Finally, perhaps the most interesting and important lesson I picked up from SXSW came in the form of one long conversation.
Like many other such dialogs, it took place while waiting in line for a party. However, this time I found myself standing in line next to an member of the U.S. Pirate Party and, with over 40 minutes to wait until we could get in, we had a lot of time to talk about copyright on the Web.
The discussion, surprisingly wasn’t heated nor was it that much of a debate. There was actually more agreement than disagreement. This gentleman, who I’m keeping nameless right now because I forgot to ask permission to use his name when talking about the conversation, even agreed with the notice and takedown process of the DMCA and works for a major hosting provider where part of his duties involve just that.
He also said that he’s noticed two types of members of the Pirate Party, at least that’s he’s been in contact with, the staunch pro-Internent freedom and anti-RIAA/MPAA crowd and the crowd that doesn’t care about any artist, no matter how independent. He put himself strongly in the first camp.
But at one point in the conversation he said something that stuck with me. He said that the tech community, at times at least, does feel entitled to use the tech the way they want, regardless of the content that they are putting through it.
Basically, the Web was built by its users, not by a large company, and its users don’t like the idea of big companies telling them what they can and can not do with it, even with those actions involve content created by and paid for by others.
However, the entitlements work both ways. The large copyright holders have issues of their own and, until both sides can move a little on their feelings of entitlement, not much is going to change.
Tech’s Entitlement Issue
The Web is unique. It is the first content distribution method in history built mostly in a democratized fashion.
With every other revolution in content distribution, big companies were behind the process every step of the way. Big companies built printing presses, developed DVD technology, built the first phonographs and so forth. Big companies also made them popular, promoting the new technology and filling them with new content people would want.
The Web, as a distribution channel, was built backwards. It was users who first produced content for it, users that got others involved and small companies that made much of the Web possible. Sure, many have since grown into giants (like Google) but the Web was built (and continues to largely be built) by users, starts ups and lone heretics.
These users want to use the Web in the manner that serves them best. Unfortunately for at least some users, that has involved downloading and sharing pirated content. When content creators, especially large ones, step in and say that they can’t do that, they recoil at the actions of these companies, who did almost nothing to help the growth of the Web as a medium.
This is part of why much of the tech community views big copyright as the “old guard” or a “dinosaur”. They didn’t make the Web, but they want to tell the Web how it should be run. The Web, at least in large part, isn’t biting.
The Other Side of the Coin
For big copyright, the issue is a bit different. The book, record, movie, newspaper and other industries have gone by for decades, sometimes even centuries, with straightforward and simple business models that helped them build huge empires.
However, the Web is changing that. Even without piracy being a factor, the Web is drastically changing the way these businesses operate and the future is much less certain as the path to a solid business model is much less clear.
These industries have made a long, storied history out of selling newspapers (ads), CDs, DVDs and books but the Web doesn’t enable that model moving forward, at least not trivially. As such, they are still figuring out what to do with the Web and to best approach it, taking increasingly large steps into it.
In the meantime though, many aren’t waiting and are obtaining the works they want illegally online. They look at the Web’s occasional sense of entitlement and remind the tech community that they didn’t make the movie/song/book, they didn’t fund it and they didn’t support it any way. They just downloaded it illegally.
Publishers, record labels, movie studios, etc. all spend tremendous amounts of money on helping artists create new works. They want at least a chance of recouping that money and they see the Web as taking away much of that opportunity by giving away the works they funded for free.
This motivates these to be cautious when dealing with the Web, even when quick movement is necessary.
What it all shakes out to is this:
The tech community looks at big copyright and says “You didn’t create the Web, you can’t tell us how to use it or what to do with it.” Where big copyright says “You didn’t create that content, you can’t tell us how and when to distribute.
In short, everyone is being protective over their own creations though, right now, both sides need the creations of the other to survive and thrive. The content industries need the Web to distribute their work and the tech community needs the content to create compelling services.
However, to get to the point where they can do that, both sides are going to have to budge some on their entitlements. The tech community needs to realize they can’t do whatever they want with the content of others and they have to think about these issues. The content industries need to realize that the earth has shifted in the last 30 years and the old ways simply won’t work much longer.
Without some level of mutual respect, big content will turn out to be a dinosaur and the Web will never live up to its full potential.
The Web has to grow up some and big copyright has to change. Two things neither side wants to do but there aren’t many choices beyond exactly that.