Blackboard coaxing WebCT users to Defect

In this press release BlackBoard urges WebCT users to come to the mother ship with promises of “conversion kits.”

You know they aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, which makes me wonder just what kind of “conversion” and support they are offering. I’m not going to speculate about why and what a user would be converting. After all, both companies purport to use open standards right down to their meta data. It’s also likely that that the sites to be converted are would need to be fairly vanilla, that is, template driven, “course module” using sites, rather than anything more instructonally appropriate or useful.

The release is an interesting example of marketing drivel. The name of the “web based” conversion kit is “EasySwitch.” The release alludes forebodingly to WebCT’s announcement of ceasing support for the “standard edition” in favor of the more kitchen-sink “Campus Edition,” which costs more, as the release implies, and then, near the very bottom, refers to BlackBoard as “a single reliable learning solution with long term viability.” Implying, of course, that WebCt is neither reliable nor viable—and it may well be neither, but I’m not sure BlackBoard is any better.

Were it me, I’d spend the money on smart people, including using trained graduate students as support staff and HTML folk, working with trained undergraduate HTML folk, and look at things like NNTP for discussion boards, Radio, Manilla, Perl, Apache, and MovableType–which looks like a super application for web-writing. It’s got me thinking about finding a web host that will let me use Perl.

On Ripping CDs

Yes, you can buy a CD and “rip” or copy the files quite easily. Apple’s iTunes, bundled with every Mac, and available for free downloading, is designed to make ripping and burning easy—and it does. There are similar applications for just about any personal computer operating system.Yes, people do that”rip” files all the time. Yes, some people put those files on the Internet and others download them.

The operative word there is “some.” I’ve never posted an illegal mp3 file on the ‘net. I do have an iPod though, and it contains MP3s of about 60 CDs that I purchased. Given that there are other real world models for this activity in that you can photocopy a book you own for personal use—it’s the distribution of that copy that’s a problem—it’s pretty daft to argue that users shouldn’t be able to make digital copies for personal use of cds they own—just as they can make casettes of vinyl albums (remember records?) or other personal use copies.

During Napster’s thriving period CD sales went up. It’s possible that Napster actually drove CD sales. Sales have dropped—for both concert tickets and CDs—post Napster. People downloaded a song they liked, often discovering new artists, then bought the CD. Humans are acquisitive by nature. We like bright shiny objects, and want to own them in a physical form. Moroever, by enhancing the data with an attractive cover and liner notes, not to mention the benefits of enhanced CDs, CD producers are giving the physical object added value—making us want them even more. If they had a clue, the RIAA could drive sales by making it easy to legally obtain MP3 files—and pay the artists involved.

Given how many hours I spend working in front of computers, I darn well want to be able to either listen to MP3’s on my iPod or play a cd in my CD-ROM drive—both things the RIAA doesn’t want me to do. And, at the same time Eisner and others are complaining to Senator Hollings about consumers “stealing” from them, the RIAA is not paying the artists. I think Tim O’Reilly was being too polite when he described them as being disingenuous. It’s worth reading the thoughts of Andy Grove, someone who understands profit and technology, as well as the need for innovation. If publishers want to sell more, maybe they should find out what consumers want.

CD-Audio Boycott

The latest copy protection idiocy is a Celine Dion CD that not only won’t work in your CD-ROM drive, it can damage it.

My spouse and I, both proud owners of iPods haven’t bought any new CDs this year. We’re not planning to either, though we usually buy about fifteen a year for personal use and another ten or so for gifts. We’re perfectly willing to pay artists for CDs or MP3s, but we refuse to be told where, and how, we can listen to them, or what we can do with our property. We also resent being treated as thieves.

Efforts to Extend and Enforce the DMCA

But wait—there’s more. Not only are publishers turning on libraries and librarians, now the music industry is trying to tell us what we can do with our CDs. One of the problems with the DMCA is that it isn’t very clear. Against a backdrop of challenges to the DMCA, Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina held hearings on standardizing digital copy-protection technology in nearly all PCs and consumer electronic devices. Hilary Rosen of the RIAA was one of those who testified. This is a really stupid idea for any number of reasons. The technologically ignorant aren’t the people to create standards, particularly when those standards would restrict innovation, and place control of intellectual property with a few large corporations, corporations that are potentially immortal.

There are more intelligent ways to go about protecting rights holders, without assuming all consumers are thieves, and without restricting reasonable use of personal property to make copies for personal use. DigitalConsumer.org has some good ideas, including a Consumer Bill of Rights.

DMCA

The DMCA or Digital Millennium Copyright Act has essentially removed the concept of “fair use” from consideration when using digital assets. The implications of this restriction, coupled with the 1998 Copyright Extension Act, for libraries and schools are horrific. This Business Week article about Brewster Kahle’s efforts to expand the Internet Archive reveals the problems of excessive copyright limitations. (Kahle filed an amica curiae brief in support of Eldred.) U.S. Representative (Virginia) Rick Boucher explains better than I can why the DMCA act serves to stifle the exchange of information. The idea of restricting users ability to copy media they have legally purchased for personal use is not even technically sound. John “maddog” Hall, of Linux International, offers a reasonable solution: “fix the DMCA, then enforce the laws we have already,” pointing out that “We’re not all criminals.”