Blast from the Past: Analog Business in a Digital Age

This article was originally written July 2007.

There’s a lot of talk about the AA’s “standing up” for their constituents against the rising horde of pirates, hackers, and internet ne’er-do-wells (aka college students). The story’s a harrowing tale of big business, big lawsuits, and big laws passed by big government. Nowhere, it seems, is there room for the little people. The artists, the directors, the public; all of these are left in the dust as the AA’s secure their rights by trampling over everyone else’s. However, that’s not what really grinds my gears.

I should qualify. I do hate the fact that the concept of fair use is being constantly chipped away. I hate the fact that they are using questionable and possibly even illegal methods to exact what amounts to revenge. And I hate the fact that the government is not only standing by while this happens, but enabling such activity to take place.

However, all of this is not what really gets me mad. What sends me in paroxysms of rage is that not a single one of these groups really understand what the hell they’re doing at any point.

I’ll begin with the goverment, because they’re both the most responsible and the least to blame. By setting the rules in the game, they have a lot of control over what kind of shenanigans people can get up to, which obviously cuts both ways. You want the ability to download stuff for free ninety nine, and the RIAA wants to hack your PC but only Washington can give either, or anything else, that special “Can’t arrest me for it” touch. Problem is, the government isn’t motivated by lofty standards like freedom, prosperity, or boobies. Instead, it is swayed by voting…voting and money…well, just money. Not that ballot day isn’t firmly rooted in the mind of every American politician, but for like 90% of the time it just lingers on the shoulder, reminding them that some way, some how, some time, they may have to lie through their teeth or have to find a real job. On the other hand, coke and hooker parties happen all the time, and it’s so hard to make it rain on a civil servant’s salary. Furthermore, by pandering to people with money, there’s a pretty good chance you can continue to pander to people with money long after your constituency puts you to pasture. And hey, if it takes some shady business, so much the better.

However, you can’t blame the gov that much. It’s true they put words to paper and magically make it ok, but they’re not the ones on the streets. The actual baby-punching and puppy-kicking gets done by industry trade groups people “in the know” like to call all sorts of names: “the AA’s”, “Big Content”, “Big Copyright” or, more simply, “those ligitious d-bags”. The biggest and most well known are the ‘Motion Picture Association of America’ and the ‘Recording Industry Association of America’. Both are comprised of a great many number of companies in a given industry, so much so in fact, that membership could be considered mandatory for their respective fields. Both are controlled by a small collection of congolmorates (the Big Six movie studios and the Big Four music labels). And finally, both rely on inertia to roll them into the 21st century. The MPAA was founded to enforce the Hays Code, the self-imposed cinema censorship to prevent words like ‘hump’ and ‘miscegenation’ from overwhelming America with sinful lust. Now I’m not complaining; the Hays Code inspired hilarious innuendo and entendres the likes of which is not seen in today’s cinema. I mean, Cary and Eva are making out on a bed and then quick cut to a train entering a tunnel? Genius it may be, but subtle it ain’t, and the train-tunnel inspired imagery can’t be much better than whatever you could put up on the screen. The RIAA was originally tasked with administering the RIAA equalization curve, which has something to do with vinyl…I think; I got 5 lines into the wikipedia page and got distracted by a shiny. So at least at some point, both organizations had some meaningful purpose. However, the Hays Code was abolished in 1968, and vinyl died 20 years ago. So, I gotta ask: what…would you say…you do here? The MPAA has those movie ratings to keep it busy and the the RIAA awards those shiny gold records. Interestingly, both organizations have ingrained these systems so deeply into their respective industries that neither could survive without some essentially identical system to replace it…and thus making them indespensable to the current workings of our entertainment industry. And besides making Microsoft look like a lemonade stand? Lobby. Lobby like a fox.

So what? Lobbying groups are a fact of life in a democratic society. The NRA, Pro-Israel, Big Pharma and ACLU spend millions of dollars every year wining and dining powerful people in the hopes that they’ll support the rights of Israeli minorities to pop pills while loading their assault rifles. The AA’s may not have the big bucks that some of the other groups have, but they’ve somehow managed to convince lawmakers that they’re actually experts in their field. RIAA-written legislation sneaks its way into Congress every now and again, and there’s no shortage of Senators and Representatives standing by to add their weighty words in support. I’ll repeat that, because it bears repeating. The RIAA, a lobbyist group, writes its own legislation and not only does no one laugh in their face, but they actually endorse it. I’m all in favor of right to petition and all that, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

We’ve now clarified that Big Content is nothing more than a lobbying group\self-enforcing monopoly. We see them in all of their dark glory, cloaks of righteousness ripped away to reveal their demonic cores. Now what? Unfortunately, there’s no group with enough political clout to stand up to them, and Congress can’t find the power button on their laptops without 8 staffers to help them. Ironically, all that internet jazz that is allegedly killing the content generators will most likely bring about the fall of these mighty titans by making it easy for artists to bypass them and reach out directly to the consumers. Its not like someone wouldn’t leap at the chance to get paid for watching movies, and someone smart will find a way to pull data from major music retailers and create the world’s biggest sales database. Preferably one that doesn’t sue people.


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