November 14, 2005

Harvard Prof Talks On Copyright Laws

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It seems as if MP3 devices are everywhere. Cornell students strut across campus, work out and study to their favorite songs, conveniently held in one sleek little player. However, the boom of these and other entertainment technologies has created crises for the music and movie industries. William T. Fisher, the Hale and Dorr Professor of Intellectual Property Law at Harvard Law School, spoke at Cornell on Friday, comparing the state of the music and movie industries from 1990 to today, after the advent of new technology and especially the Internet.

In his discussion, “Copyright Law and the Future of Entertainment,” Fisher discussed the advantages and disadvantages to both eras’ systems. He then spoke about the four possible paths that can be taken to protect artists from copyright infringement and put the music industry pack on its feet. Fisher, who is also the director for the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, outlined the center’s current project to create a legally and economically viable music sharing system.

The first strategy Fisher offered is to maintain the status quo and create new business models which factor in the Internet. The second option is to strengthen intellectual property right laws. Fisher said that some feel illegal file sharing is like theft.

“Some say pocketing a CD is like taking copyrighted music,” he said.

The third path is to reinforce self-help strategies by strengthening anti-circumvention rules; the final idea is what Fisher described as the “most radical.” This would create an alternative compensation system and is the least likely to be adopted in the United States. This savings fund generated through taxation gives compensation to creators for their work. He gave the examples of NASA and NIH. This system has already been adopted in some countries overseas, but not in the United States because of the “hostility of this government’s involvement”.

This idea is somewhat similar to a project Fisher is currently working on with the Berkman Center, the Digital Media Exchange.

“It is a non-profit, copyright compliant co-op,” Fisher said. “The advantages are that the creators are paid and there would be increased cultural diversity. The disadvantage is the critical mass problem. You need producers to get consumers, and you need consumers to get producers.”

Fisher began his discussion by supplying some statistics from the Department of Commerce about entertainment and the average American adult. He said the average adult watches broadcast cable 850 hours a year, cable and satellite 820 hours a year, videos and DVDs 74 hours a year and listens to the radio for 995 hours a year.

“That is 3000 hours a year, 8 hours a day, 365 days a year,” Fisher said. “What is somewhat of a puzzle is: how do people work?”

In comparison, the average American adult spends 24 minutes a day reading the newspaper, 17 minutes a day a magazine and an average of 14 minutes a day reading a book. These numbers are declining, while the average number of minutes spent playing video games daily is rising.

This trend is not restricted to the United States.

“The obsession with the media is widespread,” Fisher said. “In a recent survey of northern Thailand, some people were so for it they had to sell their children into slavery and bought a TV with the money.”

Fisher outlined the structure of the music industry in 1990. Composers would assign their music to a publisher or a record company, who would then earn money by methods such as marketing to retailers and movie studios or granting performing licenses.

“The merit of this system is it succeeded in facilitating an enormous output of entertainment products,” Fisher said. “The flaw is the high transaction costs. It also led to homogeneity of content.”

Another aspect of this system is that it led to a few people becoming celebrities and the rest being left behind.

“It led to an environment of highly unequal distribution patterns,” Fisher said. “In part because of the technology, it amplified the power of stars. There were ‘winner take all’ results. There is disagreement if this is an advantage or a disadvantage.”

Then the “technological destabilization” occurred. This included the advent of digital recording and storage devices such as CDs, DVDs, MP3 players and the Internet.

“Roughly 20 percent of American households had broadband Internet up to 2003. Every Scandinavian country and Korea has higher subscriptions than we do, and they are all rising,” Fisher said. “And the Chinese are growing the fastest.”

Fisher also stated that the misconception that only teenagers use the Internet is false.

“The age distribution is that teenagers use it a bit more,” he said. “It is stable in the working population and then it drops after 50. The idea that it was just kids using the Internet was true for about a year.”

Fisher then related the Internet explosion to the music industry. He said that there are certain advantages to people having the ability to easily download music online: cost savings, elimination of over and under production, convenience and precision, an increase in the number of musicians, cultural diversity and semiotic democracy.

“Internet distribution offers savings for the retailer and the manufacturer,” he said. “There is a rapidly dropping studio cost. Savings are between half and two-thirds of costs for the artist.”

Another benefit Fisher spoke about was the diversity in music that the Internet allows for. Something that is not popularly marketable and thus not profitable can be distributed on the Internet. Fisher gave examples of the Makossa Jukebox, which plays all Cameroonian music, and a station that plays only Neo-Pagan tunes.

The Internet greatly facilitates exposure because it gives artists an outlet that was not available before. It allows for the sampling of music and could attract more people to concerts. However, Fisher gave a statistic that said CD distribution peaked in 1999 and has been in a four year decline.

While the music industry is falling, Fisher said that the movie industry is not.

“What saved the film industry and put it in good shape are overseas overall DVD sales,” he said. “The American sector is quite modest in worldwide box office sales.”

Over the past few years, with the Internet and Napster, there have been battles over issues such as file-sharing and copyright laws. Fisher said that these trends and destabilization have caused what he referred to as “The War”. He compared the war on file-sharing and Internet downloading to the War on Drugs.

Fisher spoke for approximately an hour, using a detailed power-point to accompany his talk.

“I am in the process of writing a paper about whether the Digital Millennium Copyright Act puts restrictions on fair use,” said Maire Casimir, a junior journalism major at Ithaca College. “And he is the expert; he covered a lot of stuff I never even thought to include in my paper.”

Archived article by Bekah Grant
Sun Contributor