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Stop the Copying, Start a Media Revolution

by Andy Oram

The movie and music studios are tightening their grip on the Internet. Their tools are lawsuits, laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the even more constricting Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA) that is now in the House, and a general atmosphere of intimidation. (See the recently unveiled Chilling Effects Clearinghouse.)

Why is there so much trading of copyrighted material online? Because the general public has few alternatives to the popular media controlled by large copyright holders. If the Internet developed its own media, there might be less to fight over--although as I will show, the battle will intensify before it subsides.

We live in a cultural twilight, a landscape beaten down in thunderous steps by the old creatures of print publishers and entertainment studios, while new forces are just cracking their way out of the egg. I believe that many of the copyright controversies that beset the Internet and modern media will finally resolve themselves when creative artists exploit the latter to provide truly appealing alternatives.

It's natural that people currently try to turn the Internet into a jukebox or radio station, because those delivery mechanisms (and the standard musical fare they deliver) are familiar ones. Little has been done on the Internet to pull people away from traditional music, images, and films. And at the same time, because we love our Stevie Wonder and Harrison Ford so much, the public gives their money to the traditional studios who use it to lobby for new laws and litigate against new media.

This is a dysfunctional symbiosis; both sides need to disentangle themselves. The Internet needs to develop media that doesn't depend on the money and distribution powers of the traditional publishers and studios. It needs to stand on its own. When that occurs, the old companies will be reduced to a social role that is healthier and less dominating, and will find a niche where they can still be enjoyed.

The Folly of Imitating Old Media

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Both studios and communications researchers are investing a lot of energy in finding ways to deliver films and music over the Internet. What's the point? Traditional companies have developed amazingly efficient and sophisticated distribution channels already. Consider these facts:

  • In almost any city in the world, you can pay a few dollars to see hours of film entertainment on a 40-foot-high screen. No Web cam can match the intensity of that experience.

  • A wide range of media is available for free in every town in the United States, so long as there's a public library.

  • A blank CD costs only a couple dollars, but recorded CDs can be played hundreds of times and still yield the same sound quality decades later.

  • Afghanistan, where music and film were banned for five years, was awash in videos and records within days after the defeat of the Taliban.

  • Thousands of small towns boast a weekly newspaper that combines all kinds of information ranging from classified ads and sports statistics to detailed political discussions.

Mandatory licensing has been suggested as a way to open up traditional content to new delivery mechanisms. The problem with this solution is that the licenses tend to make content too expensive for experimental services, which start out with minimal funding and few customers. The DMCA, for instance, enforces prohibitive fees and logistical requirements on Web casting. A recent ruling by the government's Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel, which imposes fees on the broadcast of copyrighted material way out of line with the budgets of most Internet sites, makes it impossible for anyone to broadcast music on the Web unless they're commercial stations with large revenue streams--and perhaps not even then.

The people who developed old media were incredibly inventive in terms of content, funding mechanisms, and delivery. Some of their descendants are still inventive. But the options open to them are extremely restricted, compared to what the Internet offers.

Now is the time to break free from 20th century media. How many significant and lasting pop songs have been released by major studios in the past 25 years? The number of worthwhile movies is probably even fewer. Broadcast and subscription media alike are coalescing around a grand marketplace that offers anything that young, affluent, white Americans enjoy. Coming under the control of fewer and fewer media moguls (no insult to any religious group is intended by that phrase), these industries are close to rigor mortis.

It is natural for the large studios to engender their own fatal disease. Most industries create products like fuel or steel that people really need, or think they need. Monopolies in these industries can perpetuate themselves until taken down by technological change or government intervention. But in an industry that determines simply how people waste their free time, and which therefore exists only by dint of constant novelty, the monopoly stifles itself.

The Internet still holds promise as the medium that breaks all molds. A lot of analysts predict that the old media will capture and subdue the Internet, but moves in that direction have not been particularly successful. The AOL Time Warner merger is stagnating, for instance, and music subscription services bore their potential users. The only successes for old media moguls consist in holding back progress through laws and lawsuits.

What about new media? Current experiments with Internet artwork are occasionally fascinating, disturbing, and entertaining, but the eventual power that lies in this direction cannot be determined at such an infant stage. All we can be sure of is that creative people will flock to the media and that many experiences will emerge to rival what we get from art of the past and the present. But to show how transformed and transformative these experiences will be, I will suggest a few traits that art could have online.

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