VK goes legal
Picking up where we left off last week – piracy, VK social network and movies! Well, turns out that VK is slowly but surely going legal. The social network has been involved in a few high profile copyright lawsuits already and who knows how many which have slipped under the radar. However, it seems that it was able to defend its right to not care what the users are doing - in other words, courts almost always found the social network to be not guilty of copyright infringement. The idea is that terms of service and user agreement have VK users responsible for whatever it is they download, not the host itself. Sure, understandable but, perhaps, not as simple as one might initially think. After all, VK receives quite a lot of money from commercials. Commercials are shown to users. And users, in turn, might (or might not) be attracted by the immense libraries of illegally copied movies, TV shows and music and not the whole ‘social network experience’. I can’t help but mention one of the more amusing incidents surrounding copyrights and VK. Sergei Lazarev, a relatively known singer here in Russia, found out that his songs were among thousands of others available in VK – and he didn’t get any money for that! In December, he tweeted: “I’m going to sue VK! I’m sick of them! I urge all artists who are worried about their songs being pirated to do the same!” I don’t think he actually had the chance to do that – surprisingly, administration of the social network was quick to comply. And still, the singer was unhappy. In a week, VK’s founder Pavel Durov has publicly replied, again, through a tweet: “I’ve removed all songs by Sergei Lazarev from VK. Cultural value of music [in the social network] has skyrocketed.” So now if someone searches for this artists, they will find zero results. If they try to play these songs from playlists which previously hosted them, they will see this message: “the song has been made inaccessible for the public due to having no cultural value”. Well… I guess the singer got what he wanted – removal of his songs from public access, right? Surprisingly, he still wasn’t happy. Mid-December he went on a talk show and claimed he referred only to his new songs and didn’t want all of his works to be removed from the social network. Besides, he didn’t actually follow through with a lawsuit or even an official cease and desist notice… and the final statement which I found really odd was that apparently Pavel Durov was turning VK users against the singer. What? In any case, passive-aggressive gestures and musical tastes aside, it seems that the social network has chosen reforms over a war or a revolution. There have been reports of it cooperating with various copyright holders in the past and now it seems at least when it comes to TV shows and movies they’ve made the switch. I just tried looking for some movies in the video database of the network – and, well, I did find them. However, when I clicked them I either had to view then in a special built-in video player which showed me commercials or was offered to go to a specific website, log in there and keep watching videos - the latter is a result of the ongoing collaboration with ivi.ru, a legal streaming video service – kind of like the Russian Netflix. While the agreement between the network and IVI was reached back in 2010, it was only in 2012 when IVI has secured licensing rights with major Hollywood companies. What happens now is that user-uploaded content from VK is removed and substituted it with legal copies which either require authorization from IVI or sitting through commercials. By the way, according to user reports, VK is using automatic software tools to determine whether videos which are being uploaded are copyrighted or not – upon uploading a movie, users see a message stating the upload infringes on copyrights and will not be saved. Not sure how they do it, but YouTube has been doing it for years, although they did not invent it either – the Google-owned company licensed the technology from a company called Audible Magic back in 2007. The technology is called “digital fingerprinting” or “acoustic fingerprinting” – condensing an audio track in a digital summary which can be easily checked – instead of comparing an uploaded song, bit by bit, against one which is already in the database, its fingerprint is taken and these fingerprints are what the website compares. Popular smartphone apps used to help listeners identify songs Shazam and SoundHound actually use the same principles – they record part of song through the phone’s microphone, make a fingerprint out of it, send it to the server which compares it against the immense database and returns the closest match, if any.
By the way, I’ve mentioned this last Friday – turns out that Pavel Durov will be a movie star, sort of. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg received their share of screen time and international fame in 2010 when the movie The Social Network has won three Oscars. VK and Pavel Durov… not so much. The mainstream story of the Russian social network started off with a book. Entitled "Durov Code", authored by one Nikolai Kononov, "It's about the largest European social network and its 27 year old founder, who, following own views, created VKontakte from scratch and managed to attract over 100 million Russian-language users. It's about the power of digital media, creators of which become invisible leaders of a new kind. It's about pursuing your dream with no fear. You will be granted a chance to see from within the, perhaps, most strange Russian internet company, which at the same time reminds of a monastery and a hippie squat. You will learn the history of the new hero of activist capitalism - a charismatic network entrepreneur" unquote. The book went on sale last November and was immediately pirated – through the very same social network it told the story of. Oh, irony. Turns out that the book's author doesn't really mind, though. Nikolai Kononov wrote on his VK page: "I expected this and I don't mind. I believe that if the story is appreciated, [the person who read it] will go and buy the paper copy for someone (or themselves) as a present. Or perhaps they will buy the digital version as a donation to the author" end quote. Perhaps he didn’t mind because he knew what was going to happen next – about a week ago news of the book becoming a movie hit the blogosphere. The author has sold movie rights for “several million rubles”,according to Alexander Rodnyanskiy, the producer of the upcoming movie. He’s also the founder of the company to make it – AR Films. Not much else is known about this movie, apart from the budget – 100 to 120 million rubles. The producer also stated that he was targeting exclusively Russian audiences with the movie, so yes, it will be a Russian movie. However, there are rumors that when creators of the two social networks – Facebook and VK – meet in the movie, the former will be played by, yes, Jesse Eisenberg. Well, time will tell.
Oh, and as long as we’ve mentioned piracy and copyrights here – did you know there is a country that can legally distribute illegal copies? Wait, how does that work? Well, there’s a country called Antigua and Barbuda – it pretty much consists of just two islands – named, coincidentally Antigua and Barbuda. It became a separate political entity relatively recently, receiving independence from the United Kingdom in 1981 – this was before the internet, however. Long story short, due to the wonders of international trade and legislation, for a while there the country was the place to host an online casino for American gamblers. That’s right, the little Caribbean nation decided to benefit from its larger neighbors banning online casinos by allowing the websites to be hosted on their servers and give out gambling licenses to make things official. The story of US government clamping down on online gambling is a long one and quite complicated – suffice it to say that now it’s really hard to do it when you live there. The part we’re interested in now deals with the country banning casinos hailing from the Caribbean nation about 10 years ago. Antigua and Barbuda claimed that the industry, which paid salaries of about 5% of the population, was largely dependent on American gamblers – and if the country now longer could cater to that audience, the market would collapse. This incident resulted in a complaint with the WTO, which eventually led to the international organization taking the little guy’s side – especially given the fact that Americans can play in American online casinos – seems kind of unfair now, doesn’t it? In an odd turn of events, the WTO made an interesting decision – since the United States basically imposed an embargo on gambling services from the country, the country was given a free pass on copyrights in possession of companies from the US – that means that all media owned by major Hollywood companies, all TV shows, all music owned by US labels – all of this can be distributed by Antigua and Barbuda without having to pay any sort of compensation to the copyright owners. That’s right, since the United States then openly admitted to no longer applying WTO rules to gambling but failed to offer Antigua and Barbuda anything in return, such as access in other services with a similar financial gain, the WTO made the decision for the country. And only now the Caribbean nation has announced plans to go ahead and use this right – what exactly that entails is still not clear.