August 15, 2006
The current studio-vs.-consumer battle over copyright is just the latest in a series of similar skirmishes. Previous debates (and lawsuits) pitted music and/or movie studios against personal video recorders, MP3 players, recordable CDs, digital audio tapes, VCRs and audiocassettes. Conventional wisdom has it that the studios consistently take aim at new technologies, but that's not entirely true. In all of the cases I mentioned, the technologies had already existed in some form. The studios only swung into action when those things became convenient.

With analog technologies, convenience was limited. If I wanted to copy a videotape, I had to wrangle a second VCR and a bunch of cables. However, most people didn't have a second VCR in the same room; for that matter, many people didn't know how to connect two VCRs to copy tapes. The very nature of analog signals was also a barrier. Repeated duplication degraded signal quality, and degraded the original recording as well.

Now, of course, digital technologies eliminate almost all of those barriers, and duplication is mouse-click simple. More to the point, it's possible to make copies that don't degrade any more than you want. You may compromise a movie's quality to make it fit in a certain amount of space, but once you've done that you can make copies that never degrade any further unless you specifically choose to do so. And of course the original remains intact.

This is where the battle lines are now drawn, and as in any battle, who's right and who's wrong quickly gets lost in the murk. More to the point, who's right and who's wrong is often forgotten once studios figure out how to make a buck, work with the new technology, and leave us to enjoy our movies and music.

The studios are slowly and painfully becoming savvier about these things, trying out new distribution technologies like UMDs and broadband, and struggling with the question of whether to use digital rights management or not.

But what are we, as fans and consumers, doing? Well, we're copying a hell of a lot. Much of it is legal, or at least within the spirit of fair use—like copying the latest Venture Brothers episode to a PSP so we can watch it on the bus. However, much also transgresses the law, like copying shows and putting them on YouTube—the very thing that started this whole discussion. Arguments that these copies promote the creators' work or that the studios aren't releasing the properties on DVD are entirely beside the point—it's still against the law, no matter how you justify it—and at the same time are entirely the point.

The fact is that there's a significant body of work that the studios have kept out of the public domain by working to extend copyright law, but haven't exploited commercially in any significant way. This doesn't help anyone. Sylvie Bringas said it best last month, when we were speaking during the Fantasia film festival: "Animation scholarship would be dead if it weren't for the black market."

It seems odd to say it, but the movie studios need to take a few pointers from the porn industry. Many think of porn as being a marginal business, but in recent years it's generated, as near as anyone can guess, between $10 and $14 billion annually. (For a variety of reasons, it's difficult to get exact numbers.) This, even though—some might say because—porn has long been rampantly pirated.

So how does something that is frequently copied and, culturally speaking, frowned upon at best manage to make so much money? Two reasons: First is that convenience thing. Porn products are available in every medium imaginable. Magazines, videos, DVDs, websites, streaming video, podcasts, books, CD/DVD-ROMs, you name it—when a new medium comes to town, porn purveyors are on it. Second, they cater to their audiences. Any fetish, kink or quirk you can think of (and probably some you can't) is addressed in some way. If you're into it, the porn companies make sure it's available to you. When you respond to consumer demand and make your product easy to acquire, enough people will buy your product that you can ignore the piracy.

Lessons can also be learned from the North American anime industry, which learned to work with the existing fan community—a community largely built on piracy—in order to promote what they were selling. And like the porn industry, they're hard at work making anime available in every medium possible.

However, the North American anime industry has lessons for fans, too. As I've mentioned before, the anime fan community evolved a code of ethics on its own with respect to copying. One reason the domestic anime industry can take the risks it takes and work with the fan community is because it knows that the community itself is self-policing. If we want the movie studios to take bolder steps, then we have to prove that when the time comes, we're willing to work on the right side of the law as well. Neither the studios' nor the fans' hands are clean; like other, more serious forms of strife in the world, if we want things to work out for both of us, we're both going to have to stop finger-pointing and trust each other.
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