Media players, digital art galleries, and pirate TV

As part of a campaign for Kodak, we're writing short pieces for their product site about creative things to do with media players in general. (Note: the post you're reading now wasn't paid for by Kodak or required by the campaign.) I like the way my essays turned out and hope you dig them. The ideas may be harder than I think to implement, but they're fun to imagine anyway. The first is titled "Reframing Art In A Digital Home" (illustration by the talented Rob Beschizza):
 Images Academy
In 1989, Bill Gates founded a company called Interactive Home Systems, which changed its name a year later to Corbis. Now, Corbis owns one of the largest collection of stock images in the world: more than 100 million shots. A slew of those images are safely stored deep underground in a former limestone mine in Pennsylvania. If you want to use the photo of, say, Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue, Corbis will sell you a digital copy and sell you some rights. That wasn’t Gates’s big vision though. His forecast was that huge screens would hang throughout our homes, rotating through a global collection of photos and artwork. The future isn’t quite here yet though, and Corbis’s business is about supplying newspapers, magazines, and ad agencies. That’s all well and good and makes people money, but twenty years later, I still find Gates’s vision compelling. And it seems easy to turn your home into a digital art gallery using a home network, media players, and inexpensive LCD TVs. The art is also free, although I always recommend supporting artists whose work you dig...

"Reframing Art In A Digital Home"
My second article was about pirate TV and starting your own "Local Area (TV) Network." Here's a chunk:
 Images  Images Max-Headroom-80S In the 1980s guerilla media scene that birthed Boing Boing, the proliferation of pirate TV was a holy grail for culture jammers. Proto-cyberpunk television series Max Headroom featured a character who ran a pirate TV station out of a converted bus, and rumors of late-night anonymous signals floating in the ether fueled our Videodrome-inspired fantasies. And it wasn’t all wishful thinking that individuals with a bit of tech know-how could take back the TV airwaves, much like operators of pirate radio stations had done since the 1960s. Famously, during one weekend in 1978, a pirate TV station called Lucky Seven reached viewers in Syracuse, NY. The station, hosted by an anonymous announcer wearing a gas mask, mostly aired Star Trek and Twilight Zone episodes – geek programming to be sure. And in 1987, a TV pirate sporting a Max Headroom mask broke into the broadcast of a Dr. Who episode on WTTW Chicago. Decades later, the proliferation of wireless networking and media players could bring “pirate TV” out of the shadows, enabling anyone to curate and stream video programming to a nearby niche audience – college dorm, apartment complex, or even city block...

"Start Your Own Local Area (TV) Network"


  1. Maybe Gates’ vision will come true when someone creates a true, inexpensive “digital ink” that doesn’t feel like you just left your TV in screensaver mode. Right now the idea of homes full of screens that stay on 24/7 sounds like a colossal waste of electricity.

    Does Gates have something akin to this in his house, I wonder? If anybody had the budget, technological access and inclination to try this it must be him. Or maybe he just pays the staff to rearrange the paintings every 15 minutes.

  2. Can you verify they “WILL SELL YOU SOME RIGHTS”?

    The last line, “the art is free,” you mean you can get art from Corbis for free to use in your home? How can they make money that way? Usually agencies guard their images and won’t let you download without paying first.

    Some RF, Royalty Free, arrangements are different. And there’s tons of public domain or art which peeps post and give away. But we are talking about Corbis, right?

    Usually images are LICENSED for the specific usage, for a specific amount of money, perhaps also for a specific geographical area, how many books (as an example, the more books, the more it costs to license, hardcover, softcover, all versions), specific media (books, mag, online, DVDs, doc, CDs: how is the image specifically being used), used for a book cover or interior or ads or online too.

    Corbis or the licensor maintains ALL rights in most cases.

    MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS or their estates STILL OWN THEIR IMAGES (which means they own the rights), but CORBIS is their photo agency. I think. I have never dealt with Corbis, but that is the usual arrangement between agencies and photographers.

    It’s a case-by-case contract, whether the agency owns the rights or only represents the photographer.

    In any case, IF an individual or company wants to buy rights, that’s gonna cost some money. Unless it’s some crap image that’s collecting dust.

    But this arrangement works best when Corbis or others maintain their rights, never selling, just licensing. UNLESS someone contacts Corbis for a work-for-hire situation, and the contract includes transfer of rights.

    Just saying . . . otherwise, I thought this story about Gates and the digital art and Corbis was common knowledge. Guess I live in an insulated world. Thanks for sharing it!

    Do you know what Corbis means? I was told by an early employee it means “basket.”

  3. I did some editorial work for Gates’s Interactive Home Systems. The specific project was a set of computer terminals allowing visitors to the Seattle Art Museum to navigate the collections electronically, but my understanding at the time was that it was all basically R&D for the system in Gates’s new mansion. In the moment’s giddy enthusiasm over the newfangled high technology, the notion of a room’s pictorial artwork changing instantaneously to suit the tastes of the person walking through it seemed kind of cool. Twenty years later it strikes me as, frankly, idiotic–infantilizing rather than empowering. Perhaps the fact that IHS became Corbis and seems to have changed its specialty means someone else came to the same conclusion.

  4. @JENNYLENS, I think you’re confused about what I meant, probably due to some imprecise language on my part and also that only part of my essay appears above. When I said “sell you some rights,” I meant “sell you the right to use the image in some way.”

    And my statement about free art, as I go into more later in the piece, is not referring to Corbis specifically but that there are obviously plenty of beautiful images on the Web that you could grab for this kind of non-commercial, personal, private use without paying anyone. That said, it’s always nice to support the people who make things that you like.

  5. Let me put on my tin-foil hat for a moment.

    In Canada, there’s only 3 region-based cable TV providers of note, the rest are small mom & poppers yet to be gobbled up.

    You run.. say.. Shaw … you can show ANYTHING you want, US channels, no Canadian, .. the heck with the CRTC.. as long as it’s something the customers will buy, it’s fair game. And if the CRTC says you gotta stop.. what can they do?

    Like seriously, they can’t pull the plug, or ‘take over’ a cable office.. It’s a business that needs to operate without a glitch, you got all these stations counting on being seen by the viewers, and you sure can’t tell a whole city the cable company is going black while the courts deal with the issue.

    So.. I’m saying cable companies (who are also big players as Internet providers) don’t need to play by any rules, as long as they don’t piss off the customers.

    Foil hat in now off, but the blue vans are still parked in my lane. This coax must be tapped. Damn it.

  6. SPOT, *great* call on the Electric Sheep. A media player is a perfect delivery system for generative art (visual and audio)!

  7. the max headroom infiltration happened twice. both available on youtube. On WGN-TV and the other, as mentioned, on WTTW later that evening.

  8. Sure you COULD set up a LAN TV, but why go to the trouble when there is a PERFECTLY GOOD 100 channels of unused analog television ready to be used since being abandoned last month?

  9. The myth of interference by David Weinberger

    Mar 12, 2003 | There’s a reason our television sets so outgun us, spraying us with trillions of bits while we respond only with the laughable trickles from our remotes. To enable signals to get through intact, the government has to divide the spectrum of frequencies into bands, which it then licenses to particular broadcasters. NBC has a license and you don’t.

    Thus, NBC gets to bathe you in “Friends,” followed by a very special “Scrubs,” and you get to sit passively on your couch. It’s an asymmetric bargain that dominates our cultural, economic and political lives — only the rich and famous can deliver their messages — and it’s all based on the fact that radio waves in their untamed habitat interfere with one another.

    Except they don’t.

    “Interference is a metaphor that paints an old limitation of technology as a fact of nature.” So says David P. Reed, electrical engineer, computer scientist, and one of the architects of the Internet. If he’s right, then spectrum isn’t a resource to be divvied up like gold or parceled out like land. It’s not even a set of pipes with their capacity limited by how wide they are or an aerial highway with white lines to maintain order.

    Spectrum is more like the colors of the rainbow, including the ones our eyes can’t discern. Says Reed: “There’s no scarcity of spectrum any more than there’s a scarcity of the color green. We could instantly hook up to the Internet everyone who can pick up a radio signal, and they could pump through as many bits as they could ever want. We’d go from an economy of digital scarcity to an economy of digital abundance.”

    So throw out the rulebook on what should be regulated and what shouldn’t. Rethink completely the role of the Federal Communications Commission in deciding who gets allocated what. If Reed is right, nearly a century of government policy on how to best administer the airwaves needs to be reconfigured, from the bottom up.

  10. The history of “Lucky 7” was a legend by the time I got to the student TV station at Syracuse University (then called UUTV), several years after it happened. I did get to see a tape of a local news station story on the Lucky 7, where they pointed a camera at a TV set, capturing the Lucky 7 logo and jingle, but alas, not the dude in the gas mask. Scuttlebutt had it that the scam was done by UUTV personnel and the host segments (dude in gas mask) were taped at the UUTV studio (tiny), and later broadcast on semi-professional videotape. Illegal movies they showed were taped from cable or from the station’s “film chain.” I never met anyone directly involved, only heard the stories third hand.

  11. #13, Thanks for sharing those bits. Really intriguing stuff. Even though it’s so easy these days to set up your own “channel” on YouTube, there’s still something so cool about old-school pirate TV and Lucky 7 style pranks.

  12. what is missing in gate’s notion and yours a little bit is interactivity. we need input devices, not just screens, to experience the new art that is being made.

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