The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

December 2000-January 2001

by Terry Borst

filed 15 November 00 Copyright ©2000 alt.screenwriters

The continuing legal wrangles and business deals involving Napster might seem to be of relatively little consequence to screenwriters. But in fact, when it comes to the Entertainment Industry, the emergence of Napster may be the most profound milestone of the Digital Era, dwarfing in importance the usage of computer-generated effects and the rise of the Internet. Time will tell if Napster is the first volley in a war that lays waste to the complex matrix of compensation and intellectual property mechanisms that keeps Hollywood running.

Those readers who haven’t yet used the software Napster is named after may still be wondering exactly how it works. Here’s the lowdown.

Typically, when we’re on the Internet at the same time you are, we can’t see the data that is on your computer. And you can’t see ours.

Using Napster software changes all that, by implementing peer-to-peer networking. Translating the techno-speak, this means that if we’re both using Napster, we can now see what’s on your computer. You can see what’s on ours. More importantly, we can download files from your computer, and you can download files from ours.

If the very idea of this already horrifies you, then you shouldn’t ever use Napster. Because this is what Napster is about: turning all (or at least a subset) of our separate electronic files into one large, communal pool of data.

Napster was specifically built around the swapping of music files called MP3s (a designation derived from the file format). These MP3s can be acquired electronically; they can also be “ripped” (i.e., copied) from a music CD.

With Napster, we can run a search for, say, Santana MP3s or Christina Aguilera MP3s — and if we find that they’re on your computer, we can download your MP3s and listen to them: on our computer, or on a Walkman- like MP3 player that we transfer the files to.

We don’t have to waste our money buying Santana or Christina Aguilera CDs any more. Of course, we didn’t in the past, either. But unless we had a friend who would be nice enough to go to the trouble of making a cassette tape for us (copying from the CD he purchased himself), we were out of luck.

Now, we don’t need friends who frequent Virgin Megastores and have lots of spare time on their hands. Thanks to Napster, we have millions of new friends on the Internet — and they don’t even have to do any work for us: they just need to be logged on to Napster, like we are.

One other bonus: if we’re lucky, we might find a demo of a new Christina Aguilera song on Napster (residing on a recording engineer’s computer, perhaps) — before the song has even been finalized.

All of this has had the music industry seeing red — and red ink — in their future.

Their evidence? Start with Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Cambridge … the list goes on. The primary users of Napster are college kids, simply because they have easier access to high-bandwidth Internet connections which speed file downloads. Not coincidentally, music sales in those bucolic college towns have recently declined. Do the math. In theory, only one person needs to buy a CD. Everyone else can just copy. Even better, why bother buying that CD when you can get the tracks as they’re completed?

Panicked, the music industry rolled out every lawyer it could muster to file briefs on copyright infringement and shut down the company behind Napster. As we go to press, Napster has just signed a deal with music publishing giant BMG that some think will “civilize” Napster (by instituting subscription fees).

But the imminent demise or de-clawing of Napster will not close up Pandora’s Box.

Napster (the company) has two fatal flaws which has inevitably doomed it in taking on and attempting to redefine the music industry: 1) it is in business to make a profit, and 2) its users’ identities reside on a central server.

But Napster the software doesn’t actually require Napster the company. The software can’t possibly be “recalled.” In fact, it is being upgraded and modified by plenty of users and programmers for free, because they view the proliferation of “Napster Plus” as something of a religous quest (“Information wants to be free”!).

In addition, new software packages have further extended and refined the concept of peer-to-peer networking: MyNapster, Gnutella and Freenet being some of the most well-known.

Freenet requires no central server, and all transactions are performed completely anonymously. There is no company behind Freenet: the software is given away freely. And Freenet can target video files as easily as music files. That communal pool of data just got a lot bigger…

Let’s project ahead a few years (maybe a decade, maybe far less). The peer-to-peer software will be vastly improved (and you’ll have a generation of users extremely comfortable with using it). Data storage will be nearly free and infinite (storage that cost $10 in the early ’90s now costs a penny). Digital acquisition of movies and shows will be taken for granted (as the subsequent generations of Tivo-like devices gain majority household penetration). High- speed Internet connections will be ubiquitous.

Friends: the Senior Years or Dawson’s Suburb will have just aired. You missed it. But you don’t have to wait for the re-run, or for eventual late- night syndication. Just download it using Freenet 2005.

Compensation and profits — for both creative talent and underwriter (i.e., the network or studio) — are built around platforming entertainment “product”: re-runs, syndication, foreign distribution and so on.

But what is the value of a re-run when any viewer remotely interested can immediately acquire a show or movie that has been distributed? What is the value of syndication? Of foreign sales?

When residuals, syndication fees and foreign markets dry up, what happens to the way business is done in Hollywood?

Let us cheerfully knock down a couple of potential mitigations:

First, it is pollyanna-ish to believe that either lawyers or encryption will seal up Pandora’s Box.

Lawyers can prosecute businesses who try to profit from intellectual property theft and infringement. But they will not be able to get a temporary injunction shutting down the Internet — let alone be able to enforce one.

Encryption and other data protection techniques may indeed offer a short-term solution to freely distributable digital assets. But those with long-term memories know that there is always a Flash Gordon decoder ring available, somewhere. The history of successful, long-term encryption is dismal, to put it charitably.

Second, it is equally naive to believe that people won’t actively trade movies and shows because it is somehow “wrong”. A recent article in Upside magazine suggested that “it is debatable whether Americans have ever really believed in intellectual property in the first place — or just complied with copyright laws because past technology left them with little other choice.”

We are still rooted in physicality, and the bits and bytes of digital intellectual property seem far less real and substantial to most people.

Napster is just the tip of the iceberg — and this iceberg will dramatically change the Entertainment Industry … if it doesn’t sink it first.

The music industry is already grappling with the wrenching restructuring of its compensation, distribution and copyright mechanisms. The Napster/BMG deal may be one step on this path — although it is still too early to know how the agreement will play out.

Napster’s rapid rise has engendered a raging controversy between musicians, many of whom believe they have little to gain from the old order, and who welcome the broader and more democratic distribution of their recorded work. They cite as an example the career arc of the Grateful Dead, who actively encouraged bootleg recordings and were rewarded with a fanatic following willing to invest regularly in live performances and ancillary merchandise.

The analogy breaks down, however, when it comes to television and film, where there are not the separate income streams of recording and live performance.

So how can the film and TV industry re-shape itself to meet these new challenges? And can screenwriters (like musicians) find new opportunities in the upheaval to come?

Nobody knows yet. Nobody has a clue, really. But it’s not too early to begin considering how the future will work — for all of us.

Technology has always shaped the distribution of — and compensation for — creative work. The printing press made it possible for Daniel Defoe to make a living as a novelist. Film and projection devices enabled a new art form and a new industry, as did vinyl records and microphones.

Ironically, this latest technological development may show both creative talent and underwriters that they have more in common than they ever thought possible, even as they prepare to face off across the table and argue their differences in the months ahead…

Written by tborst

November 15, 2000 at 9:31 pm

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