Wednesday December 16, 2009

The New Tradition of Giving Movies
by Courtland Shakespeare

Back in the ‘80s, I got the name of someone who worked at a film distributor in the hopes of obtaining a personal copy of a 16mm version of a film by Alain Resnais. At the time, there was no other way to own a movie.

The “half-inch” video format known as VHS (Video Home System) was invented and patented by JVC and introduced in 1976, but the VCR was considered a luxury item back then. With a retail price well over $1,000, only a fool would ever consider buying one of those. Mind you, the Ampex VRX-1000 from a couple of decades earlier cost $50,000 and could only record 16 minutes at a time (per tape). You needed a forklift if you wanted to take it to a party.

When affordable video finally arrived, the movie studios went to Congress to fight it, because they considered recording a violation of copyright. Jack Valenti (head of the Motion Picture Association of America at that time) compared the video recorder to the Boston strangler for the “savagery and ravages of this machine” on the film industry.

When superior, digital (optical) versions of movies (DVDs) appeared in the ‘90s, studios still resisted releasing content from their vaults for fear of piracy. While stealing is truly a considerable and legitimate problem, 18th Century book lenders had the same complaint. They eventually realized it was part of the landscape.

Once you “publish” or make work public in any medium there is always going to be a technique to copy the content regardless of format, whether it is a word, a sentence, a song, a picture, a piece of music or a film. Restricting viewing and publishing are at the polarities of making work public. The essence of copyright is to protect the ownership of original work and prevent unscrupulous robbers and thieves from gaining undeserved fame and profit from work they did not produce or accomplish.

On the other hand, a single viewing of a great play is never enough. It is impossible to present a work to everyone simultaneously, although television has made some fairly successful attempts at it.

Hundreds of years later, we are still listening to Mozart. We go to galleries and libraries to view the work of great painters and authors. We have a hunger to possess and devour the work of our favourite artists and hope maybe somehow, some day, to possess an original piece of work or a personal copy of it by that person.

The Egyptian government is currently trying to protect its ancient tombs from tourists who love what they see so much they want to steal pieces of it to take home, not to mention collectors who pay millions of dollars for an original painting by someone who died in poverty surrounded by unsold work. It’s not just the monetary value of someone else’s work. It’s that strange appetite to own and possess and study and analyze.

Since the rampant and pervasive arrival of  DVDs, the home movie library business has exploded. We can now own almost any movie we want, although I still can’t get that Resnais film. Blue-ray will give us more – only better and in higher definition. HVD (Holographic Versatile Disc) may take us up another notch with multiple terabyte removable storage…some day.

The point is, the studios need to get over their copyright paranoia and recognize the potential earnings possible by making the latest films available for sale right in the theatre where they are playing. They should realize we decide whether we want to own a movie as soon as we see it.