New Study: Impact of Pre-Release Piracy

People like to quibble about the harm done to the motion picture industry by online piracy. They split hairs over things like whether or not each pirated view represents a lost sale or chime in with arguments that piracy is a form of promotion or a natural market reaction to outdated practices.  If a lot of the arguments for piracy sound like rationalizations, it’s because they are.  And when you hear rationalizations you’re hearing the voices of people who know that what they’re doing is wrong.  But even if we were to take any of the pro-piracy rationalizations as serious analysis, they fall completely apart the moment we’re talking about one of the more obnoxious practices in the whole paradigm — pre-release piracy.

It’s happened a lot, but most recently, The Expendables 3 was leaked online three weeks before it was scheduled for theatrical release.  There’s no other way to put it:  pre-release piracy is a dick move.  It says to everyone who worked on the film, most of them regular folks with regular jobs, that you’re actually eager to see the film but that your own narcissistic desire to be ahead of some imaginary curve is more important than all the investment of money and labor that made the film in the first place.  More than any other form of piracy, pre-release piracy is a huge middle-finger to the grips, electrics, camera department, wardrobe, props, etc. that their jobs mean nothing compared to your need to see a mediocre-quality version of the film on a small screen before anyone else sees it in the theater where it was designed to be released.  Okay that’s my opinion, but what about the impact?

A new study by researchers at The Technology Policy Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is the first to examine the effect of pre-release piracy on revenue. Their conclusions state that, on average, predicted box-office revenues can be reduced by 19% by pre-release piracy compared to post-release piracy.  Theatrical release is the one window when there are no other legal means of viewing a film, and market changes caused by digital technology advances have closed that window considerably.  DVDs go on sale much sooner than they used to after a theatrical release, and some films are released in theaters and through VOD channels simultaneously.  Audiences for big, action films like the Expendables franchise tend to want to see these movies with friends, in theaters, and on big screens.  Profitable opening weekends are a critical slice in the pie-chart of returns investors are seeking when they fund these rather expensive films.

People reading this will, no doubt, have various reactions, including at least a few sentiments directed against big, Hollywood action movies; but that is a flawed lens through which to view the problem.  The Expendables 3 isn’t necessarily my kind of fare per se, but that is entirely beside the point.  What matters in the macro view is whether or not the effect of piracy poisons the ground where legitimate business should otherwise thrive.  When that happens, it’s detrimental to the entire, economic ecosystem in the industry.  Anyone who thinks they can cherry-pick-pirate what they consider the “corporate” fare out of existence and protect whatever their idea of a “better” film might be, is sorely mistaken.

In the big-movie market, if investors are scared off major motion picture investment because pre-release piracy threatens the most critical phase of first sales, that means fewer films get made overall and that the only big films that do get made employ financial models to offset expected losses.  In other words, if it can’t be in a Happy Meal, it won’t be on the screen.  But the smaller movie market has similar challenges with regard to windows of opportunity to recoup investments, and that translates into the probability of making the next film.  If those windows are artificially closed by piracy that preempts the real market from voting with its pocketbook, this will not result in a healthier industry by whatever measure, economic or cultural, you prefer to use.

Posted in Film, Piracy | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Westboro Baptists Infringe to Offend

In at least a few posts advocating for the right of the copyright holder to control the use of works for reasons other than money, I have raised hypothetical scenarios in which particularly odious entities make use of works in ways that are uniquely offensive to the soul of the original.  Most recently, I employed such hypotheticals on the subject of compulsory licenses, which would compel music rights holders, for instance, to allow any use of their works as long as the use is compensated.  I argued that this strips the creator of one of the most basic rights of copyright, which is the right to choose the manner in which his/her expression is used, except for of the types of uses typically protected by the doctrine of Fair Use.  So, along comes a real-life example of the dark side of remix culture and the kind of cultural gaffes we might get in a world where all works are fair game.

It looks like members of the Westboro Baptist Church cobbled together the six functioning brain cells in the group and scrawled out some clever new lyrics to accompany Paul McCartney’s famous melody “Hey Jude.”  For your listening and viewing pleasure (or nausea), I offer  “Hey Jews,” sung by the men, women and, yes, children of what I assume to be the Westboro Baptist Church choir.  Drawing upon the favorite theme of killing their savior, the Wesboro Baptist version of this song, originally composed as a ballad of avuncular tenderness for young Julian Lennon, is an anti-semitic screed I suspect most people would ignore, except of course that guys like me will call attention to it.  So, why am I doing that?

Because the video in all its ignorant glory serves up some interesting gefilte fish for thought, if you will.  First, I have no idea whether or not Sony/ATV will take any action against the WBC for infringement, although they could; and if they did, I don’t think a judge would rule this video to be a fair use.  This has nothing to do with its offensiveness but rather with the fact that the revised version does not lampoon the original work itself.  Simply taking a known song and changing the words does not make the new work a parody of the original.  For instance, Weird Al’s “Word Crimes,” which is a fantastic new hit based on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is not a parody of that song.  So, why does Al get to use it?  Because he got permission and paid for the use, the permission being the more socially important of those two steps.

Sony/ATV may not sue simply because the Wesboro Baptist Church is so universally reviled and ignored that they may just let the infringement go rather than make a case out of it. But alter the situation just a bit, and the scenario might look very different.  Imagine the rights holder is still the author of the music and not as galacticly famous as Sir Paul, and the offensive derivative is made and promoted by a more prominent group.  Does that skew your idea as to how much power the rights holder should retain to prevent such a use?  Some will call this song/video free speech, but I say free speech gives the Wesboro Baptists the right to write, record, and publish their own offensive idiot song, but not a right to use someone else’s work as they see fit.  Because in a sense these neanderthals are speaking with just a little bit of Paul McCartney’s voice, never mind desecrating the very personal reason he created the work in the first place.

I understand this song’s influence in the world will be zero.  Likewise, neither the original work nor its author will be harmed by this association such that anyone is going to assume McCartney endorses the Westboro Baptists.  But change the players in an otherwise similar story, and harm is possible.  Hence, preserving the copyright holder’s choice to sanction, prevent, or ignore certain uses is actually more important in the digital age than it ever was.  Because now any idiot can broadcast, and any idiot will.

Posted in Copyright, Music | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Fresh Scholarship on Copyright

For quite some time, too long perhaps, a considerable amount of academic scholarship has trended toward focus on copyright’s negative effects, or at least doubt its positive effects, without adequate analysis of the creative process itself.  When viewing the market, and especially creators, many academic views I have encountered appear to look solely at finished works, how the market interacts with those works, and then to interpolate from these data the creative process that generated the works in the first place.  As such, many attempts to reinvestigate copyright’s role in incentivizing production are incomplete. To quote from a new academic article that will be published in the March 2015 issue of the Harvard Law Review, “Copyright’s incentives/access debate has done a good job recognizing the risks. Yet it has all but ignored the rewards.”

At last, a legal scholar has emerged who has taken a scientific approach to examine the creative process in an effort to better understand copyright’s generative benefits.  Joseph P. Fishman, Climenko Fellow & Lecturer at Harvard Law School, is the first academic to my knowledge who has attempted to express in analytical terms what I believe most artists understand intuitively — that constraint is always part of the creative process, and that copyright’s constraints very likely produce a greater diversity of works than we would see in a market without such constraints.

In his paper, Fishman refutes the often misguided assumption that creative people require “absolute freedom” in order to be more creative.  Artists and creative producers understand that a process without constraints (or boundaries) is not a process at all but a road to madness or failure or both.  A novelist does not arbitrarily pick themes and plot devices and language as she goes, but makes firm choices and either sticks to them or changes them wholesale in the book in order to produce a story that her readers will want to follow.  Most of us are familiar with the Michelangelo-attributed quote about sculpting being the act of “cutting away everything that is not the angel.”  Fishman has quantified that metaphor in his paper titled Working Around Copyright.

The title refers to a well-established and accepted benefit of patent law that “working around” patents generates the kind of diversity of useful inventions that benefit society exactly as intended.  Fishman’s thesis asks why this same working around principle is not applied to legal scholarship on the subject of copyright.  Why would working around copyright not be as diversely generative as working around patents?  Experientially, creators will tell you that it is.  And now Mr. Fishman has applied legal theory that corresponds with that experience.

Last July, I wrote this post describing how the creative process is always about working around obstacles and that obstacles — legal, financial, physical, logistical, and internal — are often the most important catalysts to producing unanticipated, creative solutions that themselves become the signature elements that give a work its unique or masterful qualities.  Shortly after publishing that piece, Fishman contacted me, still in the early stages of writing his paper.  We spoke for a while, and his article does cite that October post, but what I did not know was that he would produce such a thorough and scientifically-based explanation of what artists throughout history have consistently described anecdotally.

Citing extensive psychological research into the creative process, Fishman demonstrates that there is an optimal balance to be maintained between constraint and freedom.  Too much constraint fails to produce creative diversity, but so does too little constraint.  In order to view the creative process as a science, Fishman rightly describes artistic work as an exercise in problem solving no different from the activities of a scientist or technologist.  We tend to talk about the arts in emotional or poetic terms, but Fishman is right that the process is entirely analogous to problem identification and solution.  As such, the psychological experiments to which Fishman refers throughout his article suggest that a purely “open” process free of constraints produces less creative variation than a process with the right amount and right types of constraints.

Fishman contrasts various experiments in constraint with the path-of-least-resistance approach (i.e. freeform) to creative development; and in a copyright context, a path of least resistance might be the ability, for instance, to riff off any existing creative works without the permission of rights holders.  But Fishman explains, “Following this path of least resistance inhibits originality, and hence creativity, by launching a mimetic approach to problem solving.”  To translate that into a contemporary example:  the world would be more boring with a hundred simultaneously available Sherlock Holmes derivatives than with, say, one or two of those while creators are forced to invent other works.

One analogy that came to mind while reading Fishman’s article was child-raising.  You’re probably familiar either with the concept or the unfortunate experience of the young child whose parents allow him to “express himself” insofar as he is given few if any boundaries.  Those of us who have witnessed this catastrophe in action know that the unbounded child is not only a brat, but is a thoroughly unoriginal brat incapable of producing creative solutions, even if his parents might see genius in his mischief.  But the child who is given appropriate boundaries balanced with appropriate freedoms will produce volumes of creative work though play acting, building, arts and crafts, etc.  As engaged parents, we constantly try to find that balance between constraint and freedom that produces a person capable of creative (i.e. original) problem-solving skills, but we know for sure that the child without any constraints is a recipe for trouble.  It seems to me that Fishman is seeking an analogous balance with copyright law.

The article even goes so far as to create a taxonomy of constraints, identifying seven properties for examination with regard to their generative or restrictive effects.  With the first of these properties, Source, he discusses chosen vs imposed constraints, which is an interesting and important division to recognize.  An artist or group of artists will embark on a project with myriad imposed constraints (time and money always at the top of the list), and will need to pick a number of chosen constraints that actually give shape, texture, and voice to the finished product.  I would add to this taxonomy a third subcategory under Source that most artists probably understand, and this would be innate or internal constraints.   In fact, any artist who looks first at external constraints and not at internal ones may have to consider the possibility that his biggest barrier is that he is not in fact an artist.

 When I was still in college, I spent some time thinking about various artistic media in terms of their constraints, operating from the premise that these boundaries are in fact what define each medium and are, therefore, the source of their power to affect us as we want art to do. After all, when one attends a class in a medium, say photography, discussion begins with the boundaries of the medium, even though we don’t usually think of it that way.  New photo students will begin to consider composition, light, two-dimensionality, color, all of which are boundaries that define a thing we call a photograph as something distinct from, say, looking at the subject of that photograph in real life.  Or to put it another way, a constraint on a photograph is that it cannot make a sound, but a power that it has is that it can make the viewer perceive sound without hearing it and thus offer an experience that re-contextualizes “real life,” which is what art is supposed to do.

This contemplation of boundaries is particularly relevant, I believe, to filmmakers because film more than any other medium trades on a gestalt that what is being experienced is “real.”  Even the most fantastic on-screen world in a narrative film tends to draw viewers into an immersive experience that is more visceral than with other media.  Additionally, the hundreds of dynamic variables, choices, and obstacles that are constantly being managed in order to complete a motion picture ought to make filmmakers particularly cognizant of the generative power of constraint.  The line between an imposed workaround and a brilliant creative choice is so blurry as to be absurd.

In his article, Fishman mentions standup comedy, which is a medium that probably deserves more study than it gets in this context. He writes,  “In stand-up comedy, for instance, the reputational cost of appropriating others’ jokes stimulates continued innovation in developing new ones.”  What’s interesting about that world is that comedians don’t need copyright per se to protect their jokes because it is an unspoken rule that stealing someone else’s material will very quickly ostracize the thief from both fans and peers.  Some might view this as evidence of copyright’s irrelevance, but to Fishman’s point, it should be viewed as an endorsement of constraint’s generative capacity.  The accepted boundaries among comedians force them to work harder to find their own voices, which adds to the diversity of comedy rather than homogenize the medium.

It is heartening to see a legal scholar make the effort to examine the pros and cons of copyright from a creative-process perspective.  It is also about time.  I sincerely hope others in Mr. Fishman’s field take note.

See Working Around Copyright by Joseph P. Fishman here.

Posted in Art, Copyright, Law & Policy | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Google Unveils New Shiny Object in D.C.

If Disney built a miniature version of one of its theme parks in the middle of Washington D.C. and populated it with lobbyists and government affairs specialists, people would go berserk.  And rightly so.  But will there be any public reaction be to the new 54,000 square-foot fun zone Google,Inc. officially opened on July 15 with a grand party attended by lawmakers?  That’s not a typo.  It’s fifty-four thousand square feet for 110 employees.  I’d like to say that each employee needs 489 square feet for his/her Google-scale ego, but that would be unfair.  In fact, according to this article in Bloomberg, all that space is a giant advertisement for Google products and for Google’s role in the continuum of technological and scientific information. And there’s nothing wrong with that message.  That’s what lobbyists are supposed to do, and at least part of the time, they speak the truth.  But as Google is now the fifth largest lobbying corporation in the nation, it should at least be noted that when it comes to dangling shiny objects in front of lawmakers, they’ve got ample game.  As such, I hope we can now dispense with the whole “Washington is in Hollywood’s pocket” gibberish and attempt to look at conflicting issues on their own terms.

See article in Bloomberg here.

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With easy access comes easy hypocrisy.

I can’t help but be aware of a disturbing harmonic buzz in my head when I read two stories on the same day that point to a particular digital age dichotomy. Remember Sarah Jones? You might have helped her story go viral. Sarah was a camera assistant, who was killed when she was struck by a train during filming of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. I read today that the producers of that now-cancelled project have surrendered themselves to Georgia State authorities to face charges of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the February 20 disaster. But also today, I read that the app Popcorn Time, which makes movie piracy easy for everyone with its Netflix-like interface, is being “improved” for the Android platform. The hypocrisy underlying the concurrence of these stories is typical of our times. The same technology that enables people to know about Sarah, to share her story, even to join the campaign pledging better on-set safety, also allows some of the very same individuals to flick a thumb and start pirating motion pictures that are made by tens of thousands of people just like Sarah.

Here’s a clue:  if you enjoy motion pictures and actually care at all about the well being of the individuals who do the heavy lifting to make those films happen, don’t pirate. It’s a no-brainer. In an effort to justify this behavior, you can quibble all you like about where you think (because you actually don’t know) the money goes; but in general, the money (a.k.a. the project investment) pays for worker wages, union support, insurances, location fees, and, yes, safety procedures and personnel. Unfortunately, accidents and negligence still happens; and it is always the responsibility of managers and fellow crew members to keep checks on our ingrained culture that wants to get the shot at almost any cost. Surely, firsthand accounts of the Midnight Rider production sound like the kind of amateurish crap that goes on all the time and thankfully only rarely results in serious injury or death. So, while I’d certainly stop short of saying piracy kills filmmakers, I will not hesitate to say that, in general, economic stability is better for maintaining worker safety in every industry. Andwe have yet to fully see the effects of piracy on this industry.

We have a bad habit of talking about piracy with regard to finished and popular filmed entertainment. Partly, this is because it suits piracy’s supporters to say things like “XYZ tentpole made a gazillion dollars, so piracy does no harm and probably even helps.” But for every Avengers and Game of Thrones out there, there are hundreds or thousands of small and medium budget pictures being made, many of which are the films most treasured by serious fans. 

Digital-age utopians love to extoll the virtues of independent, guerrilla filmmaking; and when they do, it’s a little like listening to middle-class white kids gripe about the struggle of some oppressed minority. It’s both true and utter bullshit at the same time, especially if the self-appointed proponent of indie filmmaking is also pro-piracy. The reality is none of these people has a clue about the very specific set of skills Sarah Jones had developed and was developing in her role as an AC. Those skills don’t come cheap, and neither should they. But among the indisputable ill effects of piracy is that it exerts economic pressure on the industry as a whole, and it will always be the small to midsize, indie producers that will present the earliest symptoms of the diseases caused by this pressure. These symptoms may include lower standard wages for skilled workers and/or shortcuts around various production practices that affect general working conditions, including safety. 

Yes, Sarah’s untimely and entirely avoidable death should be a wake-up call to production teams everywhere to remind themselves that no film is worth unreasonable risks to a crew member’s safety. But as this tragic story also draws attention to the many otherwise invisible hands behind the scenes, perhaps consumers ought to consider their responsibility to support a sustainable industry rather than casually line the pockets of poachers who do absolutely nothing.

Posted in Film, Piracy | Tagged , , | 21 Comments