Saturday, June 29, 2002

I went for a walk through the Park Lane / Mayfair / Belgravia area of London yesterday. Besides seeing why the point of Monopoly is to get a hotel on Park Lane or Mayfair, I saw a few showrooms for ludicrously expensive automobiles, and walked past a few embassies. The biggest of these is the American one on Grosvenor Square. (The square contains statues of Franklin D Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower - the Roosevelt statue is of him standing and discreetly holding a stick). The embassy is now protected by a metal barrier a couple of metres from the building. This was not there last time I visited the area in around 1996, but it does have a temporary look about it. It is probably something put up since last September. Standing on the steps was a man holding a nasty looking machine gun. (He was wearing dark blue or black trousers, a white shirt, and a hat with that checked pattern indicating that he was a British policeman of some sort). It rather pains me that such protection is necessary for the embassy of a great power and a friendly country, too. Yes, it's absolutely necessary, but as well as placing barriers between those who have power and those who want to kill them, it also places barriers between those who have power and people such as myself who have no desire whatsoever to kill them, but who would enjoy boiling Osama bin Laden in oil. And the machine gun is quite jarring in a city where the policemen don't normally carry guns at all. However, it is good to see that the people protecting the embassy are wearing civilian police uniforms rather than military fatigues. (You see policemen armed with machine guns at Heathrow airport, too, but at that point you have entered the weird internal and international ecosystem of the world's airports and airlines, so it is not quite as jarring).

Walking down the road a bit, I passed another embassy with another similarly attired policeman standing out front. This one was armed with a handgun. I wasn't sure which country's embassy he was protecting. I looked at a sign on the building a little further down the road and it said "Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago". It struck me as unlikely that they needed much protection, so I looked more carefully. The buildings in the street were large terraces and were connected, so it was a bit hard to tell where one stopped and the next started, and yes, this was a different embassy. I looked up, and saw a large Turkish flag flying from the building above the door being guarded. I am not sure whether the Turkish embassy was being guarded from Greek Cyproits, Kurdish separatists, French islamic fundamentalists or German football supporters, but I can see why they might want to guard that one.

Okay, so far we have guards outside embassies of friendly countries with enemies. The further question is how much protection is outside the embassies of nasty countries. I am not sure where the embassies of China, or Burma, or Iran, or Iraq, or the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia are. (Perhaps I can go and throw a hand grenade through the window of the last one myself. This post has now presumably been flagged by Echelon). Actually it's fairly likely the last couple are in Embassy Row in Kensington, opposite Kensington palace, ideal for when vile Saudis want to fraternise with minor members of the British royal family. (The embassies of the former dominions of the empire are either on or near Trafalgar Square in the West End. Canada and South Africa have nice buildings right on the square: Australia is a few blocks down the Strand next to Bush House of BBC World Service fame. A decade ago you would usually bump into a good few protestors outside the South African embassy when wandering through Trafalgar Square, but these are now thankfully gone. I will conclude this rambling by observing that there is at least one good thing that has happened in the world in the last decade.

(And I should have yesterday got out my digital camera (which was in my pocket) and taken some photos. Perhaps I was intimidated by the men with the guns).

Friday, June 28, 2002

Okay, in summary, I think one of the key points in all that was this. Music is a product where our consumption has in the past been seriously restricted by the way it was sold to us. Ideally we would all like a universal jukebox where we could listen to any music we want whenever we want, rather than the relatively small collection of songs in our CD collection. Napster gave us this, and someone else is going to give us this in the future. Our consumption (total number of songs we have the right to listen to) is going to go up dramatically. That means the unit price is going to have to go down dramatically. It doesn't mean the total amount of money we pay has to go down dramatically, but it does mean that the business model is going to have to change dramatically.

As far as movies and television are concerned, the total amount we watch isn't likely to change much. Most movies we watch once and once only, and those that we watch more than once we do so a relatively small number of times. We already have the opportunity to watch a large selection of movies on demand. (It's called going to the video store). Technology is going to mean that we have a much larger selection of programming to choose from. Obtaining it might be easier. It will be easier to watch television programming exactly when we want it rather than when the networks put it on. But the total number of programs we consume isn't going to change much. There may be some sligh changes to the business model. (Do you want to watch it once now or pay for the right to watch it as many times as possible? We already have both options with existing media but the balance may shift). But the consumption level will remain much the same and so the per unit pricing can remain much the same. Therefore I don't think Hollywood is especially threatened in the short term. It will find ways to make money out of new technology, as it always has. Unless the industry manages to make copyright law so restrictive and so punitive that it strangles itself. As it might.
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.

Tuesday, June 25, 2002

There is a fascinating interview with Bruce Sterling in the German webzine Telepolis . Lots of good stuff on the Military-entertainment complex, why all the dubious deals are now going down in Dubai and the present state of the world. Just why does everything from 9-11 to the South African cricket team seem connected to the Bombay underworld?

Oh, that was such a long time ago... Last week I was in Italy hanging out with Linux freeware activists in a college event sponsored by a dance club that's run by some kind of anarchist dive... With Communists, and feminists, and hackers, and the media, and professors of Latin American literature, and radio personalities, and solemn guys with piercings who hate Berlusconi... And man, the food was great. We were all drinking heavily, and the local soccer club won and the population went nuts and ran into the streets.... I haven't had that good a time in ages. Since September 11, really. I just felt so happy, it was like the sun came out of the clouds for me. I love Italy.

To be truthful I don't personally love Italy. I love many of the things in Italy, but I wouldn't say I love Italy itself. It's a country where I find too many things to be a hassle. The public infrastructure doesn't work, and that annoys me. But yes, the food is certainly great.

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