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THE MORNING BUZZ: The Geeks Don't Want No Tweaks

5 Mar, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

I'm a firm believer in the copyright system and the need to protect intellectual property from poaching. Still, it's tough to sympathize with a multibillion-dollar industry that keeps promising video-on-demand (VOD) and can't seem to bring it.

When will the studios learn? It's a fact of online nature: Geeks abhor a technology vacuum. So while studios dawdle and hem and haw over how they will deliver their wares via the Internet, a few teenagers and Generation Xers just sat down and did it.

First came Napster, which programmers will tell you is not a complicated program, as programs go. Sean Fanning was not yet 20 when he designed it. Even detractors admire its simplicity.

Then, as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing Napster nearly into oblivion, someone across the pond figured out how to trade files on a distributed network. That led to KaZaA, Morpheus, Gnutella, Grokster, MusicCity and the other services that let users trade music, movies and more.

While studios natter and fret about how those services let users trade files without paying, you don't hear much about, say, Time Warner suing AOL over the Instant Messenger feature that lets users do the same thing. Could that be because the monthly AOL subscriber fee generates more income for the overarching company than VOD ever will?

This probably won't change in the foreseeable future. Studios will continue spending huge sums in an effort to penalize people they should be hiring. Some observers have questioned whether this is about profits or egos. Could the whole situation turn around if studios stopped protecting their old boy network and started hiring the upstarts, whose products are popular as much because they are user-friendly as because they are free?

When VCRs first hit the market, studios were outraged at what they perceived as a huge threat to copyrights and profits. While they have had a few rocky times with copyrights, video has been the cash cow that let studios grow into media conglomerates.

Now the studios fear Internet pirates will damage or destroy that revenue stream. If you judge by this, studios seem to believe anything that threatens the status quo is bad.

I think a Pricewaterhouse Coopers study on the future of the entertainment media, published late last year, was right: This is about more than just delivering the goods on demand. The digital age will force studios to reorganize their entire structures, which are built around release windows. VOD will stand that model on its ear because, as PWC's analysts pointed out, they lose control of their content much faster in the digital age.

Studios can continue to spend piles of money to thwart digital pirates but the fact is, the pirates are way ahead of them. As soon as the studios catch up to the latest development, the pirates will launch a counterstrike and take their technology a step further.

When an Australian company called Sharman bought Morpheus a few weeks ago, a message on the Morpheus Web site promised its designers were on to bigger and better things.

I believe them. By the time the studios, Motion Picture Association of America and RIAA dispense with Napster, Morpheus and millions of dollars in legal fees, those services will be obsolete anyway, eclipsed by their own designers with newer, faster, more user friendly and, you can bet, more elusive successors.

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