Is it time to dismantle the DMCA?
As we learn more about the tragic fate of the Wash. U. photo caption site that was closed down by tumblr, maybe it is time for the government to reconsider the pertinence of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was passed in 1998 to update copyright law for electronic content. Last week’s events showcase the most nefarious application of the DMCA: it basically forces website hosts to remove contents that may infringe on copyrights, often without any form of consultation with the uploader. The DMCA’s misdeeds, however, are not limited to the harassment of innocent citizens.
The most stupid rule of patent protection is the duration of property rights: 70 years for a piece of music to fall into the public domain after the death of the artist? Cui bono? Why should a musician’s or film director’s grandchild be allowed to continue receiving royalties on something they didn’t help to create? It’s not like music producers need 70 years to make sure that the music pays back its production costs, as some technical innovations could legitimately argue. The great developments in song production allow you to make a song with just a laptop and a keyboard. “Friday,” (granted, it’s terrible) cost only $2,000 to make and release, and look at how far that song has come now.
The answer to the 70-year conundrum is simple: if people were allowed to watch older films for free, then why would they go and see Hollywood’s new, inventive projects, like the new Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber time-travel buddy movie (I kid you not, this movie is actually being made)? The film and music industry gain huge benefits from restricting access to older material. I still remember when Disney used to allow some of their videos to go out of stock before re-releasing them a few years later to ensure that people would watch all their new stuff. These undue monopoly rights have severely limited competition and risk taking. Instead of trying to break new ground by releasing inventive new movies, studios prefer to release another buddy cop movie or a painful Jennifer Aniston rom-com.
Some of you will probably shout out that poor artists will not be able to make a living if the access to culture is democratized. However, Hollywood A-listers make more than $20 million a movie. I doubt they’ll be starving anytime soon (although choking on their gold-laced caviar may be a possibility). For some reason, no one cares about the theater actors who are making very little money for doing essentially the same work (and more competently than the likes of Carmen Electra).
The argument for music is similar. In the digital age, money is made by promoting events, not by selling media. Musicians make most of their money from concerts anyway, not from CD sales.
There needs to be a reinvention of the entertainment distribution system. Companies are facing the facts and adapting, distributing their content online with advertising. The digital age means that there can be nearly costless distribution of media to almost everyone. Instead of promoting barriers and creating artificial rarity, the government should encourage more competition.
Also, the creation of a court that would judge crimes against culture, modeled on the one in The Hague, is warranted. Hopefully, the movie exec who even thought about putting Kutcher and Bieber in the same movie would be hanged, drawn and quartered.