Tag Archives: Mashup

The Aereo: Mashing Up Television

Where is the proverbial dividing line between legal (and laudable) creativity and illegal copyright infringement? And who pays the price when someone crosses that line?

Former Beatle George Harrison undoubtedly stepped over it when he lifted the title melody from the Chiffons’ Motown classic He’s So Fine and applied it to his song My Sweet Lord. Although he never admitted that he consciously did so, the legal case eventually became a landmark application of copyright law.

Harrison subsequently told the press that the inspirational song had saved the lives of many heroin addicts. Fortunately, the song was not banned from the air waves; Harrison and the Chiffons simply agreed on a hefty financial penalty, and My Sweet Lord has become a timeless classic.

The practice of expropriating lyrics or melodies from previously copyrighted material has since blossomed into a song writing technique called the mashup.  Technologists have been known to utilize the technique as well, and just last week, one particular mashup threatened to upend the entire television industry.

Introducing the Aereo

How do we access our television programs? Nowadays, most of us watch shows that are transmitted through underground cables and then displayed on private channels. However, some of us still purchase television sets with old-fashioned antennae that display signals that are transmitted over the public air waves.

The vast majority of all television programming is not available over the public air waves. In fact, only ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and PBS transmit their shows in this manner, along with a small number of independent stations. These five networks also contract with cable television services that rebroadcast their shows over their private systems, while simultaneously distributing their shows over the public air waves for free.

Nevertheless, the cable television services cannot simply grab these free public signals and transmit them without paying royalty fees to the five networks; they would be infringing on the legal copyrights of the networks by doing so. The services and the networks have thus established royalty contracts that authorize such transmissions.

The Aereo, however, is seeking to avoid making royalty payments by designing its business model as a mashup of old and new technologies. It is positioning itself as a landlord that is renting each of its customers a tiny traditional television antenna, which captures signals from public air waves and retransmits them via the internet. In its role as a landlord, it asserts, it possesses the right to retransmit free public television signals.

Back To The Future

At first blush, you might indeed glance dubiously at the Aereo’s legal strategy. After all, didn’t web transmission services from Napster to MegaUpload fail to persuade the courts that they were simply serving as electronic conduits for their users?

Yes, but these organizations never crafted business models that were based on mashups of old and new technologies. By doing so, the Aereo is hoping to craft a legally valid strategy that permits it to retransmit television signals from the public airwaves without signing royalty contracts with the five broadcast networks.

There are indeed legal precedents that support the Aereo’s business model. Consider the owner of an apartment complex in New York City, for instance, who places a traditional television antenna on the roof for each tenant and then runs a cable down the side of the building to carry the signals to each tenant’s unit. If the service is provided in accordance with the tenant’s lease agreement, how does it differ from the Aereo’s antennae rental arrangements?

According to the firm, the only difference is that the landlord uses traditional cables to carry the signals from the antennae to the viewing screens, while the Aereo uses internet technologies to carry the transmissions. In other words, the firm is asserting that the technological mash-up itself is the only significant differentiating feature of their contractual arrangements.

Waiting For Justice

Eventually, we’ll know whether the legal system will approve of the Aereo’s business model when the relevant cases work their way through the courts. And there is no guarantee that judges and juries will favor the Aereo; it’s quite possible that a single negative decision may doom the firm to the same fate that has befallen Ivi TV and other similar services.

Regardless of the Aereo’s fate, however, we can be assured that engineers will not stop trying to develop new products and services by mashing up older and newer technologies. After all, even though fans of George Harrison were still able to listen to his music after he lost his copyright infringement case, many viewers of traditional television networks will be denied access to their shows if the Aereo loses its legal battle.

They would thus represent a customer segment in search of a service, providing a ripe target for entrepreneurs. Even if the Aereo fails to design a business model that can reach them, other technology firms will surely focus on doing so.

Technology Mashup: Driving Through Your Local Museum

There are times when true creativity takes the form of breathtaking originality, an idea or object that makes us all stop in our tracks and stare unblinkingly, thinking “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

The first cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque possessed that quality. So did the first tiny automobiles that hopped their way across meager distances before collapsing in clouds of dust. People viewing these works for the first time would struggle mightily to understand, at a fundamental level, what the creations were doing and how they were doing it. Without familiar frames of reference upon which to base their observations, they found it extremely difficult to even begin to comprehend the design and function of such objects.

But there are other times when true creativity is simply a function of taking already-familiar objects and combining them to achieve useful purposes. Such mashups of existing concepts and devices do indeed make us stop and stare, but instead of thinking “I’ve never seen anything like that!,” they make us think “Look how they’re using those common items!” In such a situation, we instantly perceive the work’s purpose and operational function, and are then dazzled by their efficiencies and effectiveness.

Although uniquely original inspirations are often rare, creative mashups are relatively common. Last week, for instance, Google teamed up with some of the world’s greatest museums of art to introduce a mashup that was both undeniably creative and yet strikingly familiar.

Introducing the Art Project

The very name of Google’s creation, the Art Project, is itself a mashup of sorts. It borrows a term that is commonly found on every grade schooler’s homework assignment sheet, a term that connotes Crayola crayons and Elmer’s Glue, and applies it to a sophisticated internet based research activity.

What, exactly, is Google’s Art Project? It may be appropriate to answer this question by describing how it was produced before defining what it actually delivers in terms of creative value. To put it simply, Google took the camera trucks that are driven through the streets of the world’s major cities to create the Street View panoramic photographs that enhance its Google Maps driving directions, and drove smaller versions of them through the galleries of the world’s finest art museums instead.

What did this activity produce? A set of interactive online images, free for public research and enjoyment, that allows web surfers to use their computers to walk (virtually speaking) through the world’s finest galleries in the same manner as they navigate the city streets with the Google Maps application. And why is this Art Project so valuable? Because any one around the globe with an internet connection can now enjoy free access to the complete collections of the world’s greatest museums of art.

Of course, Google’s creative staff must have confronted numerous hurdles while completing this project. Simply explaining the concept to the Executive Directors of the museums, and convincing them that free online access would help improve paid museum attendance and not threaten it, must have represented an extremely daunting challenge. And then there are the technological obstacles posed by the need to downsize their Street View camera trucks into mobile vehicles that can maneuver the maze-like hallways of the art museums without destroying the exhibits!

Art and Technology

Interestingly, art and technology have always represented breeding grounds for creative types who produce incredibly innovative mashups of existing styles, formats, and objects. Hip-hop artists, for instance, regularly insert samples of songs previously recorded by other bands into their own tracks, at times without the legal permissions of the original artists. Their juxtapositions of shockingly different musical genres often produce astoundingly creative results, as was the case when punk rock impresario Malcolm McLaren mashed square dancing calls into a hip-hop sound track called Buffalo Gals, and later created R&B versions of great arias from operas like Madame Butterfly and Carmen.

The greatest minds in computer technology also routinely insert features that were previously pioneered by other firms into their own creations. A primary reason for the popularity of Steve Jobs’ iPhone, for instance, is the manner in which it incorporates a Kodak-style camera, a Sony-style portable music player, a Blackberry-style email and text messager, and an Amazon Kindle-style e-book reader into a single svelte communication device. In fact, some iPhone users hardly ever bother to make telephone calls!

What mashups are now appearing on the horizon of human ingenuity? What impressive combinations of unlikely ideas and objects will soon dazzle us with their creative visions? For technologists, perhaps it will be a truly integrated internet television device, a blend of today’s rudimentary Apple TV product and the now-defunct Microsoft WebTV branded service. And for connoisseurs of fine culture, perhaps it will be collaborative works of experimental art that use electronic social media to stimulate and organize group creative processes.