Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#87, May 16, 2000


by Marylaine Block

Uneasy lies the head that owns a copyright these days. Finding people who use your words, songs, or cartoons, and shutting them down, is like plugging holes in the dike - more holes keep opening all the time, and eventually, you run out of fingers. But the entertainment industry has not grasped this yet. They are defending their copyrights fiercely, with threats and lawsuits.

They don't understand that, because of television and radio, and now the Internet, most of us grew up believing entertainment is - AND SHOULD BE -- free. We feel like these images and songs and words are ours because they're part of our lives. We use Dilbert on a web page because he is US. We build a philosophy of life around song lyrics and lines from movies. We tape songs off the radio, or dub songs from our favorite albums to share with friends. And none of us consider ourselves thieves. At least not until we get a threatening letter from Time-Warner.

The artists whose work we borrow still make money. The entertainment industry tracks air play and concert play and collects royalties; performers make even more money selling posters, albums, t-shirts, concert tickets, and videos. They learned that giving away free samples produces enthusiastic buyers - the Grateful Dead increased their audience by letting them tape the concerts.

But the free-and-easy spirit of the Internet has frightened the entertainment industry into treating their target audience as criminals. When fans began writing their own stories on the net about characters from TV shows, producers filed lawsuits. TSR sued fans who created unauthorized Dungeons & Dragons adventures, and Paramount sent out thousands of "cease and desist letters" to owners of Star Trek fan pages.

Instead of regarding these tributes as free advertising, and a chance to revive and sell their old recordings and movies, publishers demanded cash, and lots of it. That's why, when my son and I created a much-needed quote book of great lines from rock music, every publisher we submitted it to said, "Great idea! I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole." They knew how much money every single quote would cost them.

Our quote book became moot when thousands of people began posting music lyrics on their web sites. The music industry sued the biggest of these and confiscated the owner's equipment. (Later, the music industry set him up in business again, as their partner, which gave them free use of the database he'd built while forcing him to comply with their copyright guidelines.)

Car dealers understand the relationship between test drives and sales, but publishers don't. Journal publishers charge libraries twice the normal subscription rates, fearing lost subscriptions when people read a library copy instead. They don't grasp that many people became subscribers BECAUSE a library introduced them to the magazine.

The recording industry is freaking out over MP3 software, which allows people to download music off the net - not significantly different from taping music off-air, except that the industry hasn't created a good system for tracking use and extracting royalties. They SHOULD be putting their efforts into developing the micropayment system the net desperately needs, which would allow users to pay a small amount for each download. They SHOULD be using MP3 to identify hot new performers, and paying the company to tell them whose music is being downloaded most. Instead, they've sued MP3 for making it possible for people to listen to the CDs they've paid for anyplace they happen to be.

It's not just that lawsuits and threatening letters are rearguard actions, King Cnut stamping his foot and demanding that the waves roll back. They are also stupid and counter-productive.

When copyright owners treat their most passionate fans as criminals, they lose fans, good will, and the best possible advertising: word of mouth. When they pounce on fan fiction sites, they miss a chance to find new ideas and writers for their shows. When they discourage downloading of music samples, they lose a chance to create new fans and buyers.

If copyright owners were smart, they'd figure out how to work WITH copyright violators - also known as "fans" - instead of turning them off and driving them away.

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