Last week, the US government announced that DVDs and Blu-rays will all now have two more unskippable piracy warnings, of ten seconds each. As quoted in Ars Technica, the director of Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Morton says there’s a valid and noble purpose to this. ”Law enforcement must continue to expand how it combats criminal activity; public awareness and education are a critical part of that effort.” So this isn’t to directly combat piracy, but to educate the rest of us calmly and dutifully buying this product. Guess what I think of this.
Okay, before we get to me, let’s talk about responses from the more timely parts of the blogosphere. First, there’s not a single positive response out of the 23 comments to the article in Ars Technica. But the authority in DVD and Blu-ray news is Bill Hunt, who’s been running his blog The Digital Bits for over ten years now. In his view, this shows that “Hollywood is trying very hard to drive the physical media business right into the ground.”
His colleague Jeff Kleist has a very thoughtful suggestion. ”The industry has been pushing UltraViolet as its catch-all digital locker of choice, so why not reward those first-week paying customers who register their BDs on UltraViolet – as long as you’re hooked into the Internet your disc will automatically bypass those annoying warnings and load straight into the menus. This not only gives customers a tangible benefit in purchasing new titles versus renting, but also introduces more people to UltraViolet which the studios want anyway. Combine that with a merging of all these separate studio accounts into one master UV account, and in theory everyone wins.”
This sounds a lot like the ways that console game publishers are trying to stay ahead of used game sales, with things like online passes. However, with game consoles, people have to go online in order to exploit the multiplayer capabilities. Not everyone has their DVD or Blu-ray player connected to the Internet, and some devices are not even Internet enabled. So while a great idea, it’s probably not practical for a market so fragmented that it makes Android look like iOS.
To me, this sequence of events leading to unskippable warnings for the people who are actually buying the product and following the law, is a classic example of building an extensive edifice on quicksand. Like the Marina District of San Francisco, the whole thing is built on an unnatural mass of landfill, that just can’t handle the slightest rumble. And I don’t just mean the market inequity, although a strong argument can be made there. These alleged bastions of free market capitalism, the studios and the government agencies they apparently own, are desperately trying to shoo away the inevitable, unstoppable dead hand of Adam Smith.
This body part is of course a venerated relic of Orthodox Capitalism in every other context, except when it jumps up to slap them in the face. If the film studios can’t get their act together to realize where the market is for their product, they really don’t deserve all this artificial life-support. Especially for an industry that seems to be doing well enough anyway. If people can set up home servers, to access all their movies, the studios need to Apple up and deliver a solution that gets people the content the way they clearly want to consume it. The current legal movie streaming solutions don’t quite cut it, because the pricing is still off, the quality is visibly reduced, and it takes too long to download a movie still. Physical goods still have the edge for most consumers of movies, until these issues are solved. But torturing physical media buyers with more unskippable warnings and rewarding pirates and pirate consumers with an incentive to create and own clean copies of movies is utterly bone-headed and out of touch with reality.
But that’s not even my point I really want to make. That’s a point about market correction, and it’s likely that Apple or some other disruptive solution will present itself from outside the studio system. What really gets me is the equating of media piracy with real crimes. The ICE warning actually states “Piracy is not a victimless crime.” This is patently absurd. Of course it’s victimless. Putting this on par with real crimes, complete with maximum sentences, is a direct insult to real victims of real crimes, or their surviving family members.
We all accept the fact that this is the law. However, I would suggest that the basis of intellectual property law is at best flawed. Creators don’t need an incentive to create. They like to create. They’d do it anyway. I did. Also, our laws place value on inspiration above perspiration, meaning we value the original idea above the heavy lift to commercialize a product. We see the ramifications of this in all the trademark and patent trolls that scavenge absurd IP ownership, who then earn a living by extracting their pound of flesh from the poor beasts still toiling in the field. So violating IP laws is not malum in se, or wrong in and of itself, but rather malum prohibitum, something that is wrong only because it’s prohibited. Yeah, I took Jurisprudence.
So given this landfill of a starting point, this holy crusade against people who like your stuff just comes off as hollow and irrational. Surely people in the studios know this, or can perceive it flashing off to the side. One could excuse it by saying these are big companies that are slow to react, have been very successful following their core principles for decades, and can’t react to newfangled technology. Ah, but that isn’t true either. People have been making more convenient copies of media since the inventions of audiotape and VHS. And these companies have been fighting it. Adapting only under duress, and thinking by momentum. At least the game industry is going full bore into creating business models for a convenience-preferring populace.
One way or another, the people will get what they want. Whether it’s the dead hand of Adam Smith or the dead hand of Steve Jobs, we’ll get our convenient movies.
SF: Every time I watch one of those warnings, I feel like someone is stabbing a piece of apple pie. And by apple pie I mean America. American Pie. Not the movie. This got complicated.