Thursday, March 6, 2014

Shall we fix it?

Time is Money
    In business, I hear time and time again (and have even found myself adopting) this mode of thought that “time is money”.  In a sense, yes: time is indeed money.  However, I’ve come to the conclusion this is a misnomer at best, and when used as teaching tool to younger generations entering into any industry can be a dangerous masquerade at worst.
    Most forms of business, and even freelance work often operate on hourly-rate formulas to derive a set rate or fee for any product or service.  But if we take the term in its entirety, “Time is Money” cannot absolutely be true in any measurable sense.  If time equals money then why are we not generating income for every second we live? Granted, there are indeed some individuals at the very top of some very wealthy industries that are earning a predictable income that can be averaged out for every moment of their lives whether they are working or not.
    If time you spend working = money, then it becomes a completely conditional statement that only time spent working is the time you will earn money.  Neither of these in reality are true, though.  Is there a compromise? I propose then, that not all time is created equal.
    Coming back to economics, all products and services, content in any form of media or other apparatus takes time.  Time taken to be dreamed up, contemplated to various degrees, designed, fixed into some sort of tangible medium of expression to communicate or share with others. Everyone, even children come up with ideas.  That’s right, we’re talking about creators, inventors; those with ideas.  It’s clear in this economy that no one is going to live sustainable life, or “get ahead” by working at your local burger flipping joint serving others.  Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that job.  What’s wrong is the economics gap everyone seems to be facing.  We’ve shifted from a labor driven society to an idea driven society, and ideas are the new prime real estate.
    Right now, the current definition of a copyright is essentially:
“the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work).”
    And Intellectual Property is defined as:

"Something (such as an idea, invention, or process) that comes from a person's mind.”

The Longer Arm of the Lawless

    The conventions used to describe copyright and intellectual property are the basis for all of modern society’s living comforts, graces, and novelties.  They permeate the lifestyles we live. Without copyright we may very well not have much of the advanced technology and entertainment that we have today.  Piracy is one of the most highly debated topics and points of interest, and it’s because of the extreme focus on ideas being the new prime real estate that piracy exists in the form and scale that it does now.  It is quite simply the other side of the same coin. 
    Many corporations and private firms have compiled varying statistics on the reported damage piracy is allegedly causing on industries where their products or content can be digitally transmitted, technically allowing us to call the internet the “high seas” of the information era.
    As society grows more and more advanced and our population continues to boom at an even faster rate than our economies can sustain, we’re going to face troubled times.  Many scientists and researchers of all fields have backed statements that our earth can sustain an exponentially larger population than we have now, so why are we dealing with so much turmoil?  Prices of things continue to increase while the working class gets less and less pay in return for the inflated costs of things they need or want to buy to the point where they simply spend less because they have less to spend. 
    Bubbles come about as social interest tries to drive into a field of work or profession that becomes so heavily saturated that there simply isn’t enough work to sustain everyone trying to get in.  Over competition in the marketplace by freelance individuals who have spent and invested way less than established individuals, unions, and groups combined will begin to offset the landscape of the economy. This obfuscates the “professional standard” of which the clientele seeking the services or products will be buying into, and thus driving down acceptable wages to the point where even those small startup and individual “semi-pro’s” cannot earn a living through that profession alone.  This used to not be so prevalent of a problem but the “barrier to entry” into the media professions have decreased drastically as technology gets ever more affordable.
    Let’s reverse for a second.  Let’s say you’re an entrepreneur starting your own freelance service. You have a name and you publish your intellectual properties to be shared with the world for a profit. You are a business.  Let’s say you design and manufacture hardware.  Operating your business comes at a steep overhead – there are costs associated with every step from maintaining a license, leasing or owning land to put your facility on so you can hire workers to build your product.  When someone either inside or outside of your company takes your product without paying for it, in today’s social terms it’s considered stealing.  When someone decides they like your product but doesn’t believe they should have to buy it to own it, they can simply design their own version.  What’s to stop them from doing this? Absolutely nothing. The moment they enter their version into the legal system via a patent to try and make a profit out of its design and start a business selling their version is the moment you have to work not only to continue perpetuating your business, but also fight this new competitor down any way you can. First, you have to find out legally if you have any claim against this person’s product to see if it might have violated any copyright/patent you may have laid claim on for design schematics.  Dealing with this form of piracy can be a headache and a nightmare.
    What about consumer piracy?  With content like music, movies, and software meant to run on computers being completely digital, what exactly can one do to fight piracy?  One of the first industries to get hit heavily by piracy in the internet boom was the music industry.  Napster, one of the first major peer-to-peer file sharing services became a historical icon in the changing landscape of our reality as it shifts more and more into a dual-reality.  Up until this point, the music industry had enjoyed a lengthy and prosperous growth.  It was one of the allures of Hollywood besides film, as its exclusiveness drew in creative people who have a passion for art and music that knew (then) the only way to be successful as a music artist was to “go to Hollywood” and sign with a label. At least that’s the way the business had developed and would spin marketing to have everyone believe; they could do so easily because their business model worked in this landscape.
    The first blow supposedly took the music industry by storm, according to news outlets aligned with covering the big businesses.  Associated Press outlets have a habit of knowing that bad news is good for news.  Things get sensationalized, conflagrated in the ecstasy of reporting something happening in the world, under the merit that it’s serving the journalistic integrity and enlightening everyone.  The truth is Napster was one of many peer-to-peer services that popped up, but Napster had the largest user base trafficking major labels’ highest grossing media, so naturally that is what got the attention of the RIAA and other firms.
The Big, Overblown Picture
    Reports began buzzing with statics showing the number of pirated copies of all sorts of top media content, and then started spreading into other industries that wanted to know statistics.  We continue now to the current time where TV shows and Films are the top trafficked content on pirate networks, and piracy continues to “change” the landscape of our media and consumerism.  But let’s step back for a second, clearly we haven’t learned our lesson from how it’s affected the music industry.
    Some might argue the first blow was piracy to the music industry, but its unclear just how to argue that definitively.  What is clear, is that the music industry felt its reputation at stake.  Retaliation was the first public showcase in the form of lawsuits.  First, shutting down of Napster.  Later, the aligning with the RIAA to private investigation firms to upload false files to track down “pirates” and send them legal letters.  The strong-arm tactics ranged from cease and desist letters all the way to the claims of legal recourse and demands of financial recompense.  Eventually these tactics started getting a bad rap and have subsided from mainstream news reporting. 

    Clearly going after your consumers that want the content was creating a negative public image.  But look at the music industry now.  Sony, and many other big names have closed many of their largest studios over the last decade due to the changing times.  There is still much blame being pointed at piracy as the cause of this slow implosion of big label business.  Now, artists (big and small) are giving away their content for free.  Spotify, Pandora, Soundcloud, and Youtube have popped up and allow everyone instant access to an infinite library of music on demand.  How are any of these artists making any money?  We’ve gone from fighting with legal representation and show of force against those that would “steal” or “pirate” the content, to giving it to them freely.
    Let’s step back again to the internet boom and those good old “Napster” days and look at it from a less discussed angle.  Internet has certainly taken the world by storm.  Technology in general has been moving at break-neck speeds these last few decades.  While so much controversy has been stirred up around internet and piracy, seeing numbers flop and businesses feel the stretch of their dollar harder and harder, there’s another unseen force that they certainly seem very cautious about shaking their finger at.
    Up until the early 90’s, recording technology was pretty exclusive to wealthy individuals, often who most likely owned or operated commercial level studios.  The equipment was expensive, hard to get, and just plain took up lots of space.  Your average consumer simply couldn’t afford recording gear to make a record themselves.  While the internet was growing, costs of technology and the advances being made to computers started democratizing this alluring industry trade downward to the consumer.  Digidesign, a well-known developer of Pro Tools software and supplementary hardware, started their impetus of capturing the end user – the aspiring musician or songwriter, providing them with the basic tools for capturing their ideas.
    From then to now, it’s pretty easy to see how the shift has gone from specialization, to democratization.  Digidesign is just one example of a company that’s empowered the democratization.  It’s a no brainer when technology gets more affordable that businesses are going to enjoy this fact, but it’s come to a point where the affordability has pretty much put every professional tool directly into the hands of the consumer.  It no longer takes multiple millions of dollars to make a song, though the labels are still in the practice of spending big money on producing “hits.” 
    We can see the trends that were set in the music industry, and it’s pretty easy to follow them as they’re already heavily affecting the film and video industries.  In fact, the bigger the industry the more devastating it seems to be.  While many major label studios have closed their doors over the years, music studios are survived by smaller project and home studios.  The longevity isn’t lived by the specialized skillsets in “factories” of music anymore, but rather with the individual.  Everything is about reputation now.  With film and visual effects, it’s a bit of a different game.  We’re seeing some tumultuous times with Visual Effects houses and film companies as the battle for economic stability during a time of runaway production budgeting is at its largest. 
    Ang Lee’s Life of Pi was the most recent, and most public of the turmoil’s between filmmaker and visual effects houses.  Rhythm & Hues was filing for bankruptcy while they were up on stage at an awards ceremony receiving a prestigious award for their amazing work on the Ang Lee film.  It’s not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last.  But since this moment, it’s become the epicenter for a lot of publicity and discussion.

    Here’s where we’ve really missed our lesson.  Film productions are so big and expensive that they are literally looking to government support to help produce them!  Tax credits, rebates, and subsidy programs have become the norm for filmmaking these days, and it’s actually such a problem that it’s uprooting production companies and creating this sort of “legal ballet” dance as we see production companies jump from location to location to produce their film not because the location was the best pick for the content, but because of tax credits and financial breaks!

Just how big of an issue is this?  In the economy article reported by the National Journal, The Wolf of Wallstreet with a reported budget of $100 million actually cost the taxpayers of New York $30 million!  That’s nearly 30% of the films entire budget.  Keep in mind those taxpayers still had to pay the price of admission to see the film, and still have to obey the copyright laws should they feel so inclined to pirate the movie.
    How would you feel if the taxation continued to inflate as the media industries continue to boom while simultaneously struggling to match the ever-inflating cost of production?  Why are we getting taxed in the first place? Do you feel this is a severe misuse of civil taxation?  Is this issue rooted much deeper than just the media and entertainment industries?

The Road Ahead Still Leads Somewhere

    I don’t pretend to have any answers, but this topic of economic disparity and the widening gap between the lower class and middle class IS solvable.  Where we need to start looking is at the sources of these problems in our societies and cultures.  The answer won’t lie in just tackling one little aspect of a problem at a time, we have to find a way to shift beyond the conventions that brought us to where we have arrived at this juncture. 
    Robert Reich said it well, “We need to get big money out of politics”, and I believe that is a great starting point.  Special interest groups and lobbying are all supported by large funding campaigns, even the way our representatives end up in office is often with their hands stuck in someone else’s pocket and thus having to bend to make accommodations for those people’s private interests.  Large Film companies lobbying to gain tax credits is one such example of bad politics.

    But the real solutions and impetus for change lies with the people, you and me.  It’s going to take everyone.  We need our public enlightened, engaged, and aware.  Then, and only then can we start to ask the serious questions and start thinking about answers.

    Here are some possible ideas for change, specifically suggesting business practices: Be more transparent, publicize your business. 

    Dear media: the illusion has already been revealed.  The people that care about how it’s made and done will be inspired just as much by how you did it and what it took to achieve it as the content itself was meant to inspire for the audience that just wants to enjoy it. 

    Dear “big business”: there’s far too many of us inspired individuals for you to keep out.  Change is inevitable. Barriers to entry are falling every day, and those that have the drive and passion will stop at nothing to succeed however they can.  Certainly there is a middle road where we can all co-exist peacefully but that means there will be compromises.

Where Do We Go From Here?

    At the core we have to rethink our definition of copyright and intellectual property if we want to make any sort of progress.  People will argue up and down to no end fighting this simple point: digital copying and Sharing of information cannot, and should not ever be mistaken for theft.

    Information wants to be free.  We can shackle it up, contain it, and put out name all over it, but those are all illusionary devices we have made up to serve ourselves.  Entire industries have been established by ideas, inventions, and processes.  The industrial age was an era where factories ruled the commerce world, but today in the information age people are the commodity and their ideas can be taken with them wherever they may roam.  Robert Reich had another great point: a factory is large and immobile.  If you don't like the way your company is being treated by the employees or the government, it takes an awful lot of energy and resources to move it.  However today, the single greatest commodity is a person, and there is nothing stopping a person from moving anywhere they want in the world.

1 comment:

  1. You are more brilliant than you realize. The question though is what is driving your creativity? Do you believe in yourself? If you truly do believe in yourself then you have the world at your feet. The only one who is holding you back is you.


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