Friday 8 November 2013

The Business of Possession

It wasn't that long ago that no one actually owned their own copy of a movie. Back in the 1980s, I managed to get the name of someone who worked at a film distributor in the hopes of obtaining a personal copy of a 16mm version of an Alain Resnais film (Providence from 1977). At the time, there was no other way to own it.

Although VHS video came out in the 1970s (and many people still own a player today), they stopped releasing pre-recorded tapes years ago. In the early days VHS was considered a luxury. Mind you, the Ampex VRX-1000 from a few 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 that hardware to a party.

When affordable home video technology finally arrived, 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 versions of movies (DVDs) appeared in the ‘90s, studios still resisted releasing content from their vaults for fear of piracy. While stealing has always been a crime (even prior to the invention of money), it is just part of the human landscape - like dishonesty. There is no limit on the creativity individuals will go to in order to gain objects of value without paying. It's practically a film genre.

Ownership of intellectual property is at the centre of patent law and copyright. We need ways to protect the creators of popular entertainment. Restricting or limiting viewing is an archaic concept today. A single viewing of any great performance or achievement is a crime in itself. but it is impossible to present a work to everyone simultaneously, although television has made fairly successful attempts at it. Greatness needs to be shared to be appreciated.

Hundreds of years later, we are still listening to Mozart Chopin and Stravinsky. We go to galleries and libraries to view the work of great painters. We still buy editions of books from centuries past (paper or e-version). It's because we have a hunger to possess and devour the work of our favourite innovative and creative individuals and enoy it over and over. The ultimate is to own an original piece of work or an object once owned by your favourite creative person.

One of the worst examples is what tourists have done in The Valley of the Kings. The Egyptian government is currently trying to protect its ancient tombs from people who want to chip off pieces to take home. Then there are the collectors who buy million dollar comic books or movie props or rare items at auction. This ancient appetite for possession is part of the movie business just like any other and should be recognized as that. Since the rampant and pervasive arrival of DVDs and Blu-rays, 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).

The point is, the studios need to recognize the potential earnings possible by making the latest films available for sale as soon as possible. They could sell disc copies right in the movie theatre where the films are playing. They should understand we decide whether we want to own a movie as soon as we see it. By making us wait several months, they take the risk of our enthusiasm declining. Besides, a lot of the people who buy disc copies of movies don't even go to the big screen theatres. Then there's the audience who don't buy copies and just do the VOD (video on demand) version. As long as they pay, any method of viewing is OK.

It's like ice cream, alcohol and car repair. If you don't pay, you can't have it, but if you do, you can have as much of it as you want.

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