On this week’s Naked Lunch podcast, hosts Phil Rosenthal and David Wild sit down for lunch with Justine Bateman. As they say on the site – “Here's a striking new episode with actress, writer, author, director, and producer Justine Bateman who Phil became friends with on the last WGA strike -- they both also appear in the 2006 film, The TV Set. Justine, Phil and David enjoy a freewheeling conversation covering everything from Artificial Intelligence to Family Ties, from Justin's compelling books Fame and Face to her acclaimed feature film directorial debut Violet in 2021 to going back to earning a degree in computer science and digital media management from UCLA in 2016. Justine is full of insights into Hollywood's current labor issues to making the movie Satisfaction with Julia Roberts.
While I don't agree with all her conclusions on where media and technology will go, I do agree with most. And the few I don't fully agree with, she comes at them with so much expertise and thoughtful insight that they're well-worth consideration.
(As a sort of addendum, like Phil Rosenthal, I too sort of crossed paths with her on the last WGA strike. We never met face-to-face, but did exchange a bunch of “mutual admiration society” emails between one another, over articles we each wrote about the strike. I’d been very impressed by a couple she wrote – even though she wasn’t a member of the WGA at the time, but she said she hoped to be one day – and it turned out she regularly read a long series of articles I was writing on the strike for the Huffington Post. Unlike Phil, though, we haven’t been in touch since.)
The other day, I wrote about Netflix ending its DVD plan, and the challenge I had figuring out which "final" DVD I wanted to get, which I'd be allowed to keep. And I ended up choosing the classic TV special, Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!, adapted from his one-man Broadway show.
As I noted, though I get chided for it (wrongly, I might add, as I think will become clear), I like DVDs for several reasons. I think they handle fast-forwarding much better than streaming, DVDs include "extras" which I occasionally like to check out -- streaming video generally only offer the movies, and there are movies, TV series and TV specials available on DVD that are not available for streaming. Those are all personal reasons, I know, but I think they're good ones. Not everyone might care about them all (or any), but that's life.
However, there is a larger principle that I realized a few months back when Netflix announced its decision to drop DVDs. It's related to availability, but on a far more significant level.
DVDs always exist and are available as physical entities anyone can have, but a streaming service can remove movies and TV shows from their library -- and regularly do -- and so they cease to exist. I not only thing this is a personal problem, not being able to find something you want to watch, but even more, I think is is a potential huge problem for cultural "history."
I mentioned this is a screenwriter friend who didn't know why I kept insisting on sticking with DVDs. He loves streaming. But when I mentioned this, he had a sort of "lightbulb" moment. He said that over the years, his movies generated a nice sum of WGA royalties for him. Being able to own a downloaded a copy on a website to rent is not the same thing. And he pointed to the music industry. As he asked, "How can a playlist possibly compete with a collection of LPs"
And that is spot on. His personal experience is Exhibit A. But I’ll go even a big step further -- not only can a lot of streaming material not be downloaded to own, even if one wanted to, and rented only…but a ton of material isn’t even available to stream! (One quick example: “Mart Twain Tonight!” -- the DVD I selected as my last DVD so I could keep it -- is not available to stream, period, at least not on Amazon Prime or Netflix. Only DVD. That’s the main reason I chose it as my last the DVD.)
It’s actually (I think) a very huge problem with the entertainment industry’s full reliance on streaming, a point driven home all the more by Netflix dropping DVDs -- which has gone near-unreported. I’m not even sure how significant the various Guild’s have addressed it (not that they can do much, I suspect, other than draw attention to it.) They most I’ve seen is individual producers or directors complain when their movie or TV series has been taken out of the rotation of a streaming service that has exclusive rights to it.
And that’s the other thing -- services buy the exclusive rights to stream things. So, if -- for example -- Netflix or Disney+ or Apple+ buys the sole rights to a movie or TV series and then drops it from circulation, everyone is out of luck. Arguably forever.
Previously, it was up to individuals and the public to decide what they want to keep and move the popular culture of a society. Now, that's becoming more the decision of a corporations bottom line.
Up to now, this hasn't been an issue as new technologies arrive. Wax cylinders gave way to records which gave way to LP albums which gave way to reel-to-reel tape which gave way to cassettes which gave way to CDs. Even MP3 files are physical entities you can have copies of. VHS tapes gave way to DVDs. There were always physical copies available that helped spready the cultural history of society. With streaming -- that's dwindling.
Put this in another perspective -- though eBooks have grown in popularity, and who knows?, may one day eliminate hardcopy books, libraries still exist as a repository for literary culture going back a hundred years. Actually hundreds of years, in some cases -- and even in scholastic settings, a thousand years. While libraries certainly could disappear, it's not imminent. Nor arguably, probable...especially if one considers the reality of digital e-libraries. In fact, eBooks have shown themselves as a vibrant and economical way to preserve old literature, with numerous projects digitizing books and making them not only available as content for individuals, but free. That's a world aside from streaming, where corporations own the rights to what they'll stream. And if something is taken out of "rotation," it largely ceases to exist.
Hopefully, this will be something that gains attention as DVDs disappear, and people begin to discover that much of what they want to see is gone. Here's hoping.
Every once in a while, those on-screen TV guides make really big mistakes -- often it's when they display an actor's photo that's actually someone else in public life who has the same name. Usually, I assume, this is because the systems are computerized. My favorite may have been when an actor in some old movie was named George Mitchell, and the on-screen guide showed a photo of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
But the service that Spectrum uses in Los Angeles may have topped itself. Because this was a weird, glaring error totally different from that. It was for a 1965 romantic comedy that was showing on Saturday afternoon called Do Not Disturb, which starred Rod Taylor and Doris Day. Part of the plot summary described the couple moving to London, and Day thinking that Taylor was having an affair with "his attractive secretary, Claire." And as these summaries do, they often include a parenthetical for the name of the actor playing the role. So, in this case, it read, "...thinks her husband is having an affair with his attractive secretary, Claire (Leon Askin)."
Now, okay, needless-to-say, that caught my eye as being a bit off, most especially for a mid-60s Doris Day romantic comedy. And I'm sure that people who stopped reading their TV screen right there might have been bewildered. But I figured, well, it's possible that "Leon" was a nickname for "Leona." Or a typo for "Leora." Or some women have a man's name, perhaps for a family reason. For example, there was an actress on the TV series Trapper John, MD, named Christopher Norris. And there is an actress/model James King.
Except in this case, I know well who the actor Leon Askin is. And as wonderful an actor as he is, no one would ever confuse him with playing an attractive secretary, whatever his gender. So, I was sure that that Leon Askin was in the movie, just not in the role of "attractive secretary, Claire." (This was confirmed by his photo being included at the bottom of the screen with other cast members, identified with his name and proper character. So, they just screwed up the summary, with some really odd glitch.)
In fact, I suspect that most people here might even recognize him because Askin was a very popular character actor, and is probably especially recognized by many for having played the recurring role of 'Gen. Burkhalter' on Hogan's Heroes.
This is Leon Askin, who we are informed plays "his attractive secretary, Claire."
And sometimes, beauty is in the eye of the Burkhalter...
One of the notable issues in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike against the AMPTP companies is the use of artificial intelligence in the Industry. It’s a substantial concern for writers and actors alike.
That's why I quickly sat up when a news item caught my eye on Friday, though it seemed to fall through the cracks and didn't get much coverage for how it relates to the strike. Perhaps it’s because it appeared on a Friday afternoon, when most people’s focus is elsewhere. Maybe it’s because in Los Angeles people were putting more attention on Hurricane Hilary headed our way. But -- it seems a significant story that could have impact on the strike...and the future of filmmaking.
The story is that on Friday, a federal judge upheld a U.S. Copyright Office ruling that a work of art which is created by artificial intelligence is not open to copyright protection.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ruled that copyright law has “never stretched so far” to “protect works generated by new forms of technology operating absent any guiding human hand.”
That’s pretty blunt, but one other particular sentence in the judge’s opinion stood out even more – “Human authorship is a bedrock requirement.” A concept that she said “rests on centuries of settled understanding.”
All this would seem to be a major roadblock to studios who (much to the long-chagrin of writers) hold the copyright on the works that they paid for, but did not create. More to the point, studios have historically gone to great lengths to protect those copyrights. If the use of AI in making those films and TV shows and series would render the copyrights on those works moot, it would seem that using AI in them would be the last thing a company would want to try.
But the judge went even farther, in great detail, writing that the very purpose of copyright law is to encourage “human individuals to engage in” creation. She explained that when copyrights and patents were established “it was understood that recognizing exclusive rights in that property would further the public good by incentivizing individuals to create and invent.” She added even more pointedly that “The act of human creation — and how to best encourage human individuals to engage in that creation, and thereby promote science and the useful arts — was thus central to American copyright from its very inception.”
Judge Powell even focused on technology itself, indeed on entities that are not human, writing how “Non-human actors need no incentivization with the promise of exclusive rights under United States law, and copyright was therefore not designed to reach them.
Finally, another passage in her ruling underscores all this still more, even when recognizing how the world and the needs of the law has changed. She wrote, “The understanding that ‘authorship’ is synonymous with human creation has persisted even as the copyright law has otherwise evolved.”
For those interested in such things, you can read the full court ruling here.
To be clear, as pointed as Judge Howell’s ruling was, the issue of AI isn’t as completely simple as that. Though the foundational substance is.
Back in March, the copyright office ruling that was the foundation of the court challenge being filed, had that stated that most AI-generated works are not copyrightable – however, they left open that, under some conditions, works that used AI-assisted materials could qualify for copyright protection. They said that if a work was created along with the additional help of artificial intelligence, copyright could possibly be granted if it was shown that a human “selected or arranged” the work in a “sufficiently creative way that the resulting work constitutes an original work of authorship.”
That said, though this position of the Copyright Office does leave open the use of some AI in copyrighted work, it still would require the “substantially creative” involvement of a human. So, general, random material couldn’t just be fed into AI software and claim copyright. The creative process of a writer or actor who specifically “selected or arranged” the material would be needed. Which, in many ways, would defeat the purpose of a studio using AI to cut writers or actors out of the process to save money.
Wiser legal minds than mine will be arguing this in the near future, and beyond. But it would none-the-less seem with such legal phrases as, “Human authorship is a bedrock requirement” and that this is a concept that “rests on centuries of settled understanding,” those would appear to be high hurdles that should terrify studios that live and breathe on the existence of copyright when trying to justify the unbridled use of artificial intelligence as the hill during a strike they want to die on.
Just a bit of folderol this morning, but it's on technology that's been in the news a lot lately, so I thought it worth bringing up.
The other day, I sent a quip in an email to my friend Myles Berkowitz. It was something I think I had even posted here -- "If Trump is convicted by jury vote in the E. Jean Carroll case, I wonder if he'll call the jury foreman and ask him to find the few votes he needs for acquittal. 'Come on, just three votes, give me a break.'"
Myles wrote back that he was trying out a new AI software from a service called Grammerly, wondering if it would help him write emails quicker. So, instead of writing me his own reaction, he thought instead that he would send along the AI response that the Grammerly AI came up with.
You must understand, if it hasn't been clear in my other references to Myles here, that the good fellow has very few subtle bones in his body. Coming from New York, he's really more of an in-your-face kind of guy. He is, in fact, an incredibly nice guy who can be low-key, endearing, impressively thoughtful, and extremely gracious, but I get the sense it annoys him to be so too often.
To put him in more perspective before getting to how his AI software should sound for coming from him, Myles occasionally coached his daughter's basketball team when she was in a kids league, which was impressive since he readily admitted he doesn't know all that much about basketball. (Football is his sport.) Other than telling the girls to hound the best player on the other team and also giving them Al Pacino's big locker room speech from the movie Any Given Sunday -- using a Pacino impersonation -- yes, really ("We're in hell right now, ladles. Believe me"), which mortified his then 11-year-old daughter, he basically told them to just run around.
Myles is also the guy who wrote, directed and starred in the mock-documentary 21 Dates that followed him on his attempt to find true love over the course of his goal of going out on 21 dates. Though it was loosely written and fictional, it was mixed in with real footage, including some hidden footage from a few of his actual, failed dates. And actual phone calls from his producer yelling at him, as well as intercutting real material of some of his friends talking directly to the camera explaining how annoying Myles could sometimes be, after being told by Myles to be totally honest. Which is the kind of guy he is. It was all very funny.
(If you're interested, he gave me permission a while back that I could embed the movie on my site. It's a lot of fun. If you're interested, you can find it here.)
Okay, that then is who the guy is. And this is the response to my joke that the Grammerly AI thought would make me assume it was from Myles Berkowitz.
I acknowledge your worries about the potential outcomes if Trump is found guilty by the jury vote in the E. Jean Carroll case. It's understandable to be concerned that he may attempt to sway the jury foreman to secure the votes he needs for acquittal. This is certainly a stressful possibility.
Let's hope that justice prevails and that the verdict is reached solely based on the presented evidence. Thank you for keeping me updated.
I wrote back to Myles, "It sounds SO much like you that it's eerie."
As horrible as the response was to my quip, the funniest giveaway was that it was signed "Sincerely." I have never received an email from Myles signed "Sincerely."
Funny, too, is that Myles wrote back to explain that when choosing what style the AI software should response with, he was given several options, like "Business." He chose the option for "Friendly"! Yes, this was what AI thought was friendly -- from Myles Berkowitz.
In fairness, it was nicely written, and AI is still in the early stages. But it was so awful for being "Myles Berkowitz" that I got one sentence into the response and burst out laughing. The reality seems that for AI to be as accurate as possible, the person using it has to put a great deal more input into to.
However, I did suggest to Myles that he nonetheless might want to consider studying what Grammerly AI wrote on his behalf for future reference. His response was one that I suspect goes over very well in New York, Though not so much elsewhere.
We have a weird story today about a tech support problem. It’s a really easy one to describe, and sort of funny, so no need to go rushing off screaming in fear of high tech gobbledygook.
The story concerns a friend who had a Kindle Fire that he likes a lot. Though its main feature is as an ebook reader, it also has basic functions, mainly for browsing the Internet and streaming video.
He’s had an annoying problem for a while though where the screen goes black far more often than ideal. (One time is less than ideal, but such hiccups do happen.) He went online to see if others had the same problem, and if so were any solutions offered. And, in fact, it turns out to be a very common problem, with many hundreds of people complaining. And no serious suggestions. He even tracked down tech articles written about the problem – that’s how prevalent the issue is. (One loony suggestion was that the device was likely overheating, so put it in the freezer to cool down. And this was from a tech journalist.)
My friend finally called Kindle Fire tech support, and they were as bewildered as my friend and spent a long time on the phone trying to fix it. To no avail. So, in the end, they said they’d send him a new unit, because this one was still in warranty.
A few hours later, my friend – who is pretty adept at technology – thought he’d check into something. He went into the Settings option and then Video section, and began searching through the various areas…until he found something SO basic, and SO obvious that he knew he had to be right.
It was that there is a setting for when the screen should blank out after a certain period of time when there was no usage – and the default was set for just one minute!! This is to save battery power, but “one minute” is incredibly much too fast. So, he just changed it to 30 minutes – and it’s worked perfectly since there. He never has gone a half-hour with accessing the device. Either there’s TV news video streaming or a TV show or something like that, or he’s checking his email or browsing the Internet.
But such an easy solution isn’t the weird thing.
The weird thing is that Kindle tech support didn’t know this was the easy fix. It’s not that the guy on the phone didn’t know, but this sort of thing – especially an issue that has SO many user complaints online (and therefore, no doubt, phone calls to tech support) – will always have the fix noted in the official notes every tech support person has at their finger tips. And it’s not even “a problem,” it’s just a matter of changing the default setting. How in the world tech support doesn’t have this in their manual is just plain weird.
Weird, too, is that when my friend checked online complaints, he didn’t come across anyone explaining the easy fix. I’m sure that out there across the Internet there probably were people who gave the fix, since my friend didn’t check out hundreds of complaints, but given how incredibly easy and (even more) basic this fix is – changing the default – it’s a bit surprising that it wasn’t given every time.
Mainly, though, it’s amazing that Kindle tech support didn’t just say, “Change the default for screen time.”
In their favor, they are sending a new Kindle Fire to my friend (though it’s under warranty, so they pretty much have to, but still, they did so without any hesitancy). So, that’s a good thing.
And in the end, here’s a Tech Tip for you: if you have a Kindle Fire, and the screen keeps going to black – just go into settings and change when the default is set for the screen timing out.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor