Empires and Pirates
This article on the MPAA’s plea to President-Elect Obama is the last straw. The amazon will now rant. Not everybody is going to like it, and that’s just fine. But I’m writing anyway.
I am sick to death of hearing whines and bitches from the MPAA, from the music industry, and essentially everyone who is bitching about internet piracy in general. I give some allowance to individual authors/performers, and I don’t yell as loudly at them, but I am in fact going to rant at the whole of the argument who feels the internet is a dangerous and terrible thing that destroys the freedom of artist and allows villains to steal from good little companies. While that may be at times true, it is the narrowest slice of the picture, and if companies and artists don’t stop focusing on it, they can expect to fail, or fail to thrive. And the answer as to why is that the United States of America is a free-market economy.
We are also a nation of pirates. We have always been a nation of pirates.
There’s a book that says this much better, but essentially it goes like this: a great deal of the Atlantic coast was settled originally by the English-sponsored pirates who had originally been hired to supplant the Spanish in their dominance of the Caribbean. It’s more than just that, of course, but this is a part of it, and the important fact is that the illustrious Founding Fathers of the USA were very connected to this band of brigands. From even before day one, the people who created the United States of America had a strong belief in the freedom in the individual, in being able to do what they wanted, in being able to set their own rules and to bend the world to the way they wish it to be. It sounds great as a history, but it affects us now, and it’s something I wish the entertainment industry would think about with a little more perspective than they’re willing to right now. Because what they won’t acknowledge is that they have become the British Empire to the little Atlantic pirates, and just as then, the empire is going to lose.
Dan and I speak with fond remembrance of the Napster and Audiogalaxy days. We always knew they would not last, and I knew they shouldn’t. And yet, as a period of internet freedom, it was AMAZING. Not the "I’m not paying for this" factor–oh, I’d have paid quite highly for what I was finding. It was what I was finding. My favorite thing was the nights you’d sit there and type in search words like "pants" just to see what you could discover. For myself, it was a goldmine of artists and genres I could not have found anywhere else, or perhaps more importantly, didn’t know how to find in any other way. iTunes has perfected this for me, and is a much better source for my weird musical needs, and what it doesn’t do, last.fm does. But those Audiogalaxy moments were the first tastes of that, and it was as if someone had opened the whole world.
This is what the internet has done, and it’s doing it to everything. It’s doing it for story, too, though in a slower and more cumbersome way; as soon as they make an interface that approximates a book enough and is affordable and flexible enough, books will move there, too, and then we will hear screaming and ranting from publishing houses and authors as well as everyone else. But it will happen, and the reason it has happened and will continue to happen is this: FREEDOM. What Audiogalaxy and Napster did for music was to open it up from the chains that the industry that controlled it had placed on it. Right before those services came up, I purchased hardly any music, and what I did I did sparingly. My musical library has grown 4000% percent since pre-internet days, and a good 75% of that is purchased music. That remaining 25% is music that led me to some of the purchased music, or began as borrowed and even pirated music and became purchased music of back-cataloge or next releases. It has changed my movie and television consumption, too. I view things on netflix and hulu and youtube. I know about shows and genres I would never have found at the video store, and never would have sought out. Before the internet, I was paying $3.50 for new releases and barely any TV was on DVD; as a consequence, we rarely rented anything, and we did so angrily, usually bemoaning the selection in our small town. Now we pay $20/month for Netflix and increased our broadband so we could stream over the Netflix box. If there were a service where I could purchase/lease individual shows on an open format so I could watch them on my TV, I would be purchasing more, most notably British shows. Movies I’m more content to wait until they appear on Netflix, but if they were more open, I’d be viewing more of them as well.
But there are shows which don’t do this. Do you want to catch up on Battlestar Galactica right now? Tough. You can find some on their website, but good luck figuring out what the right order is, and no, you can’t take them to your TV. Not unless you find a torrent and download them and burn them. Do you watch Doctor Who in any country but Great Britian? You have to wait until it’s released on US TV, and you must own cable or wait even LONGER for DVD, and then pay over $50 for a season–or, you find a torrent. How many people would pay a nominal fee to have a copy of these shows that would be viewed a few times so they could watch right away? MANY.
If the MPAA and the music industry and every other empire organization spent as much time trying to give the public what they actually wanted instead of trying to stop piracy, we would have fantastic entertainment that we could actually afford, and they would be a lot richer. The problem is that they don’t want to give us control. They want their business model, and they are apparently willing to bankrupt themselves trying to keep it. They’re lobbying Congress and now the incoming President to try and make sure they have their way. They will lose. They will lose, they will lose, they will lose. And god help them if they ever win, because it will just make people more passionate in their efforts to have the entertainment they actually want.
The MPAA and other entities–and some artists and performers and even some authors–say that the pirates are the problem, and they won’t put out any format that might be pirated. Their view is that if piracy is possible, it will happen, and no one will pay. The truth is that piracy is going to happen REGARDLESS OF ANYTHING THEY EVER DO. And the truth they are afraid to trust is that most people will pay for a legal service if it is of a reasonable value and if it is a service that they want.
If I were given the ability to digitize my entire video library and put it on a box that would connect to my TV and allow me to watch it, I would do it in a heartbeat. But it has to be something that I know how to do, has to look good and be able to be navigated by a seven year-old, and it has to be something that rabid MPAA officials can’t come in and arrest me for. Would I go out and download torrents instead of buying stuff? Not if I could get it legitimately with less risk and more ease. If I could hook up to the internet with that box of all my hard copy stuff transferred and then just grab the next disposable BG episode? Hell yes!!! Actually, for BG, I’d like to keep it. For House, I’d do throwaways. I’d watch so much more TV. I’d watch TONS of British shows, and if I could get other countries, I’d do that, too.
But they have to be mine. You say, "But you can do that on iTunes!" No. I can only watch those on my computer. Otherwise I have to buy a specific box, and there are all the rights issues. If you give it to me, you give it to me. And yes, Virgina, YOU WANT ME TO BE ABLE TO GIVE IT AWAY. You want me to send four or five episodes of BG to my sister or my bff. "But you’ll send her everything!!!!!!!" Yes, sometimes. But mostly? No. And even when I do, she will get impatient. I’ll take too long, and eventually, she’ll think, for $3 I could just go have it right now. And she will.
We loan things. Entertainment industry, you have to accept that, and you should welcome it. We share things. IT’S CALLED FREE MARKETING. The idea that we all have as much money as you wish we do is not true. We don’t buy shows and don’t go to movies because we are afraid. We only have so much money. We aren’t dropping money only to have you trick us, and you trick us all the time. We don’t trust your ads, because you lie. We trust our brothers and friends and the people in our knitting circle. But we’re lazy, too. We don’t necessarily go out and buy everything people recommend to us. And so this is why they give it to us. "Here. Try this song." "Here. Read this book." It doesn’t always work, either. But most of the books and and television shows and music I love most passionately came because I found them accidentally, or because I gave them a trial. I listen to things on last.fm before I purchase them a lot of times. People send me recs, and yes, sometimes whole songs. People give me books, or lend them to me. I have been lent ebooks to try, and this has led me to buy some. I have rented or borrowed movies or gotten them from the library and then gone on to purchase them. I try things. I don’t just go buy them, because when I do, I get burned. And the internet has made that so, so much easier to do–but the kick is, it’s on my terms, not the industry’s. I think that’s what they don’t like. And I think they had better damn well get over it.
I find it striking that the internet appeared just as American companies were becoming so huge they were almost unstoppable, and I love how the internet has completely turned the power they had amassed on its head. Wal-Mart takes a lot of hits for being the Big Bad, and they are, but the thing no one wants to admit is that they gave us a service we desperately needed: variety and volume at a price we could afford. The charming mom-and-pops we had before them were indeed charming, and some were run by noble people, but many were not. We flock to chains because because we believe, all the way down, that business is a vicious thing, and here more than anywhere Darwinian philosophies apply. If X has the exact same product as Y, and X delivers it cheaper and under conditions we will tolerate, we’ll go there. The "conditions we will tolerate" is the tricky part, and it’s where we find that we aren’t quite the rosy cherubs we’d like to believe that we are. We’re as ruthless as the chains: we care about the bottom line more than anything else, and it takes quite a moral atrocity to turn away from it. We want value. We want efficiency. And business figured out that they could exploit that.
The free-market system is getting a lot of hits right now, what with the AIG and Lehman Brothers and then the bank and now the auto-bailout. I think this is a good discussion, and mostly I have no idea what is right and what is wrong in regards to the answers, and I’m glad I don’t have to know. But despite this, the USA is going to remain a free-market system. We were free-market since day one, and even, in fact, before. We are the place you can start anything from nothing. We’re the place where you can go out into your garage and make the weird thing that nobody knew they wanted, and we’re the place that allows you to take that weird thing you made in your garage and sell it to almost anybody. We’re the place where you can make pornography to suit almost any fetish. We’re the place where you can invent your own religion, even if it’s just as a joke. We’re the place where anything, almost, can happen.
And we’re the place that will love you and support you, especially your freedom, but that is also your freedom to fail. We’ll support your ability to amass power, so long as you’re providing a great service. But the minute you stop, you will be turned on. I think this is why we love the idea of small business but as a society don’t really want to support them. That’s the real freedom. You might win everything. You might lose everything. As a culture, we will cheer you on in theory, and when we like your product, we will support you enthusiastically. But we will love your freedom more, and we will let you fail when you do. When you stop serving the free market, you will fall, and we will empathize, but we will turn away and go on to the next.
Is that good? Is that bad? That’s something worth discussing, and personally, I’m not sure where I stand. But what I am tired of is hearing big companies moan because the game they signed on for is screwing them. Somehow they think they were immune? Somehow they think they aren’t subject to the same forces? Somehow they think they’re worth saving? Why is the freedom and why are the rights of an abstract entity more important than mine? Why do I have to give you my money with all these conditions? You don’t trust me? Then why the hell are you even selling to me? The entertainment industry MAKES people pirates by their restrictions–pirates who would never have taken that route if they’d had alternatives. I buy music because it’s easier and safer. I could still be pirating. I don’t, not because I am so noble and wonderful, but because they made it a better system than pirating.
We are the nation of pirates. We were founded by pirates. We believe in a world where we can make our own way, yes, sometimes by building on the back of others. The British Empire set us up with a beautiful foundation, and in thanks, we screwed, because they were shoving their boots in our collective ass. Good? Bad? Depends on your perspective. But it’s the basis from which our culture began, and it’s the roots to which we always return. We only like empires so long as they serve us, and we will not worship at the altar of empire, not for long, and never simply because they are empire. We value freedom over safety, despite the zealotry of the last decade over 9/11.
In short, MPAA and entertainment industry in general, we don’t want to screw you because we hate America. We want to screw you because you’re screwing us out of our America. Quit bitching and get your eyepatch on, and, actually, bend over. You’re long, long overdue.