New media, new resistance

David Varga

In his book Blue Fire, experimental psychologist James Hillman finds a spiritual meaning for graffiti in the modern metropolis. Random, indecipherable scatterings of information are inscriptions of soul: markers of resistance.
Marks in public places put a face on an impersonal wall or oversized statue…the human hand wants to leave its touch, even if by obscene smears and ugly scrawls, bringing culture to the walls and stone…
Hillman, A Blue Fire, Routledge, London, 1994

The cyberspace of the future, being hardwired now by marketing and PR professionals, is a landscape deserving of such effacement. Yesteryear’s digital revolution catchcry, “information wants to be free”, has been seemingly subsumed into corporate monoculture. The push is on to wash the internet clean of civic and social possibility. Copyright, 300 years old in 2009, is again the tool of monopoly control for the traditional owners of cultural intellectual property: the publishing, entertainment, and distribution industries.

The 1998 US Digital Millennium Copyright Act attempted to regress the public enjoyment of digital materials to pre-web levels. The entertainment industry, aware that video files can be pirated like MP3 music files over the internet, successfully lobbied the US government to provide the legal framework to allow complete control over the technology of digital audiovisual media. The DMCA forbids the distribution of any technology that can bypass copy protection schemes. This is akin to telling consumers if you own a CD player and cassette recorder, you’re guilty of music piracy.

Jon Lech Johansen, a 16-year-old Norwegian boy was charged for breaking intellectual property laws by publishing on his website DeCSS code for decrypting DVD technology. Johansen and his friends were not intending to infringe copyright, they claimed only to share the code to create a Linux platform DVD player. Emmanuel Goldstein, publisher of 2600 Hacker Quarterly, was charged under the DMCA for the same offence, and was accused by entertainment industry lawyers of “endangering the future of American movies.”

Regardless of the aggression of the new US laws, a quick scan of what’s available on the gnutella file sharing network makes it clear copyright (as we know it) isn’t going to live long beyond its 300th birthday. Hollywood blockbuster films like American Beauty are waiting to be downloaded in a cracked, DVD-compatible format.

As the saying goes: “every new law creates an underclass.” The DMCA has generated nadirs of flourishing subterranean hacker cults and legally evasive file sharing communities. These groups, like graffiti artists in the city, deface with their program codes the monuments of copyright control: with new hacks and cracks that are conscious, romantic, acts of resistance.

Free information advocates believe that copyright protects the economic interests of publishers and distributors, above the artists and communities who would benefit from a liberalised information marketplace. Nobody is saying artists should not be paid. What is argued is that peer-to-peer file sharing networks over the internet herald a step towards a new cultural economy, one that will greatly benefit artists and audiences in the long term.

Music file sharing, an example of what may happen with future film distribution, demonstrates new possibilities for musicians: a direct relationship between audiences, a form of ‘radio’ not mediated by the recording industry, global in reach, and communal in practice. No royalties are given to artists through free downloads, but the ability to distribute music outside the record company monopoly is itself revelatory. MP3 files can be sent around the world, at virtually no cost, with next-to-no effort, and without respect for jurisdictional boundaries.

Last year, on the Kazaa network, I found a bootleg of an obscure song that was not available for sale. Because of the rarity of the find, I investigated my host’s shared music library further (a feature most P2P programs share), and selected titles from the musicians @@@@. I’d luckily found a likeminded person randomly through the digital hook of an obscure piece of music: the file sharing community acted as the educational resource, leading to an exchange of ideas and music that did not require the music industry to play its usual role as controlling taste-maker. With little or no profile on local radio for @@@@, it was copyright infringement that led to my money reaching the artists. I purchased their album and paid another $50 to see them on their Sydney tour.

Clearly, the argument that free P2P file sharing does nothing but exploit artists is more complex than the entertainment industries would have us believe. The music industry itself was never able to conclusively prove that Napster or other MP3 file sharing networks did anything but increase record sales.

As bandwidth increases and compression programs improve, digital media will inevitably become a primary distribution mode for film. What online digital distribution represents for Australian short film, already starved of exhibition possibilities, is the opportunity of reaching online film community networks globally. The Australian and international festival circuit for short film is limited: only SBS’s Eat Carpet broadcasts short films on television nationally. The potential reach of the file sharing networks, and their ability to create a community of ideas about film, can only increase the profile of Australian short films locally and internationally.

Sites like Atom Films (http://www.atom.com/ [updated link]) have successfully exhibited short film for several years now, focussing on one-liner comedies and simple, net-friendly animations, boasting 16 million unique visitors each month (see “Small screen desire”, p19). While it’s a good example of a thriving commercial model of short film distribution, it lacks an awareness of film beyond broadly consumable entertainment.

Thankfully, it might be the hacking community that finds a way to make the distribution of film on the internet simpler, faster, and determined only by audience interest. While a post-DMCA environment will affect the availability of digital media sharing technology, the law can only ever be a minor variable in the future dissemination of audiovisual intellectual property.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 24

© David Varga; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002