What It Do: Blood From A Stone

Chris Dodd, former Democratic senator and supposed crusader against the corruption of Wall Street, cleared a cool $2.4 million in 2011 as head of the Motion Picture Association Of America. To earn his keep, Dodd became the film industry’s DC knee-breaker, twisting arms and greasing wheels in support of legislation such as the odious Stop Online Piracy Act.

Thankfully, the former United States senator—approaching his 70th birthday—turned out to be an ineffective quarterback in the internet age, and SOPA was defeated by an alliance of pretty much everybody who knew what the internet was and didn’t work for the entertainment industry. One can assume their next effort will be more effectively crafted.

Dodd has remained in his well-compensated perch, swaggering about the red carpet at this year’s Oscars, defending the movie industry’s God-given right to sell violence and terror for big profits, and taking shots across the bow of his political opponents.

Behind the scenes, the entertainment industry is gearing up for a new phase in their crusade to exert absolute control over that modern day golden commodity: content. The proprietors of websites such as The Pirate Bay and Megaupload have been chased to the ends of the earth (quite literally in several cases), and armies of lawyers are sharpening their claws in preparation for aggressive litigation against the websites that distribute pirated content.

While they are suing the pants off the websites accused of piracy, they will also put aggressive pressure on internet service providers to outright block these same websites—presumably backed up with the threat of additional litigation—and even plan to put pressure on companies that advertise on these websites through Google AdSense and other similar services. This total war strategy is a clear attempt to strangle web piracy at the source.

In the mobile universe, the entertainment industry is seeking to engage Google, Microsoft and Apple in “quick take down agreements” which will allow them to kill any app that they disapprove of. One wonders if the executives in charge of all this strategery—to borrow a Bushism—truly believe that their long-lost profits will reappear if they are successful in locking down the web and mobile app markets.

It’s not as if actual piracy is going anywhere. The internet underground has already moved on from torrent search engines to the next thing (word to the wise, it rhymes with “fool’s bet”), and the masses—fully accustomed to free content—will surely follow in due time.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Thom Yorke expressed ambivalence bordering on regret towards Radiohead’s decision to circumvent the traditional album release process with their album In Rainbows, instead opting for a “pay what you want” pricing scheme. The band was praised (rightly so) for its innovative approach to selling music in the digital age, but Yorke now seems to feel as though their actions only hastened the era of where music becomes mere “content,” which he described as “a filling of time and space with stuff, emotion, so you can sell it.”

Yorke needn’t be so hard on himself. If Radiohead had released In Rainbows according to the traditional model, it’s difficult to imagine that a single thing about today’s circumstances would be any different. The dirty little secret that the entertainment industry doesn’t want to acknowledge is that they created this monster. Not the musicians, not the fans, and not even the piracy websites that the industry has tried to turn into boogeymen.

The reason that piracy exists to the extent it does stems from the entertainment industry’s parasitic relationship with the art it seeks to monetize. Most musicians I know would rather someone download a pirated copy of their work (and hopefully become a fan that buys t-shirts and concert tickets) than not listen to it at all. Not the industry.

They play the role of the imposter mother in Solomon’s tale, ready to chop the baby in half if she can’t have it. Decades of poorly implemented digital rights management, unit pricing with inflated profit margins and business practices akin to shady mortgage companies have made a bed of a billion little pirates for the entertainment industry, and the toothpaste won’t go back in the tube, no matter what they do.

In the meantime, the musicians, writers, filmmakers and other artists —who actually create the content the entertainment industry would commoditize into oblivion—are largely abandoning the “blood from a stone” approach in favor of Radiohead’s “pay what you want” model, using tools such as Kickstarter to raise production funds.

As creative people become their own businesses, they are discovering that by abandoning the quest to monetize every aspect of their art, they are more readily able to connect with a core fanbase. This manner of doing things may not provide the golden ticket payouts of the entertainment industry’s heyday, but it is infinitely more likely to lead to artists making a consistent living from their art—not to mention retaining full ownership of that art.