Can the fight to change copyright law become a full-blown consumer cause? Thats the question that arises when experienced political insiders contemplate the current rush of activity around the issue.
Its not a slam-dunk “yes” or “no.” There are plenty of reasons—most recently a nice big story in The New York Times outlining grassroots efforts to change the law—to think that the issues around digital copying of music, video, movies, books and pretty much everything else might be getting some real attention.
Theres a lot of chatter on the Web about the pending Supreme Court arguments and the need to change the law, and no shortage of suggestions about how to do it.
But all that activity could be misleading. Online organizing activity—number of site visits, number of downloads, page views—can make a cause seem much larger than it is.
The idea that online awareness or interest translates into action isnt well established, but its tempting to think that the large audience numbers are a sign that things are really going to change. Measuring the difference between attention and action is trickier in the online world. Its a new phenomenon without too many established metrics.
Thats not to dismiss the work being done at sites like Downhillbattle.org. Clearly, theyre generating attention. And their cause, while nerdy, has merit (the site takes its name from its founders belief—a correct one—that their cause is easily winnable because of changes in the music business). The law penalizes technology and innovation. It needs to change.
A look at Downhillbattles Web site strikes a chord familiar to anyone whos spent time at MoveOn.org or even Deans Democracy for America site. They all have that “echo chamber” feel. Downhillbattle, which organized a series of meetings across the country to view “Eyes on the Prize,” a documentary about the Civil Rights movement thats gone underground because of copyright licensing issues, shows a long list of screenings scheduled in U.S. college towns and the hipper neighborhoods of big cities, as well as in Paris, Vienna and Milan.
Eyeballing the demographics of the meeting sites, one concludes that chances are good that “Eyes on the Prize” viewers already know the issues involved, already support the cause, and, well, are already fired up. Thats not expanding the arguments reach. Its reinforcing it with the converted.
And the Downhillbattle folks arent out to win any friends among folks who might be some of their biggest supporters. Criticism of Apples iTunes and rants about the music industry business model are given prominent play on the site.
Thats fine. And theres a place for that sort of activism, too. But thats the very sort of stuff that makes recording executives dig in their heels. It also helps the recording industry win Congressional support for its cause, particularly in a Republican-led, pro-business Congress.
A different sort of problem exists with the “Endangered Gizmo” campaign. Its a cute little cartoon warning consumers that many of the things they love—the Replay personal video recorder, the iPod—could be crushed by big business “dinosaurs” who dont want to change the law.
For geeks, this is clever. But like Downhillbattles arguments—explicit and otherwise—its preaching to the choir. EFF is an organization of people who know and like new innovative devices for themselves. Less geeky consumers are more interested in what the machines can do. An ad campaign—a real live multimillion-dollar advertising campaign with a name like “Dont Let Them Stop the Music”—would be a lot more effective.
This isnt to suggest that the Recording Industry Association of America or the Motion Picture Academy of America—both of whom think suing their customers is good business—are right on this issue. They arent.
Thats why you dont see them out there wasting their money. Theyre fighting a backroom battle because they know—eventually—that the popularity of the digital video recorder and the iPod will change the current system. They just want to make sure that when it changes, it does so in their favor.
The movie and record folks have a simple strategy against tech companies: Delay. They want to delay changes in the law as long as possible so they can think up new business models that address technological changes. In the meantime, of course, its business—and revenue—as usual. Tactics like EFFs and Downhillbattles play into that tactic by leaving consumers—except for those already interested in the issues—out in the cold.
eWEEK.com Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.
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