A few years ago, we first wrote about the supposed missing black hole of culture due to copyright, based on some excellent research by Paul Heald, looking at the availability of new books on Amazon based on the years they were published. It produced this chart:
As you can see, there are a bunch of recent books, then a huge drop off... until a sudden spike at 1922 -- also known as the year before which nearly all books are in the public domain. That giant gaping hole on the right side of the graph should be pretty distressing. It counters the totally false narrative by certain legacy copyright system supporters that copyright is necessary to get books published and also that without copyright, no one would bother to sell the works, because they could just be copied by others. But, more importantly, it shows how much important culture is totally locked up because of copyright law -- unable to be published by those who'd like to offer them, and not worth it for the copyright holders to actually publish.
Late last year, EU Parliament Julia Reda published a similar chart concerning the EU:
That one also looked at books, in the same manner as Heald's original research. On top of that, Heald himself has continued to explore this issue, including comparing new books to used books and also looking at the music space.
Of course, the "black hole" in this case only goes back to the early 1940s, rather than the 1920s, because copyright terms in Europe tend to be life plus 50 rather than life plus 70, but there have been some efforts to change that as well.
Once again, this should raise serious questions about the problems of copyright term length. It seems fairly obvious that at their current length, copyright terms are actively suppressing a ridiculous amount of cultural output, much of it likely to be lost forever to history -- as by the time it actually goes into the public domain, it may not even exist any more. This is a pretty big problem -- especially given all the claims about how necessary copyright supposedly is for protecting culture. It seems fairly clear from these charts that it's frequently doing the opposite.
And yet... rather than fix this aspect of copyright law, policy makers seem to be focused on making it worse. The final version of the TPP agreement forces all countries who sign on to move to life plus 70 instead of life plus 50. It's likely that the TTIP agreement will include some similar provisions.
Every time we post these charts, we also post this chart from William Patry's book Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, which showed the copyright renewal rates on various works in 1958 and 1959, back when you had to "renew" your copyright after 28 years.
As the chart makes clear, for most types of works the copyright is clearly worth basically nothing after 28 years. Movies are the main exception, as are some maps and at least some musical compositions (this was in a time before sound recordings could even get a federal copyright, though I imagine those might have a decently high renewal rate, probably at least on par with musical compositions).
All of this should raise serious questions about why we have copyright terms that are so long when the vast majority of content doesn't value that protection and (more importantly) the clearly visible harm to culture and public knowledge created by such long copyright term lengths. And, again, it raises the question of why we don't move to a system whereby copyright holders should be required to renew their copyright at specific intervals, to make sure that such monopoly rights are still more valuable than the public interest in those works.
And, in the meantime, anyone pushing for longer copyright terms, given how much of this information is now out there, is outing themselves as someone who is clearly against the public interest and shouldn't be taken seriously. And that includes the current negotiators from the USTR who pushed strongly for the copyright expansion in the TPP in the face of all of this evidence.
Last month, we wrote our very first "Content Creator of the Month" post all about Realm Pictures, a cool video production house in the UK. Realm had done some truly amazing things over the past few years, embracing the internet in new and unique ways, from their no-budget film Zomblies to the astounding Underwater Realm, for which they'd held a very successful Kickstarter campaign. In August, however, they had a massively viral hit when they created a "real first person shooter," while having some fun in their offices (which happened to be an old church), finding "players" via ChatRoulette (which, yes, apparently still exists). You might have seen it:
It's currently got about 8.5 million views, and is still amazing. The week after it came out, I got to interview Dave Reynolds, who runs Realm and is the "director" (and the voice) in that video. A few times in the interview I pointed out that this was an amazing new form of interactive entertainment, though it felt like he was trying to push off that claim, saying it was just something they did for fun on a weekend. I also asked him this: "Have you thought about letting people pay to play this or future such games?" And he rejected the idea outright, saying:
We feel like a lot of what made this resonate with viewers so strongly, was the fact that they were completely random players who had just stumbled upon this game online, and making people pay to play would make the experience less special somehow.
Apparently, he seems to have reconsidered on both accounts (I'm sure because plenty of others made the same point, so I don't think I can claim credit on this...). Today, Realm released Level 2 of their Real Life First Person shooter, and in many ways it's more advanced and impressive than the first:
But much more interesting than that is that the Realm team seems to now agree that this is a fascinating form of interactive entertainment, that they want to focus on. With the new level, Realm has also launched RLFPS.com along with a Kickstarter campaign, whereby you can help to fund Level 3 of the game.
And it's not just about funding. 50 of the people who back the project will get to play Level 3. Oh, and there's a lot more as well. They're going to do a prologue part, where all the backers can watch it streamed live and vote in real time how the character should act -- like the famous Twitch plays Pokemon event from a few years ago, but more fun. Plus backers get to help guide the making of the later levels as well. And all of that comes for merely £1.
It sounds like this will keep going for multiple levels. And the stuff they're working on sounds great. As Dave says: "We have the best AI in the industry, because it's not artificial."
This looks... amazing.
The only thing I'm slightly surprised about is the decision to do it on Kickstarter (you can also back them directly via Paypal for the same reward), rather than something like Patreon. When I interviewed Dave, he seemed a bit down on Kickstarter, saying that he felt the bubble was "beginning to burst." With Patreon, they could have done the same thing, but then gotten people to pay £1 each time they release a new level -- but perhaps they didn't like going that route. Either way, the whole project looks really cool, and amazingly creative. I've put in my £1, and I'm excited to see what they come up with next...
We first wrote about Nina Paley in 2009, upon hearing about the ridiculous copyright mess she found herself in concerning her wonderful movie Sita Sings the Blues. While she eventually was able to sort out that mess and release the film, she also discovered that the more she shared the film, the more money she made, and she began to question copyright entirely. She originally released the film under a ShareAlike license, promising to go after people who didn't uphold the ShareAlike parts, but then moved to a full public domain dedication and has become quite vocal in recent years about not supporting any kind of copyright and even raising some important concerns about many forms of Creative Commons licenses.
Again, it's quite similar to her post from two years ago, but interesting to watch in a different form. While the "brain damage" claim certainly feels (perhaps intentionally) hyperbolic, she's actually making a really important point in calling it that: she notes that the entire mechanism of copyright is to cut off the flow of information, and analogizes that to a brain, noting that when information flow is cut off between sections of the brain, it's a form of brain damage. That's a somewhat extreme view to take, and I'm not sure it's one that I think is a truly fair analogy, but damn if it's not thought provoking.
I've long wished there was a better way to express how much is lost when copyright cuts off an important flow of information -- because it's obvious that it harms creative expression, artwork and innovation. But it's difficult to show what's "lost" when it never was allowed to exist in the first place. The idea of analogizing it to brain damage is a really fascinating one that does, at the very least, present a strong visual image for the kind of harm that can be done when copyright law is abused.
As you no doubt have heard by now, and as we already tangentially discussed earlier, there has been yet another mass shooting in America. This time, it came to Oregon, where a single gunmen made his way into a community college and managed to murder nine innocent people, injure others, before his own life was extinguished, either by his own hand or by those of law enforcement. And, as we wake up the next morning, anyone with any interest in civil society and culture grapples with the story. President Obama remarked that these stories have become routine, seeming to suggest that everyone has become numb to these events, accepting them as part of the American life. He's wrong about that. Desperately and importantly wrong. Instead, the truth is that the public is the opposite of numb. The public is angry. Unfortunately, because of the way that a fragmented and ideologically aligned media landscape has emerged in the past two decades or so, we all end up angry about different things, with our outrage stoked and guided in avenues that put us at odds with those that have had their outrage stoked and guided in entirely different avenues.
Predicting these avenues is trivially easy. A cursory glance at the story of a mass shooting and the media reaction to it provides everything required to act as a Nostradamus for the outrage outlets we will see. Over the next few days, we'll hear stories about the gunmen being from a broken family, with traditional family breakdown serving as a punching bag for remorse. Some outlets will discuss the shooter's video game hobby. Or his interest in horror movies and novels. Some outlets will focus on his access to guns, while others will focus on his reported targeting of Christians and religion. Still others will scream "false flag!", sadly undermining the very real lives lost and lives shattered through injury and terror. Too many of us, a majority of us, will ingest the news of the shooting in the medium and outlets of our choice, chosen specifically because that medium and outlet feeds us the meal we want the way we want it. Cable news started this, of course, planting flags of partisanship in a realm once at least thought to be dominated by facts. Spin-masters will work their magic, taking dead bodies and boldly morphing them into causes and outrage. Meanwhile, the shooter gets exactly what these shooters want: fame. Rather than employing the seriously genius "some asshole initiative" by refusing to name these shooters or focus on them in any way, we'll do the opposite and turn on the spotlights. We will be distracted.
Put another way: we will retreat. Retreat away from the horror of death and into the comforting arms of the outrage that lets us feel like it all means something else to us. Here's what you'll see. A discussion about guns will arise before quickly falling away and nothing will happen. A conversation about 4chan, and other internet sites, and whether or not more needs to be done to police the internet looking for potential killers will be sparked, but nothing will happen. Some will lament the decline and/or targeting of religion in America, wondering aloud, stupidly, if too much religion or not enough of it is responsible for the killings, but nothing will happen. Violent media, be it games, movies, or novels will be trotted out as sacrificial lambs for our anger, but nothing will happen. From the fringe will be another crowd, bleating that none of this actually happened and that it's all fake news and actors playing out a game of gun-snatching that never seems to actually materialize, because nothing ever happens.
Why? Because we retreat to fragmented media and mediums that focus our outrage onto the target of our choice. Facts matter little if at all, as one can tell by the speed with which reports and reporters begin funneling our outrage. This is a problem, one started by mass media and continued, unfortunately, on the internet. There's nothing wrong with choice, of course, when it comes to us choosing our media outlets. The problem as I see it is when the choices become fragmented by political or ideological lines. The fact that we can name a media outlet and guess with an unfortunate amount of accuracy exactly what spin will be put on the reporting of a mass shooting is a problem. The answer to that problem is, as usual, the dropping of ideology, of political dogma, of the retreat. So, as you read the news about this reporting in the coming weeks, notice the rush to find factors of blame and reject them.
The news is that this was a tragedy. The sad news isn't just that we're not going to do anything about it, but rather that we're not going to do anything about it even though we all have a cause in it.
As I was poking around the interwebz yesterday morning, I came across an interesting project one fan of Mad Max: Fury Road had made. To preface this, if you haven't seen the movie, shame on you and all of your ancestors. It's two hours of mind-blowing nonsense wrapped up in an action film that appears to be attempting to be the definitive action film moving forward. That said, director George Miller has also made some comments about how he would have preferred to have the film edited in black and white, with limited to no dialogue and the musical score taking center stage.
Well, one fan went ahead and worked to produce Miller's vision. The resulting movie was strikingly different and resulted in a very different experience compared with watching the movie. If nothing else, it was a wonderful example of the power of dialogue, editing, musical scores, color and sound. The person responsible for the edited film put it this way.
George Miller has said that the best version of his film is in black and white, with no dialogue. BLACK & CHROME is an attempt to realize Miller’s alternate vision. The cinematography, the editing, the sound design, and the score, are now represented in a completely new experience.
I do not own the rights to this video. All rights belong to its rightful owner/owners. No copyright infringement intended. This is merely an exercise and study of the art of filmmaking.
But before you go rushing to check out this awesomeness for yourself by clicking the link above, you should know that this is what will greet you.
Yes, in an outcome that I predicted immediately after I shared the fan project with the rest of my Techdirt compadres, it appears the video has been taken down over copyright issues. And that's dumb on a variety of different levels. First, the takedown itself wasn't necessary. Nothing about Black and Chrome competed with Fury Road. The entire point of the fan project was to show just how different small changes could make the overall experience. Those experiences were unique enough to be non-overlapping from the film viewer's perspective. This is just a control power move by whoever made it.
But I'm not entirely certain fair use shouldn't come into play, as well. As a matter of art, the project is undeniably transformative. Certainly there is little effect on the original work to consider, save perhaps for an increased likelihood that others will want to see the original after seeing the fan-edit. That said, a significant amount of the original work is used to make the derivative, so I'm not sure it goes far enough for fair use. Regardless, the creator of the fan-edit appears to be taking the takedown well.
Thank you for liking, sharing, and watching BLACK & CHROME. This is it for now. Your response has truly shown what the joy of movies is about. Hopefully, the right person(s) will have WITNESSED this and we can look forward to an official version of Mad Max: Fury Road in black and white. The film has lived, and has died, but can it live again?
It's just too bad the film wasn't allowed to become a fun bit of experience for Mad Max fans everywhere.
Last week, we wrote about how the famous hacker magazine 2600 received a copyright threat letter concerning the cover of its Spring 2012 issue (which, we noted, meant that the three-year statute of limitations had passed for a copyright claim anyway). But this was even worse, because the "claim" was over some ink splotches that were in the background of an image that the threat letter claimed copyright over, and which 2600 used a tiny bit of on its cover. Except... that the splotches themselves were actually from a Finnish artist going by the name Loadus, and licensed freely for either commercial or non-commercial use.
The orange is the magazine cover. The purple is the image the copyright threat letter was about and the green is the actual painting that is freely licensed.
There was some confusion over who sent the threat letter, as it officially came from a company called Trunk Archive, but was sent by a company called License Compliance Services (which appears to be a copyright-troll-for-hire business), but also used an entity called Picscout which is owned by notorious copyright troll Getty Images. Either way, after 2600 pointed out how ridiculous this was, License Compliance Services sent a ridiculous email saying the matter had been closed:
Subject: Case #373018082 , Ref #4440-1159-6664
Hello, I just wanted to take a moment to inform you that after further review this matter has been closed.
License Compliance Services
605 Fifth Avenue South, Suite 400
Seattle, WA 98104
For what it's worth, that address is also the address of Getty Images, so it appears that LCS may be a part of Getty Images after all.
Either way, 2600 points out that this response is fairly ridiculous, given that the company just tried to shake 2600 down for a large sum of money based on a totally bullshit claim. And from there, 2600 goes off on a nice and wonderful rant about the stupidity of copyright maximalism, and the belief that everything must be licensed and paid for. It's wonderful and you should read it:
We're talking about the attempts to license everything under the sun, using high technology to match the tiniest of images, and crushing the very concept of fair use. Art has always been derivative and transformative - our cover at the center of all this is a great example of such a work (just not with any of Trunk Archive's material). But by making people look over their shoulders whenever they try to create something unique using elements of existing works, a chilling effect is created that will result in less works being created. This is also bad for the original artist, who is robbed of the opportunity to see how their creation can be adapted and transformed into something completely different. But in the end, we are all hurt by this kind of thing. Creations such as remixes of music, mashups, new arrangements and interpretations, parody, patchworks of images, logos and pictures captured on film, snippets of code - they can all be identified and monetized. That neat little app on your phone that can identify music? Imagine that going out and automatically charging a fee for anyone who has captured a bit of that music on something they created. Every corporate logo you capture in a picture would also have to be paid for. Imagine where this technology can take us in the next few years if this unbridled greed isn't reigned in.
This has nothing to do with art as most any artist will tell you. It's about control and intimidation, using the prospect of payoffs to lure in unsuspecting contributors. With that in mind, the LCS/Trunk Archive slogan of "Creations Are Valuable" makes sense in a much more opportunistic light. That's why we need to make sure this derivation of art never catches on. Our case may be over, but this is a fight that is only just beginning.
Intellectual property is often times used to censor others or control that which should otherwise be free. Sometimes it does this for arguably valid reasons. And sometimes it does so in ways so laughably and obviously against the intention of intellectual property protections that it would make you laugh if you weren't too busy yelling in anger. This story is about an example of the latter.
Marcel Duchamp was first and foremost a French-American artist. He painted and sculpted, composed music, and constructed kinetic works of art. He was also an avid player of chess, going so far at one point as to fashion his own chess set personally from wood while in Buenos Aires. This chess set, originally thought to be lost to the world but now confirmed to be part of a privately-owned collection, survived until recently only in archival photographs of the man and his chess pieces. Until, that is, Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera used the photograph to come up with the Readymake: Duchamp Chess Set, which would allow a person to 3D-print Duchamp's chess set for themselves. Kildall and Cera then uploaded the 3D files to Thingiverse and made them available for all to download. Here is how they described the project.
Readymake: Duchamp Chess Set is a 3D-printed chess set generated from an archival photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s own custom and hand-carved game. His original physical set no longer exists. We have resurrected the lost artifact by digitally recreating it, and then making the 3D files available for anyone to print.
We were inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s readymade — an ordinary manufactured object that the artist selected and modified for exhibition — the readymake brings the concept of the appropriated object to the realm of the internet, exploring the web’s potential to re-frame information and data, and their reciprocal relationships to matter and ideas. Readymakes transform photographs of objects lost in time into shared 3D digital spaces to provide new forms and meanings.
Pictured: an example of the 3D modeling from the archive photo of the chess set
Cool, right? The duo's project generated some press after they uploaded it and the two were particularly thrilled to see a discussion emerge between artists and technologists about just what could be done in 3D printing material generated form archival photos. Adjacent to those discussions were conversations about the ownership of design and ideas, which, while interesting, Kildall and Cera didn't think were germane to Duchamp's chess set for any number of reasons (more on that in a moment). Regardless, the estate of Duchamp apparently caught wind of the project and promptly sent a cease and desist letter.
Unfortunately, the project also struck a nerve with the Duchamp Estate. On September 17th, 2014, we received a cease and desist letter from a lawyer representing the heirs of Marcel Duchamp. They were alleging intellectual property infringement on grounds that they held a copyright to the chess pieces under French law.
Except that doesn't make any sense for any number of reasons. Kildall and Cera outline why they chose Duchamp's chess set for the project and, to my reading, they appear to be correct on every count.
1) Duchamp’s chess pieces were created in 1917-1918. According to US copyright law, works published before 1923 are in the realm of “expired copyright”.
2) The chess pieces themselves were created in 1917-1918 while Duchamp was in Argentina. He then brought the pieces back to France where he worked to market them.
3) According to French copyright law, copyrighted works are protected for 70 years after the author’s death.
4) Under French copyright law, you can be sued for damages and even serve jail time for copyright infringement.
5) The only known copy of the chess set is in a private collection. We were originally led to believe the set was ‘lost’ – as it hasn’t been seen, publicly, for decades.
6) For the Estate to pursue us legally, the most common method would be to get a judgment in French court, then get a judgment in a United States court to enforce the judgement.
7) Legal jurisdiction is uncertain. As United States citizens, we are protected by U.S. copyright law. But, since websites like Thingiverse are global, French copyright could apply.
Except that, all that being said, this isn't a work of art we're talking about. Duchamp created his chess set so that he could play chess. It wasn't something he sought to reproduce for sale. He played chess. This would be akin to me drawing a four-square board on the sidewalk in chalk and then claiming I have copyright over it. That's insane. If copyright is built to encourage expression, how does having the one chess set Duchamp ever created locked away in a private collection deserve copyright protection? There's no further expression to encourage. And, indeed, under American copyright law, the clock has run out on the protection anyway. The fact that the Duchamp estate would try to apply French copyright law to this case, where the creation happened in Argentina and when Duchamp himself became a naturalized American citizen, is crazy-pants.
The duo's solution was to lay down their king and take the files down. Well, that was step one in their solution, at least.
We thought about how to recoup the intent of this project without what we think will be a copyright infringement claim from the Duchamp Estate and realized one important aspect of the project, which would likely guarantee it as commentary is one of parody.
Accordingly, we have created Chess with Mustaches, which is based on our original design, however, adds mustaches to each piece. The pieces no longer looks like Duchamp’s originals, but instead improves upon the original set with each piece adorned with mustaches.
If you're not fully aware of Duchamp's artwork, this solution is especially clever because the Duchamp estate would have a difficult time arguing that this is inappropriate, given Duchamp's own artwork. So, it's funny, but that never should have been necessary in the first place. The Duchamp estate's use of copyright to disappear recreative files for a chess set once constructed is a bastardization of copyright's intent.
Update: Quick update on the story below, again alerted by Mitch Stoltz, a copy of the actual text of the law has been released and it does appear to more closely track with the safe harbor protections for ISPs. That is, the claims made by the copyright bureaucrat above that it's about making ISPs liable was misleading... The rest of the post stands however.
Via Mitch Stoltz, we learn of a new proposed copyright law in Kenya that not only would be a disaster for the internet in that country, but where the people pushing it don't even seem to understand what they're talking about. The key element: forcing ISPs to be copyright cops and putting liability on them if they somehow fail to magically stop piracy:
The Government is now turning it’s sights on ISPs in a move to curb piracy, which erodes revenues for the country’s film industry.
“We are proposing to introduce an amendment in the Copyright Act that will place the onus of responsibility for Kenyan content illegally downloaded, squarely on local internet service providers,” said Head of the Kenya Copyright Board (Kecobo) Edward Sigei.
Bizarrely, Sigei argues that he's just copying the DMCA in the US:
“We are borrowing from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of America and others that have come after it and we have designed an amendment where the ISP will be liable under certain circumstances for infringements that happen through their channels.”
Except, that's the exact opposite approach of the DMCA, whose safe harborsprotect ISPs from liability, by noting that the responsibility should be on the actual people infringing, rather than the service providers in the middle. It's this safe harbor protection that allows the internet to function as it does, encouraging platforms for communication, sharing and content creation and hosting. Making ISPs liable puts tremendous liability on those ISPs, meaning they're much less likely to offer such services at all.
Is Kenya really looking to shut down useful internet services in that country?
Even more bizarre is that Kenya claims it's doing this in order to catch up with countries like Nigeria, whose movies have become huge throughout Africa:
This is part of a push to have Kenyan local content earn a larger foothold on Kenya’s airwaves currently dominated by Nigerian and Latin American programming.
Except, if you actually look at why the Nigeraian film business became so successful, it was actually because of a lack of copyright enforcement that helped create informal distribution and promotional channels across Africa. As the Economist explained years ago:
The merchants curse the pirates, but in a way they are a blessing. Pirate gangs were probably Nollywood's first exporters. They knew how to cross tricky borders and distribute goods across a disparate continent where vast tracts of land are inaccessible. Sometimes they filled empty bags with films when returning from an arms delivery. Often they used films to bribe bored guards at remote borders. The pirates created the pan-African market Mr Akudinobi now feeds.
A detailed academic research paper a few years later made it clear that it was piracy, not regulations that helped establish Nigerian film as a dominant player across Africa and further noted that this lack of copyright enforcement actually massively helped the economy.
Notably, although many countries have sought to incentivize particular types of film production through direct government funding, subsidies, or film protection schemes involving film quotas, many of these industries have not been commercially viable in the absence of subsidies or other support schemes. In contrast, Nollywood has created significant volume of local video film content with virtually no government involvement or subsidies. The success of Nollywood may in many respects be attributable to a lack of government involvement and its decentralized nature, which has permitted Nollywood participants to be highly entrepreneurial, adaptive and innovative. Nollywood now may employ as many as 200,000 people directly, with estimates of indirect employment as high as 1 million. The market-driven Nollywood approach is less costly than existing models of film production and distribution and may offer a new model for developing countries that wish to develop domestic film industries.
And yet, Kenya insists that it's trying to copy Nigeria, but it's doing the exact opposite? And it's going to do so by "copying" the DMCA, by apparently doing the exact opposite of the DMCA? It really makes you wonder what officials in Kenya are actually thinking in pushing this forward. Given the nature of the proposal, it looks much more like the wishes of foreign film interests, such as those from Hollywood, looking for yet another beachhead from which to push bogus rules to make ISPs copyright cops, rather than fixing their own business models.
As broadcaster licensing squeezes Netflix ever tighter, you've probably noticed that the streaming company continues to lose higher-end, popular television and film content at an annoying rate. The latest such shift occurred when Netflix last week refused to extend its licensing agreement with Epix, resulting in Netflix customers losing access to mainstream films like Hunger Games: Catching Fire, World War Z and The Wolf of Wall Street. Epix then proceeded to strike a deal with both Hulu and Amazon, who'll now be carrying those titles instead.
Such deals are at the heart of Netflix's permission culture dilemma, where the company is at the whims of broadcast licensing, often tied to a cable industry (Comcast/NBC) that intends to directly harm Netflix. These copyright gardens, built under the illusion of control, increasingly fracture content availability, confusing customers as they try to find a service that has most of the content they're looking for. Unfortunately, in many instances these customers then wind up finding that piracy is easier than decoding and running this availability gauntlet, where shows appear and disappear daily as deals are struck or cancelled.
And while Netflix's catalog of mainstream, high-end fare may be looking relatively skimpy these days, the company penned a blog post informing customers they really shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about that. Why? Because Netflix is busy working on creating an additional array of original content that may or may not be any good:
"We hear from our members that you wish we had newer movies. So do we. Studio licensing practices means it often takes more than a year before consumers can watch a theatrically released movie when and how they want. Just like we’ve changed the game for TV watchers by releasing entire seasons around the world at the same time, we have begun making movies that will premiere on Netflix globally and in some cases, simultaneously in theaters. It will take us time to build a robust slate of original movies, but we’re hard at work on it with such great stars and directors as Brad Pitt, Ricky Gervais, Judd Apatow, Angelina Jolie, Sofia Coppola and Adam Sandler."
And yes, while some Netflix content (House of Cards, Bloodlines and hopefully soon one of my favorites, Black Mirror) is great, it's not entirely clear that more Adam Sandler movies are the answer for users frustrated at the growing lack of popular options in Netflix's B-grade heavy content catalog. And while licensing does certainly hamstring Netflix, in this instance both Hulu and Amazon didn't find Epix's asking price too severe, meaning that Netflix made a judgement call and decided this content was content that its customers can live without.
At the moment, Netflix is focused on international expansion (200 countries by year's end), disrupting stale movie release windows, and original content. That's respectable, and it's likely the right path toward independence long-term from the noose of tightening broadcaster copyright. But at the same time Netflix's core catalog and satisfied customer base still relies on a certain threshold of quality content. As such, Netflix has to walk a fine line between giving consumers what they want, and trying to navigate the permissions culture tightrope dictated by broadcasters.
Netflix also has to walk the minefield of explaining all of this to consumers who just want the latest and greatest content and options and don't care about the details. For example, Amazon recently announced it would be letting users download content for streaming at a later date (albeit via Amazon's heavily DRM'd system). That's an appealing solution for usage-capped customers, but Netflix last week stated it wouldn't be following suit, claiming that offline downloads would prove too confusing for customers:
"I think it’s something that lots of people ask for. We’ll see if it’s something lots of people will use. Undoubtedly it adds considerable complexity to your life with Amazon Prime – you have to remember that you want to download this thing. It’s not going to be instant, you have to have the right storage on your device, you have to manage it, and I’m just not sure people are actually that compelled to do that, and that it’s worth providing that level of complexity.”
Of course that's crap: letting people store a local copy of a film isn't remotely complex. What's complex is explaining to consumers why such functionality would likely cost Netflix significantly more in copyright licensing fees and layers of mandated DRM deployment. As we've noted previously, Netflix is still transitioning from a DVD rental business governed by the first sale doctrine, to a streaming business governed by the permission winds of countless fickle media empires. Communicating the costs of that transition to consumers clearly and honestly certainly isn't easy, but much like its Qwickster snafu of a few years back, it's entirely possible that Netflix could be pushing too far, too fast.
Content Creator of the Month is a new project from the Copia Institute that we'll also be highlighting here. Each month, we'll profile a new content creator who is doing interesting and compelling things, often using the internet in innovative and powerful ways. Here is the very first installment...
A few weeks ago, a couple of friends friends were tweeting about an incredible new YouTube video in which some people created a "real life first-person shooter" and hooked it up to Chatroulette, Skype and Omegle. Random people on the services were transported into this game, which they controlled with their voice. If you haven't watched it, find ten minutes to check it out (or just 5 if you speed up YouTube to 2x speed). It is incredibly detailed, and awesome beyond words:
My first reaction was to marvel at how much effort must have gone into setting all of this up. I had initially assumed the "game" couldn't go very far beyond the tiny room where it started — but it goes much, much further. My second thought was about how hard it must have been to coordinate all the sounds, effects and movements (even while recognizing that the final version is cut together from the takes that "worked"). Thankfully, the people behind it — Realm Pictures — also put together a behind the scenes video that reveals the inner workings (and doesn't make the original any less magical):
I started looking into the team, and realized I actually knew a bit about them, as this is hardly the first time that Realm Pictures has done cool stuff online. Years back, while based out of their home in Devon in the UK, these guys filmed their very own zombie flick called Zomblies, which they posted for free on YouTube. For a bunch of "amateurs" (at the time), the production value is amazing -- they even got someone to donate time in a helicopter, allowing them to film aerial shots. But there's another important piece of the story: while they were making the film, Realm Pictures was also using the internet to build up a community of people who were interested in the process, with their daily blog about the work acquiring a big following.
David Reynolds, the founder and creative director of Realm Pictures (and the voice in the first person shooter above), told me that "building a community has always been instrumental to both our process and our success with projects thus far." The community has followed them from project to project, such as the team's next giant undertaking The Underwater Realm, a series of five short films with large segments taking place underwater — an incredible challenge for any filmmaker, let alone relatively inexperienced independents. The team originally tried to use wires and a green screen, but realized it just wasn't realistic enough. Eventually someone donated a special casing for a camera, allowing them to actually film underwater (mostly in a local public swimming pool). Here's the first of those films (and they also have a behind the scenes video):
In order to make that movie, they also embraced another useful online tool, Kickstarter, to cover some of the production costs, eventually raising over $100,000 (they had sought $60,000). While Reynolds is supportive of crowdfunding, he does worry that it may be peaking, and that "the bubble is beginning to burst, as now it seems that everybody and his dog has a Kickstarter campaign."
One of the things that struck me personally about Realm Pictures is their ability to create visually amazing narrative film projects on relatively small budgets. For many years we've been debating the question of "the $200 million movie," in which traditional Hollywood studios keep asking how they can continue to make movies that require such huge budgets if people are unwilling to pay to watch them. And yet, as we've seen over and over again, technology and basic creativity are enabling the creation of incredible movies for a lot less. Much of Realm Pictures' work shows how that's possible. Still, Reynolds has talked in the past (notably in an interview with Kevin Smith) about being interested in doing a much bigger, Hollywood studio-funded version of Underwater Realm, which he estimates will cost somewhere in that $200 million range. So far, studios haven't been willing to pony up — but Reynolds insists there are lots of fun projects the company will be working on, even as they hope they'll one day be able to create that underwater epic.
Throughout these projects there's a strong thread: building a community and bringing it along for the ride. Reynolds tells me this is very important to how they've been able to succeed and, at the same time, give back to those who have supported them:
It is a practice we hope will always continue through our career, and at the same time give back to the community which has supported us by giving back in the form of a transparent insight into our work and things like the free tutorials we have released on our YouTube channel.
Reynolds points out that, in the end, none of this matters if the content isn't great, and that's always been the key: create great content for your community. Without that, the community won't last either. This is the combination that we've seen work for so many successful creators today. Creating great content is always at the core, and building up a loyal community around it helps spread that content and open new doors.
In terms of this latest video, which went viral super fast (I first saw it when it had about 3,000 views, but now it has over 7 million), Reynolds says it was just a fun project that they did in a weekend, with "one practice run, with a member of our team on a Skype call... to check that the system was working, and then straight into finding strangers on the internet." They ended up doing about 50 runs, with the few players who completed the whole "level" taking about 20 minutes. This is one of the first really "interactive" film experiences I've seen where the interactivity fits right in and doesn't feel forced (though of course now everyone is just watching instead of playing — but watching how others interact still feels kind of interactive). Reynolds points out that they're really just taking what makes video games so engaging, and moving it to video.
Oh, and Reynolds also notes that they're now working on level two of the game, so stay tuned (and maybe start using Chatroulette, if you want to play!)
You can read below for my whole interview with Dave Reynolds of Realm Pictures, our very first Content Creator of the Month.