Saturday, January 17, 2004


There’s something peculiar about the digital piracy fears of the entertainment industry.

The top fear is that music piracy through peer-to-peer networks is destroying the business of music, since one of the main ways money has been generated over the decades is through the reissuing of music in new formats: from vinyl to cassette to CD, with even evolutionary dead-ends such as eight-tracks doing their bit to force owners to buy again.

But the industry has no map to continued financial success; it’s not sure how to control peer-to-peer music swapping, which cuts recording studios out of the money loop. It’s why the Recording Industry Association of America has been making people reevaluate the standard of Hitler’s SS in the pantheon of winning hearts and minds.

The next fear is of electronic movie piracy, resulting in an industry effort that has already created ads shown before movies (after the trivia questions, before the Coke commercials and previews). Preemptive ads, considering that peer-to-peer swapping of full-length films can be done only on incredibly fast computer systems attached to gigantic hard disks. While neither is uncommon, hitting a movie audience with a “Don’t pirate movies” message, even in Boston and Cambridge, makes about as much sense as advising the same audience it’s wrong to clone people.

“The movie studios continue to conjecture that it’s right around the corner, but experts say it’s years, if not a decade, away,” said Jason Schultz, a staff attorney at the Electronic Freedom Foundation. “It’s currently not easy to really get movies of any quality through file sharing.”

In fact, even the DVDs selling in T stations and on street corners almost as soon as movies launch are less likely to be sophisticated technological dupes and more likely to be the work of some guy sneaking a video camera in to a matinee -- complete with the sound of popcorn being munched and a picture that gets blocked by people getting up to use the restroom.

And it’s these that have led to the simultaneous global launches of such films as “The Matrix Reloaded,” with the intention of denying bootlegs the opportunity to hit a market ahead of the big-screen film.

The studios, meanwhile, make fantastic amounts of money on DVD sales, as they once did on sales of VHS tapes. They’re following the old music model and trying to figure out what to do when technology catches up with them. Rather, they’re trying to figure out how to keep technology from catching up with them.

The final fear, and the element that provides the mystery, is in the television industry, which is racing to sell complete-run DVDs of everything from “Rocky and Bullwinkle” to “Friends.” But music has always sold individual records and coexisted with radio; movies have long experience now with selling old product for the small screen (including showing movies on free television and cable channels) while releasing new stuff to the big screen.

But television? Television’s primary model is of shows that investors hope will run for at least five years, when they can become syndicated. It means people keep tuning in to watch old shows with new advertisements; that television stations pay for old shows that pay for newer ones; that actors keep getting paid even for work they finished years or decades earlier.

With a complete set of “Friends” DVDs on the market soon, for example, replete with extras such as commentary tracks and deleted scenes, fans will have less need to watch the show as they rerun on television. That means less drawing power for the station showing them, which means less money for the companies that own the rights to the shows, which means less money for the people who will make new shows.

The entire structure of television is about to change, and the industry isn’t making a sound about it.

The other missing element: If Hollywood is so afraid of full-length movies being pirated and swapped, and if DVDs of movies and television shows are selling equally well, why are there no stories about the scourge of TV-show swapping? At 22 minutes in length, they would be far easier to swap than movies, which are traditionally an hour and a half or longer, meaning this is a problem that would arise first, or even be a problem now.

But there is silence, instead, and no movement, not even a television ad asking us not to swap “Everyone Loves Raymond,” love him though everyone does. Instead, there’s just an imaginary keening of the emergency broadcast system, and an imaginary sign -- “We are experiencing technical difficulties” -- behind which, it’s reasonable to guess, all is chaos.

No comments: