Insights from home entertainment industry experts. Home Media blogs give you the inside scoop on entertainment news, DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases, and the happenings at key studios and entertainment retailers. “TK's Take” analyzes and comments on home entertainment news and trends, “Agent DVD Insider” talks fanboy entertainment, “IndieFile” delivers independent film news, “Steph Sums It Up” offers pithy opinions on the state of the industry, and “Mike’s Picks” offers bite-sized recommendations of the latest DVD and Blu-ray releases.
Although I've never been intimately involved in the organization of a convention, it seems to me in some ways similar to planning a party -- with all the problems and disappointments that come along with such an undertaking.
Some conventions are like going to your accountant's for cocktail weenies and screw-top wine; some are like pretentious soirees at the boss' house where everyone is overdressed, uncomfortable and just making an appearance because they have to; and some have that magical something, that confluence of factors—the cool—that results in crowds spilling out the doorway and everyone having a great time.
I think many would agree the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) convention over the last few years has rarely captured the magic of a great party. While the Venetian Hotel, the locale of the most recent confabs, was sophisticated and luxurious (I personally liked the marble bathrooms and two TVs), it often seemed a bit like making an appearance at the boss' house -- elegant, but a bit cold and too big for an intimate gathering. And with the Sands Expo Center hosting the exhibits and meeting rooms, the attendees were spread out even more.
Now, the VSDA and Advanstar Communications (publisher of Video Store Magazine) have announced the Home Entertainment Events joint venture will hold the July 16 to 18 show at the Rio Suite Hotel & Casino, instead of the Venetian Hotel/Sands Expo Center. The aim is to create more intimate and effective networking and dealmaking environment. The hotel will be able to accommodate the convention under one roof; allow the VSDA to create more unique meeting room spaces for exhibitors on several floors; and host the event's social gatherings and seminars, both of which the VSDA is promising more this year. As Sean Bersell, the VSDA's VP of public affairs, told us, "The exhibitors and attendees told us they wanted a new show and we listened."
Let's hope the Rio will also heat things up a bit and recapture some of the cool of the late 1980s and early 1990s events. That, according to various veterans, was the heyday of the convention, a charmed period when the video business was on the cutting edge.
There's no reason why -- with DVD, one of the hottest consumer products ever -- the annual VSDA convention can't generate tons of excitement this year. A renaissance in the convention would seem natural because the business is on an upswing. DVD is essentially cool. It's digital. It's new. And Hollywood talent loves it—especially directors.
While the ‘70s music and K.C. and the Sunshine Band appearances were great, lets hope the change of venue can propel the convention into the new millennium. We've got the hottest product around. Now, we just have to be cool.
By: Stephanie Prange
What if they gave a party and nobody came?
Studio executives must be asking themselves this question right now, as the viability of video-on-demand -- recessionary setbacks aside -- becomes a reality, both technologically and financially.
We've all heard of the various false starts and high hopes for the electronic transmission of movies, either via cable or over the Internet. We've heard grand plans and we've seen those grand plans either fall apart or get delayed.
But make no mistake about it. Any roadblocks electronic delivery and its Killer App, video-on-demand, are facing will eventually be overcome. That's not a threat, that's not idle speculation--that's reality. It may not be tomorrow, it may not be next year--heck, it might even be a decade, or a generation, away.
But even as we speak, more and more homes are being wired with high-speed lines of some sort. Digital cable, high-speed Internet access, fiberoptic phone lines--these are all means to an end, the end being the easy, economic piping-in of entertainment and information into Joe Everybody's home.
The capability for video-on-demand, then, is certainly coming. But whether consumers will want to take advantage of this capability, even when their homes are fully wired, remains to be seen -- and you can bet your bottom dollar some of the smartest minds in Hollywood are actively consulting with behaviorists in the hope of getting at least a clue as to how consumers will, well, behave.
The lines are being drawn. Will consumers bite--not now, but one day in the near/far-off future, when there's one set-top box that can, for the sake of argument, play DVDs with the flip of one switch and access an online "rental library" of thousands of movies with the other?
Will that be enough to get people to stop renting videos and transition the "pay for a viewing" business from the video store into the home?
The jury's out. Sometimes I think it will. But then I think about my last trip to the video store, where I saw three couples avidly reading the backs of video boxes to decide which movie to rent; where I saw kids pleading with Mom to let them rent a third video game; where I saw a bookish guy grab an armful of DVDs and tell the clerk "I just got a player and I want to watch as
many movies as possible."
Then, I'm not so sure.
By: Thomas K. Arnold
Watching that American Film Institute (AFI) Awards show on TV recently sort of depressed me. Not in any significant spiritual way, mind you. After all, it's just another televised awards program for movie and TV shows and performers.
But that was the core of my concern: More of the same. Hollywood is of course synonymous with excess. Still, AFI always had been, in my eyes anyhow, stubbornly prestigious and even pristine without being excessively stuffy about it.
Its Life Achievement Awards specials, in their 1970s salad days, were very classy affairs, which, along with the theater's Tony Awards, placed it at least a cut or two above the typical televised awardathon. Then again, how can you go wrong with screen legends like Cagney, Davis, Fonda, and Stewart. One of AFI's, and I dare say any awards show's, finest hours, was when the great Cagney, in homage to his own famous "stairdance" in Yankee Doodle Dandy, hoofed his way up the stage steps to the syncopated clapping of an adoring audience. This was not one of those ersatz embraces now routine at these cookie-cutter affairs, but a heartfelt tribute to a seminal figure in filmed entertainment. It's hard for anyone with a sensitivity for film history to watch it and not get misty-eyed.
Watching the AFI's Awards, my eyes merely glazed over. One of the oddities that struck me about this newest AFI conceit to chase down commercialism is that, almost betraying its very birthright – it is the American Film Institute – it somewhat self-consciously dumbed down the name of its top honor to "Movie of the Year," while a bit preciously using "AFI Actor of the Year – Female" in lieu of the apparently AFI-unacceptable "actress". Ah, the age-old struggle of art vs. commerce rages on even within AFI's naming its categories. That Actor category also sounds like AFI is honoring an actor's body of work for calendar 2001, which in fact would have been a refreshing distinction instead of citing a single performance. AFI was on to something with its category labels, but didn't follow through on the awards methodology. A shame, that.
Then there's the AFI Awards tagline "Honoring a Year of Excellence," one of those constructions that collapse if you think about it too much, which is my problem when it comes to anything involving words. Literally, the awards are not honoring the year itself, as noted above, but rather individual entertainment released in that timeframe, and glibly labeling each year as one "of excellence" defies the very notion of quality, rendering everything, by definition, average. The tagline would be appropriate if AFI produced a tribute to the par excellence movie years of, say, 1939 or 1950 or 1971.
At least AFI made an interesting attempt to draw on cognoscenti in composing TV and movie nominating committees, as well as a jury, to determine the nominees and the winners. Between the People's Choice Awards and baseball's All-Star Game, the consumer public has long since proved it is not so much a reliable barometer of performance as it is a lightning rod of empathy with icons it feels warm and fuzzy about, or those stars who promote themselves precisely to cultivate their celebrity.
Just as some of professional sports' all-jerk superstars have reminded us that talent and character can be mutually exclusive, publicly-voted awards for entertainment remind us that big box-office does not always imply big talent, and big talent does not guarantee fame.
But you can't blame the AFI for not resisting the temptation to mainstream itself with a me-too awards show that, ironically, does not advance the art of television or of film, to paraphrase its own lofty language, and certainly adds nothing to the familiarly stilted staging of awards shows, epitomized by the ten-ton Oscarcast. Maybe the Motion Picture Academy should hire Baz Luhrmann the strobe-like director of Moulin Rouge, to produce the Oscars. It sure would move a lot faster.
We have the Emmys for TV, the Oscars for movies, and the Golden Globes for both, not to mention sundry other honors too innocuous to remember. With all AFI has to offer, why add to the cookie-cutter clutter?
Because it can, and because it is a simple and obvious way to further ingratiate itself with its constituency – the creative and commercial forces that drive the moving image industry, 90210.
AFI did try to make the affair more intimate, but The Golden Globes have already co-opted that mis-en-scene with its dinner format that induces more spontaneous and humorous acceptance moments than the Oscars can muster with its all-too-inhibiting infrastructure built on an immobile mass of production logistics.
What The AFI Awards rudely reminded the rest of us, though -- looking at the priveleged, eternally insecure folks assembled in that room somewhere in la-la-land -- is about the insularity in which our popular entertainment gets conceived and produced and honored. With some exceptions – Pixar, Shrek, Moulin Rouge, Soderbergh, Aronofsky, to name some -- it's the same, old same-old. People, ideas, formulas.
That accounts for my ambivalence about the makeup of the AFI's carefully-selected committees and jury that decided these awards. Go to www.afi.com to see who they are, and you'll agree that their expertise is inarguable, and preferable to the public polls, which are redundant anyhow with box-office grosses.
Maybe the AFI judges' creative insight can be put to more productive use by helping to discover new talent. Forget the awards for once. Just identify, encourage and promote emerging talent and new forms of sensory experience, and put that on TV.
Robert Redford's Sundance Institute is doing what I'm talking about. Check out SundanceOnlineFilmFestival.org. It challenges our assumptions about what a "movie" is or should be. I've not attended Sundance but it's said to have opened up considerably in recent years in accessibility, expanding beyond a rarefied lair for Hollywood deal makers.
This lead paragraph from the Jan. 11 issue of The New York Times offers hope to those of us searching for something at least partly different in our entertainment experiences: "The curtain rose on the Sundance Film Festival Thursday night with the premiere of The Laramie Project, a socially conscious film that festival organizers say reflects a new sensibility outside mainstream Hollywood moviemaking."
Hurray for Hollywoodent.
By: Bruce Apar
This week at the Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates in his keynote referred to 2001 and the beginning of the "digital decade." And while digital technology has been around for decades already, I think his moniker for the ‘00s may be timely. DVD, our most flexible digital platform to date, has become the fastest ever consumer electronic product to reach 25 percent household penetration in the U.S.
The CD paved the way for consumers to become comfortable with the small disc format, and DVD is simply a variation of media on the same platform (please forgive my layman's oversimplification, but you get the point.) The CD's analog sibling, audiocassette, has become a poor relation. Indeed as the home video industry struggles with the looming issue of VHS cassette viability in a DVD world (despite VHS' 96 million households), a front page story in the December issue of entertainment media manufacturing magazine medialine covers the continued flight of major duplicators out of the audiocassette business completely to go CD 100 percent…as the tape format faces the end of its usefulness as a music carrier."
Doubtless, home audio centers and portable players likely are almost wholly CD now, so it's likely been the automobile that has kept the audiocassette format a financial viability for publishers and duplicators to this point, and now even that "usefulness" has been removed. Consider that 2001 holiday sales for radio/cassette players fell by about 52 percent from 2000 levels, according to NPDTechworld's "early indicator panel."
VCR player sales fell more than 23 percent in that same period. An ominous foreshadowing of things to come?
Whatever numbers we look at for VHS—which posted rental revenues of $8.53 billion in 2001 to DVD's $1.5 billion, according to Video Store Magazine market research -- it'll be the "usefulness" factor that truly determines VHS' analog lifespan in this coming digital decade. The recording aspect has been a time-shifting mainstay of usefulness for VHS since its introduction, but that is coming under attack.
Coming out of CES this week was a good deal of news on DVD player/recorders, including word from Philips that its DVDR-985 will reach retail shelves in February or March at a first-ever $999 price tag. Other buzz included a possible DVD recorder/player coming from low-end manufacturer Apex at a sub-$500 price by this coming holiday selling season. Obviously, these prices will continue to fall and fall quickly, making recording on DVD accessible to mainstream consumers in the not-too-distant future.
The dual use of DVD and VHS in the home will continue for a number of years to come, no doubt, as VHS is relegated to perhaps the den, playroom or kids bedroom televisions and out of the family room…along with the second or third DVD player. VHS collections built at a rate of 6 or so per household per year,will be more speedily replaced by DVD collections that are still averaging about 17 per DVD household per year and, at some point, the usefulness of VHS will, in fact, reach its point of no return. Some consumers, as our own intrepid executive editor Stephanie Prange noted in her column this week, have already reached that point. Early adopter that Stephanie is, she acknowledges she is well ahead of the curve.
I know the curve is out there, and we're approaching it faster than audio cassettes/CD scenario. The question is how fast? Meanwhile, in my own home, both the DVD and VHS are humming away nights and weekends, thank you.
By: Kurt Indvik
I've been thinking about something my colleague, Thomas K. Arnold, said in this space a couple of weeks ago. He said video-on-demand (VOD) would not overpower the video rental business, that both could coexist peacefully.
I'm also thinking about a new drive the Video Buyers Group is putting on to lure customers back into video stores after the "honeymoon" period from initiating cable or satellite service. The theory goes that after about three months, the fat pipes lose their luster.
We as an industry tend to view any competing technology as a threat to our business. Pay-per-view specifically and cable and satellite generally are big bugaboos. But the truth is, if it was a showdown between video rental and cable or satellite, video would lose.
Outside of price, the video vs. satellite/cable tradeoff is a trade of convenience for selection. Viewers trade the convenience of having a show piped into the house for video store's much broader range of choices. Viewers can watch their choices at their pleasure, within a limited time frame. But there's one thing consumers can't rent at the video store: Connectivity.
In my market – the Los Angeles/Orange County area -- and I'd venture in most, broadcast television reception stinks. Even with an aerial antenna, signals are capricious and often have static. A viewer who wants to watch any television almost has to get cable or satellite just to watch the most basic programming.
So whatever direction our business takes in the weeks and months ahead, the strategy will have to reflect our resignation to the fact that cable or satellite will be in most homes. The struggle is whether it will be beside or instead of packaged home video.
That narrows the competition considerably -- we're really only competing with movie services. We're slugging it out to make our services more valuable and more attractive to consumers who need only dial the phone or log onto an Internet connection to get more movies, more live sports events and more choices.
Our challenge is to be the most attractive choice. That's not too tough right now, while video-on-demand is still a fat pipe dream in most areas. But in a few areas, where services like Insight let viewers see what they want, when they want – including local news and other local programming – I suspect video is much closer to the ropes. (Note: if I'm right, that would put Movie Gallery, with its dominance in rural markets, in a superior growth position for video rental, because it has a foothold in areas that will likely be last to get broadband connectivity and the competition it brings.)
So for now, many of us stick to basic satellite programming and watch video, on demand -- we put the disc into the DVD player and watch it, just like that.
But this industry is on notice: If the providers that pipe programming into households ever get it together and offer a la carte broadcast selections and movies when viewers want them, consumers' still-new relationship with the DVD player may lose its appeal. They might just pull the plug on their standing dates with the DVD player and step out, er, in.
By: Holly J. Wagner
The January post-holiday period is always a time for cleaning up and throwing out, at least at our house. I was never so glad to toss a Christmas tree as I was this year. For some reason, the tree decided to start dropping handfuls of needles daily about a week after we got it and, by Christmas, the tree was bare and my 3-year-old was building little needle mountains on the carpet for her new toy dinosaurs to stomp over.
But this year for the first time I decided to toss something else along with the tree—my VHS collection. Even before I entered the business, my husband had gathered a sizable collection of cassettes on his own and, with my stockpile, the stuff threatened to take over our extra room.
Since her VCR broke and started eating tapes, my 3-year-old has been watching nothing but DVDs anyway. (In fact, she no longer asks for the video; she specifies that she wants the DVD.) Meanwhile, we bought a nice wall unit for the DVDs, with special drawers, giving them a hallowed place in the living room.
Clearly, the cassettes had to go.
Granted, we may be a little ahead of the curve in adopting new technology and chucking the old, but I wonder how many families are thinking of doing the same thing this month. After hooking up their first DVD players, or perhaps buying a second for the kids, many families may be looking at moving on. Likely, even families waiting to buy their first DVD player will hesitate before adding to their VHS collection.
DVDs are more compact and they don't disintegrate over time or break in the player like cassette tapes. Besides, like torn sweatshirts and legwarmers, cassettes just seem, well, passe. After all, how many people actually keep vinyl record albums around the house anymore?
Now, a few companies are offering the conversion of home movies to DVD. Announcements are already bubbling up from this weeks 2002 Consumer Electronics Show about hardware that comes enabled to view photos and home movies on DVD. My cousin, in fact, is putting our family films on DVD and we're considering transferring our hours of home movies to the digital format. I can't help but think how cool it would be to have all that stuff on little compact DVDs rather than unwieldy cassettes. When I'm able to record "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on DVD, the good old VCR may have to go.
By: Stephanie Prange
Happy new year--and welcome to one of the biggest weeks for the home entertainment industry. This is the week the Consumer Electronics Show is held in Las Vegas, and once again DVD is generating a lot of buzz.
Warner Home Video president Warren Lieberfarb will speak at the DVD Entertainment Group's traditional CES meet, unveiling the latest numbers insiders say are sure to underscore DVD's explosive growth in the fourth quarter. And recordable DVD, in all its various configurations, is expected to be the hot item at this year's CES, with all sorts of press releases coming in touting this-and-that company's new DVD-ROM drive or set-top DVD recorder.
And you thought 2001 was The Year of DVD. My prognosis for 2002: You ain't seen nothin' yet.
A bit of anecdotal evidence: I drove cross-country to visit my wife's family in Birmingham, Ala., over the holidays. In the small rural town of Pelham, 15 miles south of Birmingham, the local Movie Gallery store has been completely remodeled since my last visit over the summer. New DVD releases dominate the front of the store, filling several walls, top to bottom. New VHS releases have been relegated to the back of the store. And there are significantly more DVD titles--and DVD units--than videocassettes.
In New Orleans, the Tower Records and Video Store on Bourbon Street has a big new sign in the front window, promoting DVD rentals and sales.
At a Wal-Mart store in western Louisiana, in the heart of bayou country, merchandisers crowded with $15 DVDs almost block customers' entry into the electronics department.
And in San Antonio, home to the Alamo, every video store I drove by has "DVD," in some form or another, prominently displayed in the front window.
Last night, in a Hampton Inn motel room in the New Mexico town of Las Cruces, I checked my e-mail and found this missive from veteran independent retailer Tom Hannah of Video Quest in Joliet, Ill. It's a great coda to today's column:
"The first week of January is shaping up to be excellent...if the next two days hold it will easily be our biggest week ever. Ordinarily I spend about $1,000 per month on advertising. Knowing that from Dec. 20 – Jan. 20 would be my hottest month I spent $2,500 on a new DVD-oriented ad blitz. The result has been so good that I've been picking up a few extra copies of most DVDs at Best Buy....
"DVD rentals are now making up 44 percent of new release rentals. I expect that to hit 50 percent by March...maybe sooner."
As Tom would say, God bless America--and DVD.
By: Thomas K. Arnold
Oh no, you're thinking, not yet another Top 10 of 2001 list. That's right. No. It's not. Exactly. More like a Top 10 List of 2002-2006. And at this point, it's not Top 10, since we already counted down the first three items on the list way back in 2001.
When last we met on this screen -- a fortnight ago -- the subject was an Executive Summary from management consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). Produced by its Entertainment & Media practice, it is titled, Vying for Attention: The Future of Competing in Entertainment and Media -- Our Industry Perspective 2001-2005. (For information on the full length report, visit www.pwcglobal.com.)
There's a section on "Top Ten Ways to Survive in the Attention Economy." Let's join our Top Ten list, then, already in progress, as we pick up where we left it, starting with No. 4.
That would be, "Don't Pay Attention, Pay for Attention!" PWC observes that "Companies will demand measurements of advertising's worth." What a concept, that. Blame it on the one-to-one relationship marketing popularized on the Internet. With data-rich, individualized responses and transactions emanating from email and Web sites, marketers are fast becoming spoiled into expecting quantifiable returns on their media investments. No longer will the famous quip by legendary Philadelphia merchant Wanamaker that "Half of all advertising works; we just don't know which half" seem quaint. It will just seem antiquated.
"Dynamic Pricing" marks down the halfway point of PWC's list, at No. 5. The eyebrow-raising concept here is that "One important revenue tool will be selling the same concept at different prices to different consumers in different places at different times -- even at the same time -- for a variety of strategic reasons." The example used, believe it or not, is that "Satisfied filmgoers exiting a blockbuster [lower-case, as in theater, not store] might pay as much as $99 for the DVD if it is sold in the lobby on the first day of theatrical release." … and if the theater happens to be in a typical middle-class burb like Beverly Hills, Shaker Heights, Ohio, Chappaqua, N.Y. or Grosse Point, Mich.
Now, for one of my favorites, if for no other reason than I posited an almost identical scenario in a column many months ago: No. 6 is "Compress Your Windows." Digital media, which has a bad habit of respecting no copyright owner, threatens to make the time-honored Hollywood economic structure of sequential distribution as sturdy as a house of cards. Instead of the serial pattern of release -- where a film's run in theaters must end before reaching video, then play out there before PPV and so on -- we're headed toward parallel windows, running simultaneously. The alternative is digital piracy so pervasive it easily could render the very assets of the major entertainment players virtually worthless. PWC thinks so too. "In a global market, digital content flows faster and farther, is easier to copy or pirate, and declines rapidly in value as it flows."
"Create Standards That Work" is No. 7. MP3, says PWC, "is a prime example of a ‘standard that works.'" Such a standard is defined by Pricewaterhouse as one that "should satisfy the ‘person in the street,' not the techno elites." I have my own version of that: no matter how simple the maker believes its new technology to be, it has to be yet another notch simpler for the average consumer. The mind-numbing example is the gag about nobody being able to set the timer on a VCR. The mental laziness implied in that paradigm is too pathetic to ponder. MP3, by the way, says PWC, was "originally developed for feature films."
Weighing in at No. 8 is "Share the Investment Risk," something that the major studios' video divisions figured out a long time ago. "Brand-owning companies should leverage capital and focus on core competencies by outsourcing non-core functions across the supply and demand chains." Sound familiar? In the rental biz, they call it distribution.
"Learn from Others' Mistakes" would be numero nuevo. Here, it's projected that companies will move cautiously in entertainment media. "They will aim to be first on creative, but ‘fast second' on technology. First movers take the brunt; ‘best movers' will succeed in the long run." Napster is a first mover; the record labels are best movers. And for the capper, #10 is "Focus Your Attention as Companies Converge and Diverge." In plainer language, that's amplified with "major entertainment and media conglomerates will continue to acquire; others will break themselves into multiple businesses." PWC concludes, "Do not become too invested in any one idea -- there is no One Answer."
Ah, but there is only One Question: Do we shape the future, or does the future shape us?
By: Bruce Apar
It's clear that the fourth quarter of 2001 and the holiday selling season have given the DVD category a major afterburner push going into 2002. I spoke with a number retailers following the Christmas holidays and the anecdotal consensus was that, on the rental side, DVD's share of revenues leaped 10 percent or more. Stores where DVDs share of rental revenue was 20 percent reported DVD rentals accounting for 30percent of revenues; stores with 30 percent saw their DVD share of revenues grow to 40 percent. That's a 33 percent to 50 percent growth in DVD rental volume. Some retailers reported even higher numbers.
Video Store Magazine's stellar research team has been tracking the data going into the year end and reports DVD accounted for about 25 percent of rental spending in the last week of the year, compared to little more than 9 percent for the same week last year.
Our staff also visited major sellthrough retailers as well, from Target to Best Buy to Tower, right after the holidays and found scenes reminiscent of a horde sweeping through and leaving in its wake empty shelves, displays in disarray and clerks in a daze. (Okay, perhaps that's a bit dramatic, but you get the idea.) Videoscan/A.C. Nielsen reports that for the five weeks from Thanksgiving through the week ending Dec. 22, DVD software sales surged 71 percent compared with the same period in 2000. Anecdotally, previously-owned DVD sales also rocked for some retailers who really jumped on some of the bigger fourth quarter titles in the expectation that the post-Christmas holiday would see a lot of newbie DVD owners come looking for movies to play on their shiny new machines.
Now comes the interesting part…what happens for 2002. I think it'll all come down to price. It will be very interesting this year to watch the pricing trends in DVD and VHS as the industry tries to find the maximum rental and sellthrough revenue model for both studios and retailers. One possible model: ‘A' title DVDs remain in their current $20 range, while rental-oriented titles DVDs climb to the $30 to $35 range; and VHS titles in the ‘A' category debut at sellthrough prices as a rule, along with their DVD brethren.
Check out Video Store Magazine next week as we begin a series on 2002 pricing trends.
By: Kurt Indvik
Happy New Year!
Now that all the publishers and pundits are just about finished with their year-end reviews, we all move on to our predictions for the coming year.
I read one yesterday and I just have to take the analyst to task. You may not agree with me, but it's important to challenge a few assumptions.
Speaking to The New York Times, Forrester analyst Eric Schieirer predicts that the next battle front in the file trading/piracy war is for the entertainment companies to go after the end users of file trading software.
"It's not companies doing this," Schierer told the Times, "It's hobbyists in their garage. To stop hobbyists requires a whole new level of copyright enforcement."
Sorry, Eric, but while that theory may sound appealing, it's doomed to failure. The entire scenario is fraught with absurdities, just like some of the present cases worming their way through the court system.
First of all, if prosecuting end users was of any value in stopping offenses, our society would long ago have ended illegal drug sales and prostitution. The streetcorner drug war of the 1980s and 90s was a dismal failure in terms of stemming the overall drug tide. Pursuing penny-ante copyright violators who grab digital files for personal use would fare the same. Even making a few examples would do as much to discourage file trading as other prominent object lesson cases have made: Prosecuting Sydney Biddle-Barrows and Heidi Fleiss has done little to dent prostitution.
Second, as a practical matter, how are companies -- even comparatively wealthy studios -- going to afford prosecuting every Tom, Dick and Mary who copies a file on a computer? Studios, once independent entertainers impervious to the whims of the advertising market, have become media conglomerates much more sensitive to economic shifts and global events. These companies are losing money all over the place to an industrywide advertising slump and their news arms' obligation to intensive, free coverage when world events become grave or startling. Can they afford to chase the half million file traders a month that some of these services claim? Can they do it without privacy intrusions upon the innocent that would likely result in costly cross litigation? Is it a wise use of their resources?
Third, they can't go down that road, at least not without admitting defeat on the existing front. The major entertainment companies sued file trading services KaZaa, MusicCity.com and Grokster to stop their activities, contending that facilitating file trading has no other purpose than copyright infringement. If that's true, Warner would have to sue AOL for offering file trading capacity on its Instant Messenger service (something along that line is, indeed, taking place). Both sides could spend millions in court for what would ultimately be nothing more than an expensive fund transfer from one of a media giant's pockets to another. It might not be the first case of its kind but it seems foolishly expensive all the same.
You can't have it both ways. The giants will have to admit it's not the technology's fault before claiming it's consumers' fault. I'm envisioning gun lobby-style bumper sticker campaigns saying, "Computers don't violate copyrights, people do." In fact, a trial is set later this month in another case that will set precedents about whether file trading is, in itself, a crime.
Fourth, shutting the services down won't help. The music giants went after their David (aka Napster). The giants may have knocked David down, but here come a couple of big rocks from the little guys: users are panning the services the giants provided to replace Napster; and new, more sophisticated technologies are springing up to shame their levels of service. That's a likely outcome as long as the giants don't have end users design their services. End users designed Napster and KaZaa.
In the end, the giants hurt themselves and, if the movie Goliaths follow the same course as their musical corporate brothers, they'll drive prices for their packaged wares down, just as analysts say the prices for CDs are dropping now.
Much of the digital frontier remains to be tamed. I don't know how all of this will turn out, but I'll be keeping a close eye on it. It's going to be a fascinating year.
By: Holly J. Wagner