Ars Est Pecunia – Copyright in the Internet Age – Jan 2, 2012
This year we are fortunate enough to have Les Blank participate in the festival. While telling my children a bit about the trailblazing documentarian, I mentioned “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” – one of his most famous productions – in which Werner Herzog, having lost a bet with a fellow filmmaker, spends 20 minutes cooking and eating his shoe.
The kids, like children everywhere, thought their mother was full of crap. So to prove it to them I did a quick Google search, found what looked like several clips of the documentary, and played one of them. To my delight, I realized that we were watching not just a clip, but the full 20 minute documentary! I had just finished mentally congratulating the internet for helping to introduce a great filmmaker to the next generation when I noticed a comment posted (three years ago) to the page from Les Blank himself…asking that the film be removed from the page, as he supports himself by distributing his work and illegally putting his film online makes it impossible for him to do that.
And there, in a nutshell, is the promise and the peril of the internet for the independent filmmaker. The same thing that allows anyone, anywhere to have instant access to your work also makes it that much harder to actually pay your bills.
Copyright protection is important to artists. It allows them to produce work with the confidence that they will have the opportunity to make a living from their efforts. Without that assurance, they have no incentive to devote their lives to artistic pursuits and would instead have to take up more profitable professions, removing innumerable threads from the tapestry of human understanding.
But putting events in their proper perspective is important as well. The internet is only the latest in a long line of technologies that was supposed to have killed the (film / recording / music publishing) industry, joining the VCR, cassette tapes, and radio as the enemies of artists in their day.
In the 1930s, songwriters (under the aegis of ASCAP) fretted that radio stations were providing “free music” and pressed for larger and larger royalty fees from radio stations. The result was that the main radio networks formed a rival songwriters’ organization (BMI), and not only did the established songwriters of ASCAP see their royalty fees cut, but lost ground to the newer sound of the BMI songwriters, out of whose ranks came the pioneers of rock and roll.
The music recording industry has since gone on to survive the rise of the cassette tape and advent of the recordable CD. The same has been true of the visual arts. The facts have not been kind to Jack Valenti’s famous assertion that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone”, as home video distribution became not a threat to, but a vital part of studios’ marketing strategy. Netflix now provides an online alternative to piracy, accounting for 30% of all evening internet traffic (on the other hand, BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer filesharing network, generates 21% of traffic) and is set to pay almost $2 billion in licensing fees to studios next year.
To be sure, there have been losers along the way. Songwriters may have come through the radio age battered but still afloat, but vaudeville theater did not fare so well. Vinyl manufacturers have had to find new outlets for their product (but for some reason I’m not too worried about them), and CD production will likely go the same way, as digital sales are forecast to surpass CD sales sometime in 2012 (ironically, that’s also when a majority of theater screens are predicted to have been converted to digital projection). And, following a year of decreased audiences and decreased profits, it is possible that the theater as a means for distributing film will soon be feeling the pinch.
Granted, tools are still needed to address copyright infringement in the digital age. The internet is definitely better, faster, and more efficient than anything seen before when it comes to distributing unauthorized copies of media. But if the past is a guide, we stand at the edge of another shift in how the media we love is delivered to us,
not the death of the art that we love.