hornet buzz

22 April 2004, 3:02 pm

Rambling about the failure of CAN-SPAM in another venue, I was struck by the notion that most of the time, legislative solutions to problems posed by technology are a bad idea. I think social and economic solutions make more sense.

In my college days, people used to have movie copying parties. People would bring two or more VCRs and stacks of tapes, and hook them all together and spend several hours dubbing illegal copies of movies.

Back when I was about to go to college, MPAA head Jack Valenti made his infamous remark about the VCR and the Boston Strangler, but when Star Wars was originally released on VHS, the suggested retail price was $99 (in ’80s money).

Now, new-release DVDs are often less than $20, and people are buying so many DVDs that Blockbuster has a whole ad campaign aimed at getting people to rent instead.

I think there are two primary reasons for this.

  1. There are technical barriers to copying DVDs: Moving them over the Internet takes a lot of bandwidth, DVD-writers are not ubiquitous, you need a giz-widget to defeat the Macrovision copy protection.
  2. But more importantly, the value proposition is low. Why spend hours copying a DVD when you can just buy it for $12 or so? The movie industry eventually learned this about VHS tapes: if the cost of the movie isn’t much more than the price of the blank tape, and if it takes less effort than copying the movie, it makes more sense to buy the movie. The movie studios applied this lesson to DVDs almost immediately. In fact, when I recently saw a list that purported to represent the popularity of DIVX files being exchanged on the Net, it was topped by content not yet released by the studios, like later seasons of Buffy and Six Feet Under.

The music industry, despite the fact that it’s mostly the same damn 3 to 5 companies as the movie industry, has learned nothing from this. What have we got since Napster? Lessee.

  • Attempt to set industry price for a single downloaded song at $0.99 (or higher) or nearly as much as a physical CD that won’t disappear next time your hard drive crashes, that usually includes professionally printed graphics, and that’s much more durable/long-lived than a burned CDR
  • Industry-standard bandwidth for downloads still a pitiful 128K with obvious compression artifacts
  • Downloaded files with DRM that restricts how or whether you can burn them to a CDR, copy them, or even play them
  • CDs that attempt to install software that may interfere with the normal operation of your computer, in order to stop you from copying them
  • CD retail prices still artificially inflated (I’ve seen DVDs priced lower than the CDs of their soundtracks!)

Bzzzz! (That’s the buzzer sound that means “Wrong!”)

(I continue to laud eMusic for bucking several of these trends, with reasonable (imho) download prices, high quality files, and no DRM restrictions. Unfortunately, I’m not sure they’re doing so well in the market place. Also, I continue to see reports that indie labels are selling more CDs while the majors complain of sliding revenues. Wait, maybe music industry stupidity is actually a good thing. That is, as long as their disproportionately powerful lobby doesn’t manage to get more stupid laws passed.)

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