Slashdot recently posted a telling article titled “When would you accept DRM?” — which intrigued me more than most, since my thoughts have been wrapped around the schism surrounding this issue.
On one hand, you have the “tragedy” of the music industry, whose losing battle with unsympathetic audiophiles and a taken-advantage-of artist community have led to an ugly and untenable PR situation which may bury the existing music business altogether. For my part, I’m not all that opposed to a radical change in the landscape; I’ve long been the proponent of eliminating the unnecessary middleman, especially when the middleman is a bastard that’s pretty much screwed the wellspring since Day One.
While the internet can provide a form of salvation to upcoming artists, and maybe even a direct channel between musician and fan, the notion of “free music” doesn’t do much for the struggling artists, with the possible exception of easy exposure without bothering to play the “getting signed” game. Opponents of DRM would argue that minus the pennies earned via the recording industry (or in spite of it), musicians make the bulk of their money playing out — from concerts to club venues — and that eliminating the evil corporate Beast is a perfectly acceptable result for the price of digital freedom.
We all know that the nickel the artist may or may not receive from that $20 CD isn’t a lot. And that the music industry could afford to sell it to us for $10 and still make a killing by cheating the musician out of any fair share. They’ve been sticking it to the consumer and the artist for years simply because they can. Hence all the ill will and moral justification for the MP3 revolution/conspiracy. But I still wish we could pay $5 a CD instead and somehow ensure that four of those dollars go straight to the artist.
Sadly, even if the internet enabled us the technical means to do this, I’m not sure it would work. It’s easy to morally justify stealing anything when the person being robbed is an evil corporate empire bent on taking advantage of the little guy. Robin Hood is considered a hero, after all. But once we get just a bit used to the concept of “free” anything, I wonder if it isn’t hard to go back. It’s also too easy to fall into the digital mantra of “bits are just bits” and “information wants to be free,” even if that particular arrangement of bits you’re downloading took someone four months to craft and years of rehearsal to make perfect.
Oh well. I guess at least musicians still have the option of playing live.
Sadly, the film scene isn’t perfectly analogous. Here we have the next digital democracy in the making. Hollywood is already fast following in the misguided footsteps of its music industry cousins, with MPAA lawsuits going after P2P networks, and other “anti-piracy” campaigns doomed to fail. The genie has long since vacated this particular bottle.
But the potential for real revolution may be even greater for cinema than it was with music. After all, about a decade ago digital tools made the cost of entry (to a previously-untouchable business) within reach for the common man with a credit card and a decent screenplay idea. Minus a few notable exceptions who managed (or chose) to translate this into mainstream Hollywood careers, the only barrier that really remains is a crucial one — how to actually get your indie movie seen. Here, the internet could well be the sledgehammer that breaks down that wall as well, even if it is the same sledgehammer that also topples the already-crumbling Hollywood sign. If we could somehow manage to embrace and harness this technology rather than fight it tooth-and-nail like the studios no doubt will, a whole new method for digital distribution could emerge, allowing even niche, no-budget filmmakers to find their audience, without pandering to the “fit-for-the-masses” model the Hollywood machine is forced to target for maximum profit.
Indeed, elimination of this middleman could be very very good for the future of movies. For good, original movies, anyway. For new forms of filmmaking, and even a whole new kind of storytelling. The kind of cinema you’d never see today, except perhaps here and there at certain film festivals, where sadly the filmmakers have little to no hope of ever recouping their losses.
Unfortunately, the only “playing live” a filmmaker has is, well, maybe… a trip to the theater. And theatrical distribution is consumed and controlled by a yet another hierarchy of middlemen. Until theaters fully embrace digital projection, the prohibitive cost of film prints will keep this limitation in place. I wonder, when movie houses finally do replace their silver stream with ones and zeros, will we also achieve the democratization of theatrical distribution? Or will Hollywood studios somehow find a way to maintain their monopoly of this channel?
Presently there’s really no good “straight to the masses” distribution analogue for the do-it-yourself filmmaker. If he does put his digital bits out there for public consumption, he’s either using DRM or somehow relying on the courtesy of tips if he wants to see a dime. Maybe that’s still considered an “enabling technology,” but I have a feeling it won’t do a whole lot for his newly-accrued credit card debt.
There’s TV models, where ads pay the bills, but this is also a huge step backward — especially since Tivo introduced the 30-second fast-forward skip. And there’s really no need to litter the revolution with yesterday’s way of broadcasting. Not when digital delivery allows for perfect, on-demand, time-shiftable, high-quality convenience.
I don’t like DRM. It places artificial limits on an experience that shouldn’t have them. It complicates a process that is already too complicated. It projects criminal intent on the honest man, and is invariably defeatable by the true criminal. It removes most of the conveniences the digital world should be providing us — impacting time-shifting, wireless portability, archival, even quality. And it’s a drag.
But at the same time, I’d like there to be a magic bullet that would let this brave new world truly democratize the artforms of music and cinema. I’d like the talented, creative artist to somehow reap 90-100% of the profits of his or her work, hopefully while they’re alive to enjoy them, and hence provide us with even better sequels and more new albums.
It would certainly be nice to create art simply for art’s sake, but it would be even nicer (to me) to be able to dedicate your whole life to your art — and to do that, I’m afraid we need to introduce cold hard cash into the equation. We need to find a way to pay the artists for their work. Without paying so many middlemen, this really ought to be a win for both the consumer and the artist — cheaper entertainment for Joe Consumer, and a bigger chunk for the creative genius.
If DRM isn’t the method to enable and ensure this transaction, what is? Some far more radical shift in the way artists make money? Government-sponsored endowments? Some extension of the “radio” royalty model? The “SaveEnterprise” fan-budgeted production model? Flat subscription fees divvied up by download popularity? And why should tangible media (DVD, Blu-ray disks, etc.) be the only digital form worth the value of ownership? I think bits should somehow be valuable no matter what the form of the stream.
So do we sit back and let the powers that be ram limits down our collective throats and hold on to their precious antiquated business models — cash cows that reward greedy middlemen and their lawyers’ heavily-slanted contracts, routinely screwing the artists out of their art? Or do we find an alternative?
I certainly don’t support the continuing empowerment of the MPAA or the Hollywood middleman-saturated, mass-media dumbing-down machine, but somehow I don’t think “all media should be free” is the right answer. And while I don’t like DRM either, I don’t think I’m quite enough of an optimist to believe “the honor system” will work.
The freedom of “free” isn’t artistic freedom at all. And if all of our best artists are starving, there really won’t be much of anything to watch, or listen to.
I welcome your thoughts. I’ll be thinking hard on this myself.
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