Awards Season and Copy Protection

7 01 2009

Macworld just started up in San Francisco and I am heading up there tomorrow to attend the LAFCPUG Supermeet on Wednesday at 5pm and to speak at the Peachpit Booth (#812) at 12noon on Thursday.  Since I’m hopping on a plane first thing in the morning, I needed to fill out my Oscar nominating ballot this evening in order to get it into the mail in time to make it to Price Waterhouse by the Monday deadline.

The confluence of the two events is interesting since both events mark the celebration of questionable giants moving in different directions. I love Apple products (I’ve had Apple computers since the Apple ][+ and, yes, I am that old) but it’s way too easy to carp at every move the company makes (just listen to every Mac podcast except the generally informative Mac OS Ken, which still seems to think that anyone who criticizes the Mac is either prejudiced or a moron).  I’ve loved movies since before I can remember, but it’s easy to pick apart the moronic attitude of the majors, who (helped out by the economy) seem to be in a race to the bottom of the financial heap.

There wasn’t a lot of big news out of the Macworld keynote speech today, but no one really expected any.  New editions of iWork and iLife, and a 17″ MacBook Pro to round out the Unibody laptop line proved Steve Jobs’ point that, sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to bend your development cycles to meet an early January trade show. Of far more interest to me was Apple’s announcement that, finally, they were removing DRM from iTunes purchased music. In exchange, they gave the record companies something that Jobs has been resistant to doing for years — variable pricing.

Now, you have to figure that Apple would have removed copy protection from the music they sell long ago if the record companies would have let them. After all, they believe that open systems work best (except when they’re Apple’s, in which case closed systems work best). But it’s always mystified me why Apple thought that the consumer wouldn’t buy music if some of it was priced differently than others. After all, they have the MacBook and the MacBook Pro — two laptops differentiated slightly by their feature set and largely by their pricing. And Apple was able to allow downloads of material for free when they felt like it (several television studios allowed free downloads to Emmy voters who were provided with special codes). And there’s all ranges of prices on the iPhone app store.

So, Apple has finally realized that we’re Big Boys and Girls and can deal with “value”. And, in exchange, they got to remove DRM from their music.

DRM, for those of you who don’t know, stands for Digital Rights Management, and is basically copy protection — that makes it more difficult to make lots of copies of music to give to friends who are too cheap to pay their own 99¢ (and, as of now, 69¢ and $1.49). Apple’s form of DRM was very generous — users could make up to five copies of a song and I know very few people who had more than five computers, laptops, iPhone and iPods.  So it seemed to work out except for those people who are vociferously against all DRM.

Still, music without DRM is better than music with DRM, right?.  So this is a welcome change. And when you add that to the December decision by the RIAA that they will stop suing kids, grandmas and other people who they say are stealing music, this looks like the industry is beginning to realize that they can make more money selling tee-shirts and movie rights to songs than the individual songs themselves.

Then, there’s the MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America).  They are the motion picture industry’s watchdog — with a lobbyist in Washington, ratings boards on either coast, and a bevy of expensive lawyers out to make sure that we don’t copy all of their films for use on the Interwebs.

There are several reasons why the film industry wants us all to move to Blu Ray disks and none of them really have anything to do with increased quality.  Though there is a small amount of quality increase, it’s not large enough for most people to want to go out and spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a new player.  One major reason is so that they can sell new copies of the same old movies and television shows that we’ve been buying on standard definition DVDs for years.  If there’s a Cool Groovy High Def copy of ANIMAL HOUSE out there, that must be worth tossing out our sloppy, horrible standard def version, right? Never mind that Blu Ray isn’t really hi-def quality, and that most people aren’t going to see enough of a difference to make a damned bit of difference in their viewing experience. If Universal can sell us another copy of that Belushi classic, that’s a great thing when the rest of the market is going to hell, isn’t it?

The second big reason why Universal wants us to buy a Blu Ray ANIMAL HOUSE is that the copy protection on Blu Ray disks is way tighter than on standard DVDs and they like that a lot. Combined with television sets that check on that copy protection format, it is much harder for those evil pirates to make illegal copies of John Landis’ epic film. If the studios can make inroads against the gazillions of pirates out there, they guarantee that they can wring a few more dollars out of the market.

By the way, according to most of the majors, I’m one of those pirates. At least potentially.

And this brings us back around to the Oscar nomination ballot I filled out tonight (I thought SLUMDOG MILIONAIRE and CAPTAIN ABU RAED were awesome, by the way).  Everyone knows that Academy voters get inundated with Oscar nomination screeners starting in November, attempting to get us to nominate their films — under the theory that a Best Picture nomination will help the box office of their films enough to offset the cost of making and shipping those screeners.

But the very people that Fox, for instance, wants to nominate their pictures, are also dangerous film pirates, according to them.  Nearly every film’s DVD is preceded with instructions to destroy that DVD after we vote for it — some even give us instructions to break the disk in half (which is actually dangerous, if you’ve ever tried to do it). The disks inform us that they are being loaned to us and “may be recalled at any time.” And, in the absolute height of distrust, Fox Searchlight this year is asking each of us to return a statement to them that we swear that we’ve destroyed their DVDs.  If we don’t agree to tear them apart and report that back to them, we should simply send them back to the Fox lot, unopened, because we clearly have nefarious thoughts of ripping the films off of the DVDs and flushing them out en masse over the Internet (some day remind me to tell you the story of what New Line told me when a copy of LORD OF THE RINGS that they sent out, never got to me).

So, am I suggesting that the studios should give up on DRM and let everyone copy and distribute the films themselves?  Obviously not.  But in a world where one of the daily trade papers, DAILY VARIETY, has been staggering along with far fewer ad pages than is healthy in the most ad-intensive period of the year (Oscar campaign season), it might behoove them to treat the consumers of their product as customers rather than thieves.

Is there really a connection, then, between the trend in computer circles to remove DRM, and the trend in entertainment circles to pile it on?  Is one an example of a rising business and the other an example of a dying beast, gasping its last breath and grasping at whatever food is dropped in its path?  I think there is, at least in the sense that there are two modes of thinking here.  Both of them are strong business models, of course. No one thinks that Apple is in business to lose money. But no one would argue that the executives at Paramount, for instance, have better insights into where things are going than those at Apple. Whether Hulu succeeds or fails is a factor, it seems to me, of who is allowed to attain control of its business plans in the corporate structure — the thinkers who did brilliant work two decades ago, or those who are trying to figure out where we’ll be in two decades (and, usually, those people weren’t even buying music or movies two decades ago).

I love being in the Academy and getting to see my choices lose year after year. But at least I can submit my choices. I wonder if the Academy will even be around in 20 years, so I can worry about what to fill in on my top slots then.


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2 responses to “Awards Season and Copy Protection”

7 01 2009
BK Garceau (08:26:09) :

I think Apple’s presence at this MacWorld shows that they don’t have to arrive with the new ‘big guns’ to attract the proper audience. Rumor sites seem to gather enough information before hand that we already have a large grasp at what is to come. So why do we meet and await for Jobs to unveil the latest. Don’t get me wrong, I think he does a great job, but I can just watch it from home. Having said that its great to know that I can get DRM free music now thru iTunes.

As far as films this year, I have to agree, Slumdog was quite a feast and falls up there 1 or 2 for me. Just a magical journey, though we’ve seen parts of this film before, Boyle and his screenplay bring some originality to the vision and really just pulled me in. On top of story, I enjoyed the cinematography and editing!

With Academy voting are you restricted to voting for Best Picture only, or does it depend, and your able to vote under certain categories? Best Editing or Screenplay, etc??

Thanks for the comment back on my Blog, I’ve made it to LA and I am certainly enjoying my stay!

8 01 2009
Norman (18:09:43) :

I’ve just arrived at Macworld, so I can’t really compare it to any of the other shows (that I haven’t been to, by the way) but people are talking about how the traffic is down and some of the show booths are empty. That’s the economy, of course, but I think you make the much more trenchant point that there is far less need for trade shows.

I was talking with a few people at the FCPUG meeting last night, and the consensus among people like Bruce Nazarian and Mike Horton is that the best use for a conference like this is to meet with people. Ken Rutkowski calls it the “hallway.” That will never go away. The real question is whether enough companies value those soft ROI points to keep funding their presence at the conferences.

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