Jack Valenti: Movies in the Digital Age - thursday 2004-04-08 1344 last modified 2004-04-08 2133
Categories: Daily Grind, Film, Current Events
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Jack Valenti, soon to be former president of the MPAA, came to MIT to discuss Movies in the Digital Age. Great location for the talk, of course; a bunch of folks dressed as sea pirates walked in for front seats. The audio is available on the program page.

I transcribed some notes. If you've followed the discussions from those such as Stanford professor Larry Lessig, most of what follows would be of little interest.

Some observations. Mr. Valenti is a politician, a public relations master, and a businessman. It's in no way surprising and even commendable within those trades the directions he's taken the MPAA. His Texas accent and simple, self-deprecating tone mask the language, the word choices he makes when it comes to the issue of "piracy." It isn't a pretty thing. This is why economics should not be the dominating force in our political and cultural domains. He and his association are so concerned with maintaining their profits on the film industry that anything standing in the way of large margin gains is in danger of being steamrolled, particularly the public domain. Choice quotes from his talk: "Does anybody even know what goes into the public domain? I don't!" That's the whole problem. Copyrights last so long that most things of relevant cultural worth are long, long past their due by the time they make it into the public domain.

Mr. Valenti tried to make a point about how American movies cost so much because the talent costs so much (and thus we have to sustain this industry by overpaying for crappy Hollywood films). Maybe if somebody with half a brain put a salary cap on the screen actor's guild members, the economic situation would be more viable. There's no point in shifting the blame here.

While playing Reagensque games like mishearing questions (and giving totally irrelevant answers) and generally working against his audience ("I just don't see it that way" - for no reasons), Mr. Valenti seemed to have the gall to try to flatter "you bright MIT folks" in an odd attempt to recruit. He's looking for smart people to take advantage of the Internet as a content distribution platform without losing the industry's capital. Good luck.

All in all, he seems an appropriate symbol of inflexible institutional conservatism. The digital world is changing everything on the intellectual property front. Those who have been around for a generation are digging in their heels. It's going to be our loss if they end up winning.

Partial Transcript

JV: Me talking about digital is "like peeing down your own leg; it makes me feel warm, but nobody else knows what the hell is going on." I'm saying someone who makes a table has the right to own it. Can you be creative and create "property" in this country and still be respected without someone stealing it? People now don't take DVD's off the shelves (dissing Wynona Rider), but they do take the digital copies and stick them in their digital shelves.

The Internet2 project (sends a compressed DVD across the globe in a minute) scares me. I don't want what happens to the music industry to happen to the movie industry. It's going to be harder to foster creativity.

The Internet is the greatest distribution system in history. I want the movie industry to make all its titles available on demand to the world at a fair and reasonable price. That's all. I don't want it to be stolen or abducted on the way. We're not trying to stifle innovation and lock-up movies. That would make us go belly up. But the only way to make more movies is to make profits on your first movies.

I've read Larry Lessig's book. I just disagree with him.

(sounds like he's crying here...) I think the politically divisive partisanship is terrible; I've never gotten personal in politics. We should be able to discuss things objectively, warmly.

Q: How do you change the attitude of those who have no problems with piracy? There doesn't seem to be the sense that you're really stealing something when someone downloads The Last Samurai.

A: I don't think you can. You're stealing from all the little people on the movie! Do it enough, and there's less capital to go into movies. Do you believe that creative property is valuable?

Q: Public domain? Why so zealous about holding onto long-term copyrights?

A: Some of these pictures have a life of a couple years. What does Steamboat Willie have to do with movies today? The copyright extension act's principle reason for being is because the European copyright was moved by twenty years; they'd be able to sell it instead of the US. It was done to comport with European law.

By the way, if something goes into the public domain, does the public know about it? Most people don't know what's in the public domain.

Q: You hate porn on p2p - why?

A: Primarily as a service for children. All of them have the most disturbing pornography available. I'm a first amendment man. I want parents to understand and deal with it.

Q: VHS?

A: Copyright levy on blank tapes! Canada and Europe do it. Once the Supreme Court said it wasn't infringing, the government didn't follow along with a levy.

Q: How do you know P2P is causal when it comes to the record industry's flagging sales?

A: I don't know any more than the statistics given me.

Q: What would you have done if not this?

A: It's hard to say... I would have lived in Texas, certainly less obscure than I am now... I owe everything to LBJ...

Q: All of these 'illicit' download things are happening in an ethical framework. Now's a great time for someone to step up and take the lead in non-commercial use for media. Cites Harvard study on how music industry was not affected by P2P.

A: I don't agree that that's ethical. That study was done in Germany. Anybody can use it for non-commercial use, meaning, every use becomes non-commercial. This is a business.

Q: Your industry doesn't seem to respect the rights of legitimate consumers. What should be my rights when I buy a DVD?

A: (answering the wrong question, something about region coding)

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