Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Cheap Media Revolution?

Piracy isn't the only thing that the MPAA and RIAA have to deal with. They would like people to think so, but in fact they have another problem coming, and as technology continues to get cheaper, it will only get worse.

In the past, the music and television industries have been mostly controlled by a few large companies. And as with most large companies, one gets the distinct impression that over the years they have become fat and slow. They are fighting new technology rather than embracing it because they do not know how to deal with it, but in addition, the distinct possibility exists that it will make them largely obsolete.

Big productions require big capital. In the past, all TV shows, movies, and even music recordings required very expensive equipment to record, and large, expensive distribution networks. So in the past, all TV shows, movies and recorded music could only be made and distributed by big companies. Thus artists and directors were always under the thumb of these companies; but this is changing.

The fact is, any person who is driven enough can already record their own songs, shoot their own movies, and distribute them too. It can certainly be expensive for one person, or a small group, but it is within reach, and wasn't before. As Glenn Reynolds explains in an article:
My wife is a filmmaker. Her latest film, which cost about $25,000 to produce, would have cost close to $1 million two decades ago. She shot it with inexpensive digital cameras, edited it with Apple's Final Cut Pro, and released it on the Web, where it has sold quite well. Her movie has been screened in theaters, and excerpts have run on network television. And it was made with gear most anyone can afford.
And check out "Star Wreck: In The Pirkinning", a comedy based on Star Trek and Babylon 5. It's a full-length amateur movie with fantastic visual effects, and it's being offered online for free (Note: it is a Finnish-language film with English subtitles.)

The MPAA and RIAA are middlemen. They bridge the gap between artists' ideas and the realizations thereof; and between artists' creations and consumers. But as these changes continue, the middlemen will be less and less necessary. That's not to say they will disappear entirely, but there is an assload of fat to be trimmed.

Boo hoo, the pirates are killing us, say the media empires. But who are the pirates? One might as well ask, who aren't the pirates? Who has internet and hasn't downloaded any songs illegally? The downloading of TV and movies is increasing, too, and might be as common as music downloading if it weren't for the substandard broadband found in much of the U.S.

The RIAA and its members probably have the most to lose in the near term. While piracy eats into their profits on one end, artists will bite the other. I've often seen claims by certain artists that feel they've been ripped off by the music industry, or are unhappy with the way they are treated. Here's a rant by an independent filmmaker, but usually these rumblings come from music artists; here are some articles Googling gave me: [1] [2].

Big media may suffer greatly in the coming years, although they may be able to reduce their suffering with more protectionist legislation. But the internet is a powerful democratic force, and the people have spoken: they don't like the status quo.

It's not simply that consumers want something for nothing. Yes, we may download songs without paying for them from time to time--sometimes legally, sometimes not; quite a few artists are offering their music for free downloads. But have you noticed how people are buying bottled water these days? Why buy bottled water, when you can get a whole tapful for free? Simple: "free" can be improved upon. Bottled water is portable, more pure (we hope), and tastes better (depending). The music industry could easily improve upon the free music we get from P2P services. Consider the disadvantages of pirate networks:
  • Quality is never guaranteed and may be difficult to ascertain; some files are low-quality, yet encoded at high bitrates.
  • Some popular P2P software is bundled with adware or spyware, and a lot of screen space is used for advertisements.
  • Many songs don't exist on the network, or are transient.
  • File naming conventions and ID3 tags are inconsistent.
  • Search criteria is limited.
  • No social networking features.
  • Downloading is slow sometimes.
  • The RIAA has been known to poison the networks with fake files, and sue file sharers.
Besides, as I mentioned before, it seems as though the RIAA has missed something very important about music: we have to hear music before we decide to buy it. It's not like bottled water, where we can know what we're getting before opening the bottle. Some people will buy albums on faith, but I, for one, will not. Thus, many people download music just to find out what they like, which explains why pirates buy more music.

The RIAA could offer assured quality (even master quality), could provide a product with no ads, adware, or spyware, could provide complete content libraries, fast download speeds, free previews, and it could use algorithms to suggest to users what they might like. Unfortunately, their obsession with piracy has caused them to offer a services that are worse than free. In particular, they insist on using DRM and proprietary formats, which generally prevent consumers from transferring the files between devices they own. I have two computers, an MP3 flash drive and an MP3 CD player (MP3 CDs can hold 5 to 12 times as much music as ordinary CDs). As I said in a previous entry, I want to be able to transfer my music among all these devices with no hassles, and I refuse to pay for any service that prevents me from doing so.*

There is another factors that the RIAA and MPAA could rely on: people's sense of morality and fairness.

You know, I could easily shoplift. It would be so easy to slip a little thing here and there into my pocket, wouldn't it? But I don't. It's not just fear of getting caught; it's also the fact that it's stealing: I'd be taking something from someone else.

Now, Big Media does propagandize the "stealing" idea. But there's a problem: downloading is not stealing. Well, some people think it is, but many do not. There are similarities, certainly; both stealing and downloading can result in someone else (or a group of people) ending up with less money or possessions.

But there is a fundamental difference between stealing and downloading, because stealing is not defined in terms of what the thief gains, but what the victim loses. If a priceless painting is stolen and the thief is unable to sell it, is the crime any less heinous? If he breaks into someone's home and steals some cheap jewellry with immense sentimental value to the owner, should the thief be liable only for its monetary value? On the other hand, what if a thief steals something that the owner was about to throw away? Evil as his intentions may have been, wouldn't the owner be less affected by this crime?

So we cannot say that the downloader "stole" music, any more than you are "stealing" this article by downloading it from my blog. You can download as much as you like and the record companies (and my blog) lose nothing. So the issue is not stealing, but rather, it is the possibility that you have deprived the music vendor of money that you would have paid if you hadn't pirated.

Now legally, copyright infringement is considered worse than stealing, but morally, it is a different matter altogether. First of all, I hope it is clear that if you pirate something that you would not have been willing to pay for, or could not pay for, it is not morally wrong. Poor people, for instance, who are too concerned with their next meal to buy entertainment, deserve little blame for piracy. In days past they might have mooched CDs from friends, and watched movies at their houses; if, today, it is replaced by some downloading, what's the harm?

For those of us above the poverty line, the issue gets murkier. You have to figure out, for yourself, what you would pay for if piracy was not an option.

There are other issues to consider, as well. Capitalist marketplaces are normally democratic. People vote with their feet--they can choose from whom to buy, and if they don't like the way one company does things, they can boycott the company and buy from another. But in the entertainment business, a given work is normally offered by one company only. That is the basis of copyright: a temporary monopoly to encourage the creation of works. Thus, without piracy or mooching off friends, if a consumer wants to avoid buying from a certain company or group of companies, the consumer cannot view the work at all.

In fact, it isn't only consumers who are limited by the system, but artists and directors too. It's standard practice that record companies, not artists, own the rights to their music, and studios own the rights to TV shows and movies, not the directors or writers, and certainly not actors. Not only do studios own the actual shows, but the "franchises" too. MGM, for instance, owns the rights to Stargate SG-1, which means that if the producers, writers or directors wanted to go independent, they would be legally prohibited from doing so.

In this light, piracy can be seen as a tool for empowerment. By choosing to spend money on companies that are not evil (or by donating money directly to artists), consumers can vote with their feet without actually giving up anything.

I would caution all you pirates out there, however, that whatever you do, you should try to ensure that you are doing it for the right reasons. If you pirate, make sure it is not so that you can spend less money. I would encourage you to figure out how much you would spend if downloading was not an option, and make sure you spend that same amount anyway. Donate money outright, if you have to, but donate to something worthwhile in the entertainment industry. Music pirates tend to spend more on music. If you're a pirate, you should bolster that statistic.

As for me, I'm a hypocrite. I have quite a bit of music I haven't paid for, but I haven't figured out how much I would have spent otherwise, and I haven't figured out how I should spend it. If it makes the RIAA feel any better, I've heard so little new music on the radio lately that I haven't added a single new song to my collection in two months. As for TV shows... well, that's another story.

* I would make an exception for "all-you-can-eat" subscription services, which allow you to listen to an unlimited quantity of music, but only as long as you pay the subscription fee. Without DRM or other technological restrictions, people could pay for one month of service, download 10,000 songs, and keep them all indefinitely.

See also: The long tail. Did you hear the latest? MPAA sues grandfather because grandson downloaded 4 movies, 3 of which were already owned by the family.

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