Life on the digital knife edge
The information equivalent of a nuclear bomb detonating over the Shima Hospital that is SOPA / PIPA last week would seem to have put a rather large question mark over the future of the these proposals (thanks to Wikipedia et al.).
Of course, copyright reliant industry's troubled relationship with technology isn't new. Historically, it's been something of a slow-motion rear guard action over the years as technology steadily makes it easier and easier to distribute information. But previous attempts to combat the inevitable seem very quaint now that the stakes have been well and truly raised.
They say there's only two things that are certain: death and taxes. Well, taxes is a given I suppose, unless you happen to be in a position to mostly lobby your way out of them. Death on the other hand is a little harder to lobby against at present. The Death card in the traditional Tarot deck (as watchers of The Simpsons or readers of Promethea may recollect) is often interpreted as representing change or transformation. In truth, perhaps the one universally inevitable condition is change. Following on from this, I thought I might try an analogy that incumbents such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) could find some affinity with: At present, the movie/TV industry is like the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Once more or less invincible, now they find they are smack in the middle of the molten ore of advancing technology, transforming themselves into all the past shapes stored in their memory in a desperate attempt to avoid their own destruction. What the T-1000 apparently couldn't do was shift into a new and original shape, one it hadn't used before. Who knows, if it had found an original shape then maybe the ending of Terminator 2 might have gone down differently1.
I haven't previously seen the state of things enumerated quite as nicely by the players themselves as was the case in the diplomatic cable published recently by Wikileaks, wherein the MPAA's legal action by proxy against an Australian ISP is discussed. There's some pretty interesting text in that cable. Other commentators have already focused on the Machiavellian way that the MPAA went about putting an Australian facade over their legal action against iiNet, so I'll point out this bit:
Media reaction to the case has been mixed. It includes some predictable criticisms of AFACT's [the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft's] resort to legal challenges as doomed to be ineffective, and exhortations that the best way to combat piracy is for the movie and TV industries to adapt to the digital age and make their products more readily available for download at reasonable prices and conditions.
And this bit:
[The] MPAA see this as a major test case, and not necessarily their final legal move in Australia, which does have very high rates of illegal movie and television show downloads, in part because of the sometimes long gaps between their release in the US and their arrival in Australian theaters or on local television.
So the MPAA thinks that Australia has 'very high rates of illegal movie and television show downloads' and this is 'in part' due to the 'sometimes long gaps' between content released in the US and that same content being released in Australia. Also, the MPAA can't say they weren't told that the best way to 'combat piracy is for the movie and TV industries to adapt to the digital age and make their products more readily available for download at reasonable prices and conditions.'
But they'd rather go to court.
As I see it, the situation playing out is capitalism and the free market in action, baby! Survival of the fittest! Those concepts that giants of industry always seem to hold most dear until the application thereof threatens their bottom line. Their solution – after losing legal proceedings – usually then being to demand that regulation (gasp!) be enacted to protect the monopolies and gravy trains that they so carefully constructed. Of course the incumbents prefer these methods, because if they were to actually adapt to the changing landscape instead, then that would mean that the gravy train might have to become more streamlined. It might have to start making fewer or different stops and no longer be able to dally at each station, waiting for every fat controller to take his share.
I pay for Foxtel, which is the News Corp. owned, subscription TV company that services Australia. The other week, I missed most of an episode of the Daily Show (which plays on Foxtel's Comedy Channel) and I wanted to catch the interview section of that episode specifically. As happens sometimes, the interview was one that had gone long and the full piece was only available on thedailyshow.com. So at my computer, I click through to the 'Full Episodes' page on thedailyshow.com and I am greeted with a message telling me 'Sorry, this video is unavailable from your location'. Fortunately I know how to get around this region lockout, but why the hell should I have to pretend I'm a proxy server in order to watch a show that I already paid for? In any case, the ease with which this region lockout can be circumvented makes such measures just so much pissing in the wind. This kind of thing only annoys the customers that Murdoch's companies should be bending over backwards for, and amuses the pirates they profess to be fighting.
As I write this, the Australian dollar is trading at 1.0529 US dollars, the Australian dollar has been more or less at parity with the US dollar for some months now. Why is it then, that the cost of tracks on the Australian iTunes store are well out of step with exchange rates? I've heard it nonsensically argued that we wouldn't be able to handle a fluctuating price on the Australian iTunes store, better to make us pay AUD$1.69 when Americans are paying USD$1.00 for the same music because otherwise Australians will get confused and afraid, we will lose confidence in the market or something, I assume the argument goes. We're a simple bunch, you see. Better to rip us off than risk confusing us.
Cultural norms are changing, people are coming to expect on-demand content and if it is not 'readily available for download at reasonable prices and conditions' then people will find content readily available elsewhere at reasonable prices and conditions. No longer do people have no choice but to take the price-gouging crap they're served and call it ice cream, and you can't get a much better price than $0.00. But personally, I am happy to pay greater than $0.00 for a reasonable amount of convenience/quality/value. This is a primary reason why I buy stuff from iTunes when I know full well where I could get pretty much the same content for free. The small amount of time I save, the minimum guarantee of quality and the slight increase in value (e.g. I get a nice little cover image with my iTunes track, this is not always the case elsewhere) is worth a reasonable price.
It seems to me that the price of digital music (barring stuff like the Australian iTunes japery I just mentioned) is pretty fair, at least from the consumers point of view. Having been a small-time semi-professional musician at one point myself, I don't think I could really justify demanding that a track cost much less than AUD$1.00 on iTunes and the like. But as a consumer, nor would I generally tolerate it being more than AUD$1.69.
I will however, go on record as saying that the movie/TV industry will need to face the fact that their content is now well overpriced and its distribution now far too slow and conditional when compared to what the market is willing to accept. These industries know this, they don't have the will or inclination to modify their gravy train, and hence they have decided to litigate and lobby for government regulation instead.
When one looks at the US domestic box office gross earned over the years 1990 – 1999 (inclusive), i.e. largely before file sharing was an issue, and compares it to the US domestic box office gross earned over the years 2000 – 2009 (inclusive), the total gross from 2000 – 2009 is almost 1.6 times what was from 1990 – 1999. More movies were released during 2000 – 2009 (5410) than were released during 1990 – 1999 (4625)2. So while I don't doubt that online file sharing has had and will continue to have some effect on copyright reliant industries, I don't think things are as desperate as the MPAA would have us believe and there certainly seems to be more than enough room for some fat trimming and experimentation with new business models to commence.
This information revolution we now find ourselves in is as massive a change as was the industrial revolution. It's big. Really big. And continuing. Sometimes it's easy to forget that the World Wide Web has only been around for 20-odd years now but look how much it's changed things already. Revolutions aren't usually very fair to all the stakeholders involved, but they happen none the less and some can't be stopped. With this one, I think one will have to get on board or face the proverbial guillotine.
I have sometimes heard proponents of the copyright reliant industries argue in the vein that the current state of things should continue because these industries act as a sort of culture filter. After all, ninety percent of everything is crap and someone needs to direct the tide. Where would we be if big movie studios and record labels didn't have untold millions of dollars to produce and promote such cultural gems for the ages as 'Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol' or 'Sexy And I Know It', respectively?
A possible outcome of the current upheaval within the creative industry establishment is a taking back of culture by the people. The Internet has given us back the means of culture distribution. To me it feels closer to the way that culture was transmitted in days gone by, from person to person, bard to audience, scribe to reader, only now thanks to the Internet, the whole world is our shire. In the extreme manifestation of this trend, maybe the multi-million dollar summer blockbuster no longer even exists or has changed so massively that its ancestry wouldn't even be evident. And so too for popular 'music'. Perhaps our cultural artifacts will not seem as polished as they are now (for current values of the word 'polished'), but perhaps they'll more often be more meaningful, closer to embodying the true purpose of art and less a commodity. All this is not to say that I don't enjoy the odd mindless blockbuster3 or pop music earworm... but big, massive revolution, remember? I'm giving myself license to theorise outside the box here.
I wonder what a world might look like where 'Big Copyright' is but a memory, and while copyright still exists in some form, things have become far more decentralised than they are now and distribution far more direct. The default is that people make art for its own sake, as individuals and as part of relatively small associations. Because the primary motivator is that they just want to express something, their art will more often outlast the Christmas retail season and less often be this kind of pastiche, feedback-loop art, popular because its popular, kick-started by the marketing dollar. There's still nothing wrong with selling art, but profit is a secondary motivator and there are far less middle-men to inflate the price and get in the way of efficient global distribution.
I doubt anything like this will truly come to pass... unless the relevant industries maintain their steadfast refusal to adapt.
I'm thinking what if the T-1000 had elongated its self up out of the molten ore and quickly spread its body, paper thin, over as wide an area as possible, thus allowing the heated air above the liquified ore to float it to a position of safety? Essentially turning its self into a kind of hot air balloon? Eh? Eh? Yeah OK, my first attempt at fan fiction might need some work. ↩
Yes, I enjoyed the Michael Bay Transformer movies... DON'T YOU JUDGE ME! ↩