Monday, March 4, 2013

It's about the content


In this age of digital media  the experts will tell you it's all about the content.  After almost two decades the novelty of the Internet has worn off and what was revolutionary is now the mundane.  Truth be told,  nobody promotes themselves as being online anymore, it's just expected that you are.   

And it seems everybody is.  From your grandmother to multinational corporations the Internet is awash in content.  It happened fast, so fast that traditional media can't keep up with the pace.  Content is no longer limited to a newspaper on your doorstep, a movie in a theater or a program on television.  A fact that the NBC Universals and Disney's of the world can't stand. 

In the 80's the advent of the VCR sent the Motion picture industry into a panic with then MPAA president Jack Valenti proclaiming, "Their (VCR manufacturers) only single mission, their primary mission is to copy coyrighted material that belongs to other people."

 The late 90's saw the music industry decrying the evils of digital music players.  Most notably the case of the RIAA versus DIamond Multimedia.  The RIAA asserted that the simple act of copying music to an MP3 player like the Diamond Rio even when restricted to personal use was a violation of copyright.  Fortunately the courts found it wasn't but the decision wasn't based on a rapidly outmoded copyright law but rather what comprised a recording device.

Succeeding years found both organizations  repeatedly claiming that new consumer friendly technologies threatened the fortunes of the entire entertainment industry. 

Of course history shows that it hasn't but not before decades of legislation had weakened consumer rights and made the whole concept of copyright law deliberately ambiguous. 

The result is an entertainment industry who views the public first as thieves and second as customers.  The concept of "Fair Use" frequently finds itself at odds with the entertainment industry who views any use not explicitly controlled by them as an infringement of copyright. 

For the uninitiated the doctrine of Fair Use is not so much a right (at least in the U.S.) as it is a defense when accused of copyright violation.  It's basically a four step criteria to measure whether use of copyrighted work is eligible for exemption from copyright law.  Generally the rule is that Fair Use applies to non-commercial or educational uses or commercial uses that can be shown to not diminish the original work.  There's more than enough room for interpretation, however, and that's frequently decided in favor of the copyright holder.

Which translates to a virtual flip of the coin any time your use of alleged copyrighted material strays into new territory. 

For example, upload a family holiday video to YouTube and you could find yourself on the receiving end of a copyright complaint if ol' Blue Eyes(Frank Sinatra) happens to be belting out  Silent Night in the background.  Even if you make the video private and accessible only to your family and not the general public you can still be considered in violation of copyright.

What's the definition of original content anyway?

 You may do a weekly video podcast but if anything in your video displays an element someone claims as copyrighted material you've suddenly lost your right to monetization under YouTube's rules at the least.   At the worst you can find your video removed and receive a "copyright strike." Too many of those and YouTube will close your account.

More than just an annoyance the entertainment industry has engaged in legal intimidation in an effort to protect an outdated content model.  Is there really a threat to a copyright holder's interest if someone uses a clip from their content in an entirely unrelated work?

What if you just want to make fun of copyrighted but publicly available content?  If so is it considered a parody or a satire?  Hint: One is covered by "Fair Use" the other isn't.   Most people don't even know there's  a difference but under copyright law there is. 

Even the alleged "New Media" succumbs to the pressure of the old guard.  When the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)was signed into law in 1998 savvy ISP's lobbied for some degree of immunity by way of the "safe harbor."

They saw a future rife with litigation for simply operating a medium and wanted no part of it.  Safe Harbor holds ISP's and later content hosting services like YouTube  harmless in any copyright infringement claim.  So long as they don't actively participate in the infringement they get a pass.  Unfortunately content creators who run afoul of the DMCA have no such protections and have to rely on Fair Use defenses.

Now a bewildered public is forced to learn about words like "transformative"," derivative" and "Fair Use." 

And to think that all you wanted to do was to share a holiday memory with grandma on YouTube.

These are questions we shouldn't have to answer in a creative society.  The history of mankind is built upon the creative output of those that came before.  Without the wheel, for instance, there would be no automobiles  and transportation on the whole would be a very different if not inefficient proposition.

So should someone have patented the concept of a cylindrical object for the purpose of rotating around an axis ?   Perhaps but it should never have been expected to exist in perpetuity.  If such a patent existed it's entirely possible, for example, that we'd be controlling the direction of our cars with levers instead of that familiar direction control device we know as a steering wheel

The holder of the patent (or copyright) could prevent any use not explicitly under their control which would include anything that resembled or made reference to the wheel product.

That sounds ridiculous but is exactly what is happening with copyright law now.  No reasonable person would deny anyone the right to profit from their efforts .  The problem arises when protection of those rights subverts the very innovation that copyright sought to protect. 

Even if you never run afoul of someone else's copyright you still suffer the consequences. 
Why, for example, in an age of almost instantaneous access to information do we still have artificial limits placed on how we consume media?  The entertainment industry would argue that there's a minimum period of time necessary to protect their revenue potential.

That argument ignores the revenue potential afforded by alternate modes of content delivery.  A friend of mine recently posed a question to me.  He said, " Why do I have to wait months for a new movie to be available somewhere other than a movie theater?"

You know, I have to agree.  He brought up the fact that many people have home theater systems that could offer an excellent viewing experience.  To me, I'd rather see a new movie in the theater and I'm sure I'm not alone.  Nonetheless, I shouldn't be denied the option.

Seeing a movie in a theater is a "premium" experience and I'm willing to pay more for it.  However,  I'm not willing to support a business model rooted in the middle of the last century to get it.  There was a time when the only way to see a  first run movie was at a theater.  That's hasn't been the case for a decade now.  It's not about the technology it's about revenue.

There are very few cases where a 50 year old business model is relevant to contemporary markets but the industry doesn't it see it that way.

In some cases new entertainment content will go straight to online sources like YouTube, direct to DVD or even services like NetFlix.  So with alternate delivery mechanisms available do we really need so many theaters?

Should we be limiting our entertainment options based on nothing more than propping up an industry that refuses to respond to a new market dynamic?

I'd rather have a few really great theaters offering a superior experience than a lesser one from a business model that's groaning under its own weight. 

Remember we're still  talking about restricting content here.  In some cases, your content if someone deems it a threat to their copyright.  We're also talking about restricting your choices.  The least of which is your opportunity to use content  any way you wish

I've never been a fan of change for its own sake but when it comes to copyrights I don't have to betray that rule because change desperately needs to happen.