Opinion: Copyright And Creativity

The word "copyright" is, to most Americans, quite irrelevant to their daily lives. But the truth is it is most relevant because it's the source-bed from which springs America's greatest trade export and this nation's grandest economic asset.

Copyright, rooted in the Constitution, gives to those who designed creative works the exclusive use of that which they created for a specified period of time. This includes movies, television programs, home video, music, video games, publishing and computer software. These are the Copyright Industries. They are a creative and economic engine the likes of which the world has never seen before.

The Copyright Industries are creating jobs at three times the rate of the rest of the American economy. They gather in more international revenues than aircraft, or agriculture or automobiles. They have a surplus balance of trade with every country in the world at a time when the remainder of the U.S. economy is bleeding from trade deficits that in the year 2000 rose to the unholy height of $357 billion!

But even more extraordinary is the global reach of the Copyright Industries. America's creative material is joyously received by every culture, creed and country on this planet.

The American movie, as anyone who travels abroad can testify, is omnipresent all over the world. That the American movie is dominant is due entirely to movie-going decisions made by individual citizens of every country.

Now comes the Internet. American moviemakers and film studios welcome this new technological miracle. For the U.S. movie industry the Internet has a glorious potential as a new delivery system that can dispatch films to homes with the speed of light, expanding visual choices for American families (and the world).

But at this moment, there are some unquiet anxieties which challenge that future. As we move with a promiscuous rush into the binary number new world, there is being bred on the Internet a kind of pagan philosophy that says, "Hey, if it's on the Internet, it's free to take down." This is the Napster syndrome, which ransacked the music industry. Hundreds of thousands of music albums and singles have been taken down each day to fill the hard drives of countless computers and MP3 gadgetry, all without permission of the artist or labels. And all free of charge. No wonder Napster was avalanched. When you give away precious creative material free of charge, "they will come."

The courts have said "enough," and Napster's days as a freeloader are over. But other new sites, harder to seek out, will take its place because the mind-set hasn't changed. It's getting harder and harder to get anyone to pay for anything on the Internet that can be downloaded. Right now, a Boston-based consulting firm estimates that over 300,000 movies are being downloaded every day illegitimately, without payment or permission.

The ton of concrete that fell on the head of the music industry can also befall movies. Right now, a Boston-based consulting firm estimates that over 300,000 movies are being downloaded every day illegitimately, without payment or permission. By the end of the year, it is estimated that a million films will be illegally downloaded every day!

Once millions of more homes have broadband (high speed) access to the Internet with compression software, it'll be possible to bring down, illegally, a movie of watchable quality each day by otherwise rational people who would recoil at the thought of shoplifting. Yet, they use creative works without permission or payment, the new assumed normality of Internet behavior.

This represents a complex, confounding challenge that could seriously shrink if not undo a unique American economic and creative prize. It puts to hazard the future of the entire community of Copyright Industries.

How to treat all of this?

First, a number of the major U.S. film studios intend to go online before the end of the year, offering films at a fair and reasonable price (as defined by consumers). Some members of Congress have stressed the availability of legitimately-offered films as a counterweight to the "take everything free" mantra. We'll soon see if this is so.

Second, the film studios, conferring with the smartest technology experts in cyberspace, intent to "content encrypt" their films as well as using watermarking and digital management procedures, all aimed at deploying movies to homes in as safe and secure an environment as technology can make it. Dedicated "hackers" can and will invade everything. But 99 percent of the American public are not hackers; nor would they be law-breakers if legitimate movies are Internet-available at a reasonable price. I do believe that.

In the words of Talleyrand, "it would be worse than a crime, it would be a blunder" to allow America's most valuable export to shrink and decay because technology makes it possible to "steal."

But it doesn't make it right. What the film studios see as an efficient delivery system warmly received by American families is a prophecy that can come true-if the Congress holds film in the conviction that creative property is private property and cannot be casually pilfered. Which is why moviemakers believe that magical technology which allows "free downloads" can also be the salvation for the protection of creative works aimed at satisfying the visual choices of Americans.