Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fight The Power (Button)

The following is reprinted (with the introduction changed very slightly) from an earlier work. I'm not linking to it for reasons that are A) a little complicated to explain, and B) I don't feel like explaining them. I can tell you that this deserves to be heard on its own merits - which is why you're about to read it here.

And yes, I know I have some catching up to do. Gimme until...probably mid-week and I'll have more here.

There is a very important story taking place overseas that could have very serious implications for performers both abroad as well as here in the US. And hardly anyone seemed to notice it when it happened.

"Z" of Hipster Please / Radio Free Hipster fame revealed on's GeekDad section that the UK High Court (with Nintendo's blessing) handed down a decision outlawing any hardware that enables people to circumvent Nintendo's piracy protection. This also includes the R4, a device used by many of the UK's Chiptunes artists.

Okay, so what the hell's a "chiptune"?

Well, if you noticed that not being able to use a piece of hardware associated with a Nintendo system stops it, you might have a good idea. If you still don't get it, I'll pull the definition from Wikipedia:

A chiptune, or chip music is music written in sound formats where many of the sound textures are synthesized or sequenced in real time by a computer or video game console sound chip, sometimes including sample-based synthesis and low bit sample playback.

To put it simpler: if you're familiar at all with the bands I Fight Dragons or HORSE The Band, they could be considered Chiptunes, though not all - hell, not even most Chiptunes artists sound quite like they do.

Okay, so these "chiptunes" people can't use Nintendo copying software overseas. A few geek musicians playing a niche genre have to start from scratch. Big deal.

Well, therein lies the problem. On the surface, no, it doesn't look like a big deal. Hell, even I wasn't aware of the implications this could have until I talked to my friend (and hopefully yours, too), Marc (with a C) clued me in.

As we were discussing the UK High Court decision, I asked him permission to record the conversation we were having to document it. He was agreeable because 1) this is a cause very close to his heart (being a musician and all), and 2) our conversation could explain what this could lead to better than I could by myself.

Without further adieu, that conversation went as follows:

MM: Explain, if you could, the decision that was handed down in the UK that bans – is it a specific hardware used to get around [Nintendo's] piracy protection or, what's – what exactly is the decision that they handed down?

Marc: The decision that has been handed down by the UK High Court shouldn't being misconstrued as a hard-and-fast law that says, "if you make Chiptunes, you are now an outlaw." That's not how it went. To circumvent piracy, the UK High Court handed down a decision that favored Nintento in outlawing the use of the R4 – a replicator that can used to basically copy games and to create your own ROMs. And gaming piracy is a problem. It would seem that, instead of outlawing BitTorrent, in the way that the files are actually traded, they decided to go with outlawing the hardware. Unfortunately, that hardware is what quite a few Chiptunes artists use in their performance. Let's say I Fight Dragons, the US group who uses the R4 for, I think, the DS, if they were to were to be booked for a show in the UK, [the R4] almost becomes contraband.

MM: So they've outlawed the hardware that enables the copying of games and making ROMs, but what they've also done in that is take away from a good sect of UK musicians the primary instrument they use to compose and perform their music.

Marc: Absolutely. It's no different then, if there was a Supreme Court ruling in the US all of the sudden that said you could still use guitars on stage, but you can't use Schecter brand guitars, then I would have to instantly become comfortable with another instrument instead of one that, frankly, I'm photographed with every time I'm on stage. I would have to change my act and perform with another instrument entirely. It might not seem like much to the average person, but once you get comfortable with a piece of gear, it becomes an extension of yourself on stage.

MM: Right. Now, seeing as how that happened in the UK, whom the US is allies with and, in many cases, what they tend to do as far as policy we normally follow suit with, what do you think that could mean for composers and performers of that same genre – or even outside of that – over here in the US?

Marc: The US, not 100% of the time but very often, has a habit of following in the UK's footsteps on big rulings. When you take in to account that every nation in the world is having a problem with piracy and is trying to come up with some loophole law to stop it and hasn't had much success in knocking BitTorrent down yet, there's a chance we could copy this. I don't know that we are trying to copy that ruling specifically but I wouldn't be surprised, considering our history. And if it's meant to circumvent piracy, what it could mean is that, first, we outlaw the hardware. They could basically say, "You, sir, can no longer use your instrument to create. Sound art is no longer your craft." The second one, if we're trying to stamp out piracy, this could mean that, technically, using samplers could be the next step. That would be huge in making Hip-Hop artists stop making their craft. The next step past that, in the US there are certain bars you can't go in to and play cover songs because they're not paying dues to ASCAP and BMI. The third step could lead to them saying, "Well, if you're not paying dues to ASCAP and BMI every time you perform, this has become such a problem that, now, you can't play someone else's material that you don't own the copyright to." It's a really dangerous decision that has only affected a few now, and Nintendo is apparently not terribly concerned with stomping creativity that does nothing but further peoples' love for Nintendo, frankly.

MM: Despite the fact that they've had relationships with people like Pixelh8 that have used this sort of thing and have actually partnered with in the past, now they've even cut that out.

Marc: Sure. If this is successful in the UK and it holds fast, it's not unheard of that the RIAA is going to catch wind of it and modify it to their satisfaction in the US and take it a whole lot further. Right now, what we need to be concerned about is that there are performers such as Pixelh8 and SuperPowerless who make an extension of sound art that the UK High Court has turned in to criminals because they wanted to make a song. This is unacceptable. I'm in no place to protest what the UK has done, as an American citizen, but I am in a place to say, "This is a dangerous precedent and we should have as many people as possible looking at it to make sure it never happens here." And also to extend an invitation and open arms to any UK Chiptunes artist that is affected by this ruling and say, "We're behind you and you can still do it here."

MM: Right, and this support comes from not only yourself, but a couple other people on WPRK, such as the Freaking Geek Show, as well.

Marc: Correct. Once I explained the implications to anyone that would listen to me for five minutes, initially I heard reactions like, "Why don't they just sample the tones and play them on the keyboard?" I think these people are missing the point - who is [the UK High Court] to tell someone how they can create? As far as I'm concerned, music is the last safe place you can make something and as long as someone's not getting hurt, I don't care how you make it. But to start taking away instruments is dangerous and, quite frankly, it makes Rush's 2112 prophetic, and we can't have that, can we?

MM: [Laughs] Right. it's like you said - they're taking away a means of creation. Some of the reactions have been, "why not just use a MIDI keyboard?" or what-have-you, but the point is they're still having to learn another instrument, even if it is a MIDI keyboard or a sampler. That kind of time and frustration at having to start over is, at the very least, going to slow their career down - if they don't get frustrated and dejected by the whole thing and just give up!

Marc: To my knowledge, all Pixelh8 does is music. This is his day job. And it almost seems as if Nintendo's lack of caring in how this might affect Pixelh8 is,in effect, Nintendo saying, "We don't care that we just robbed you of your livelihood." That might be the biggest crime of all.

If you're still worried about why Marc and I care so much about Chiptunes, then you've completely missed the entire point of what's happened here. This isn't so much about the genre as it is about musical freedom.

Seriously, I can see the RIAA totally taking this and running for the end zone like their life depended on it. They've already pulled some pretty nefarious shit to stop piracy. They've sued children and old people who don't even know what "file-sharing" is and "settled out of court" for exorbitant amounts. There was the infamous Sony spyware issue with all of their CDs. Those are only a couple examples.

Consider this, as well: remember that third step about how some bars don't pay ASCAP and BMI dues, so particular music can't be played there? Several bars. Have already. Been sued. For that very reason.

So, exactly how far away are we again from seeing that very scenario happen in the US?

There is something you can do to learn more and help out. If you live in the UK, you can protest the decision outright and see what you can do to get it overturned. If you don't live over there, best suggestion I can make is visit Fight The Power! (It's even on Facebook, as well.) More info can be had there about supporting these artists who, without being very well-known, may well have become the harbingers for a dangerous time.

I know Marc and others are planning a show of on-air solidarity. As mentioned above, you can go to Marc's show page, The Real Congregation, or to the WPRK sites for more details as they become available.

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