Culture flat rates are a horrible idea

Culture flat rates are named both in the Netherlands and in Germany as a solution to the problem of copyright piracy.

The idea is to have everybody pay a set amount of money each month so that they can download all they want and redistribute that money among copyright holders to compensate them for their work.

This stems from the notion that copyright holders deserve some payment for their work and that the current repression being employed to uphold the dysfunctional copyright system, is unacceptable.

It is a horribly bad idea on a great many levels.

1. It cedes to the copyright industry that piracy is an actual problem. It is not. Current piracy does not in any way threaten the creation of new works and in many ways is expediting the switch to new ways of producing culture and new business models.

2. A (semi-)government run systems such as this one removes all entrepreneurship from the production of cultural products and in doing so also removes all innovation. The mediocre will be best served by such a system and those who want to go the extra mile or go into wholly new areas will be hurt.

3. A tariff system by its design works in favor of the old and not the new. New entrants will not have made their arrangements to participate and may never do so because of other inhibiting conditions. People creating wholly new cultural works (DJs, mashups, all manner of interactive experiences and games) may find themselves falling outside of the categorizations on offer. This while the old sit back and reap the rewards for efforts form the past.

4. What should be the most important consideration but is usually left as a detail to deal with later: organizing such a system is practically intractable. Who will compensate the Americans, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Brazilian underground movie industry, the bloggers for their writing and the musicians on Soundcloud for their music?

The current organizations tasked with redistributing these tariffs on music played on the radio or in cafes (BUMA/STEMRA in the Netherlands, SEBAM in Belgium) have proved themselves to be mostly corrupt, opaque, poorly organized and exclusionary. It is an illusion to think that a newly established organization will fair any better.

Update: After thinking it over a bit more and reading more misguided German business model ideas for creative production, I think the next three requirements could be used to make a culture flat rate work:

  1. Blanket. A culture flat rate would need to be truly blanket to solve a lot of problems. If it is not, the difference with Spotify or Netflix streaming is zero and it would seem odd to codify into law what is in fact just another business. On the other hand, if the goal is to solve the copyright problem for everybody, a flat rate scheme should ensure that I cannot be sued anymore for any copyright infringement. That was after all the problem to be solved. With current international intellectual property and trade treaties this seems unlikely to happen.
  2. Voluntary. A flat rate should be voluntary. I should not be forced to pay into a scheme I don’t want to or which is of no use to me (like the GEZ). Styled this way, the flat rate would be a kind of legislative insurance for users to prevent getting sued for nonsense and the funds collected could be used to support a couple of starving artists. Though there seem to be altogether too many of those in Germany. This approach would also demonstrate actual market fit of the scheme.
  3. Cheap. A hard requirement on any scheme would be that a flat rate needs to be cheap, cheaper even maybe than the current tv license. That is the only way to ensure incentives for creators to create new products and new business models. If the flat rate is set too high, it risks becoming a cash cow for a sick industry and further stagnate developments in an already conservative country.

Will any of those happen? Reading the proposed business models on an upcoming event, I’m rather pessimistic.

Racism at the border, or not so Schengen after all

The train just had its stop in Bad Bentheim entering Germany. At that stop we usually get a short break, a new locomotive and the German border police checking the train. Border police? Didn’t the Schengen Agreement abolish checks at the signing countries’ borders?

It did, but these informal spot checks are still being held by some countries. Even worse, they are not random by any degree. The German Bundespolizei deliberately checks those with a dark skin and hardly any others. Normally such an observation could be attributed to me being cynical. Here it unfortunately cannot.

It is a practice being supported up until the administrative court of Koblenz where a case relating to this policy came to trial recently. The judge maintained the obligation of the police to use ‘situational insight’ and ‘relevant border police experience’ (‘entsprechende “Lageerkenntnisse” und “einschlägige grenzpolizeiliche Erfahrung” zugrunde zu legen’). writes it up with the obvious title “Der Neger ist verdächtig” and the post has over four hundred comments.

I didn’t get checked this time but sometimes they do check my passport. It probably depends on how foreign I happen to look on a specific day or if I have shaven recently. I can shrug it off easily as probably most people can who don’t deal with racism on a day to day basis. But when I see a black family of four traveling and being checked as the only ones in the compartment, I wonder what kind of an impression that gives their children about the justness of the society they are growing up into.

Week 262: native iPhone development, gentrification clashes, Fraunhofer, Deutsches Theater and fixie riding

The week started with development on saba in phonegap. I got that to work with backbone.

I created a template to send invoices from German. Unfortunately at this point the amount of text that needs to be on there (numbers in both languages, custom phrases for the tax service) makes any attempt at whitespace impossible. I’m just glad if everything fits onto one page and I can send that.

There was a flurry about the BMW Guggenheim laboratory that was supposed to call in Kreuzberg on its world tour. Some extremists threatened it with violence because they have issues with gentrification, see Peter Bihr’s write-up. The most recent news that reached us was that it was rescheduled for Prenzlauerberg, but now there is yet another piece in Freitag about the lab.

If the goal of the lab was to provoke discussions about the future, it has been quite successful at that, though probably not in the clear-cut fashion that its organizers imagined it would. The discourse about gentrification is often hijacked and skewed and lacks representation and realistic courses of action. Anybody who has read their Jane Jacobs would say that it is inevitable that neighborhoods change. You can prevent them from overheating by releasing development pressure to other areas with targeted development. Freezing time is not a solution. Neither is socialism.

I attended a work session at Fraunhofer FOKUS about a report on open data in Germany. We touched upon most of the points that I have discussed about in the UK an the Netherlands already these past years so with all of that prior art, the Germans should be able to follow a clear path to open data.

Workshop Open Government Data Germany

Phonegap development continued in earnest but it turned out on the iPhone DOM manipulation is ridiculously slow even for the simplest of operations. Instead of trying to optimize a dog of an application I switched to native iOS development which should be a challenge, but the clear definition is a refreshing change from the relativity of web development.

Panama Duncan to be found here. See the good bean spread.

On Friday I received a shipment of tyres and I could build up my bike again to tear through the city. That was a beautiful day.

Friday night I attended a discussion at the Deutsches Theater about the culture cuts in the Netherlands and how they could/would be applied to Germany. I piece about that is forthcoming as soon as I get around to writing it up.

Bizarrely posh environment, here for a debate about theater cuts

Week 261: Phonegap, Gobsquad and Hohenschönhausen

Running behind two weeks and off to the Netherlands tomorrow (for a talk at a Crosslab event in the Unie). Oh how time flies! This was a fun week.

On Monday development for saba started in earnest and there was much hacking in Phonegap. Or Cordova, or whatever the project is called these days. By now we have abandoned that approach for reasons that are forthcoming but it was fun while it lasted.

On Tuesday I went to Gobsquad’s Kitchen mostly on a recommendation from Kevin Slavin. That was a very entertaining show.

State of redress

I finally found a Steuerberater here who seem to be good at what they are doing and friendly.

On Friday I accompanied Alexander and Ernst-Jan who were visiting Berlin on a tour of the former Stasi remand prison in Hohenschönhausen.

This already looks pretty fucked up.

Hack de Overheid now has a Google Group where everybody can have their say. It still needs a bit of a startup, but these things always do.

Week 260: books, games, keynotes and Koolhaas

Work continues apace. New websites are forthcoming.

With some heavy lifting in the U-Bahn, I managed to reassemble my library. I eagerly anticipate when I can digitize everything here and not worry about the physicality of my external brain anymore.

Reassembled the library

Machiavelli (or Ohne Furcht und Adel or Citadels) is awaiting its first play at the studio the first free Friday we can find.

Ohne Furcht und Adel (or you might know it as Citadels)

The Apps für Deutschland price winners have been announced. We had nothing to do with this competition, but it is interesting to see how this develops alongside the Netherlands.

On Wednesday I went to co.up to watch the Stevenote:
Engrossed Stevenote audience

I got to catch Jeroen Visser and Robert Jan Verkade in Berlin after they had just given a workshop. Dutch website all-stars if ever there were some.

After which I went to the Mart Stam talks in the Dutch embassy in Berlin. Getting a tour of Koolhaas designed building was a nice addition to the event.

The tour made clear two important parts of the building about which a lot probably has been written but which I’ll add here nonetheless:

Our tour guide continued to explain how unpractical various quarters in the building were, how they were not used as much as you would want or expect and how a lot of things had to be patched up after delivery. During the tour one of the very nice looking skewed doors fell apart as if to emphasize this again. In more than one place cables were added because the normal connections were not suitable or were too hidden away.

That very unsuitability for human inhabitation and work is a form of power projection. The fact that a government can afford to place an exorbitant impractical building in the middle of another nation’s capital to sit there and impress guests is another form of functionality, though at considerable expense.

Add to that the Germans’ reactions to the modernity of the building. Many of the (old) people on the tour were very vocally amazed with the material use, furniture and architectural tricks in the building. The building is radical departure from the Berlin tendency towards historicist architecture. Taking both those points, the embassy is ultimately an elaborate joke played by the architect on the German and Dutch people.

Last week also our company names (all three of them!) were mounted on the wall at the office which gives our residency in Berlin a more official air.

Represent on the door!

Toneelgroep Amsterdam – Husbands

Last weekend I saw Husbands by Toneelgroep Amsterdam director Ivo van Hove in the Schaubühne in Berlin. I was not unequivocally enthusiastic about the play, though it has a boisterous quality that has stayed with me these past days.

Picture © Jan Versweyveld

The Germans on the other hand have not deigned to give the play five minutes before deciding it is trash, see Jule Löffler for Freitag and Sascha Krieger. They stumble over each other and their poorly worded mischaracterizations to denounce the play, calling it boring, grotesque and poorly founded.

This seems to be another case of German traditionalists having a hard time dealing with modernity. Husbands is more entertaining than quite some plays I have seen at de Schaubühne —some of which were ordeals to sit through.

The play is an adaptation of the movie by John Cassavetes which most of us will never get around to seeing. The stage design is in the modern style that we’re used to from Versweyveld and the ensemble gives it a high octane raucous (as in ‘fuck yeah!’) treatment.

Each actor also has a head mounted camera that is displayed intermittently above the stage, translating the cinéma vérité to the theater. Translating it so well that for me the first person view on the screen was more compelling to watch than the overview below.

Music, especially music by Bruce Springsteen, also plays a large role in this adaptation. The Boss perfectly exemplifies that feeling of being a son of the most powerful country in the world that also happens to make the best music in the world. You would think Germans were more familiar with this American Exceptionalism even if from the receiving side.

Being in that position and then confronted with mortality offers some hints to the husbands’ behaviour but they seem mostly the mannerisms of old men. Main stage theater in the Netherlands seems rather obsessed with the middle-aged. I couldn’t care less for them, but theater seems as shaped by market forces as anything.

Yael Ronen and Company – The Day Before the Last Day

Yesterday evening I saw The Day Before the Last Day in die Schaubühne as a part of the F.I.N.D. festival.

The Company plays a straight-forward critique and pastiche of religion that covers a broad swath but mainly stays in the realm of non-complicated comedy. The opening in particular is a miserable slapstick routine that seems to hit a chord with the German audience. Fortunately the rest of the play is better.

What ‘The Day Before…’ amounts to is a series of entertaining religious sketches interspersed with some more serious notes. Some of them are really good and manage to hit home, but given the theme the treatment is rather tame. Maybe this is risqué in Israel or Germany (with the obligate Nazi joke), but with this theme and YouTube to draw from (as we can see in the projections), a more visceral exploration of religion and humanity should have been possible.

Biting off a theme of this size does give a lot to chew on, too much probably. Add to that the piece also adding meta commentary to itself and the demands on the writing become ridiculously high. Demands that are not met. The internet is incorporated and provides a rich source of material but it remains at arm’s length. Given the contemporary nature and theme of the piece, a higher degree of network realism should have been possible. Tuning the sketches to current events should not be too difficult and it would have added a much needed poignancy.

Surprisingly entertaining but the content falls a bit short of the ambition. (3/5)

Week 259: office work, publicity, copyright and liquid feedback

Briefly written notes for last week. It was one of the first proper weeks at the office for which I am grateful. German administration remains a challenging affair as my blog post and quoted Times article also testify.

Today's office

We put a small Tumblr called “Ramen Hunter” online on which we document our peripatetic consumptions of the Japanese manna called ramen.

Also the news that I will be speaking at NEXT Berlin on a topic near to my heart “Love in Times of Gamification”. Not only is that turning out to become a huge and important subtopic within gaming, it is also going to be a lot of fun. The Dutch newspaper NRC featured an article (link for subscribers) about the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference in which I am also quoted talking about Hack de Overheid and Apps for Amsterdam.

Another German copyright issue arose because Open Köln republished a series of government documents on their own website. I wrote up the chain of events and the chilling effects that are bound to follow.

Four people on stage rehashing the Zeit article I read this morning about startups in Berlin

I went to an event called Zukunftgespräche about the future of creative and innovative work in the city. That was mostly a disappointment with commonplaces being trodden over and Zeit articles being quoted near verbatim. It seems these kind of events in Germany are too institutional and manage to invite exactly the wrong people.

Die Macht in Netz

The rest of the week was spent hauling my library to the office, writing up some proposals and Skype-ing with the homefront. I also submitted our research initiatives from Open State to Virtueel Platform. And I could finish off the week having a beer at Soundcloud Rebase which turns out to be a pretty good way to end a week.

Looking for parts

On Sunday I read up on the Liquid Democracy software platform used by the Pirate Party to decide upon their points of view (read a good Spiegel overview here: “Web Platform Makes Professor Most Powerful Pirate”).

Technologically I have quite some issues with the implementation which is brilliant at places and patchwork on others, but those are mostly besides. It works and it does what it needs to do. The main Pirate Party implementation lives here: and is publicly browsable. A cursory glance reveals a lot of interesting things.

First and foremost, it is interesting and essential to build a web native application for the processes of politics. Most parties if they would start anew today would not end up at this exact point, but this is obvious if like the Pirates your pedigree is digitally native. Being able to participate in a more accessible and equally footed arena, without having to go to party congresses is something other parties should learn from and the open democratic process is reminiscent of the Occupy general assemblies. Even more importantly, codifying the democratic process in software and opening that up for evolution by means of open source contributions, looks like the the future of political systems in the digital age.

More worrisome are the non-digital points of view proposed on the platform. Besides a proposal for Open Government Data being approved there are also proposals for a base income for everybody and many other wish-list utopian social measures. None of those seem to be predicated on fiscal solvency. Many of the measures rely on more government to improve society. That is oddly reminiscent of the modeling paradox: a better model does not guarantee better outcomes. The same with government, the current government here is not very small but already rather dysfunctional.

The free for all democracy of Liquid Feedback might easily lead to a California-like situation where proposition after proposition has lifted taxes so far that it has bankrupted the state. This is the biggest risk with general assembly and other referendum type decision making processes. It is too easy to demand everything if there are no consequences attached to it. Thankfully the Pirate Party will never hold a majority in German government because if they did, they would probably bankrupt the nation within a week.