Monday, October 11, 2010

Change is Good - You Go First

“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes
One truth that doesn't change it is that change is always opposed. In 15th-century Netherlands it is said that workers would throw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the wooden gears of the new textile looms to break the cogs to stop the loss of older-style weaving jobs. Hence the word "sabotage". While this story may be fictional there is a long history of textile workers rebelling against new technology. Textile artisans in 19th century England followed the example of Ned Ludd and protested against the changing of their way of life by destroying mechanised looms. In modern usage a "Luddite" is anyone who opposes new technologies in general.

Examples of opposition to change are easy to find. The newspaper industry was terrified of radio when it was invented and for a decade refused to allow the Associated Press to sell news to radio. The AP only changed it mind after seeing the profit UPI was making from radio news. Likewise the media industry has predicted that each new technology would destroy it through pirating - VCRs, cassette tape, CDs, DVDs, iTunes, song sharing websites, etc.

Techdirt.com looks at a new law, "Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act," (COICA) proposed by Senators Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch. The bill would give the Justice Department the ability to avoid due process in shutting down or blocking access to sites deemed "dedicated to infringing activities." Techdirt looks at history for examples of infringement that might have been stopped if this law was applied.

  • Hollywood itself: Hollywood was set up on the distant west coast to avoid Thomas Edison's control of the movie making business with various patents. 


  • The recording industry: Modern US copyright law (1906) came out of fears by musicians that "recorded" music would destroy the market for real live musicians. Sheet music producers claimed that piano rolls for player pianos were infringing. 


  • Radio: Early radio was accused of being "dedicated to infringing activities" by paying free music.

  • Cable TV: Early cable companies offered network television to customers without paying the networks for it. What was "open air" was "free." Charlton Heston denounced cable as "depriving actors of compensation."


  • Photocopying machines: Xerox machines terrified the publishing industry in the 1950's. They denounced it as being dedicated to infringing activities. Some say the 1976 Copyright Act was in response to the Xerox machine. 

  • The VCR:  Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America,  famously said, "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." 

  • Cassette tapes: "Home taping is killing music." - slogan of a 1980s anti-copyright infringement campaign by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).

  • The MP3 player:  The Recording Industry Association of America tried to stop MP3 players with a lawsuit because it "stymies the market for . . . works and frustrates the development of legitimate digitally downloadable music."

  • The DVR: In 2001, TV companies sued, claiming that the Replay TV DVR was an "unlawful scheme" that "attacks the fundamental economic underpinnings of free television and basic nonbroadcast services"


  • Bottom Line

    There are some studies that claim change is essential for Capitalism; they call it "destructive" capitalism. The theory is that businesses want their products to wear out or be replaced by newer, "improved" versions so that consumers will buy the product again. Remember the ads for the lonely Maytag repairman? Our Maytag washer/dryer is over 20 years-old and going fine after a recent tune-up and belt change. But they don't make them like that anymore. There's no profit in it. I'm shocked when I buy a vacuum and the warranty is only good for one year.

    The media industry is conflicted when it comes to change. They actively promote new media players because you'll have to buy everything from them again. Think about owning your favorite song and rebuying it for a 76 LP, 45 LP, 8-track tape, cassette tape, CD, and now iTunes and ring tone. The song is the same but you keep putting out the money to keep up with technology to the profit of the music industry. What the media industry fears is any technology that allows you to make your own private copy of songs without paying them again. Why buy the cassette or CD from them when you can record it yourself from the album you already own?

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