Friday, January 27, 2012

The Convergence

And so it begins...

In an Associated Press story on the net this morning, writer Jim Coyle notes:

"Over the next few months, YouTube, Netflix and Hulu will roll out their most ambitious original programming yet - a digital push into a traditional television business that has money, a bevy of stars and a bold attitude of reinvention. The long-predicted collision between Internet video and broadcast television is finally under way."

Well, sort of, anyway. Just as Hollywood mogul Adolph Zukor refused to panic during the 1950's audience switch from movies to television (he saw it as the same business and moved the studio into tv production), someone is going to realize that Internet TV is simply another piece of the same money making system. This isn't really a delivery systems battle, which is how it is being cast at the moment. It's the beginning of the long time coming convergence of television and the internet, computers and home electronics, performing arts and libraries, information and entertainment, government and you and me . 

Why do you think  Hollywood pressured its Washington DC funding recipients to create bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act? Those two bills may have been sidelined for now (expect to see them again), but S978, the Commercial Felony Streaming Act is still out there. 

CFSA would make streaming of unauthorized material (read: copyright violations) a felony instead of the current misdemeanor. Meaning all those kids on YouTube singing Motown and other classic songs? Illegal. Jail time. No more getting famous by postings yourself singing, Justin Beiber. Unless of course, you get copyright clearance and pay the royalty. I don't want to exaggerate here for simplicity's sake, you do get to have 9 uploads of streaming video that won't get you into trouble. It's the 10th upload that does it. By that time, you're a proven serial copyright abuser. A Felony.

There are also troublesome re-writes (they use the word "upates") to copyright laws underway. (The rebuttal period for some proposed changes just ended, hearings begin this Spring.)

It's about the money, and it's about the control.

You definitely should click on this one to enlarge it. Just click in the area outside the picture to get back here.
On the money front, once upon a time, Hollywood and the music industry really didn't give a hoot about their older product. Oh, sure, the Hollywood studios would license packages of movies for showing on tv. They chose the movies for each "package", and small tv stations had to accept all the bad titles to get the good ones. When the film distribution companies used this idea for movies in theaters, it was called "block booking" and outlawed as a monopolistic practice by the U.S. Justice Department. It's the technique cable companies use today in their approved monopolies. The film distribution companies (Movie Theatre Chains) were forced by the Dept. of Justice to sell off their Movie Studios which produced the product they distributed. All of this changed again during the Reagan years, thanks to a process which became known as "vertical integration", but that is another story. The point is, Hollywood didn't care about its older product very much.

I know this is true because I got involved in film collecting in the early 1960's, just as I was entering my teen years. (Collecting was the only way to even see most silent movies then.) The films themselves were on a flammable 'nitrate' stock which could also disintegrate, or just deteriorate and give off an odorless poisonous gas. Film Collectors, seeing the losses piling up, banded together to do something about it.  The studios didn't much listen. Finally, an act of Congress created the American Film Institute, whose original mission was preservation of American films, both Hollywood and non (newsreel libraries were being very heavily hit by losses too!, etc).

And still Hollywood wasn't much interested, even in preserving its own classics which they could re-release. My first time seeing Gone With the Wind was in a release which was reformatted for cinemascope. I did not like the movie, and failed to understand what all the fuss was about. (Until I saw it years later at the Elgin Theatre in NYC in a real IB Technicolor print, in its proper frame ratio and I realized what an immense accomplishment it really was. And it played better as a movie, too. Well, at least the first half. ) If it wasn't for the work of film restorers, and the miracles made possible by computers, Gone With the Wind might not exist today in its original form.

And then there was BetaMax. And lo, the Hollywood Business Community was shakeneth to its core. People videotaping movies over the air and watching them for free? Oh, no. No, no. Several of the studios, dollar signs forming on their eyes like characters in 1950's cartoons, brought forth a lawsuit.

While the lawsuit was progressing through the court system, something happened. People started buying video cassettes of movies on both Beta and VHS. Much of what was available were titles in the public domain. Cut to the chase - there was money to be had. Maybe not Big Big Money, but Good money.

Since that time, the studios have been positioning themselves for greater control over everything they own. And what they own now, after the deregulation of the Reagan and Bush years is - a lot. Want to see Casablanca again? Okay. You just have to pay.

Same thing goes for the printed word. Save paper, go digital. (Problem one, digital can be manipulated and changed). Made available for your tablet - for a small fee.

The music industry got in on the act, too. Big time. Depending on where you live, there are laws which make it illegal to play recorded music (any format) as background in a cafe or restaurant. Unless you pay royalties, of course. It was the recording industry that went ape shit bonkers over downloading music from the internet. Remember people going to jail for downloading music?

Of course, if the song, book, movie or tv show you want to watch, read, or listen to is available all is well. But, there are lots of titles that aren't available. It doesn't  matter that the item in question was created as something which would either be sold to, or exhibited to, the public.

Case in point. At the beginning of the AIDS crisis in New York City, an all night movie special was held as a fundraiser at the 8th Street Playhouse. Everything was donated. Every cent would go to the cause. There was one problem. The ad mentioned the movies to be shown, one of which was "This Is the Army", one of those big patriotic flag wavers from WWII which was based on Irving Berlin shows. The film is in the public domain. You can make copies of it, you can sell it, you can watch it anytime you damn well please. What you can't do is show it in public - Irving Berlin owns all of the music, and he (or his lawyers at the time) didn't want the film seen. Berlin didn't care if he got paid. He didn't want the film exhibited publicly. Period. Needless to say,  it was withdrawn from the benefit.

So, imagine how much of our culture, how much literature, movies, and music can and will go missing when all of the delivery systems have merged into one business. That's where this is all headed. When you're born, you'll get your internet user ID along with your social security number and birth certificate. Probably all on a chip. Maybe implanted. Your phone is your tv is your computer or internet access portal. You pay for everything, pretty much the way you do now, except everything is digital. Access goes to those who have money and can pay. Even then, if, say, Justin Beiber were to grow up, own all his own music and decide he didn't want any of it heard or seen in videos ever again, well, you'd be out of luck. Yes, I know that's a bad example. I used it on purpose. 20 years from now, you want to examine his effect in and on the music industry and the public consciousness. Too bad, not allowed.

How long that control might last is currently set at the life of the creator, plus 70 years. Or plus 120 years if it's a corporate authorship.

And it will once again be up to the underground collectors to preserve our cultural heritage.
And possibly knowledge. A few days from now (February) is Library lovers month.
It's not too far fetched to think of a world where libraries are held by rouge collectors.
Stand up for them now, while we still have them.


Austan said...

I still blame the conspiracy of baggy jeans.

sdt said...

Oh, dear, I'm afraid you've lost me on that one. Sorry if I'm being dense.