David Rothman scoffs at Eric Alterman’s coverage of Hollywood’s influence in national politics. He writes:
In fact, I would agree with Alterman that most Hollywood money is not given expressedly with copyright in mind. But how could anyone so trustingly write of David Geffen, the billionaire recording bigshot and an owner of Dreamworks SKG, who raised $20 million for Clinton and other Democrats? Supposedly Geffen’s sole reward was “a sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom and the knowledge that he was part of the inner circle of Clinton’s ‘go-to’ guys in town?hardly the sort of quid pro quo one suspects when the President’s friend and top contributor is, say, Enron’s Kenneth Lay.” The DMCA didn’t count? The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, either? Whether or not Geffen leaned aggressively on the White House for those rewards, they came–in abundance…
Given so many situations like the Edwards-Bing connection, why didn’t the Alterman mention the C word directly, at least in passing? He was willing to note the hypocrisy of the beautiful people in driving SUVs while forking over money to environmental causes. But he wrote not one word about the vast chasm between Hollywood-bought copyright laws and all the nice noises that the liberals there make on the need for equal opportunity for all. Doesn’t anyone in Hollywood care that the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act cheated millions of students of the ability to download The Great Gatsby from free libraries on the Net such as Project Gutenberg’s? That young musicians lack free access to the works of George Gershwin? That the DMCA could cost the consumers many billions by complicating life for third-party maintenance providers and others? That Hollywood-bought copyright laws are so frequently a threat to free speech?
Eric Alterman is no nut and he is certainly not corruptible by influence-peddling (despite some tenuous relationships with the previous administration). Why did Alterman overlook the copyright issue? First, except for content creators (and libertarian-minded teens who download copyrighted material without guilt), many people just don’t see a reason to get all worked up about copyright reform. They perceive it as not affecting them. They don’t see harm in the status quo because after all Blockbuster videos are cheap, broadcast TV is free (with advertising) and piracy mitigates this sense of deprivation. From the consumer’s point of view, the rights of copyright holder and content creator are indistinguishable; they have an underlying faith in the current production system’s system to reward talent and hard work. Most people (even those related to the culture industry) can’t comprehend alternate distribution channels or the thought of (imagine!) people wanting to give their content away for free. When one thinks of the word “singer,” the typical person thinks of a household name backed by big media, not the dozens of singers in one’s hometown laboring to find a gig or an audience. The majority of people don’t want to take the time to discover the unknown or be surprised by it; instead they assume that the major media companies are doing an adequate job of filtering quality on the public’s behalf. It also has to do with trust towards media. If Time Magazine and your city newspaper is giving nonstop coverage to Warner Brothers films or Disney cartoons or books by celebrity authors, that is what becomes the reality.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out how closely the American consumer aligns himself with the culture industry. The Music Charts are published in the Sunday papers; the weekend revenues of firstrun films are reported on Monday just like the stock market or oil futures. The consumer roots for Hollywood just as he roots for GM or IBM to succeed; they are the good guys, the people responsible for bringing us Terminator and Kurt Cobain (never mind that it’s never quite clear who exactly are the good guys).
Actually Alterman spends a good deal of time discussing how successful artists (Barbara Streisand, Larry David, etc) try to influence policy. These “star individuals” at least have the ability to negotiate more ownership rights and less beholden to the need to speak the party line. Ironically it is those artists alienated by the industry (the “has beens”) who are in the best position to advocate copyright reform and speak on behalf on what’s best for our society as a whole. Those “has beens” still gain the public attention while no longer being bribed into silence (although their media appearances can be limited to a trickle; see Dixie Chicks and Prince). Madonna’s attitude has always been “No corporation can own me, but I can pretend that they do so they can keep cashing their checks.” She winks at us, and we admire her deception and her sense of irony (while remaining a little envious of her business savvy). That strategy worked in the 1980’s and even the 1990’s. Nowadays, this strategy seems stale. Not only is Madonna getting older (and sounding more tiresome), it’s beginning to seem like Madonna’s is enjoying the joke at our expense.
In the 21st century, people under 30 have already abandoned the idea of copyright bringing reward. Younger content creators don’t care; they resent the entanglements and the commitments and ultimately the loss of artistic control. They know better; Just as the possibility of communism’s resurgence dimmed with the retirement of older Communists, “perpetual copyright ownership (a la Bono)” may simply fade away when younger artists are no longer tempted by big media companies to cede control. In this age of disintermediation, the idea of running your own business (with POD or web-only content or mail-order DVD’s) seems much more lucrative than having to mess with an army of lawyers. As public distribution channels become more numerous and open, what worries me most is the possibility of big media companies buying up distribution channels (ISP’s, cable TV channels, etc) and demanding permanent ownership rights for anyone seeking access to it (for publishing or downloading).