After releasing acclaimed films without digital rights management (DRM), Scottish Documentary Institute experienced no negative side-effects or rise in piracy. In the second of a series of posts looking at threats and potential of the digital space, Nic Wistreich compares DRM to the birth of cinema.
The monopoly that created the independents that created the studios
Imagine having to pay a license fee every time you filmed something or screened your work. At the start of the 20th century, the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC) in America controlled patents around cameras, film and projectors, and demanded fees for anyone screening or filming anything. The MPPC were able to dictate what could get filmed and screened, telling a young Alfred Zukor who had just bought the rights to a big French success: “The time is not ripe for features, if it ever will be” (as described in Timothy Wu’s excellent Master Switch).
Zukor, who would later head Paramount, became an early rebel who refused to play along, as was Carl Laemmle who declared himself ‘an independent’ – the first to use that name. Laemmle wasn’t independent for long, his company Universal became one of the biggest studios on the planet, as did those from other ‘rebels’ and ‘independents’ Willhelm Fuchs (20th Century Fox) and the Warner brothers Jack, Sam and Henry. When Laemmle started to make ‘independent films’ without paying a licence, he was sued 289 times in a three-year period by the Edison Trust, and eventually fled New York to the west coast with Fuchs, Zukor, the Warners and others, further from the MPPC ‘spies’ and lawyers, and closer to the Mexican border if a quick escape was needed.
It’s hard to avoid the irony that the founding of Hollywood was driven by people trying to dodge the copyright and patents on technology. These patents had created an unhealthy monopoly, and had they prevailed they could have prevented America’s rise to dominate cinema (France at the time produced twice as many films as the US). And yet the film industry’s view of open video today – which similarly believes that video technology is too important to be owned, locked down and controlled by one company – has undoubtedly been damaged in the piracy debate.
One US producer, well respected for his web-savvy approach, confided to me in 2008 that he didn’t like open source, calling it "the same as piracy" - in spite of thousands of open source projects from Wordpress and Mozilla to Redhat and Canonical running large, multi-million dollar, legitimate businesses. Somehow the issue of open technology – which powers every website in the world through HTML and the majority of smartphones through Android – has become confused with a filmmaker’s right to chose the price of their film, when they are quite distinct subjects. An open license around technology is not the same as saying every film must also be shared for free: open technology is about freedom from monopolies, not freedom from profit.
Free as in speech, not as in beer
Nowhere is the confusion of open tech and piracy more entwined than in the subject of digital rights management, the copy protection added to content to attempt to limit the ways consumers can use that content. As an architecture that can stop you playing the DVDs you bought overseas on holiday when you get home, or moving your Kindle files between tablet and phone, or accessing purchased downloads after you upgraded your computer, DRM has long been unpopular with consumers, yet to much of the film industry has been viewed as an unfortunate but important way to limit the risks of piracy.
If you ever tried to copy or sample a rented VHS as a kid you might remember how in a pre-digital age, copy-protection succeeded in limiting small-level copying – copies ended up a technicolor mush. But in the digital era it’s redundant. At best it is an inconvenience: but no system exists that’s uncrackable as people can always digitise their audio or video output (or simply film the screen). And once a DRM-free copy exists, anywhere in the world, it destroys the economic value of the DRM-encumbered version.