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Merit Badge

By Annalee Newitz

THE MOTION PICTURE Association of America has apparently been begging the Boy Scouts of America to create a merit badge that kids would earn by respecting the rights of entertainment companies and refusing to engage in online sharing. But as everyone from BoingBoing to CNN reported last week, the only group that the entertainment oligarchy could persuade was the coed Hong Kong Scouts Association.

That group, part of the international scouts brand, just unveiled its new "intellectual property rights" merit badge. Kids earn it by attending summer seminars on why it's bad to download the latest Nine Inch Nails album from their friends and sell knockoff versions of Harry Potter books.

While the dipshits on Slashdot were busy chortling about Chinese kids being forced to sit through boring classes about why it's important for movie industry moguls to earn more in a minute than their families earn in a year, I was earning an unofficial merit badge.

Let's call it the "fair-use" merit badge. I had a simple task I wanted to accomplish to earn it: create screen shots of key scenes from several movies that I analyze in my forthcoming book about monster stories and capitalism.

Grabbing these screen shots was, as my lawyers Wendy Seltzer and Jason Schultz assured me, a textbook definition of fair use. I only wanted a single image from each film, and thus I was making use of only a tiny sliver of the whole work. Furthermore these screen shots would be used for the purpose of criticism (the book is even being published by Duke University Press, thus underscoring that this is an "educational" endeavor). And it's not as if I could undermine the market for I Walked With a Zombie by offering readers one image of it plus pages of my grumpy rants about imperialism and the undead.

But earning my merit badge turned out to be a pain in the ass. The first day I tried to do it, I used my default DVD setup at home, which is just a Windows Media Player 9 app on Windows XP. (Yes, I know WiMP is an infernal piece of spyware, so shut up.)

I tried to make a screen shot, but when I pasted it into my notepad, the "screen shot" created a weird transparent hole in the file. So basically there was some kind of digital-rights management (DRM) crap that wouldn't allow my computer to take a screen shot. Or, worse, it was a bug in the way XP shows video, and the Microsoft crew hadn't bothered to fix it because fair use is a nonpriority.

Fine, I thought to myself. I'll get some other kind of media player that's free. So I tried VLC. No dice. Then I tried to get some free screen-shot programs. The first one I downloaded from Tucows.com. In this case, my obsession with reading end-user license agreements paid off, because buried in the fourth or fifth term was the telltale spyware confession: "This software may come bundled with third-party software programs." Yuck. Delete.

I downloaded a few nonspyware programs, but none of them could do a screen shot either. By that time I had spent a couple of hours cueing up this scene that I wanted from A.I. All I wanted to do was something perfectly legal with my media, but of course I couldn't because my software had been infiltrated by the interests of an entertainment industry that was worried about preventing—what? The black market in rogue screen shots? A seething underground of digital bandits who only wanted a few images from certain movies?

The next day, I returned to my task. Already, it was a lot harder than earning my Girl Scout merit badge in whittling. I still have a scar from the whittling lessons, but at least I didn't have to waste time going through a big pile of knives to find one that would allow me to carve sticks without a license.

I started googling on things like "screen shots of movies" and "screen shots in DVD player" and such. Mostly, I found a lot of people complaining about exactly the same problem I'd had. On a message board for Dell computers, I even found an irritating discussion where somebody—not a lawyer—began cautioning people that screen shots were illegal. What the hell?

At last, after narrowing my search and wishing that I had a Mac so I could use Ambrosia Software's SnapzPro, I found what I needed. A helpful FAQ located on the PowerDVD site had a list of inaccurate—but nevertheless ultimately helpful—instructions on how to use their media player to capture stills from DVDs. Luckily, I happened to get a free copy of PowerDVD with my DVD drive, so I installed it, located the hidden menus (you know the drill—go to preferences, go to advanced, figure out the weird option buttons) and got a lovely shot of the androids from A.I. Days later, I discovered that Windows Media Player 10 allows you to do screen shots if you hit "ctrl-i." Now I'm going to make as many screen shots as I want. It's fair use, suckas! Give me my damn merit badge.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected] .com) is a surly media nerd who hopes that some Chinese Scout will tape her lessons on intellectual property rights and put them on BitTorrent.

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From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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