Is there a more misguided bunch than copyright skeptics? Well, possibly, but we’d still put them right near the top of the list. For example, here’s a blogger’s recent proposal to gut copyright because, apparently, he can’t find anything to watch.
The author, Timothy B. Lee, is annoyed that he “can’t get” all the content he wants. (Except he pretty much can, thanks to the booming streaming marketplace.) To fix that, he recommends that the concept of “fair use” be expanded in ways that he thinks would make more movies and shows available on the web. Or, he says, maybe we should subject all video programming to a compulsory license 10-15 years after release. That, he tells us, would make more content available from more streaming services. (Does Lee really think that any of them would still be in business?)
How can we unravel this tangled yarn? We could run screaming around our office building, but that worries the security guards. Instead, we’ll alternate between typing our thoughts and plunging our heads in recycling bins filled with ice water.
First question. What moves Lee to advance this crazy proposal? Well, by his own admission, the problem he seeks to solve doesn’t really exist.
He says Netflix “has some amazing original content” but “the back catalog is unimpressive.” He pines for 2006, when Netflix offered 60,000 titles. Today, he says, Netflix has “only” about 6,000 titles. He suggests this is because the copyright owners are imposing restrictive licenses for streaming, resulting in less online content.
Oh, but Lee admits that Netflix still operates its original business as DVD.com, which loans out around 40,000 more titles than it did in 2006. That’s, um, a lot more content than in past years.
How can Lee avoid drawing the obvious conclusion, that more content is available today, more conveniently than ever before? He seems determined to concoct an issue where there isn’t one. And how can he omit the obvious fact that piracy – not long copyright terms – is the biggest threat to creative industries?
Instead of facing these obvious facts, Lee is determined to concoct an issue where there isn’t one.
Desperately reaching for an example to support his fallacious argument, he links to an old story that praised Netflix for helping viewers rediscover films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. The implication is that the move to streaming original content has rendered many classics unavailable.
After gurgling expletives underwater, we proved that The Conversation is still easy to find with a simple DuckDuckGo search. Our top three results for “watch The Conversation” show that you can view the Gene Hackman classic – legally – using Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, or DirectTV. On Just Watch, you can find additional viewing options, including Paramount+, Sling TV, Apple TV, and Vudu.
Moving from faulty premise to faulty conclusion, Lee references a proposal by Stanford lawyer Mark Lemley, another copyright skeptic. Lemley proposes that there should be a compulsory license to allow any business, or any person, to be free to stream works that aren’t currently available to stream legally. This would, of course, decimate the value of copyright protection for many films and television shows.
Lee doesn’t spend much time on Lemley’s proposal. He concedes that very little content is unlikely to be completely unavailable at any time, “even if it wasn’t available broadly or at reasonable prices.” Which brings us back to the underlying motivation of most copyright skeptics: “Why do I have to pay for this thing?”
Skeptics like Lee used to complain that there weren’t enough streaming options, and not enough content available “legally” to watch. Now, they’ve flipped, and they complain that there are too many streaming options. Lee gripes about what he calls the “balkanization” of streaming services, by which he means that not all content is available on all services.
In short, Lee seems to want a “one-stop shop” for all the entertainment he consumes.
Timothy… The booming competition among streaming services is exactly what has triggered all the new creative productions out there, as well as ensuring that older content libraries get distributed for a fair price.
What if Congress were to do what Lemley proposes – create a “compulsory license” that would require copyright holders to let others – anyone who wants to – stream their content at government-set rates after a short time, like 10-15 years?
Well, if there’s anything we know for sure about compulsory licenses, it’s that they are anti-creativity and counter-productive. It would reduce compensation to the very people who create entertainment and the companies that license that entertainment at marketplace rates – which allows them to keep investing in more entertainment.
Among the many side effects of compulsory licensing would be the destruction of smaller, more specialized streaming services that rely on a lot of older catalogue films to set themselves apart from the biggest streamers… like The Conversation.
For creatives whose livelihoods depend on copyright, it is beyond frustrating to see copyright skeptics demand that we simply give away the entertainment we make. And at the same time, a lot of these skeptics reject the notion that massive losses from digital piracy harm creatives.
Lee may be unaware of these losses, so we’ll reiterate them once again: piracy takes $29 billion and 230,000 jobs from our economy every year, at a MINIMUM. Read the room, Timothy – we’re not in a position to start allowing five-finger discounts.
If these losses were stopped, legitimate businesses would have more revenue to invest in creating or distributing content. That’s how effective copyright protections benefit artists, workers, and audiences.
In the meantime, we’ll hold onto our buckets of ice water – just in case arguments like Lee’s continue to resurface.