Friday, November 6, 2009

Faking it in cyberspace

One of the amazing things that has been done with modern computer technology is emulation (or simulation).

Computers have become so powerful that they can now easily create images, sounds and movies of objects that simply never really existed -- but in a way that produces total realism.

The most obvious showcase for this technology is the incredibly realistic computer-generated images (CGI) to be found in so many contemporary movies.

NZ's own Weta Workshops made extensive use of CGI in the Lord of the Rings movies and separating computer imagery from reality has now become a difficult task, even for the most expert observer.

We now have the ability to return long-dead or retired actors to the screen by way of CGI and some of the later Terminator movies have apparently done just that with the computer-created image of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the original Terminator robot.

However, all this uber-accurate simulation seems to be creating problems.

It's not an issue with the massive amounts of computer power required to accurately model the 3D images or the complex physics involved -- it's all about lawyers and intellectual property rights.

An example of what may well become a vexing issue in future recently surfaced when a company began selling downloads of popular tracks by The Beatles.

For whatever reason, tracks by the Beatles have never been made available for legal download, so plenty of people, especially EMI who control the rights for the Beatles' albums, became very interested in exactly what was going on.

When challenged, Media Rights Technologies (MRT), the company offering the downloads, responded by saying that they owned the copyrights because these weren't the original Beatle's recordings, they were "pyschoacoustic simulations" of those tracks.

MRT head Hank Risan describes these psychoacoustic simulations as being the "synthetic creation of that series of sounds which best expresses the way a particular melody should be heard as a live performance".

To be honest, this sounds like a load of bunkum to me.

Maybe MRI have added a bit of reverb, noise and delay to the original tracks so as to simulate a life performance from a studio recording -- but it does raise a very important possibility.

It's only a matter of time before programmers to create acoustic models of famous voices.

Once this is done, it will become quite possible to recreate famous bands such as The Beatles and effectively "re-record" those much loved songs.

Although the melodies and lyrics will still be covered by the original copyrights, will the actual "virtual" performance be considered a unique work in its own right and therefore granted separate copyright protection?

What if the "virtual Beatles" band then covers other songs or is even programmed to play entirely new compositions?

Will the current owners of the copyright on existing Beatles' albums have any call on this totally new material?

In another twist, pop group No Doubt are suing Activision, the makers of video game Band Hero over a similar conflict.

The game makers have created a virtual copy of the band (with their permission) and the software allows game-players to have that artificial band play tracks that the real band never actually recorded. This has irked No Doubt members who feel that their virtual personas may end up singing inappropriate songs.

I see a real legal nightmare appearing just around the corner and we can expect many groundbreaking precedents to be set in coming years as reality and simulation go head to head in the courts.

Sometimes, computers are just too good at what they do.

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