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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this weblog are those of the authors and not of their respective institutions.

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

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June 19, 2012

Hollywood's Copyright Wars (book review)

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Peter Decherney's latest work is the book Hollywood's Copyright Wars: from Edison to the Internet. The professor and his publisher were kind enough to give me a review copy, which I have finally finished - apologies for my tardiness.

The book focuses on the film industry in the US, starting from its earliest days. It is mostly concerned with formative battles over intellectual property (primarily copyright) in the early and mid-20th century, devoting only the final chapter "Digital Hollywood" to the age of the Internet and key battles such as the DMCA/safe harbor/fair use exemptions. He also keeps his eye pretty strictly on the film industry, and its spawn into television and recorded movies. This is, then, a work largely of cultural and political history, and is extremely useful for anyone who wants to understand how we got to where we are.

Decherney makes a couple of key points throughout the book that stuck with me. First, "piracy" isn't new. Early film pioneers - including Edison - did things like copying others work in ways that would now be regarded as violations. "Piracy" is a loose term, then, that Hollywood has always used to mean "things being done by people we do not like who are not us." - even if those are things that Hollywood itself was doing just a few years ago. Once it's being done by Hollywood the act is no longer piracy and that term is then shifted and used to refer to new actions.

Two, he notes that Hollywood has long dreamed of a realm of total control. The major campaign within the last 20 years to turn the "play" button into a "pay" button really originates over a century ago. Through litigation, Congressional lobbying, and business decisions, Hollywood has tried to steer itself into this sort of cultural/legal monopoly. With the DMCA they have gotten closer than ever before to this goal but they've done so only by handing massive amounts of control to third parties - generally tech companies like Apple - who have used monopolistic legislation like the DMCA to attain their own total control.

Decherney also does a good job of showing how much of what has gone on has been a combination of careful planning, incoherent response, and internal division. For example, the infamous Betamax case was not pursued by Hollywood monolithically. Hollywood has simultaneously pursued court decisions and ignored them. And different studios (and the auteurs with whom they must deal and often fight) have responded differently to fringe copyright activity such as fan films, parodies, and homages. The result has been to create a climate of uncertainty in which new gatekeepers such as film-festival promoters and insurance companies have been forced to play guessing games about what will or will not be treated as infringing and subject to lawsuits or cease-and-desist orders. With uncertainty came self-restriction, a regime that new mass-creation technologies like YouTube has exploded, to Hollywood's deep panic.

I have two minor quibbles with the book, which I hope Prof Decherney will change in a future edition. First, he does 'the professor thing' too often. A paragraph will begin with a question, which the body of the paragraph then answers. This comes across as pedantic. I think Decherney's prose is interesting enough to stand on its own and he could remove the rhetorical questions entirely.

Second, the book is extensively footnoted, but the notes are purely reference links. Reading them is as dry as reading the notes on a court decision. I love the little minutiae that some authors put into footnotes. There's a wealth of trivia, anecdote, and digression that can't be fit into a coherent main-text narrative but still makes for good reading. I hope Decherney spices up his future end-notes with some of the good bits that didn't make it into the main text.

In conclusion: recommended reading for good context and understanding.

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