Monday, July 20, 1998

Week of 07/20/1998

Not a good consumer idea
- by David Matthews 2

Picture this scene in the near future:

Suzy: Mom! Johnny used up all the video credits!

Johnny: It’s not my fault, mom! I saw this really great scene in Aliens 20 and I wanted Billy to see it as well. I only rewound the video once!

Mom: Johnny, you know better than to rewind a video in the middle of a movie! I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, rewinding the movies takes one credit away. *sigh* Now I guess I won’t be able to purchase my soaps this week.

Absurd notion, you say?

Not if a few sadistically creative property rights advocates have their way.

It used to be that if you wanted to hear a certain song, you paid a ticket and went to the concert. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to pay a ticket and see the movie in a theatre. But then came records, tapes, and videocassettes. Now, if you want to hear a song, you go to the record store and buy their recording. If you want to see a movie, you go to the video store and rent or buy the video.

Of course, those luxuries weren’t easy to get. Music and movie distributors have long feared inventions that they claim would violate their commercial property rights. Copyright lawyers have tried to stop the release of videocassette players, especially recording VCRs, for fear that movies would be copied without their being able to collect royalties on them. Compact discs were also under the microscope, but were allowed at first because, like the phonograph before it, the technology to record the discs were much more expensive than to just play them. They were able to successfully suppress the American release of Digital Audio Tape, the new tape format that would’ve replaced cassettes much like compact discs replaced phonographs.

Copyright lawyers, and the movie and music industries they represent, have long been stymied by the legal concept of "fair use." Essentially, that means you are allowed to record whatever movie or song you want as long as it is for your own personal use and you don’t plan on reselling it. This was tolerable for copyright lawyers because the quality of audio and video cassette recordings weren’t perfect, and mass-copying of certain tapes or movies were of a lesser quality than the products they release.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the literal glut of "bootleg" videos being sold at conventions and flea markets around the world. It’s amazing at the number of videos ranging from homemade homage videos to outright pirated copies of movies and television shows that are available at very competitive costs. I guess if you want to see a movie bad enough, you’ll put up with poor quality, especially if it’s the kind of movie Hollywood would never release on video in the first place.

But now we have new computer technology that can make as many duplicates as possible, with the one-hundredth copy just as crisp and clear as the original. That, combined with the virtually uncontrolled medium such as the Internet, is making copyright lawyers very nervous.

However, that very technology is also giving rise to some very mercenary ideas for music producers.

How about a pay-per-use compact disc of your favorite artist? Let’s say you want to hear the new Aerosmith song from the Armageddon soundtrack. (Great album, by the way!) You buy the disc at $7.95, figuring that’s one hell of a bargain. You take it home and you listen to it. You like the sounds, so you listen to it again. Then, two weeks later, you pop the CD into the player and get nothing but static. It’s then that you realize that on the back of the jewel box is a notice that you purchased a pay-per-use disc. You were given a finite number of plays on your disc, and in order for you to hear the disc again, you have to pop the disc into a computer, call up an 800 number, give them your credit card number, and for $3.95, you can listen to your Armageddon pay-per-use CD ten more times.

Now let’s be brutally honest here.. this is a bad idea whose time shouldn’t even be given fifteen seconds, never mind fifteen minutes. Let’s forget for a second the absurd notion that there are computer-deficient people who would have to try to figure out how to program in the new pay-per-use code on their stereo system without scrambling their pre-programmed radio stations and frying their speakers. How many people would really be willing to pay for pay-per-use music if given the choice? I know I wouldn’t! $7.95 for ten plays? Screw that! I’ll pay $19.95 for the full version and listen to it until the plastic melts down inside the CD player!

Of course, this is just the latest brainstorm in pay-per-use ideas already available to the general public. The classic is the pay-per-view movie channels. DirecTV and other digital satellite systems have made PPV so accessible now that it is now cheaper to watch a movie on DSS than it does to go to a theatre or even rent a movie. PPV has spread to the Internet, where adult subscription sites are using every trick in the book to lure people to their sites.

Anyone have Network Associates’ latest VirusScan program? If you purchased Microsoft’s Windows 98 Plus program you got it for free, but you can get it as low as $10 at some warehouse stores. Now, they offer six free downloads of their software. You have to pay for the rest.

Will pay-per-use sell? Depends on the product. Pay-per-view movies and specials will no doubt continue because of their unique appeal to the consumer. But beyond that? I believe that we’re too stingy to allow every aspect of our lives to go into pay-per-use mode. Why should DirecTV users pay $3 per day to see "Days Of Our Lives" when they can set their VCRs to tape the soap for free off regular broadcast channels? Why should I pay $10 for a virus-check program if I could only update the information for the first six months for free when others are charging $40 for the whole program and update the information for free as many times as I need to?

What it all boils down to is a bunch of corporate suits trying to milk every nickel and dime out of consumers without one shred of rational thought behind it. If the corporate suits want to really crack down on bootleg merchants, the first thing they need to do is get rid of this concept of "pay-per-use." Try treating customers as human beings instead of numbers on some fiscal spreadsheet.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not for outright bootlegging of merchandise, but at the same time, I don’t believe that the average consumer needs to pay through the nose over and over again. That won’t kill bootlegging - it’ll only make it stronger.

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