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A History Lesson For The Freetards

A few days ago my esteemed comrade John Welch wrote up a very insightful post about the issues surrounding the Amazon Kindle’s text to speech features and Author’s Guild response. I’m not going to revisit the specifics of the situation. If you’re unaware of them go and read John’s post, but I did want to add some of my thoughts in the form of a historical parallel that seems to be getting missed in the discussion so far.

Sit Right Back and You’ll Hear a Tale…

Harken back to a distant time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, crappy synth-pop filled the airwaves, and the internet was merely a gleam in Al Gores eye. Yes my children, I’m talking about the 1980s. It was during this quaint time that a new technology was tearing a new asshole through the entertainment world. That technology was home video, specifically the VHS player.

Prior to this world-changing advance, if you wanted to watch a movie or television show you watched it where and when the studio or network told you to. And we liked it dad gummit! But suddenly, with the rapidly gaining acceptance of the VHS player, the possibility of a content provider releasing a recorded version of a movie or television show for later viewing was real (although the networks were later to the party and never really embraced distributing television shows on VHS due to the space limitations).

Note though, I’m not *not not talking about the use of videotape by consumers to record shows on their own. The content providers hated this and it isn’t germane to my point.

Before I continue I want to take a brief digression into the world of how content producers (not distributors) are compensated. Say I write a screenplay, I now own the copyright to that work (regardless of what the freetards think of copyright) and I and I alone get to determine how that work is reproduced and distributed. Of course, that’s the idealist situation. The truth is (and this was even more true pre-internet) if I want to get paid for my work I’m going to need to work with some sort of content distributor. In the case of this parable the distributors are the movie studios and television networks. So what I do is I sell “rights” to have my work used and reproduced.

The thing is, all this gets very complicated; so what I do is I join a union like the Writer’s Guild of America that negotiates standard rights agreements between its members and the various content distributors. So, based on the standard agreement, when my screenplay become the next summer blockbuster I get x percentage of the profits. When it makes money overseas I get y percentage. When it plays as ABC’s movie of the week I get z percentage. And so forth, all the way down to the pittance I get when it plays at three o’clock in the morning on some no-network local UHF station.

Then VHS came along, and during the next round of negotiations between the WGA and the studios a rate was negotiated. And here is where it gets interesting. Faced with the first real technological innovation in the home entertainment market in decades, the studios decided that they didn’t want to pay all that much for the video distribution rights. To be sure they had some compelling arguments. “VHS costs a lot to produce, we need to recoup those losses.” And, “This is experimental technology, we’re not sure that it will take off.” Both reasons were true at the time, and the studios promised that they would revisit the rate later and increase it if warranted.

Of course, they never, ever did.

So, time went on and in the 1990s a new technological advance was poised to remake the home entertainment landscape, DVD. With DVDs vast increase in storage space came several new possibilities. First, it finally became feasible to the television studios to jump on the bandwagon. It was much easier to sell a season of a show on 2 or 3 DVDs as opposed to upwards of a dozen VHS tapes. The second new possibility that is important to this tale is “bonus material.” One of the initial key selling points of DVD over VHS to the consumer was the presence of bonus material: director and cast commentary, “making of” documentaries, you name it.

In time the next round of WGA negotiations came around and a rate for DVD sales was negotiated. But the studios, being what they are stiffed the content producers again. “DVD costs a lot to produce, we need to recoup those losses,” they said. And, “This is experimental technology, we’re not sure that it will take off. We’ll revisit the rates once this becomes a proven technology.” Hey, that sounds familiar. And about the bonus materials? “Consider those marketing materials,” the studios said, “producing them makes you money.” So, once again the content distributors used the fact that a technology was “unproven” to stiff the people who actually produce the content.

To provide a brief coda to this story before moving on to how it applies to the Kindle. In 2007 the studios tried a third time to play the “it’s unproven we don’t want to pay you for it, besides it provides you exposure” card. This time in relation to the growing trend of providing online supplements to television shows and movies aka “webisodes.” Having finally been burned enough times the WGA went on strike and forced a good-faith negotiation.

eBook Text To Speech is the New VHS

Nah, it probably isn’t, but the parallel is there. What the vast internet retardotron is missing, and sadly what authors like Neil Gaiman are missing in this is it isn’t a case of the evil content publishers preventing the downtrodden consumer from exercising their supposed “rights.” The danger here isn’t that I will avoid paying for a proper audiobook rendition of Coraline, it’s that I won’t even have that option. The danger is that the publisher, in their constant quest to save a buck won’t even buy the audiobook rights from Mr. Gaiman. Instead they will buy the ebook rights knowing that the text to speech option is “good enough.”

The sad thing is, the Author’s Guild is in danger of being taken just as badly as the WGA was. Instead of attacking Amazon over the technology; they need to immediately, and forcefully begin action to negotiate new agreements that prevent the publishers from slipping text to speech in the backdoor. Don’t rely on the fact that the mainstream technology is ass now. As the WGA parable shows us, technology advances, but once rights are negotiated away they’re damned hard to get back.