P2P and the MPAA

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Technology
February 27th, 2003 • 6:13 am

(P2P = peer-to-peer / MPAA = Motion Picture Association of America)

Apparently the MPAA is concerned that P2P file sharing (which was put on the map by Napster in the late 90s and takes a variety of forms these days) is going to do the same thing to movies that it allegedly did to music.

The first problem is that the accusation that Napster caused a decline in music sales is a fallacy. Anyone who kept an eye on music sales back when Napster was at its peak knows that music sales actually increased while Napster was popular and started decreasing after Napster was effectively shut down by RIAA-initiated lawsuits.

The RIAA has of course managed to twist the truth in such a way that Napster and file sharing are now being blamed for the decline in record sales over the past few years. While I won’t deny that P2P has probably had an impact on sales, I strongly suspect that the negative impact happened precisely because of the Napster shutdown. The Napster shutdown was a major irritant for music lovers, and they effectively retaliated by letting the recording industry know what they thought of the shutdown.

As has been argued countless times, the reality is that Napster probably contributed to increasing record sales as much as it had a negative impact on them. It was effectively used by many people as a substitute for radio, i.e. a way to sample “new” (as in, “not yet known” — not as in “newly released”) music before purchasing it. RealAudio snippets chopped up by pokey modem connections just don’t cut it.

My own experience was most definitely that Napster caused me to purchase all kinds of new music that I would never have tried if I had not had access to sample tracks through P2P file sharing. As well, it effectively made bootleg recordings and even tape or CD-R trading irrelevant, thereby ensuring that, if “unauthorized recordings” made the rounds, at least no one was unduly benefitting from them from a financial standpoint.

Anyway, the whole point is that RIAA spin doctors have managed to twist the truth (I have heard and seen countless news reports in the mainstream media blaming poor record sales on Napster), and that the MPAA is obviously trying to do the same now with movies.

Today I read the report posted by Raffi Krikorian, a graduate MIT student, in which he describes how he undertook a series of experiments to verify the validity of the MPAA’s claims that file sharing is a threat to the movie industry.

His conclusions are obvious: trading high-quality HDTV recordings via file sharing is essentially impossible for most people and, at best, highly impractical for the very few who might have access to the technological means required to share stuff in a realistic manner — and will remain so for many years to come. The reason is simply that video files are huge. A high-quality HDTV file would take days to transfer even using P2P file sharing tools over high-speed Internet.

The only problem I find with this occasionally amusing report is that it plays dumb at times. Now, I’m not saying that the MPAA does not deserve such treatment. They have said more than their own share of stupid things over the past couple of years, and rightfully deserve such treatment. I am not sure, however, that it’ll do anything to advance the cause of unrestricted file sharing. It might have been more appropriate, for example, to also cover in this report more realistic alternatives for sharing large files, such as highly compressed DiVX files. I only have a modem connection to the Net, so I have no first-hand experience in this, but, as far as I know, there are indeed a small number of people with high-speed Internet connection that do indulge in sharing large video files (to the tune of several hundred megabytes).

It would have been more interesting to cover such cases, and demonstrate quite clearly that such smaller (and more realistic) file sizes can only be achieved through compression that is significantly lossy. In other words, people might use this for file-sharing, but it’s quite likely that, if they really like the recordings that they have obtained through such means, they will end up purchasing the higher quality DVD just the same.

The core problem is in all this is, of course, that so much of what the recording industry and the movie industry produce these days is pure junk with little or no artistic value. As is argued in another interesting article entitled Stop, Thief! on the NewYorkMetro.com web site, it is quite obvious that the recording and movie industries have been built on marketing low-quality stuff to death and effectively stuffing it down people’s throats, all the while providing obscene salaries to industry “executives” that bear no relation to the actual value of their work. That can only have developed cynicism in music and movie buyers. And now, as Michael Wolff says:

For better or worse, the media business has created a world where consumers feel content is worth less and less and they are entitled to more and more of it. And now the chickens have come home to roost.

In other words, you get what you asked for.

If the industry started valuing art again, maybe people would rediscover their appreciation for it and their willingness to compensate artists (not executives) fairly for their work.

Instead, the industry wants to cripple our technology to suit its purposes. They need to be fought with all our energies.

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