TCS Daily


Hollywood Stasists vs.
Valley Dynamists

By Edward B. Driscoll - March 19, 2003 12:00 AM

In Virginia Postrel's 1998 book, The Future and its Enemies, rather than using traditional political groups such as Republicans and Democrats, or even conservatives and liberals, she classifies people as being either dynamists or stasists.

One front in the war of dynamists and stasists is in California, where Northern California's Silicon Valley is on the dynamist side of liberation, freedom and self-enlightenment. But down south, Hollywood is fighting for addiction, ignorance, top-down dominance and stasis.

Postrel once told me that she describes the dynamists as a group of individuals who want to allow for more individual exploration and experimentation; a group "looking for improvements in their own lives, in their businesses, in technologies they work with. And doing this in a very decentralized way."

On the other side of the equation, Postrel says, "There are a lot of people who are very uncomfortable with that choice or with that process"; uncomfortable with individuals having too much control. "And this group wants stability or control at the level of the whole society. They want some form of stasis. Some form of holding the future still." And says Postrel, they typically want the government to do this on a national level.

The dynamic computer industry of Northern California's Silicon Valley is busy creating technology that lets people make their own music, burn their own CDs and DVDs, create their own movies, and go as far as their brains, and talent will let them. But those Hollywood stasists are having none of it.

Blocking Consumer Media

As is typical of any monopolist, Hollywood is determined to block any media that they don't create. If I want to record a TV show off the TV with my PVR, and send it to a friend, or simply to another PVR in my house, Silicon Valley's Sonicblue has the solution, with their ReplayTV products. But the television industry has filed suit to block Sonicblue's automatic commercial skipping technology. (If they win, will every PBS show come complete with its own half-hour-long fundraising interruption?)

And if I want to copy a DVD to have a copy to watch in both my bedroom and den, or simply to keep one copy archived and free of scratches, I can't. Hollywood has used the same Macrovision copy protection scheme since the early 1980s, first on videotapes, and now on DVD (the exception was laser discs, which miraculously didn't have copy protection). Unlike laser discs, if I want to copy a DVD to have a backup, I'm screwed. More importantly, if I want to post a brief clip of a scene to highlight a review I've written for a Web site, fuhgeddaboudit. Even though I could legally quote a bit from a book I was reviewing.

And if I want to copy a CD, I can't, as "Big Media" is more and more violating the Red Book compact disc standard to prevent copying. (Fortunately, there are several Web sites, both in the US and in Europe, which both keep track of, and accurately call these discs what they are: defective). Most of these copy protection schemes a real bootlegger could crack in about five minutes. But why am I being punished, simply because when I buy a CD, I often like keeping the original disc in the Pioneer Elite "jukebox" in my den that holds 300 discs, and burning a copy to play in my car, or take with me traveling, and not have to worry if I've lost it.

Needless to say, these days, it's not like I'm buying a whole lot of CDs by new recording acts. Despite having enormous recording and promotion budgets, and access to the best songwriting and production talent, record sales are down for many acts. If the answer was simply software piracy, it wouldn't explain why the rating of the Grammies have been trending downward for years. Part of that answer is that the industry just isn't user friendly.

But it's not entirely a one state war. Cakewalk of Massachusetts' top of the line home recording software actually has more features built into it than the Beatles had available to them in Abbey Road. But the recording industry doesn't want me distributing the music I make with it any way but the old fashioned way - through them. While the battle to shut Napster down had legitimate piracy concerns, it also was designed to discourage any act that wanted to distribute its music via the Internet.

It's a Long Story

Of course, there's a long tradition of Big Media fearing anything that wasn't invented by Thomas Edison. In the late 1940s, the film industry was terrified that television would put them out of business. Why pay money to go out to the movies when you can watch entertainment for free at home?

However, back then, smart movie producers didn't attempt to block the sales of television, they simply built a better mousetrap: adding stereo sound, enormous wide screens, and color. These were all features that television lacked at the time. With this new cinema technology in place, moviemakers then made larger-than-life films that had to be seen in a big theater, or their impact was lost. And the 1950s and 1960s turned into great years for motion pictures, as epic after epic was released: from Ben Hur to Lawrence of Arabia to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's arguable that none of these epic films would have existed if it weren't for the competition from television.

Then the VCR came into existence, and again, in the early 1980s, Hollywood was terrified that they'd be put out of business (hence the first go-around with copy protection, which makes for inferior looking videotapes, and doesn't stop real pirates, but makes Hollywood moguls sleep better at night). What happened? Just as with television, home video saved the movie industry once again, as an enormous portion of the film industry's revenues comes from the rental and purchase of videotapes and DVDs. And Disney receives a big chunk of its revenue from direct-to-video sequels that never touch a movie theater.

That's the film industry. The music industry has been just as bad, but perhaps because listening to music is often a more solitary experience than seeing a movie in a theater, they've relied more on stifling innovation through lawsuits than building a better product. (The one thing that saved it in the early 1980s, MTV, the recording industry itself had little to do with creating.) In the 1970s and '80s, the music industry railed against cassette recorders. Then in the late 1980s, the battle switched to digital audio tape (DAT), where the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA, the music industry's loudest voice against any kind of copying of music, even when it's perfectly legal), managed to get copy protection installed.

On the Frontline

Perhaps the ultimate sign of the schism is the RIAA's Web site, which has been repeatedly hacked. In a way, it's almost a frontline in the battle between California's dynamists and stasists. As Wired News recently said, the RIAA's position as the music industry's voice against digital piracy makes it an inviting target "for those who are angered by what they see as the organization's overly vehement crusade for copyright owner's rights."

The RIAA's site was hacked earlier this year, just a couple of weeks prior to my writing this battle report. So why hasn't the RIAA made an effort to better secure its own Website?

Wired quotes Robert Ferrell, a systems security specialist as saying, "My opinion is that the people at the RIAA (who are making) the statements about P2P hacking and the (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), the executives and legal staff, are completely disconnected from the technical folks who actually run the Website."

Which means, reading between the lines, that they're also completely disconnected from the dynamic reality of today's technology - not to mention its consumers.

And unlike the film industry, which is a bastion of dynamism in comparison, rather than try to adapt to today's technology, they simply want to kill it. Witness the death of Napster, or more recently, Fritz Hollings' infamous, and Orwellian titled, "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA)", which hopefully has had a stake driven through its heart by the re-emergence of a Republican majority in the Senate.

For a bunch of stasists, it's fairly amusing that the standard Hollywood cliché is that big business is stupid, rapacious and harmful to its customers (look at the films that they crank out to perpetuate this stereotype, from Norma Rae to Erin Brockovich). And yet, up north, "big business" is continually innovating, and finding solutions to problems. While back in Hollywood, those would-be champions of social reform don't want their consumers from wandering off the plantation-or even manufacturing cotton of their own.

Glenn Reynolds has frequently written that there's a huge opportunity for the GOP to take on big media. "Last year we had a panel of bigshot songwriters and entertainment lawyers at the law school, and I was moderator", he posted in early 2002. "In an effort to stir up some disagreement (since we had people from both the industry and the artist sides) I suggested that the record industry was vulnerable to racketeering charges. I failed miserably: everyone agreed that I was right."

Reynolds says that "It's time for the Department of Justice to look into this. They've made some moves in that direction, but they're barely scratching the surface."

And the stasists continue their monopoly on the media, and how we interact with it.
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