Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Post Modern

A friend of mine who works tangentially in the animation industry expressed recently how nervous the studios and other "old media" types are about the whole Internet business - about how films and clips should not be put online because people will steal them.

Putting shows, movies, or entire catalog of shorts (the National Film Board of Canada recently put their entire collection up online - here - a boon to researchers and students, but unlikely to drive DVD sales except to those dinosaurs who like to "hold" their films in their hands) on or YouTube or Hulu, without figuring out how to get people to pay at least a little each time, is to basically give them away.

It seems somehow irresponsible.

What people that believe this are missing is that we're in a whole new world, with a wholy modern business model. "Things" like copies of films can't meaningfully be sold across the board - we're quickly moving beyond the sell-a-widget part of the industrial revolution. (Those who doubt that the barn not only has open doors but also no more sides may be directed to an earlier entry, about Internet thievery, here.) We've already seen this in the music industry.

There's so much material of all flavors out there now on the Internet, in every corner for every taste, professional and amateur and mixes of both, that for all practical purposes anyone can get (almost) anything they want with a little search and guidance. And because of the digital tools at their disposal, they can often get (exactly) what they want. Including full copies of DVDs, movies currently in your local theatre, any music, and any other object of intellectual property that used to be protected by the nature of the fact that it was a physical object that was sold, one by one, and shipped to you and you alone, to hold and keep in view on your shelf up there. Right up there. I haven't opened it yet. I'll get to it. I didn't want it to go out of print. I've already seen it anyway. I just like to know I have it.

Sure, we all still desire material objects. But intellectual property has been enabled to move easily across physical borders by the digital revolution. The studios and distributors are so worried about people stealing their shows and movies and short clips that they sometimes refuse to even release it (Lorne Michaels continually fights with NBC to keep skits from SNL up on YouTube, trying to generate buzz and activity both short-term and farther down the long tail, but the GE suits get so nervous they end up taking them right down again. Disney is positively feral about protecting their intellectual property from appearing in places they don't authorize and completely control.).

What they fail to realize is that those objects are worthless.

They have no value anymore. It's free out there. When there's no need to pay for it, they might as well give it away. Because the value is no longer in selling items that are too easily available - the value has moved upstream - to the authors.

Many filmmakers're (understandably) concerned that if their films are available "free" online then they can't sell them. But - the objects themselves - the films - are now free. And are by themselves therefore worthless. The value of the intellectual property has moved from the objects themselves, no longer sellable, to the artists, the producers who create the value by creating the thing in the first place.

And frankly that's where the value really resides anyway. The "author" (or producer or musician or re-mixer) is the one who's the creative force, and the objects are merely artifacts - traces and evidence of the author's value as creator.

And if someone tries to copy them, it doesn't matter, because they're "free" and have no value, copy or original - the value resides at the author, my friend, who can not be copied. A copy of a Vermeer is not a Vermeer, it is now a Steinbrenner (or an Artanis). Which creates its own value, separate from the original. (See appropriate episode.)

And if the object is copied and distributed? Folks, that is the beauty (and the curse) of the digital. Things are now infinitely duplicatable - you don't have to build and ship a 2nd item to get it into the hands of one more person, then again a third time for the next, etc. You have the ability to get 1 million "free" copies into the hands of 1 million fans without worrying about value - except that it flows back to you, the author.

A million smart-eggs out there, spreading your message.

Phish can give away their music for free and make fortunes touring live for audiences who will pay to be in the same room as them. Or buy Trent Reznor's signed x-rays.

So an artist may ask herself, if my work is rendered "worthless" once it appears in the wild digital yonder, why create? Besides the obvious phenomenological Saul Bass reasons, the realm of art creation still lives in an economic sphere. Out of all the material available, someone must create it all. Approximately 90% of the people in the 15-to-35 age range visit YouTube, Hulu or some other video site apparently at least once a week, yet do more than 1% of those people actually create content?

It's the lumpen proletariet, the unwashed mob of opiated workers right out of Marx 100 years ago, even more narcotized (still a word) by the tsunami of moving images.

With such a large and habitualized audience, there's always need for new content. The investors, advertisers, and CEOs love when more traffic is generated by their content, and anyone who can create buzz, traffic, comments, or controversy with their work, their voice, their unique insight or raw talent will be paid. Handsomely.

Just because the millions of viewers a day are not paying any money to watch your video doesn't mean that money isn't changing hands.

What "authors" need to do is not be part of the 99% that consume, of which there is a surplus; but be part of the 1% that creates, of which there is a scarcity, which means there is value - and where there is value, there is possibly a swimming pool in your future.

As well as having created art that is not gathering dust in the bottom of your closet (or up there on the shelf, next to the unopened DVDs), but out in the world, accessible to all.

Rather than signaling the "death" of the author, as Barthes may have claimed in a post-modern, pre-videotape '70s, the Internet portends a rebirth of the author.

At least, a redefinition of her. As a producer of intellectual property - without property to stand in the way.

It's positively Marxist.

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(Related: see also Time article here.)

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