L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

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26 May 2009 Blog Home : May 2009 : Permalink

Sony: Fencing Off The Internet

Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony, attracted a certain amount of notoriety for saying that

"I'm a guy who sees nothing good having come from the Internet. Period."

In a Huffington Post article he goes and extends that idiocy demonstrating that he really really doesn't get it. The problem is illustrated neatly in about paragraph three where he writes:

[M]y point is this: the major content businesses of the world and the most talented creators of that content -- music, newspapers, movies and books -- have all been seriously harmed by the Internet.

Some of that damage has been caused by changing business models (the FTC just announced an inquiry into the impact of new media on the newspaper industry). But the primary culprit is piracy. The Internet has brought people with no regard for the intellectual property of others together with a technology that allows them to easily steal that property and sell or give it away to everyone, with little fear of being caught or prosecuted.

The "piracy" is, in my humble opinion, caused in very large part by the fact that the major content businesses of the world have still not grasped how the Internet changes their previous business model. Examples are widespread and indeed Mr Lynton goes on a few paragraphs later to show one:

I've already seen it happen in South Korea, which has one of the most highly developed broadband networks in the world. But piracy has also become so highly developed there that we and virtually every other studio has recently had to curtail or close down our home entertainment businesses. It's hard to sell a legal DVD when it can be stolen without any repercussions.

Where is it written in the laws of the universe that movies must be sold to punters by DVD? People don't see the value in paying for the product offered in that form. It is also worth pointing out that the movie studios have tended until very recently to release DVDs only some weeks or months after the movie has been released in cinemas. In the current digital world there is no excuse for this other than that the studios wish to maximize their revenue. Unfortunately for the studios, the consumers don't want to play by these monopolistic rules and now they have the tools to permit them to avoid the rules.

It's a bit like how prohibition (and for that matter the war on drugs) failed. If only a few people want what is forbidden and/or it is hard to get then these arbitrary restrictions hold. If not then they don't. There is, as Mr Lynton describes, clear demand for content delivered digitally (at the time of cinematic release - I add). If the studios were to offer simple download options via ISPs, Amazon etc. then people might buy them. Until the recent introduction of services such as Hulu and Netflix/Roku they haven't offered this option. It's kind of like feeding vegetables to a cat and then wondering why the cat persists in catching mice.

He then proposes  enforcing his worldview on all of us through the use of "guardrails":

Contrast the expansion of the Internet with what happened a half century ago. In the 1950's, the Eisenhower Administration undertook one of the most massive infrastructure projects in our nation's history -- the creation of the Interstate Highway System. It completely transformed how we did business, traveled, and conducted our daily lives. But unlike the Internet, the highways were built and operated with a set of rational guidelines. Guard rails went along dangerous sections of the road. Speed and weight limits saved lives and maintenance costs. And officers of the law made sure that these rules were obeyed. As a result, as interstates flourished, so did the economy. According to one study, over the course of its first four decades of existence, the Interstate Highway System was responsible for fully one-quarter of America's productivity growth.

I suggest that Mr Lynton has got the wrong metaphor. What he is seeking to build are not "guard-rails" but the sorts of fences and walls that impede progress. If I might modify his metaphor it is like taking a piece of unimproved prarie and putting fences on it so that travellers cannot roam where they will. If he actually built an interstate then maybe people would accept guard-rails because the investment in building the road allows users to travel faster and in greater comfort, but fencing off land without providing a benefit for the land-grab tends to lead other people to object and look for ways around.

Of course he then worries that he's going to lose his cushy job and begs us to think of the sharecroppers starving artists:

But, without standards of commerce and more action against piracy, the intellectual property of humankind will be subject to infinite exploitation on the Internet. How many people will be as motivated to write a book or a song, or make a movie if they know it is going to be immediately stolen from them and offered to the world with no compensation whatsoever? And how many people whose work is connected with those creative industries -- the carpenters, drivers, food service workers, and thousands of others -- will lose their jobs as piracy robs their business of resources?

The question about how many artists will be motivated to create is quickly answered: lots. To be sure some creators of purely commercial pap may decide to look for a different way to put beans on the table. However anyone who associates with writers, musicians, actors etc. knows that large numbers of people persist in these occupations for minimal wages because they have the urge to create. Indeed given the fact that the creative artists get such a small percentage of the gross take all we're talking about here is the loss of money to the non-creative middlemen who take the creative output and turn it into overpriced product.

There have been numerous experiments that show that artists / authors etc. who openly explain their circumstances to their fans and communicate with them can attract money over the internet. Significant money even. Indeed there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many of the largest "pirates" are also the major purchasers of creative content.

In fact there is the possibility that rather than imperil creativity the internet permits consumers to move to different funding models that cut out the rapacious exploitative middleman. And yes that may affect the gardeners and drivers who are paid by the middlemen but that doesn't sound like a good reason to worry.

All in all this is the classic pitch of the buggy whip reseller protesting about the fact that automobiles don't need buggy-whips rather than changing business into something that they do such as gasoline.