Monday, June 07, 2010

Danailov Is Right.

No, not about Topalov being better than Anand at everything, or Cheparinov being a better second than Kasparov and Kramnik combined, or about events in a certain toilet in Elista, or about a billion and one other things. But I think Danailov is right to take Chessbase to court, over the latter's unauthorized broadcast on their Playchess server of the recent World Championship match.

Now, I'm not a legal expert and don't know to what extent the moves were protected by international copyright, or to what extent broadcast licensing laws can be applied to chess. Danailov could be right legally, or Chessbase could be - they don't agree, and that is why the court will decide. I'm not even saying Danailov is right morally, to protect the commercial interests of the event sponsors and so forth. That admittedly-capitalistic argument has its clear logic and a certain appeal. But it is very un-Web 2.0 - a world where information flows freely, money is made on the side by micro-ads, no-one knows what will be popular next, everyone mashes up everything else as they please, the competition is about who is more interesting, not over who owns what, and the internet is freer than a free country.

Legally I have no idea who's right, morally I'm uncertain - so why am I siding with Danailov? Because, the licensed broadcasts of chess events is the best shot our game has for generating a large, non-specialist mainstream audience in one place on the internet, and thus growing the popularity of the game. Let me try to unpack that in a couple of paragraphs.

We all know thousands and thousands of people watch big games online. Where? ICC, Playchess, TWIC's live page, chessbomb, chessgames, Susan Polgar's blog, a whole host of others - in other words, all over the place. Great as they are, many of these sites are specialist, some are cliquey, others require membership fees, downloads, and so on. Imagine you're a beginner - which do you go to? Where can you find a buzzing community that includes players of your strength? Well, you can try the event homepage - but you'll probably be disappointed. Most event webpages do a good job with the basics, but generate no interaction, have limited commentary, often supplied only after the games, and it is not uncommon for them to crash unexpectedly. In short, whilst serious chess spectators like ourselves are well-catered for - the experience of the non-expert is fragmentary, confusing, unreliable, and disappointing. And that is the status quo.

Now imagine a world in which broadcasts are licensed. Maybe the event organizers decide no-one will show the games except themselves. Tens of thousands of fans gather in one place, Masters and patzers alike; it's a field day for advertisers; the coverage can be as technically sophisticated as anything out there. Or maybe they decide to license to coverage to the highest bidder: again, fans and newcomers alike are all funneled into one place. Or maybe they try it one way one year, another the next, and get some fresh ideas as to what works. Or maybe a big TV company or big website or national newspaper will think: heh, we can be the only ones to broadcast a big chess event; let's damn well sponsor one to boot. But where's the incentive if Chessbase and anyone and everyone else can just pilfer the moves instantly and for free?

So, I think Danailov is right, at least from a practical point of view, and perhaps a moral one too. I hope he wins his court case, proves his point, and sets a precedent. Chess has a massive but fractured online following. Licensed events are chess's best chance to collect fans together and attract newcomers. Still having said all that, I'm not sure what's more news. That Danailov is taking Chessbase to court - or that someone thinks he's right in doing so?


Naisortep said...

Good points Tom. Legalities aside, there could and should be a friendlier working relationship between the broadcast and event sites. Broadcast sites should as a matter of protocol provide a advertisement for the sponsor. Event sites should have links to the broadcast sites.

Anonymous said...

I thought the solution at last year's London Classic was far more pragmatic. The official site contained logos and links for all the sites offering live coverage. Let the viewers decide which feed they preferred.

Jonathan B said...

In short, whilst serious chess spectators like ourselves are well-catered for - the experience of the non-expert is fragmentary, confusing, unreliable, and disappointing.

This is exactly the point I was making in recent posts in the When we were Kings series viz a viz chess coverage in mainstream newspapers.

Don't agree with your main point though T.C. Got to go with our anonymous friend above.

Tom Chivers said...

Anonymous's view is certainly the easiest one, and if organizes aren't concerned about making money or the broader public image of chess, then fair enough. I'm unclear as to what this has to do with pragmatism though, although that is somewhat beside the point.

Anonymous said...

While i'm here, i think it's worth considering - were exclusive rights to chess broadcasts a reality - whether coverage of chess events like the World Championship match in Sofia would remain free to access. I very much suspect they wouldn't ... and as a result access for the 'non expert' 'vaguely interested' chess consumer would be worse than it is now not better.

- JB

Tom Chivers said...

Yes, that is one possibility. Another is that with such a massive and diverse audience gatherable in one place, advertising would more than cover the cost.