It could be said that Hollywood is founded on a legacy of piracy.
About a century ago filmmakers fled the East Coast of the United States in an effort to avoid federal marshals who were actively enforcing a set of patents that Thomas Edison held on the craft of filmmaking itself.
California’s geographic distance and laxity of law enforcement enabled these individuals to flourish through the meagre 17 years of protection that those patents offered Edison. In that time, a new industry was born in Hollywood, founded by a loose band of formally criminal entrepreneurs.
Interestingly, this movement’s ringleader was the Austro-Hungarian-born Jew William Fox (née Wilhelm Fuchs) whose namesake Fox Film Corporation survives to this day.
Cable television similarly evolved from an arguably illegal foundation. For more than thirty years following 1948, cable companies were the Napster of their era.
Quite simply, they redistributed broadcaster content to their customers without any remuneration to the copyright owners.
Remarkably, their situation survived two US Supreme Court cases. An act of Congress finally settled the dispute, again in the cable companies’ favour.
As a result, one of America’s largest business empires was built on what is now viewed as content piracy.
I’m relating this history because, as the digital era begins to forcibly undermine the business models that support traditional entertainment such as film and television, it’s worth noting the value of piracy.
Had Thomas Edison and the original television broadcasters had their way, it’s questionable as to whether either Hollywood or cable television would even exist. Piracy and openly illegal use of copyright media content gave birth to both industries.
Today, file sharing and social networking are redefining both the distribution system and economic infrastructure of entertainment media.
Television and film are both being neutered by evolving generations of media consumers that demand more flexibility and cost effectiveness.
Working against the lessons of history and common sense, most film companies and broadcasters are working hard to continue to enforce their dilapidated marketing model on the public.
They’d do better to listen to the emerging demands of consumers and restructure their approach to media production and distribution.
Interestingly, one media company is doing just this, but more out of desperation than strategic endeavour.
Sony Pictures, after all, is the only international media conglomerate that does not own a major North American broadcaster. So it has to do something.
Sony is taking the emergence of a new form of entertainment media to heart and is testing out some models. One of these is called Afterworld, which is essentially a science fiction show that is published using a model popularly known as “cross platform”.
Clocking in at barely 3 minutes (the premium duration for mobile and online video content), each Afterworld “webisode” can be downloaded any time and viewed on a wide variety of devices, often at little or not cost.
Afterworld is an excellent model for a post-TV future.
While it’s clearly not piracy-driven, Afterworld does leverage the best practices and habits of media consumers who exist on the fringe.
It uses the web and file sharing for data distribution; it embraces a variety of target technologies, from televisions to iPods; it is perfectly crafted for quick consumption; and it undermines the traditional economic system that television and film are working so hard to protect.
Afterworld also highlights what most important about the contemporary media piracy movement: it’s driven by consumers, not producers.
File sharing and social media distribution channels are all about the deconstruction of the media empires that Fox and his ilk built from their ill-gotten gains.
Shows like Afterworld respond to these evolving consumption patterns and respect the interests of new consumers who, in a digital age, really have the power to do whatever they damn well please with any content they access.
The pirates of old need to come to terms with this and work with the swashbucklers of tomorrow.
Otherwise, just as Fox Film was crudely consumed by upstart Twentieth-Century Films in 1935, they may be forced to walk the plank before the emerging media market is fully realized.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 25, 2008. Happy Birthday, Dad!