Friday, June 28, 2002

The mighty Instapundit links to an article by Seth Godin in Fast Company, discussing the copyright war once again. It is in some sense the usual discussion, and it has the same old point. It is reasonable for the actual creators of artistic work to be protected by copyright and compensated for their work. However, there is no good reason why the companies that publish that work should have a monopoly on that work, unless what they are doing ensures that the artists are being compensated for that work, and that the artists wouldn't be compensated otherwise. However, there are elso economic benefits that stem from artistic works (and other intellectual property) being distributed as widely as possible, so even if the presence of the publishers does increase the income of the artists, then there still need to be limits on the extent to which the publishers are allowed to exploit the copyright. When technology advances, the publishers have no right whatsoever to demand that copyright law protect their existing business models.

This isn't a new argument, and I have written about it before at length. (My lengthiest comments are in Salon's comment system somewhere and I will try to track them down and find a link later). The actions of the copyright industry in extending copyriught law are all about protecting its monopoly from being broken down by new technology, but they argue (and in many cases appear to have convinced themselves) that it is about occupying the high moral ground and stopping theft. They do not care about the artists, and in some cases have in fact been screwing the artists for decades. And yet somehow they have managed to convince themselves that they have the high moral ground. The reason people flaunt the law so flagrantly here is simply that they know how morally weak is the position of the other side. Hilary Rosen, you are contemptible and I despise you. Jack Valenti, you are contemptible and I despise you.

If either of those people were to read this, they would just sneer at me and say that I was a thief and a criminal, and would no doubt take great offence at what I have said. (I don't despise the movie industry anywhere near as much as I despise the music industry, as I discuss below, but I do despise Valenti and the MPAA because they seem as determined to use copyright law to prevent the future from happening as does the music industry). The odd thing, however, is that I personally do not generally disobey copyright laws. I cannot say that I have never broken them, because they are in some cases so bizarre that there are few people in the world who have never broken them, but I generally buy music on CD. (These days I don't buy as many CDs as once, but that is because I have trouble dealing with the smell of the people I know are behind them). I don't think that the people who do download lots of songs are morally all that bad - certainly they are no worse than the people selling the music - but I have no great desire to break the law myself. Certainly I don't get any vicarious thrill out of doing something illegal.

In any event, I just got a bit too busy ranting to get to the point I was trying to make. The article discusses music and then goes on to discuss motion pictures. In the case of music, it is relatively simple for artists to create music and then put it on the net and for people to download it. The enormous 'music industry' apparatus is completely unnecessary, completely corrupt, and will go the way of the Dodo. The question is simply how long it takes. The music industry, with its star making apparatus, its controly of radio via the 'independent promoter' payola system and the like, is going to collapse under its own weight. It may well be the case that music artists need promoters and publicists, but there is no reason whatsoever why they should only be able to get these from one of five monopolistic corporations.

However, the deal with movies and television is different. Movies cost a lot of money to make. The people who make movies and television tend to get fairly (and sometimes obscenely) paid for their work. Movie making requires huge teams of people, many of who are very skilled in highly specific roles. Hollywood consists of a relatively small number of highly skilled (and highly unionised) artisans, who have to be brought together to make a film. There are relatively few studios not so much because they have a monopoly on distribution but because making the types of films they make is difficult. (If as an independent producer I am capable of raising $100m, hiring people capable of making a good action film and getting the film made, am I going to have any difficult getting the film into American cinemas. The perhaps surprising answer to that is "None at all". There are a few foreign companies that do this kind of thing. An example, "The Fifth Element", a film made by the French company Gaumont).

When you buy a cinema ticket or buy a DVD you are paying for part of a large, complicated production, and people know this. Although the number of CDs I buy has dropped, I now have a huge DVD buying habit, because I want the movies, and I want the special features, and I think the format is beautiful. In my travels, I frequently find people trying to sell me pirated DVDs or VCDs of recent movies, often for next to nothing. I do not buy them, and a major reason why I do not buy them is that they do not have the endorsement of the studio and film-maker, and I thus have no idea about their quality. I value the authenticity of genuine products, and I don't find the price especially unreasonable. I see lots of movies in the first weekend, not so much because I can't see them cheaper later on, but because I want to see the latest film in the best possible situation. Given that the percentage of filmgoers who go and see a film in the first weekend has been increasing dramatically for several years, I am not the only one.

What I am getting to is the one major point on which I disagree with Godins article. He says

But what about Arnold Schwarzenegger? you ask. How will he be able to make $100 million movies if they're pirated on DVD? Maybe he can't. Maybe a society filled with consumers who pirate doesn't deserve $100 million movies. Perhaps they go away, just as ornate Broadway musicals are a rarity or the June Taylor Dancers are no longer able to get work. Somehow, I think we'll all survive without Terminator 10.

While I agree with his basic point - some parts of the entertainment industry will suffer the changes in technology more than others, and just because some don't survive doesn't mean we are worse off in general, and while I think it is unlikely that we will ever see Terminator 10. (I think that without James Cameron Terminator 3 is likely to suck. Jonathon Mostow is self-important and rather irritating hackwho is unworthy of having Wolfgang Petersen piss on him), I don't think the big movie is going to go away. Lots of people want to see it. The studios are the only people with the resources to make it. As long as that fact remains so, their business models will survive. So far the digital revolution has only caused their revenue sources to multiply. I don't think this trend is going to be reversed.

What potentially is interesting is the possibility that it will not remain so. As I said, Hollywood consists of a small number of highly trained and well paid artisans. The vast majority of the cost of any Hollywood film is the costs of these people. Their working conditions and pay rates are quite high, and set by agreements with the various Hollywood guilds. If the spread of internet and the spread of these technologies means that there are suddenly many people in lots of places with the same skills, then suddenly it might be possible to produce similar movies for a lot less money. Or, on the other hand, it may be the case that nobody else can match Hollywood's ability to coordinate the whole process. I tend to think the latter argument may be right, but it shall be interesting to see where this goes.

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