CNET’s interview of Eric Garland, CEO of Big Champagne, has attracted understandable interest over the past few days. Garland talks turkey and sense about how the internet will inevitably impact the movie business, just as it has the music and publishing industries:
What will happen is the studios will exhaust every available remedy and there will be a series of evolutions, meaning they will exhaust one remedy and a new one will present itself. These things will be pursued in tandem. They will pursue technological intervention on the Internet. This goes to the study at NYU that basically says this has had no effect. Ultimately, because they are spending a lot of money and not getting results, they’ll become disillusioned with these vendors. They’ll clean house. But something else will present itself.
I think he’s right about where we are, and I think he’s right about where we’re going in the future, but I think he and almost everyone else stop short of where we’re ultimately headed. And I’m not saying that as a criticism: Garland properly frames his comments in the context of survivability, not ultimate truth. The goal is getting your industry through the transition, after which things will of course continue to evolve.
Still, I think the lines of convergence are pretty clear, even if they still resolve over the horizon. Everything people think they know about the internet is predicated on a set of relatively arbitrary decisions. Net neutrality is one instance, anonymity is another. Flip a couple of simple switches and suddenly the internet doesn’t look like the wild west or a commune, it looks like Big Brother or a corporate bureaucracy.
Piracy of copyrighted content on the internet is hardly the unstoppable force that it’s made out to be. Locating the major players at any one time is absurdly easy, and killing their ability to connect with others is easy as well. There are legal reasons that these things aren’t done, but if the Establishment wanted to blunt the free-wheeling trend it could do so in about an hour. See also: Joseph Stalin.
And trafficking in stolen content on the internet is not like trafficking in drugs. People who deal drugs move a physical object through three dimensions in a vast landscape. The ability of law enforcement to find drug dealers and their drugs is limited by the scale of the effort, by the complicity of people throughout the distribution chain, and by the ease of secreting drugs at all levels of the process.
Digital content, however, travels on defined paths, and generally exists only on computers. Nobody has a bunch of 0’s and 1’s hiding in a crawlspace in their attic. So tracking and finding this stuff is just not that hard.
As an American, I like the way things are now. As a copyright holder I don’t like the way things are, but I see how draconian efforts to stop piracy relate to issues like free speech. That doesn’t mean everybody else is willing to settle for tradeoffs, and it doesn’t mean we’re always going to see the same balance of interests. In fact, try as I might, I cannot imagine a digital future in which content is not more rigorously tracked and controlled.
I think corporations would gladly trade my individual rights for laws which protected their revenue streams. I don’t for a minute think anyone in any industry would say, “No, we shouldn’t do this.” Like ocean waves ceaselessly beating a rocky shore, business erodes all else. Slavery was a business (and somewhere still is). Drugs are a business. Killing people is a business. Child labor was a business solution (and somewhere still is).
Too, there are reasons to increase the safety of the internet for data, and in some instances those interests seem aligned between bureaucracies and individuals. Take the issue of electronic medical records. Apart from concerns about access and errors, we all want our records available when we need them, and we all want them to be secure and accurate. Hacking my unprotected laptop is one thing. Hacking my medical records and changing or deleting them is something else.
And then there’s the omnipresent question of national security. Even as the country seems to have moved on from 9/11 in less than a decade, the erosion of civil liberties that was hysterically rationalized in the aftermath of that attack has not been reclaimed. And probably never will be. To the extent that this cycle of terrorist attack, panicked reaction and failure to rescind accrued power establishes a trend, this means that the inevitable unexpected terrorist attacks in our future will probably tighten the civil-liberties noose even more.
Which brings us to the question of a national identification number, and how useful that would be in making sure you are who you say you are, and not a terrorist. (Although in fairness it should be pointed out that those two things are not mutually exclusive.)
Which, in turn, brings us to a convergence of interests. Would corporate America like to see every citizen tattooed with a unique identifier? Yes. Would the government profit from that? Yes. Would it help protect our borders and our medical records? Yes. Would most people go along with it if it protected their medical records from dirty foreigners? Yes.
We live in a digital age. Everything is numbers. And it’s an age that’s getting harder and harder to opt out of. What’s one more number?
And once you have that number, why not use it for other law-abiding purposes? Say, for example, to make sure that you own the stuff you say you own — in the same way that Microsoft compels a validation check of its operating system when you’re trying to patch same. (Or when a ‘critical vulnerability’ is discovered, compelling users to choose between the damage hackers might do and Microsoft’s own abuse of those fears for its own market-driven ends.)
Digital content is no different from water or electricity. The generic bits form more unique units, but the distribution is the same. We all have meters on our water and electricity supplies, and we all have meters (or all-you-can-download pricing) on our internet pipes. The only thing missing is a way to meter the unique units in the digital pipeline. Because if you can tell whether a person paid for something on their machine, you can tell if they didn’t, which means you can find pirated content as easily as turning on a faucet. And if the law says you can delete that content, you can delete it. Or fine the person. Or both.
Now, it’s really tempting here to wander off into conspiracy-theory world — not because I lean that way, but because it’s just fun. But here it would actually be harmful, because it would take our eye of the ball, and that ball is copyright law.
Everything we’re talking about in all mediums — publishing, newspapers, music — is fundamentally about owning, protecting and profiting from copyrights. This simple fact becomes obscured when corporations lead the charge, but corporations are the main copyright controllers — if not owners — in our world. (Your rights may revert to you at some point, but they revert because you don’t have them now.) And it gets even harder to keep this in mind when these copyright owners decide that they need to pick on a mother of three somewhere and sue her into oblivion — even if she actually broke the law. (And Google’s attempt to co-opt copyrights for millions of books only makes things worse.)
Unfortunately, my concerns as a copyright holder, and yours as well, are aligned with Big Entertainment. Ultimately no one — including the average citizen who wants free content — profits from the destruction of the copyright system, because that’s the only system by which everyone can hope to monetize content. If the business of agriculture is founded on soil and seed, and the business of energy is founded on fuel, then the business of information at all levels is founded on copyright, because it is the most basic element which can be owned.
The battles raging all around us are interesting and amazing and threatening. But they are also chump change compared with stakes like civil liberties and the destruction of copyright as law. The only reason we’re not talking about these overarching issues, and working to solve them, is because we live in a historical moment where these things do not seem to be converging. But they are converging.
Arguments about piracy and corporate domination of content are not David-and-Goliath arguments, but that’s how they have evolved culturally because the people who head up the corporations that dominate our content are pig-headed, elitist, contemptuous, ruthless and so fundamentally stupid at times that you cannot believe they have multiple college degrees — until you remember that the people who turned the economy into a smoking hole have lots of degrees, too. By the same token, as much as we’d all like to think of ourselves as a Band of Brothers fighting against mindless overlords, the first thing individuals tend to do when the lights go out is become a lawless bunch of morons, stealing everything we can get our hands on — even if it’s something we can’t possibly use.
The bottom line here is that the internet is not a battleground between greed and freedom. It’s a battleground between law and lawlessness — with Google trying a massive back-room land-grab while everyone else is shooting at each other. Laws and enforcement will determine how this all plays out, which means we all have a vested interest in finding workable solutions that prevent lawmakers from trying to solve our problems for us.
That’s the bigger picture.
— Mark Barrett