Story of S, and the Mythology of the Lost Generation

argo_ver7_xlgDinner talk turned from Argo and Zero Dark Thirty to movies more generally. A 21-year-old college senior—I’ll call her “S”—recognized most of the films we were discussing. She had seen several, but others she hadn’t, which was a bit surprising, since S was an arts major, wanted to be a screenwriter, and was enthusiastic about her first choice for graduate school: the screenwriting program at a major California institution focused on the movie industry.

S had older brothers in the movie business, and she already had begun writing. What she needed, S said, was broader and deeper exposure to what made good screenplays. Graduate school would provide “deeper.” Her plan for “broader” was to watch as many well-regarded classics as possible, and apparently we were helping her map out that strategy.

But many of the films she wanted to see weren’t available on cable in her dormitory, even as pay-per-view. “Buying” or “renting” them online she found too expensive and awkward, especially given the number of films she wanted to see. So S was doing what unfortunately many students (and others) do: looking for movies on the Internet, and then streaming or downloading the least expensive version she could find. Since S’s college dormitory provided good Internet connectivity, S used that to download or stream her movies. Bluebeard_PirateUsually, she said, the least expensive version was an unauthorized copy, a so-called “pirate” version.

Some of us challenged her: Didn’t S realize that downloading or streaming “pirated” copies was against the law? Was she not concerned about the possible consequences? As a budding screenwriter, would she want others to do as she was doing, and deprive her of royalties? Didn’t it just seem wrong to take something without the owner’s permission?

S listened carefully—she was pretty sharp—but she didn’t seem convinced. Indeed, she seemed to feel that her choice to use unauthorized copies was reasonable, given the limited and unsatisfactory alternatives provided by the movie industry.

cary-shermanIn so believing, S was echoing the persistent mythology of the lost generation. I first heard Cary Sherman, the President of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), use “the lost generation” to describe the approximately 25 million students who became digital consumers between two milestones: Napster‘s debut in 1999, which made sharing of MP3s ripped from CDs easy, and Apple’s discontinuing digital rights management (DRM) for most iTunes music in 2009, which made buying tracks legally almost as easy and convenient.

Even without the illusion that infringing materials were “free,” there were ample incentives to infringe during that period: illegal mechanisms were comprehensive and easy to use, for the most part, whereas legal mechanisms did not exist, were inflexible and awkward, and/or did not include many widely-desired items.

Age_of_Mythology_LinerBecause of this, many members of the lost generation adopted a mythology comprising some subset of

  • digital materials are priced too high, since it costs money to manufacture CDs and DVDs but the Internet is free,
  • profits flow to middlemen rather than artists, and so artists aren’t hurt by infringement,
  • DRM is just the industry’s mechanism for controlling users and rationing information,
  • people who stream or download unauthorized copies wouldn’t have bought legal copies anyway, and so copyright holders don’t lose any revenue because of unauthorized copying,
  • there’s no way to sample material before buying it, and so unauthorized sources are the only easy way to explore new or arcane stuff,
  • the entertainment  industry has no interest in serving customers, as evidenced by its keeping so much material unavailable,
  • copyright is wrong, since information should be free and users should just pay what they think it’s worth, and
  • (the illegitimate moral leap S and others make) therefore it’s “okay” to copy and share digital materials without permission.

Unfortunately, the lost generation’s beliefs, most of which have always been exaggerated or invalid, have been passed down to successor generations, a process accelerated rather than slowed by the current industry emphasis on monitoring and penalizing network users.

cool-hand-luke-martinWhy does the mythology persist?

There are the obvious technical and financial arguments: if illegal technology is more convenient that legal, and illegal content costs less than legal, then it’s not surprising that illegal stuff remains prominent.

But in addition, as the Captain might observe, what we have here is failure to communicate:

  • There’s lots of evidence that convenient, comprehensive services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu, Pandora, and Spotify draw users to them even when there are illegal “free” alternatives. But for this to happen, users must know about those services. S clearly didn’t—we asked her specifically—and that’s a marketing failure.
  • Shoplifting and plagiarism are relatively rare, at least among individuals like S. Yet they have the same appealing features as “pirate” music and video. Somehow S and her peers have come to understand that shoplifting, plagiarism, and various similar choices are unethical, immoral, or socially counterproductive. Yet they don’t put copyright infringement in the same category. That’s a social, educational, and parental failure.
  • LSb_120504_345.jpgFor all kinds of arguably irremediable licensing, contractual, competitive, and anti-trust reasons, it remains stubbornly difficult to “give the lady what she wants“: in S’s case, a comprehensive, reasonably priced, convenient service from which she could obtain all the movies she wanted. Whether this is customers not conveying their wants to providers (in part because they can bypass the latter), or whether this is providers stuck on obsolete delivery models, it’s a business failure.
  • Colleges and universities are supposed at least to tell their students about copyright infringement, and to implement technologies and other mechanisms to “effectively combat” it. S had no idea that the consequences of being caught downloading or streaming unauthorized copies were anything beyond being told to stop. So far as she knew, no one, at least no one at her college, had ever gotten in trouble for that. And she’d never heard anything from her college—which was also her Internet service provider—about the issue. That’s a policy failure.

To be fair, S’s dinner comments endorsed only a small subset of the lost generation’s tenets, she seemed generally interested in the streaming services we told her about, and she was now thinking about the consequences of being caught downloading or streaming unauthorized copies—and about how lots of people doing that might affect her future earnings. So there was progress.

But ganging up on 21-year-olds at dinner parties is a very inefficient way to counteract the mythology of the lost generation. We—and by this I mean everyone: users, parents, schools, artists, producers, network providers—need  to find much better ways to communicate about copyright infringement, to help potential infringers understand the choices they are making, and to provide and use better legal services.

Especially until we do that last, this will be hard, and progress will be slow. But it’s progress we need if the intellectual-property economy is to endure.

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