After the Open Video Conference part 1: background

Written by Nic Wistreich on . Posted in Studio 2.0

Two and a half weeks may be a little late to begin writing up the Open Video Conference, but then my first essay, penned in the few days after, discussed Pirate Bay at some length and even mentioned Michael Jackson and Brian Newman and so is now largely irrelevant. But with our new Tweeting Netwitbutions, perhaps this is the time to sign up fully for the more anti-knee-jerk Slow Blog Movement - if something's going to sit in Google's cache until the end of time, I suppose it's worth thinking about first. (Nothing to do with procrastination..)

So over this and the next couple of write-ups I'd like to introduce to those new to it the thinking behind Open Video, before looking at some of the technologies and ideas that were creating a big buzz and may go on to define the web of tomorrow, before trying to picture the long term scenario - for both technology and film - in light of some of the major changes that are coming in the next year (and the more interesting 'shifts' such as Pirate Bay's decision that, after all, they would like to be paid for their labour).

The first big realisation for me and perhaps the most ithree_worlds_openvideomportant point for the (legacy) film world is that we're just one pane of the huge stained glass window that is 'open video'. It's more like the novel's relationship to the printing press; one application from as many as there are uses for the printed word. Also worth understanding is that the passionate vigour from the movement's prime movers is not the same as the similarly passionate pro-pirate movement, but rather folks who believe that technology must never stand in the way from any of us expressing ourselves with video. Back-dropped against the demos and mass communications of Iran the mood was generally one of somber valediction – here was proof that decentralised peer-generated media was capable of doing what no news organisation was able to do, while emphasisng the importance of keeping these tools on open standards and formats.

Splitting decentralised video, from which open video is born, into legitimate and non-legitimate activity we see on the one side massive (and inspiring) activity - including video in learning and education, reportage of human rights abuses, public archives, and free open source video editors, codecs and file formats. On the other side - the area of copyright & patent infringement - we see a history where the 'pirate' activity has gradually become absorbed by the mainstream. The independent rebels who refused to pay Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company license fees headed west to California to avoid being fined and included William Fox (who later founded 20th Century Fox), Carl Laemmle (one of the founders of Universal Pictures) and Adolph Zukor (whose company became Paramount Pictures). MP3.com, Napster and now Pirate Bay have all been acquired by legitimate businesses, while the steps from Napster to Spotify are not really so great. Even former studio boss Lord Puttnam recognised the sector's value in certain conditions, during his recent keynote in Edinburgh - it was pirate copies of The Killing Fields circulating the Ukraine in the late 80s, which in part helped educate against mass violence and prevent civil war, according to Ukraine's President Yushchenko. And with seats in the European Parliament, the pirate movement is inching closer to the mainstream, albeit on the back of a technology far more powerful than anything DVD street sellers or home bootleggers ever had at their disposal - which is they key point: ultimately Torrents and their successors are a very powerful, arguably unstopable, way to share pirate material. They also are a cost-free way for content owners to distribute their work.

If these two green and red worlds above could be polaraised as acceptable and inacceptable to the film industry and the majority of copyright holders - in the middle comes the murky world of creative re-use. Much of it technically illegal, yet almost all of it is the creation of new art and culture, the modern-day equivalent of basing Star Wars on a Kurosawa film or the Da Vinci Code on The Templar Revelation. More to the point, much of it is potentially profitable: as is often pointed out, had DRM been widespread in the early 80s, Hip Hop music just might not have happened, preventing a sector worth billions.

While the copyright industry has long legislated against this middle ground, in a peer-generated media space, such re-use may soon outnumber original content - how many more people must have seen remixes to Hitler's speach in DownFall than the original film? Indeed increasing numbers of copyright owners who find infringing derivative works of theirs on YouTube agree to leave it up so they can sell adverts against it. The longer the media industry and copyright owners oppose open creative re-use, the more it pushes next generation creatives, the lifeblood of the creative world, to the area of full infringement -  and the more power it devolves to the new oligarchs - tech companies, ISPs and web services who will profit regardless of the origin, legality or quality of content (and whose collective size is so much bigger than the film industry that they will always be able to find legislative and mainstream support). To date the only music torrent I've  downloaded was DJ BC's Wu Orleans - a mashup of the Wu Tang Clan and old New Orleans Soul which can't be bought anywhere, like Dangermouse's Gray Album. My interest in Creative Commons and opposition to DRM only came in 2003 when I got into the VJ world and Clip-Hop. Most VJs I know have nothing against sharing earnings - if and when they get any - with copyright owners provided it was a reasonable price and easy to do - at present the use of a tiny clip from Star Wars or An Inconvenient Truth may take a VJ weeks to clear and cost ten times more than they'd get paid for a night's work.

piracy-probs.gifSo the only DRM-free and creative-reuse space for films at present is mainly illegal. At the same time much of the Torrent sector seems to care little about their ability to destroy an art form. As one person told me at the conference in response to my exclamations that indie and art film could die if a payment solution wasn't found: 'that's kind of like moaning about being in the horse and cart business after the Model T Ford came out'. When I asked him what his favourite films were he admitted he didn't really like watching them, but was building a new web video platform nevertheless

Many in the tech community use the example of Bill Gate’s infamous arguments in the late 80s saying that there was no financial model for software based around its free distribution. He was wrong on a significant scale, at the loss of Microsoft and benefit of Linux, Apache, Firefox, PHP et al; yet simply because film can also be described in binary does not mean that the business of film production is the same as writing software. For one thing your average indie filmmaker is probably already working for free on the bulk of theirs' and their friends' films, yet they can't supplement this with $500 a day writing code or doing consultancy, like the open source sector. Payment for them is not about getting rich, but paying off the second mortgage they took out on their house for the film. For another, unlike music and books, real-world non-piratable activity (theatrical) is rarely profitable and very hard for small operators to get into, as I've long been saying here.

But this debate is unlikely to be resolved soon, and I only repeat it now because a number of emerging factors I hope to cover soon (once I understand all the issues) suggest that the train may already have left. So as the film and web worlds try to communicate with each other, the tech sector urgently needs to recognise the danger of a world where the only feature films are either zero budget or funded by major brands, while the film sector should re-appraise the value of fair and creative re-use at a time when it's getting harder than ever to get attention for what you do. With all thats on the horizon, every 'fan, friend and follower' is going to be needed, and some new revenue streams may emerge in the process, which also wouldn't be a bad thing.

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