A History Of Hyperbolic Overreaction To Copyright Issues: The Entertainment Industry And Technology
from the the-sky-is-falling,-the-sky-is-falling dept
That's all well and good, though no one has said it will kill the internet, but just change it in massively significant ways that the RIAA/MPAA and its ilk don't understand. Remember, these are the folks who once admitted that they were too clueless to even know how to hire a good technologist, let alone understand how a massive change to the fundamental regulatory and technological framework of the internet will impact innovation.
But, really, let's go back to a key point. In the last century or so, which industry has a habit of being hysterical and hyperbolic about copyright issues... and which has a history of being right. Let's start about a century ago, with John Philip Sousa, the composer. In 1906, he went to Congress to complain about the infernal technology industry and how it was going to ruin music:
These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.Yes, the tech industry was going to kill music, because of "these infernal machines."
Around that time, Thomas Edison, who tried to monopolize the entire "moving pictures" industry as both a content provider and a tech provider, freaked out over the idea of others providing machines that could show movies, claiming that if there were ten such movie "screen machines" in the US, it would kill the industry:
If we put out a screen machine there will be a use for maybe ten of them in the whole United States. With that many screen machines you would show the pictures to everyone in the country -- and then it would be done. Let's not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.Jump forward to 1932 and that great technological innovation called "radio." Once again, fear permeated the entertainment industry, leading to calls for massive changes to the laws and complaints about how radio was killing the industry:
Tin Pan Alley is sadly aware that Radio has virtually plugged up its oldtime outlets, sheet music and gramophone discs. The average music publisher used to get $175,000 a year from disc sales. He now gets about 10% of this. No longer does a song hit sell a million copies. The copious stream of music poured out by Radio puts a song quickly to death. The average song's life has dwindled from 18 months to 90 days; composers are forced to turn out a dozen songs a year instead of the oldtime two or three.Evil stuff. Okay. Jump forward a few years, to the rise of cable TV. Once again, the MPAA freaks out, because some cable TV stations are "rebroadcasting" network TV. The MPAA argues in court that cable TV effectively kills off copyright law, as noted in a dissent in one of the key cases concerning the legality of cable TV:
We are advised by an amicus brief of the Motion Picture Association that films from TV telecasts are being imported by CATV into their own markets in competition with the same pictures licensed to TV stations in the area into which the CATV—a nonpaying pirate of the films—imports them. It would be difficult to imagine a more flagrant violation of the Copyright Act. Since the Copyright Act is our only guide to law and justice in this case, it is difficult to see why CATV systems are free of copyright license fees, when they import programs from distant stations and transmit them to their paying customers in a distant market. That result reads the Copyright Act out of existence for CATV.Jump forward a decade or so, and we have the infamous statement of Jack Valenti comparing the VCR to the Boston Strangler:
I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.Around the same time, over in the UK, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) -- the equivalent of the RIAA -- began its infamous campaign telling the world:
Home taping is killing music.Or, in logo form:
What's happening here is much more than just delaying the time in which I watch a show that I taped off the television. I'm delaying it, and watching it without commercials, and that is something that our courts have never said is acceptable.Yes, watching TV without commercials goes against the law. Turner Broadcasting boss Jamie Kellner put it more succinctly:
People who watch TV without commercials are stealing from the entertainment producers.Okay. MP3 players? The thing that's such a huge part of the music industry today? Cary Sherman's RIAA did everything it could to kill them in its lawsuit against the Diamond Rio. From the RIAA's filing in the case:
While the proliferation of MP3s over the Internet has been a serious problem for the recording industry, the scope of that problem has been bound by a natural limitation. MP3 files can be played only by computers, and enjoyed only while operating a computer. The introduction of the Rio devices -- and a number of anticipated look-alike devices from other vendors -- will change that by making MP3 files portable.How about the XM + MP3 device that let paying subscribers to XM radio record what they listen to -- just like you could record radio over the air or off a computer? Yeah, the record labels sued over that, claiming $150,000 in statutory damages per recorded song.
The growth of illicit MP3 files will injure not only the record companies and artists whose work will be pirated, but also the music publishers, musicians, background singers, songwriters and others whose existence is dependent on revenue earned by record sales.
And, finally, how about Viacom's attack on YouTube, claiming it was the equivalent of a "Grokster for video." While that case is still ongoing, Viacom has argued that if the district court ruling stands, it would completely destroy the value of content:
If affirmed by this Court, that construction of Section 512(c) would radically transform the functioning of the copyright system and severely impair, if not completely destroy, the value of many copyrighted creations. It would immunize from copyright infringement liability even avowedly piratical Internet businesses.Given this little tour through history, it's pretty damn funny to see the RIAA and MPAA and their supporters insisting that it's the tech industry who has a history of hyperbole on these subjects. As far as I can tell, there isn't a technological innovation that has come along in the last century that the entertainment industry hasn't had a hysterical negative reaction to... even as it later turned out to be a massive help to the industry.
Thus, when the entertainment industry seeks to totally overturn the basic technological and regulatory underpinnings of the internet, over its latest freakout (rogue sites! cyberlockers!), forgive those of us who have seen this hyperbolic overreaction play out before, from pointing out that (a) the entertainment industry is totally and completely overreacting and (b) rushing into broad regulatory changes without the input or help of the tech industry is a big, big mistake. As with nearly every technology discussed above, if the RIAA and MPAA would just stop freaking out and falsely believing it's a legal or enforcement issue, and recognize that it's all a business issue, then the tech industry can actually help them innovate, support new services and make more money. Instead, in typical hyperbolic overreaction fashion, they're seeking to kill the very infrastructure that is their path to solve their current financial woes.
So, when the RIAA and the MPAA insist that "something must be done!" as quickly as is humanly possible to deal with the "threat" of so-called "rogue sites" domestically and abroad, we say back to them: "let's all take a deep breath." And suggest that, perhaps it is they who are hysterically overreacting... as they've done for over a century.