November 21, 2007
MarkBernstein.org
 
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What are they thinking?

I tried to read Façade again, the heralded, AI-based interactive drama by Mateas and Stern, who call themselves Procedural Arts. It didn't work out; either it doesn't run on Leopard or my G5 tower isn't hefty enough or something else is wrong. It loads, but sometimes nobody answers the door, and when they do answer the door, the characters stand around and say nothing.

So, left with nothing to read, I turned to the license agreement. It makes interesting reading. Take this:

2.a. .... Prohibited commercial purposes include, but are not limited to: (iii) Using the Software to develop a similar application on any platform for commercial distribution.

What does this mean? It's a game: how would you use it to develop an application? The only way I can imagine is, you might be inspired to write a different interactive drama; if you do that, this is a license to litigate. Who knows what a judge might regard as a "similar" application. Is Richard II similar to Edward II? Are you sure that some judge in Kansas might not decide they were?

There's also

2.a. .... Prohibited commercial purposes include, but are not limited to: (iv) Using the software in any manner that is generally competitive with a Procedural Arts product as defines by Procedural Arts.

This seems an even blanker check than the previous clause. Does the definition of "generally competitive" need to be sensible? Does it need to adhere to any standard at all? Could any other dramatic performance be construed as "generally competitive"? What happens when Procedural Arts sells popcorn?

Google finds a few other products that use this language, though none of the other products or companies look very substantial.

Now, there are some strange clauses in our own contracts, like the one about injurious recipes. I guess the law is like that. And what happened here probably isn't really malign: some lawyer threw in the kitchen sink, and nobody much noticed or cared because nobody plans to enforce the license agreement. Then again: if you're a university professor, you probably know not to sign your name to a document if you don't mean it. And what could this mean?

Bizarrely, the license agreement does not appear to prohibit public performance of the work, or of a script generated from the work.

The whole blogosphere seems to be whaling on Amazon's eBook reader, the Kindle , which has DRM restrictions that get in the way, for example, of your lending an eBook to your friends. The real problem with the Kindle is the lack of a compelling offer: if it came bundled, say, with an eBook of everything you'd bought from Amazon, that would be cool. Or if it came with 1000 books of your choice. Or even if it included just a few reference works: The OED, the complete back issues of The New Yorker, the Loeb Library of Classical Literature, and the Modern Library. That's work for me.