Friday, March 02, 2007

Miscellany: 2 March

- Virgin and Sky's bitter feud has been going on for a while now, but it still comes as a surprise to see them come to this. Sky pulls its channels from Virgin's cable services, and Virgin retaliates by demonstrating what passes for humour in their world: renaming the vacant "Sky News" channel as "Sky Snooze." How we laughed.

I have satellite, so I don't care. And it would be presumptuous to guess whether Sky is overvaluing its channels - although as a rival platform, Sky would have an obvious interest in disrupting its rivals by withholding its key channels. This is the sort of thing competition law is supposed to deal with, but it's a clumsy and ineffective mechanism.

Still, Virgin have shot themselves in the foot - or perhaps even the head - with their flippant attitude. Like it or not, Sky One is one of the major multichannel draws, and without it, cable instantly becomes a much less attractive proposition. And the Virgin brand isn't properly established in cable yet. The customer base generally doesn't even LIKE cable - NTL had a reputation as one of the worst companies for customer service in the UK, and even NTL admitted it was basically well-founded. Sky hold all the cards here, and in the short term Virgin is not going to win this fight.

The problem is that multichannel TV has a big structural problem thanks to Sky being both the major subscription channel provider and one of the major platforms. This is what happens if you give the market too much leeway to find its own solutions: somebody ends up winning, and then you don't have much of a market any more.

- The photograph of David Cameron in a silly costume has been withdrawn from the media by the copyright holders in somewhat mysterious circumstances. They're calling it a "policy decision", and they deny any interference from the Conservative Party; an obvious alternative would be that they want it out of circulation so that they can charge the Labour Party more money to use it in an election poster.

I'm not sure how much it really matters to the average voter that David Cameron was quite rich and went to Oxford University. I suspect most of the voters who are put off by a privileged background probably wouldn't have voted Conservative anyway. The argument that rich people can't understand the problems of the poor is nonsense, of course. You might as well argue that people from council estates should never become Prime Minister, because what do they know about the financial markets? Any remotely qualified candidate for the job will have learned things along the way. Poverty does not come with a free bucket of wisdom.

Potentially more damaging for Cameron is that the photograph shows him as a member of the Bullingdon Club, a supposed Oxford University dining society which has at the very least acquired a reputation for living up to the worst stereotypes of upper class thuggishness. If the Interweb is to be believed, the Club's activities basically involve getting very, very drunk, vandalising the property of poor people, and booking an annual dinner venue under an assumed name before wrecking the establishment.

Now, I'm innately wary of Internet reports on this sort of society. Googling for the Speculative Society, which is just an Edinburgh debating club, picks up a whole load of conspiracy theories from people getting rather too carried away about Robbie the Pict (a reportedly charming serial litigant notable for leaving no technicality unchallenged in his extended battle against the Skye Bridge toll system - although with the eventual abolition of bridge tolls, he now seems to be diversifying).

But the general unpleasantness of the Bullingdon Club does seem to be rather well attested - see here, here, here, here and here, for example - which suggests that there's at least a good core of truth to it, however exaggerated. Boris Johnson was apparently a member too, but then he's made a career out of disguising an allegedly decent intellect behind the facade of a borderline-retarded upper class twit. Cameron can hardly afford the same spin. And while it may be unfair to judge somebody by their social class, it's perfectly fair to judge them by their choice of drinking companions.

- Meanwhile, over at the High Court of Justice, Mr Justice Kitchin wrestles with a vital legal problem in the case of Dearlove v Combs, the latest chapter in the thrilling battle over the UK rights to the name "Diddy." As you may or may not know, shortly after Sean Combs announced that he was changing his name to "Diddy", he was sued in the UK by remixer Richard Dearlove, who had been using the name "Diddy" for years. There was an out-of-court settlement, the gist of which was that Combs agreed to call himself "P Diddy" in the UK from now on, and promised not to advertise goods or service in the UK under the name "Diddy" any more. (As a matter of convenience, he now uses the name "P Diddy" worldwide outside the USA.)

In his latest action, among various other complaints, Dearlove protests about the lyrics of Combs' new album, in which he contemplates at length his favourite topic: himself. Even though the album is packaged under the name "P Diddy", Dearlove argues that Combs' songs amount to nothing more than an advertisement for Sean Combs, and therefore it's a breach of the settlement agreement.

Naturally, this leads the unfortunate judge to the task of analysing the lyrics - always good for a laugh in a legal judgment. The section starts at para 46. The judge ends up concluding, that yes, P Diddy's song "The Future" is indeed just an advert for P Diddy. ("The second verse refers to Mr Combs as 'Diddy' as he invites the listener to 'mainline this new Diddy heroin.'") Quite what that means for the UK release of the album, I don't know. Not that I care, especially.

But the underlying problem is an interesting one. This has been going on for years, with bands expanding into other countries only to find somebody else has already cornered the name. In the days before the Internet, it wasn't a major problem because you just used a different name in that territory - hence Charlatans UK and the London Suede. In the age of the Internet, where your website is a global phenomenon, it's more complex. (The Diddy case also involves some discussion of his MySpace page.) And if you work in hip-hop and want to refer to yourself in your own songs (virtually a genre requirement) then you've got a real potential issue.

Dearlove has a fair complaint - he did have some degree of reputation in the name within the UK, so why should his tradename be swamped by an international megastar who isn't even using his own name? But solving these problems effectively means international harmonisation of laws, and that takes forever...