through the PlayStation Store beginning on August 31. When this decision was announced in March, Sony executives blamed a “shift in customer behavior,” primarily with streaming services, but it also mentioned “evolving our offerings.” That would imply replacing à la carte rentals and sales with something, especially since PlayStation 5’s console menus devote a massive tab to “media,” and PS Plus Video Pass would fit that bill. Such a service might also keep the PlayStation Video app for smartphones and set-top boxes relevant once its à la carte purchases are disabled.

One of Ballmer’s bombs

Both Xbox and PlayStation offer subscription services in the $10-15 range that offer streamed and downloaded games for active subscribers. Currently, Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass service trounces Sony’s options in terms of game selection, particularly “day one” launches of first-party games. As a recent, wild example of the services’ disparity, Xbox Game Pass subscribers got access to the Sony-published MLB The Show 21 this week; PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now users cannot say the same.

But XGP currently has no ongoing video content to rival a potential Sony-run streaming film and TV service. Instead, Microsoft has offered selective trial subscriptions to third-party services as part of Game Pass’s “Perks” menu, including Spotify and Disney+—though this menu can go unnoticed by users, since it’s not baked into the console’s giant list of Game Pass games.

We’re reminded of Microsoft’s infamous attempt to rev up its own internal Xbox Entertainment Studios during the 2010s, with a Steven Spielberg-led Halo TV series leading that charge. Two years after its creation, the studio was shut down amidst an executive shakeup following the departure of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer—and it became a massive about-face for the gaming division after Xbox One’s TV-focused and Kinect-first sales pitches bombed. Halo is still apparently coming to TVs near you, meanwhile, with Showtime developing a live-action series. We have to wonder whether Game Pass subscribers will wind up with Showtime subscription offers timed around its launch.

Listing image by Sony Interactive Entertainment

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