A Day With the MPAA
The Motion Picture Association of America's symposium I attended yesterday had many interesting and enlightening moments--though not all made the MPAA look that good.
The various industry types who spoke did make some useful points that bear consideration. For instance, Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer argued, in a particularly scolding manner, that the mess of incompatible DRM formats isn't the studios' fault; the blame should be more accurately directed at hardware and software firms which keep promoting their own proprietary systems.
And it was helpful to hear directors and producers offer more concrete examples of what they felt were the economic effects of piracy. Taylor Hackford recounted how he spent 13 years trying to make "Ray," then said movies like that--not blockbuster fare, but not cheap to make either--would only be harder to get backing for: "Will I be able to sell hard-to-sell movies like Ray? No."
But throughout the day, I kept hearing some of the same old dubious assertions that should have been abandoned years ago:
People who oppose us want to get everything for free
Meyer and others threw this one out over and over. Now there are some folks who believe that intellectual property by right out to be free--but they are a small minority. Trying to deny the existence of any reasonable opposition through strawman arguments like this is no way to be taken seriously.
Every download represents a lost sale
A flyer handed out to attendees featured some suspiciously precise estimates of the cost of illegal movie redistribution: 141,030 American jobs, $5.5 billion in U.S. wages, $837 million in additional state and local tax revenue and $20.5 billion in "new annual output to all U.S. industries."
Really? The math behind these figures goes unexplained in the flyer--by itself, a good reason to suspect such strangely precise estimates--but I don't see how you get those high numbers without counting every illegal download or purchase as a legitimate transaction. If so, that's wildly off. It's a basic principle of freshman-year econ that demand is "elastic"; charge less for something and people will use more of it. If these consumers had been forced to pay for every illegal viewing, some would have gone broke--and almost all would have found other, cheaper ways to pass some of that time.
Piracy is other people's fault
Hackford told a story of how he walked around New York City on the day one of his movies debuted and found a "perfectly packaged" DVD of it for sale on a Canal Street sidewalk. He then explained that an examination of that disc revealed that it originated from a camcorder recording in a nearby movie theater (movie prints are watermarked to allow this kind of tracing), then duplicated at a plant in Russia. But the only way the DVD could have gotten back to the States so fast--even if the Russian mob hired a MiG fighter jet to deliver the pirated disc--was for a movie-theater employee to have shared that print with somebody before opening day.
It's funny, then, that so many industry types want to see more copy-control technology shoved into people's living rooms.
Theft of intellectual property is the same thing as theft of physical property
Meyer declared this, but so did Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), who said car theft, home burglary and movie piracy were all just as illegal. Yeah, but... intellectual property is still not the same as physical property. "IP" becomes public property after a set interval, while real property never does. The law allows many unauthorized uses of "IP", but just try offering a "fair use" defense if you're caught breaking into somebody's car.
It's disappointing to hear this nonsense from a senator; it's especially disappointing to hear it from Leahy, who has been on the right side of other tech-policy issues. (He was one of the few voices of reason to oppose the Communications Decency Act.)
Everybody will be able to download high-def copies in seconds
Before lunch, one panelist described how fast you could transfer high-definition video over Internet2 connections in tests--and then moved on from there to say that anybody would be able to send a high-def movie in seconds. Reality-check time: Have any of these people actually shopped for a home broadband connection lately? Have they noticed that Internet2 is a research project confined to a small subset of universities, research institutes and corporations?
The industry can't change its "release window" business model
Throughout the day, speaker after speaker treated the release window--the time in which a movie can only be seen in theaters, after which it can be released on DVD or in other forms--as a given. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, declared that collapsing this window would destroy the movie industry. I was glad to hear some mutters of discontent in the audience; this is a ridiculous argument to make.
One, what about people who just can't get to a theater to see the movies they want--new parents, people in rural areas, employees who work crazy hours? Right now, those folks' only option is to steal the movie online or wait a few months. Here's a better idea: How about letting them give you their money?
Two, do Fithian and others who hold this view seriously think that movie theaters can't compete with any other viewing experience? (His dire forecast came shortly after a glowing description of "digital cinema" systems that offer many times the resolution of high-definition TV.) Mark Cuban--the Dallas Mavericks owner who also happens to own a theater chain--makes this argument much better than I can.
The industry would be insane not to experiment with release windows. In the same panel discussion, director Steven Soderbergh asked for a first step: giving lower-profile titles the added exposure of a simultaneous release on DVD and in theaters. After all, he noted, nobody's rushing to steal them online anyway: "I tell you, nobody was ripping off The Good German!"
There are real issues to debate here, but the MPAA hurts its cause by leaning on such ridiculous assertions.
And yet it can still get a hearing in town. I guess there's no beating star appeal--when's the last time any tech conference put on by the MPAA's opponents wound up in the Reliable Source?
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