You know that idealism has taken an odd turn when it’s associated more with the function and marketing of machines than with the creative work of human beings. That is, or should be, the take-away from the latest copyright flap — MPAA’s petition to the FCC for a limited waiver of that agency’s so-called SOC rules.
For those of you who don’t follow such things, the point of the petition is the film studios’ desire to market Video on Demand, high definition movies earlier than DVDs, and closer to their release date in theaters. This would be done through deals the studios would make with video programming distributors like satellite TV, cable TV, and telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon.
Problem is that the program distributors are not allowed, without a waiver for the purpose, to market such films in the way (with SOC-enabled content) that would prohibit illegal copying and distribution, something the studios have reason to fear greatly.
In the grand tradition of all such, the petition has attracted not just the attention of the primary players — the studios and program distributors on one side, and the video equipment manufacturers on the other — but also the usual coterie of self-professed public- and consumer-interest organizations.
Seven such, led by the Washington group Public Knowledge, filed comments last week in opposition to the waiver, and their arguments speak volumes not only about their mindset toward such matters, but in a way that parallels the lack of regard for copyright in the larger universe of academia, much of the technology press, and among the digerati generally.
By all appearances, the biggest issue Public Knowledge et al. have with the waiver petition is an alleged frustration of “consumer expectations” that would ensue when owners of “legacy devices” (older high-def TVs that, unlike all of the more recent models, do not come equipped to recognize SOC data) find that they cannot order the movies at the earlier release date.
Though not guaranteed, both the logic and the language of the MPAA petition strongly suggest, however, that these same movies would still be available for purchase, VoD, at the later date that obtains today. And in any case, they would also be available through premium subscription services, like HBO and Showtime, during the usual release window, about 9-12 months after their theatrical debut, and as DVDs in half that time.
Public Knowledge and company strain to characterize this matter in compelling language: “Users who purchase expensive multi-component HD-capable entertainment systems,” they say, “are likely to consider them generally future proof…. Even if early-release films do not appear on the list of VoD offerings for these users, customers will be left wondering why neighbors and friends — those who subscribe to the same MVPD service at the same price, and have near-identical setups using different cables — are not offered the same movies.”
The national interest in envy-free neighborhoods notwithstanding, the fear that someone will be disadvantaged because he has a digital device that, being older, can’t do things that newer ones can, seems like kind of a wobbly rock on which to build the church of the public interest. This, because the clearest thing in the world about the Digital Age is that not only is nothing forever, nothing is even for very long. And this is true of all things digital, from computers, to cameras, to PDAs, to satellite radios, and yes, even to TV sets — all of which, in any case, are just machines!
The aspect of this, and related issues, that ought to be capturing the attention of public interest advocates, and “idealists” generally, is the human role. In the making of films, for instance, it is human beings, not machines, who write the scripts, act the roles, design the sets, and direct the enterprise. And it is these people, and their creative work, that should be at the forefront of our concern.
The issues raised by this particular MPAA petition aside, there is something these days that adds great poignancy, from an American perspective, to all things copyright related. The United States faces international challenges that may be as daunting as those occasioned by the Cold War. Specifically, we face the reality of global competition from countries both free and totalitarian, and with access to vital commodities, that is unlike anything we have ever known.
From behemoths like China, whose economy is projected to be bigger than ours in the foreseeable future, to countries like those in the Arab states, which are rich in oil, the USA is being challenged to find something it can do better than anyone else. Because of our many freedoms, not the least of them freedom of speech and of the press, that thing is now intellectual property. But it will need to be protected if it is to sustain us as a nation.