Since early 2005, I’ve been popping up here more or less every other week and complaining about something or other having to do with the law, information, and technology. There’s never a lack of things to call out, what with Big Media and Corrupt Government colluding night and day to keep you all shivering and cold in the darkness, trying to make you pay more and more for things that ought to be free or at least cheap, and getting all snoopy into your biz. It’s been fun, and at the risk of looking like I’m continually tearing down without building up, what I’ve tried to do is let you know that the status quo is nonsensical and isn’t working; that the way things are aren’t the way they need to be, and aren’t even the way things have always been; and that you’ve been getting screwed, blued, and tattooed by a monolithic corporate regime backed up by the government. And it’s all about getting stuff to watch, look at, read and listen to.
But slowly, very slowly, things might be getting better. Congress dipped its toe into the waters of copyright reform last week with a short hearing that featured a surprising number of sane (read: non-corporate-stooge) speakers, along with some fairly intelligent questions coming from the representatives. Sure, there was a photographic guild guy who was a little bonkers (what is it with photographers?) and some special-effects-company guy who equated mondo-budget movies (like all of the movies that flopped this summer) with “good jobs,” without any mention of copyright law at all. But there was some enlightenment, too, like Tor Hanson, the owner of that sweet indy label Yep Roc, who tried to explain all of the ways the Internet made his business better and asked that government step in and make music royalties make sense. While it was troubling that there were no actual creators among the speakers (only business owners and lobbyists), the tone of the hearing (which was cut short because the Congresspeople had to go vote on something really important, like perhaps repealing Obamacare for the 39th time) was civil, hopeful, and intelligent.
Then this morning there’s news that Comcast is looking at some interesting new ways to combat illegal downloading. Over the years, we’ve had Big Media suing the bejesus out of individuals for downloading stuff, a stupid strategy that’s now dying fast after porn producers started using it, and courts really started looking at the law. That was replaced, sort of, by this absurd “Six Strikes” thing, where your Internet company is supposed to monitor what you’re downloading and send you six graduated sets of warnings that you’re being bad, with sanctions that include forcing you to take copyright reeducation courses and severely slowing down service if you are chronically disobedient. Really.
Now, Comcast is talking about replacing the Six Strikes thing with a new program where it will send an illegal downloader a pop-up message containing a link to where the content can be acquired legally. Obviously, there’s a lot wrong with this picture. First, as with the Six Strikes thing, this means Comcast will be all up in its customers’ junk, as in actively monitoring what you’re doing online. You cool with that? No, you’re not. And then there’s the obnoxious pop-up part. And then there’s the issue of what happens when Comcast can’t offer you something. Take, say, HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is one of the most downloaded programs on the torrent sites right now. The reason it’s the most downloaded program is that the only way to get it otherwise is to buy cable service and then get HBO, and an increasing number of people don’t want either one. So the downloading of these “premium” shows will continue, until the studios realize that a la carte offerings are what people really want.
So, this Comcast thing is probably DOA, but look at what it represents in terms of Big Media’s attitude in dealing with what they like to call “piracy.” We’ve gone from massive federal lawsuits to friendly nudges. And that’s significant.
And then there’s newspapers. In just the last week, two of the world’s most iconic papers have been purchased on the cheap by profoundly successful non-newspaper guys: Boston Red Sox owner (and commodities trader) John Henry bought the Boston Globe, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos grabbed The Washington Post. What does this mean? Everybody seems to have an opinion but nobody really knows. But newspapers, large and small, are an anachronism; they are shrinking in size, influence, relevance, and quality, and nobody seems to be able to figure out how to make a newspaper work in the digital/Internet age. But if anybody can make that happen, it’s these guys.
Before long I may not have anything to bitch about over here. Sheesh.
Paul Rapp is an IP attorney and radical notary who will be presenting “Legal Issues For Artists and Writers” on Monday, Aug. 12 at Bascom Lodge, atop Mount Greylock in Adams, Mass., at 6 PM. Free!