Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis


One of the most interesting panels at SXSW Interactive 2006 was The Future of Darknets, moderated by JD Lasica. And while the concept of Darknets – communities using private subnetworks to communicate and collaborate out of view of the larger internet – is indeed fascinating, the panel was not interesting because of the intended topic. In fact, we never actually got to hear much about DarkNets, much to my disappointment, because the panel was hijacked the moment one panelist said, “Hello, my name is Kori Bernards, and I’m from the Motion Picture Association of America.”

What followed was an hour-long firing squad as one audience member after another directed angry questions her way. The feeling of pent-up frustrations with the movie biz was palpable, especially as her claims of flexibility and excitement within the to find “creative new solutions” to the problems raised by the audience rang more and more hollow, the more times she repeated them.

kori-bernards.jpgA couple times I almost felt sorry for her. And there were times when the cries of freedom coming from the crowd sounded like little more than selfish little privileged kids wanting to do what they want, when they wanted.

And then I remembered all those awful anti-piracy trailers they make us watch before the movies we paid to see, the total unabashed lie of their “we just wanna protect artists” line, and the way they want to make us pay over and over for the same content in multiple formats, and all my sympathy for the MPAA evaporated.

Think about this: I can go to the store and buy a five inch reflective disc that holds digital media. If that disc is a music CD, I can pop it in my computer, encode it, put it on my iPod, and listen to it whenever I like. But if that disc is a movie DVD, I cannot, even though the same iPod is perfectly capable of playing the same digital content that I own just the same. (Oh, and by the way, Apple created a billion dollar industry in legal song downloading because of this. Where’s the Apple Movie Store? Ask the MPAA.)

Now, being the geek I am, I know I can encode movies and do what I just described. But I’ve got to use one of a handful of quasi-legal programs. The MPAA doesn’t want me to do that, and they’ve threatened legal action against those that do. Plus, there’s no way to do it using the same tools that came with my computer and iPod (namely iTunes) because of that same legal threat.

The audience was filled with other examples of an industry gone crazy. One guy moved to the UK and all his DVDs stopped working because they were region-encoded (as most are). Her answer? That was in the contract you agreed to when you bought the DVD. Another guy asked why he can’t just download the Sopranos. After all, he’s a HBO subscriber, so he paid for it, he just happened to miss the last episode. Her answer, again, was that the time is part of the contract. My answer: Give it a couple years and HBO will be doing this, or they’ll be out of business.

Another audience member said she worked at a small film studio, doing clearances for copyrighted works to appear in movies (simply having a movie on in the background of another movie requires a release, at least according to the MPAA) and most of the time the artists involved all said it was fine – it was the studio lawyers who stood in the way.

And that’s really the problem, isn’t it? There are these industries of middlemen – RIAA, MPAA – that claim to “protect artists” but what they’re really protecting is themselves. Artists (and I include myself in that word) need to rise up and tell these people to go get stuffed. We can decide when a mashup is perfectly fine with us. We can decide to embrace file traders to build awareness of our work. We don’t need you anymore. You’re just holding us back.

After all, when we allow these industry groups to frame the debate about the internet and file trading as artists versus pirates, it’s a false dichotomy. No one in that angry audience in Austin wants to dupe a movie to sell it on the street. That’s piracy. We just want to put movies on our hard drives and iPods, share our mix CDs with each other (just like we used to do with tapes), and mash that funny video with that cool song to produce something new, something we’ll give away for free.

All these acts are illegal, or at least under threat by industry groups. Meanwhile, real pirates are on the streets selling bootleg DVDs. What are these industry groups doing about that very real threat? If only they realized that artist geeks like us are exactly the kind of people who could come up with some really interesting ways to attack the real piracy problem, if only they let us do what we want with the media we buy?

Until we (users, industry groups, lawyers, and politicians) finally make a clear legal and procedural distinction between copying a work for noncommercial creation of new works (like mashups or backups) and wholesale piracy for profit (like duplicating a work for the purpose of resale), we’re just going to keep shouting at each other in conference rooms and newspapers, and real innovation will never get made.

UPDATE: You can listen in to the whole panel thanks to SXSW’s MP3 Podcast. You can also see some of the best moments, thanks to the video clips by Chuck Olsen.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.