Wednesday, April 30, 2014


This article originally appeared in the MAYDAY issue of Metroland.

A little over two years ago we beat back SOPA/PIPA, legislation that would have allowed Big Media to control the internet.  The defeat was stunning.  The bills were flying through corrupt and know-nothing Congressional committees, and the bills had (until the very end) the support of the Obama administration. It looked like the fix was in.  The legislation died because of an unprecedented deluge of emails, letters and phone calls made to legislators on the eve of final votes on the bill.  Even SOPA/PIPA’s most ardent opponents were shocked at the power of an agitato and informed public.

            Well, it’s time go back, Jack, and do it again.

            The news hit last week that the FFC is going to announce proposed regulations that, if enacted, would kill net neutrality.  The regs have been described as allowing internet providers (Time Warner, Verizon, etc.) the ability to negotiate with big internet users (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, etc.) for better and faster service than everybody else.

            The FCC has twice issued real net neutrality rules, and twice these rules have been struck down by the courts, which have held that such rules exceeded the FCC’s authority.  This is sticky stuff, but it appears that if the FCC just declared that the internet was a “public utility” it could make net neutrality rules stick.  But the FCC is afraid of making such a ruling because that would end up in courts with more lawsuits from Big Internet and Telco companies, with the full support of their Republican enablers.  You see, making the internet a “public utility” (which it absolutely is) smacks of regulation and that smacks of socialism and that smacks of Obama wants to take our guns away.  Or something. 

            The FCC is still all a-scared of calling the internet a rose by any other name, and so it totally caves.  On Tuesday, the Chairman of the FCC issued a ridiculous defense of the to-be-issued regulations, stressing that the FCC was dedicated to an “open internet”, that the regulations were merely being proposed for public comment, that everything was still on the table, and that the proposed regulations would be tough and that the FCC would make darn sure everything was done fairly.

            Um, right.

            An “open internet” is not the issue here.  It’s that these large companies will get preferences, at the expense of everybody else.  Another way of saying this is that these companies will get a “fast lane” and we’ll get the slow lane.  It’s hideously anti-competitive:  no one will be able to compete effectively with fast-lane companies without the added expense of paying tribute to Big Internet.   It’s hard enough for a start-up company to enter a mature market; this will only make it harder.

            And who’s ultimately going to pay for the fast lane?  You are, when the big companies that buy fast lane access pass the costs on to you in the form of higher prices and subscription fees.

            What really pisses me off here is that we have in this country some of the worst internet in the civilized world.  Speed is terrible.  Reliability is terrible.  Access to real broadband is terrible.  Why?  Because the Big Internet companies are some of the most dishonest and duplicitous corporations on the planet.  They gouge customers and break the promises they make to government.  They don’t exist to provide what is increasingly being recognized as a vital service on par with electricity or telephones.  They exist to maximize shareholder value.  And they are essentially monopolies.  So we have crappy internet.

            And for this the FCC is going to REWARD them and simultaneously wreck the internet?  It’s totally insane.

            What now?  The FCC is supposed to issue the new proposed regulations on May 15, and the public (that means YOU) will have the opportunity to comment.  I’ve already seen a number of online petitions and portals to contact Congressmen, etc., but I’m not sure those things will be as effective as directly contacting the FCC, which has the ultimate authority here.

            I’d like to think that this is just more Obama-style rope-a-dope: send up a trial balloon, wait for the public to go batshit, and that will give them cover to do what they wanted to do in the first place.  We’ve seen him do it before.  Many times!

            It’s worrisome, though.  The Obama administration has been frustratingly wrong on so many internet, privacy and intellectual property issues.  The FCC Chairman tried to rationalize the proposed regs by saying that they were preferable to the years of litigation that would happen if the FCC acted otherwise.  In other words, we can’t do the right thing because these big companies will be mean to us.  Dude, grow a pair already.

            Watch this space for info on how you can best be involved.  We can’t let this happen.

Paul Rapp is a Berkshires-based intellectual property lawyer who won’t let a torn rotator cuff slow him down, no siree.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014


This article originally appeared in the 4.17.14 issue of Metroland.

            Neil Young has long railed against digital music, particularly MP3s. He once observed that listening to an MP3 was like looking through a screen that only allowed one color through each hole.  And of course he’s right.  MP3s are approximations of what you get on a CD, which itself is an often lifeless version of what happens in the studio, or for older recordings, what you’d get on a vinyl record.

            Being the kind of guy who doesn’t tear down without building up, Young announced last year that he was partnering with some techies to create a device that plays super high quality digital music files.  It’s called Pono.   Seed money for the company was raised on Kickstarer;  the initial $800,000 goal was doubled on the first day and the total blew past $6 million this week.  Which is great I guess, although I do wonder about using Kickstarter for what’s clearly a corporate endeavor.

            So what is Pono?  It’s a small device with three sides (Dave Grohl said it looks like a Toblerone, and it does) that stores and plays digital music tracks.  It’s tricked out to play super-high quality music files, files with more information, higher resolution, and better sound than CDs.   As the Pono promo machine boasts, you’ll be listening to exactly what comes out of the recording studio.  The cost for this thing is $400.

            What’s not to like?  Well, nothing I guess, but this isn’t the revolutionary advance it’s being touted as.  It’s likely to be a small niche audiophile product that could well collapse under its own weight.

            It’s an inevitable product; there’s already plenty of devices out there that are comparable, and if there weren’t there would be soon.  It’s also trying to be a train that actually left the station a long, long time ago.

            The Pono model is based on downloaded song files.  It’s going to have an iTunes-like store where you can download these superfiles; Pono claims that all the major labels are on board with providing music and that it’s working with indies “to bring a diverse selection of music” to Pono customers.  I dunno, sounds to me like the library’s gonna be limited, particularly at first.   Over the last ten years we’ve gotten used to virtually unlimited music, millions of different tracks, from hits to profound obscurities.   I’m not sure how many of us wanna go back.

            Pono says albums will be available for $15-25.  While it appears that customers will also be able to buy single tracks, the emphasis on albums really underscores how backwards-looking this thing is.  Albums?  Really?  We’ve been living in a singles world at least since Napster liberated the music so people could consume it how they wanted.  We don’t listen to albums nearly as much as we listen to playlists, or music suggestion services like Pandora.  It appears that Pono is aimed primarily at middle-aged white-guy music geeks, the kind of folks who still get baked and listen to Dark Side Of The Moon or 2012 alone in the dark.  Which is fine, but it ain’t gonna change the world.

            And then there’s the whole download thing.  Earth to Pomo: downloading is going the way of the buffalo, the cassette, and the compact disk.  We’ve got Spotify.  We’ve got Beats Music.  The only thing standing in the way of ubiquitous streaming of music in the US is its pathetic broadband infrastructure (which I gotta believe is gonna get fixed in the next 5-10 years) and public awareness.  Ownership of music is going to be marginalized in favor of convenience and unlimited instantaneous selection, and soon the only folks who will care about “owning” digital files will be the aforementioned geeks, fetishists really, who’ll feel all warm and wet knowing that they own a super-file of Tubular Bells.

            Then there’s the technical side.  Pono will have 128GB of storage, which translates to about 800 superfiles.  Which ain’t a whole lot.  It accommodates memory cards and remote storage, but so what?  Who wants to deal with that?  And a lot of commentators are saying that most of Pono’s incremental audio quality is undetectable to the human ear.  So, while it probably will sound better than CDs to the discerning ear, it’s your dog that’s really gonna party on with Pono.

            Add to this the fact that the target demo, the middle-aged white guys reliving their 1978 dorm-room glories, have long blown out their ear drums going to shows, falling asleep with the headphones on, grudgingly settling for ear-killing ear buds.   In fact, I could be the poster child for the target demo.  Excuse me, what?

            Godspeed, Neil Young; I think you’re going uphill backwards.  But damn, I want one anyways.

Paul Rapp is an area intellectual property lawyer and musician who wrote this whilst listening to “Thick As A Brick 2” on 40 year-old audio gear.