Archive for July, 2009

Restored copyright? Querulous comments on early Hitchcock

Monday, July 6th, 2009

A couple of days ago, on Walt, Even Randomer, I posted a set of desultory reviews of the fourth and final DVD of Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins.

Sidebar: One eccentric feature of this blog used to be the “treadmill movie reviews,” brief reviews of movies from Mill Creek Entertainment’s multidisc packs viewed while I was exercising. I’ve reviewed a little more than 300 movies over several years. In moving to this more august site, I left the reviews behind and am not posting new ones here; that’s one of few things still being posted on Walt, Even Randomer. The treadmill’s gone as well–RFI problems and other reasons–but the movies remain.

You can go to that blog for the reviews, such as they are–and you’ll find a compilation of all four discs in a future Cites & Insights. The reviews aren’t the theme of this post.


That’s the hook here: Was I watching a legitimate packaged set of old movies or is this set “dodgy”?
A couple of key points up front:

  • I am not a lawyer. I’m interested in copyright and have written about it, but always from a semi-informed layperson’s point of view. Let me say that again: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.
  • Mill Creek Entertainment, successor to TreeLine Films, has been around for a while. The company–a division of Digital1Stop–has a street address. It is possible to contact them. The Hitchcock set’s been for sale for at least two years, through such obscure distributors as Amazon.

When I posted my off-the-cuff reviews for Disc 1, one of my online correspondents from the UK objected strongly–that these movies were not in the public domain and that Mill Creek wasn’t a known licensee. The post came from someone I respect, but I had to edit the comment, as it made legal claims I wasn’t going to get in the middle of.
On the other hand, the post did alert me to something I’d never heard of before: Copyright restoration. Apparently, thanks to the wonders of international treaties, some UK material that was definitely in the public domain within the U.S. (and maybe even in the UK) had copyright restored retroactively–with a clause allowing distributors, who had released the PD material in good faith, to sell out existing stocks for a year after being notified by copyright-holders that the works were now once again protected.
So, well, other than saying “that’s appalling if true”–as it seems to violate not only the spirit of U.S. law but also the Constitutional basis for copyright–I could only fall back on the second point above: The material’s being sold openly by a legitimate company with a known U.S. address; if there’s a problem, it’s up to the copyright-holders to address it.

But wait! There’s more!

More recently, I heard about Golan v. Holder, a case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, decided on April 3, 2009.
Briefly, the 10th District Court found that the copyright restoration (Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements) was unconstitutional.
Which would appear to put these movies (back?) in the public domain. At least for now. At least in the 10th district.
Subject to appeal, of course. And to possible new Congressional acts–but it’s getting a little tougher for Congress to keep imposing longer and tougher copyright in the assumption that nobody’s looking.

Why the licensees might step back

I don’t believe it should be legitimate to restore copyright in materials that legally, properly fell into the public domain. I believe copyright is too long in the U.S. anyway–and this particular restoration means that materials created by non-U.S. citizens actually have an advantage over U.S. creations, within the U.S. (The act didn’t restore any native-U.S. materials to copyright.) That also seems odd.
But there’s another issue to consider–namely, that for movies, at least, proper license holders with actual access to original materials shouldn’t worry too much about public domain versions. Why?
Because the license holders can offer something the PD vendors can’t: Fully-restored DVDs created from the masters, rather than from whatever prints happen to be available. The movie may be in the public domain, but the masters continue to be the physical property of whoever owns them.
Having watched the Mill Creek set of 18 movies, 2 TV episodes, and 19 trailers (the 19 trailers being one of the most charming aspects), I would think that any true Hitchcock enthusiast would spend the $156 extra to get the “proper” versions of ten of the 18 movies from Criterion, Lions Gate or MGM after spending the $8 for this set. You’d presumably get better print quality, extras and expert commentary. (Not that these prints are all terrible–most of them are actually pretty good.)
Would I pay the extra money? No, because I’ve realized I’m never going to be a great fan of early Hitchcock. But I wouldn’t have paid that money anyway–and at least I’ve been exposed to some interesting flicks I’d have never heard of otherwise.

Any wifi experts out there?

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Here’s the situation:

We have AT&T DSL in our new house, as we did in our old one. We use a 2Wire modem/router combo, the one AT&T recommends. My computer’s connected to the router by Ethernet. My wife’s notebook uses wifi.

And ever since we moved in here, her download speeds have been poor–significant delays in page opens, long delays in downloading photos. We ran speed tests yesterday, and download speed was around 200Kbps, sometimes lower. (When I removed my ethernet connection, I was getting 160K–as compared to the 1.5-1.7Mbps I normally get. And that was a foot away from the router.)

So: Any ideas?

Other factors:

1. The house has a security system with some wireless transmitters…

2. There are other nearby wifi networks…

3. When I was running my treadmill–which has now gone back to Sears–it would knock out DSL after about a minute, due to interference. But the treadmill’s gone and DSL itself is just fine.

I’m wondering whether it would make sense to use the DSL/router combo as just a modem and plug in a separate router (with external antennas–2Wire hides its antenna or antenna inside the case)…


Update, July 8:

After some experimentation–e.g., enabling wifi on my own notebook (normally connected via Ethernet) resulted in download speeds of 50K-250K, still upload speed of 400-430K; eliminating a whole bunch of possible interference sources made no difference–and trying out 2Wire’s initial suggestions (AT&T was, shall we say, a whole lot less helpful than they’ve been in the past):

We decided to try the separate-router route, even though there’s no way to actually disable the wifi portion of the 2Wire Gateway. Picked up a D-Link N unit with 14-day return policy. Set it up, using the variation on its setup wizard encountered when it sees another router. Logged in on my notebook (which has “n” support); got 900K-1500K download speed. Set up my wife’s notebook (which doesn’t); after one false start, got 800K-1400K download speed (still 400-430K upload, to be sure). Reset the power level on the 2Wire to 1 (lowest possible setting) to minimize interference–but the D-Link’s autoscan already set it to a channel considerably away from the 2Wire’s channel (it apparently looks for the channel with the least traffic: When my wife checked, she found *six different wifi networks* with at least one bar of signal, three of them public and unsecured…)

So, for now, we’re in better shape. I’ll probably replace the 2Wire gateway with a straight ADSL modem, once I’m confident that I understand how the modem would set up with AT&T DSL. (If AT&T still offered email as a contact option, this would probably be simple…)

[Later that day: ADSL modem on order.]

Cites & Insights 9:9 (August 2009) now available

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Cites & Insights 9:9 (August 2009) is now available–just in time for the 2009 ALA Annual Conference. That’s not a coincidence, to be sure; although the issue may not be directly relevant to the conference, if I didn’t publish it now, it wouldn’t be out until at least July 19.

This one’s 32 pages, PDF as usual, but those who detest PDF or otherwise really need HTML can download the three articles separately.

The issue includes:

Perspective: Writing about Reading 3

The theme for this installment: Rethinking books and rethinking reading. Which means most of the long essay is about ebooks and ebook devices. (How long? A little more than half the issue, that’s how long.)

Offtopic Perspective: 50 Movie Comedy Classics, Part 1

What’s funny is generally in the eye of the beholder, although I suppose there may be objective criteria for labeling a flick a comedy. Watching the many early shorts and early movies in this first half of a 12-DVD collection was sometimes hilarious, frequently a little painful. (If I never see another East Side Kids “comedy” that will be just fine with me.) There’s some gold here–and some dross as well.

Making it Work: Library 2.0 Revisited

A large handful of items spread out over almost two years–very much a once over lightly. (Yes, Library 2.0 and “Library 2.0” continues to be downloaded almost as often as any current issue. $0.25 for each copy downloaded would nicely cover sponsorship for the next 18 months…)

Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins, Disc 4

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Disc 4

Juno and the Paycock, 1930, b&w. Barry Fitzgerald, Maire O’Neill, Edward Chapman, Sidney Morgan, Sara Allgood. 1:25.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this one—a family drama set in Ireland during The Troubles, occasionally punctuated by gunfire, but with seemingly little going on except steady drinking and broad Irish accents. The print’s decent, the soundtrack’s very noisy, and the picture—well, I found it hard to watch all the way through without nodding off and, indeed, may have missed part of the second quarter. (It doesn’t help that people’s heads were frequently cut off—which could be a remastering problem, but otherwise reflects really poor cinematography.) I clearly wasn’t the target audience—I read “taut” in an IMDB review and, well, just didn’t see it. Of course, I haven’t read the drama it’s based on. Charitably, $0.75.

Sabotage, 1936, b&w. Oskar Homolka, Sylvia Sidney, Desmond Tester, John Loder. 1:16.

I’d already seen this—but that was on a movie set that came with a failed DVD magazine, not one of the 50-classics sets. So I watched it again. Probably just as well: This print was better quality, although the sound’s damaged. A movie theater owner—”Verloc,” played by Homolka—is also a saboteur in London; his American wife doesn’t suspect anything, but the greengrocer’s assistant next door to the theater is actually a Scotland Yard agent. At the climax, he manages to get her much younger brother blown up in act of supposedly delivering a film canister and package (on a slow-moving London bus)—and shows the banality of evil in his attempts to justify or ignore his actions to her. (One IMDB review sees

Not great Hitchcock, but it is a thriller. I was not at all enthralled last time around (particularly because the movie was supposed to be DOA, which sounded like a much better movie). This time? It’s taut and well-directed; I’ll give it $1.50.

The Skin Game, 1931, b&w. C.V. France, Helen Haye, Jill Esmond, Edmund Gwenn, John Longdon, Phyllis Konstam, Edward Chapman. 1:17.

An odd one, dealing with property conflicts and morality. One family’s been established in a rural area for generations and has tenant farmers as well. A brash upstart businessman buys out a neighbor and moves to oust their tenants—and then moves to buy another property that would effectively surround the family, vowing to build factories to make their lives miserable. In the process of an auction that the upstart wins (paying too much for the property), the businessman’s daughter-in-law faints after one of those special effects that Hitchcock liked so much he’d repeat it until you were sick of it (the face of someone else at the auction keeps swooping towards her as though it was a ghost). Turns out the daughter-in-law Has A Past.

All turns out badly for almost everybody involved. The noble family head has abandoned his principles to save his view (and, although he’d forgotten entirely about them, his tenants); one life’s been lost; a whole family’s been driven out of the area.

This one moves right along, with a fair amount of suspense. It has some of the awful cinematography of some other early Hitchcock sound pictures, with heads cut off and the like, and there are problems with the soundtrack—at times making dialogue nearly unintelligible. Still, I’ll give it $1.25.

Number Seventeen, 1932, b&w. Leon M. Lion, Anne Grey, John Stuart, Donald Calthrop, Barry Jones, Ann Casson, Henry Caine, Garry Marsh. 1:03.

This is a strange one, slow in parts, heavy on comic turns and problematic identities, with some thrilling aspects—and in the end seeming, well, odd. There’s a vacant house that may be a safe house, a corpse who isn’t a corpse, a squatter who’s a pickpocket but also honest as the day is long, a bystander who’s not all that innocent, a neighbor girl who—well, I never did figure that one out. A remarkable, if long, climax set on both a speeding train and a speeding bus, hammering home the lesson that it may be a bad idea to kill the entire crew of a locomotive if you don’t know how they work.

In the end, this seemed more heavy-handed comedy than deft thriller—and there are a few more of the “heads? Who needs to see heads?” shots. The sound’s not great. Odd though it is, it’s always interesting, so I’ll give it $1.25.

The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934, b&w. Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, Frank Vosper, Hugh Wakefield, Nova Pilbeam. 1:15.

The last movie in the set is also one of the best, ending on a high note. A thoroughly satisfying thriller with a consistent plot, reasonable complexity, a seemingly-incidental bit near the beginning that turns out to be crucial to the finale, and Peter Lorre as a villain. (What? You expected maybe a romantic lead?)

The plot involves a possible political assassination and a child held for a form of ransom. Other than that, there’s little reason to discuss the plot—and good reason not to, if you haven’t seen this one. Occasional problems with sound in a generally-solid print are all that reduce this to $1.75.

Bonus: Hitchcock Trailers,

But the last movie wasn’t the last thing on the set. Instead, although not listed on the disc label, there’s this remarkable bonus—19 trailers for Hitchcock movies, nearly an hour in all, with 19 chapter marks in case you want to find a specific one. (Given Mill Creek’s usual practice of having four chapters per film, this is special treatment.)

Quite a range of trailers (including one for the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much), including a few narrated or introduced by Hitchcock—including a six minute item for Psycho that includes maybe three seconds of footage at the end. None of the trailers are for the films on this set. Excluding uncredited war movies and Hitchcock’s TV stuff, IMDB shows 32 Hitchcock movies later than the ones in this set, so it’s a broadly representative collection, including most of his most famous movies. Good sound, good picture, good fun. Even though it’s not a movie at all, it’s easily worth $1.00.

So, there it is: The last disc of a four-disc set. But it’s not the end of the story. That involves three more pieces:

  1. The total “value” of the set–that is, adding up all the dollar amounts. I’ll include that in the whole-set essay in a forthcoming Cites & Insights–not the August issue (that includes the first half of the Comedy Classics set), but probably September (unless there’s too much other stuff).
  2. What you’d need to spend to get these pictures on other DVDs–or whether that’s even possible. (In the case of the trailers, I doubt it, unless you purchased all 19 flicks…) I’ll also include that in the whole-set essay.
  3. Something that might be posted on my serious blog: Whether this set is “legitimate”–that is, whether these movies are in the public domain. That turns out to be, potentially at least, a complicated question, although the fact that an established business with a street address, with goods readily available through major distributors, hasn’t been served with a C&D notice is some indication…

Meanwhile, I realize that I’ve never seen all that many Hitchcock movies. We’ll add a couple of more recent ones to our Netflix queue. I’m guessing I’ll never be a Hitchcock fanboy–he was clearly a superior director some of the time, but there’s flaws a-plenty in much of his earlier work. No big surprise: Few directors have anything close to a spotless record.

The fine print and grading on the curve

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

I was reading the July 2009 Consumer Reports (as usual, I’m about a month behind on magazines) and reached a set of ratings for chain restaurants. Read the commentary and the neat little sidebar where trained tasters compared oversized New York strip steaks at Morton’s with slightly less oversized New York strip steaks at Outback, Applebee’s and Friday’s. (Conclusion: The steak’s best at Morton’s–duh–but Outback’s probably the best value.)
But then got to the actual ratings–and noted a lot of chains with black dots (the worst rating) for taste, some also for service, mood and choice.
And thought, “wait a minute: Why do people go to restaurants if they think the food stinks?” These aren’t fast-food chains; these are all sit-down, table-service restaurants. Starting the guide notes, I see that the chain with the most visits reported is one with the worst rating for taste. What? Are people all masochists? As it happens, it’s a chain I’ve eaten at sometimes, at conferences or other situations where I’m not sure of the local choices–and while I’d never call the food first-rate, it’s solidly in the “not great, not terrible” category. (And, to be sure, I’m likely to eat at airport outposts of two of the other chains, one with worst taste rating, one with next-worst, because they’re there. And the food’s usually adequate.)
The key is midway through the second paragraph of the guide, which isn’t tiny print but is still more than you might read:

Scores for taste, value, service, mood and choice are based on the percentage of readers who judged the chain excellent for each. Those scores are relative, reflecting how each chain differed from the overall average.

The second sentence certainly clarifies the presence of so many black dots, particularly in the Family category (as compared to red dots, the highest rating, in Traditional American, Seafood, and Italian categories): Grading on the curve.
The first sentence makes me wonder, though. If I responded to the survey (which I may have), assuming there are the usual five Likert-scale choices, it’s unlikely any “Family” or “Pub style”–or, indeed, any–chain restaurant would get an “Excellent” for taste. (Haven’t been to Morton’s; it’s out of my price range.) I find it odd that, apparently, it makes no difference whether you think meals are very good or poor–if they’re not excellent, it doesn’t count. I guess I would have assumed the use of weighted ratings–e.g., 5 for Excellent, 4 for Very Good, and so on, with the total divided by the number of responses.
No great meaning here. Although, frankly, as a sometimes respondent to CR surveys, I’m a little peeved at the idea that there’s no point in distinguishing between levels of quality other than excellence.

(Typo corrected in quote from CR. My typo, not their copy-editing, which is consistently excellent.)