Open Video: A Guide for Disorderly Imaginations
I’m in New York this week for the first public conference organized by the Open Video Alliance, which starts in a couple of hours. Participants hail from online video businesses to free software projects, filmmakers to academics.
On first hearing about the phrase ‘open video’, the first thought is naturally the suggestion of a parallel with (free and) open source software. But film of course is different from software, both as a ‘good’ and as an economy. So disentangling the substance of ‘open video’ from the slogan is a first priority. What we know from FLOSS is that success involves a combination of community construction, law, markets and technological standards. While my interests are more related to structures of collaboration, and the intersection with copyright and the politics of p2p, I’m also interested in the technology and history of cinema. In order to clarify my own views, I’m going to post a series of pieces over the next few days dealing with what I believe ‘open video’ can be.
Despite the technological developments of recent years, media markets remain highly concentrated. The range of views widely broadcast remains narrow; television remains padlocked to the logic of advertising; the number and form of stories told is limited; the division between broadcaster and receiver holds fast.
Open video implies putting in place the scaffolds, and dismantling the obstacles, to enable anyone who chooses to to speak back to that world of images that has fashioned the imagination, desire, sense of self and horizon of possibility.
Overladen as that may sound, few would object to the demand for greater scope for social criticism, self-expression and creative play. But in order to make it a reality, some toes have to be stepped on, and their owners insist that if their techno-economic models are not protected, the it will be then end of audio-visual production because no-one will invest in it. So in addition to persuading our ‘imaginary public’ of the virtues of open video, we must also reassure them that we are not leading them into a cultural desert. That means understanding the types of audiovisual works that have been made historically, and assessing how they can adapt.
So I’ll begin with a crude taxonomy of audio-visual works, then look at the struggle to control the film ecology historically. Next it’ll be time to consider who are the people of ‘online video’, what design factors are important in their communities, and a short section on technical challenges. Thereafter I’ll address sources of finance, before concluding with some legal and political considerations.
Audio-visual production has many different levels, while we refer to all of the following as ‘film’, they require vastly divergent scales of resources. The possibility to create effective substitutes is not equal due to the differing scales of finance and physical infrastructure at the various points in the cycle of film production (here understood to mean the entire process from conception to consumption; the shooting of images will be referred to as origination). Of course all require labour and creativity.
Unlike information goods which can be produced anywhere so long as their inputs exist as information, film is usually site-specific. Excepted from this are recombinant works, and some experimental films. These forms have a well established history, pioneered perhaps by Bruce Conner in the 1950s, making movies without a camera through cut-ups, or Nick Macdonald’s ‘The Liberal War’, a critique of the Vietnam war filmed entirely in his bathroom. In the other cases, origination of the necessary images requires the presence of at least a camera operator.
In general however it is useful to think about the production process as composing two segments: origination and post-origination processing.
Successful collaborative production of information goods relies on the possibility to bring larger tasks into smaller units for later integration (modularity), and also on the ability to harness large numbers of contributions of different sizes (granularity). The aggregation of small bits of labour possible in wikipedia is not possible in film origination; contributors must be present and thus in itself places a bar to participation (cf economics of performance in general). It is also not generally modular, at least that has been the experience so far. Serial novels, with each chapter written by a distinct author, or exquisite corpse type collective images are certainly possible but don’t generate much excitement.
But once the images are produced then contributions at fine levels of granularity become possible, particularly in terms of distribution and marketing.
Hollywood feature: Origination required; high budget; produced for market; privately financed. This is the form whose model is least amenable to reorganization. Blockbusters will however continue to amass significant income in the cinema theatres and through the licensing market to tv, cable etc. They also have merchandizing and other revenues derived from their prominence in the social imagination and the presence of stars. Ultimately these comprise a small section of the number of films produced, even though the dominate most people’s idea of what film is.
Arthouse / Low budget features: Origination required; medium budget; produced via subsidy (europe) or private financing (US)
Television: Origination required; medium budget; privately or internally financed; produced for market
Documentary: Origination required; low-medium budget; equipment commonplace; privately or subsidy financed; produced for market
Experimental film: Some origination required; physical equipment commonplace; low/no budget; endogenous motivation – produced for pleasure/curiosity
Amateur film: Physical equipment required; low/no budget; endogenous motivation – produced for pleasure/curiosity
Recombinant film: No origination required; physical equpment commonplace; low/no budget; endogenous motivation – produced for pleasure/curiosity
Advertisements and music videos: origination required, produced on commission, privately financed
Who are the users of online video and what role can they play within an open audio-visual ecology?
To understand the dynamics behind participation it’s important to consider both the motivations and, where they exist, the incentives which are in place.
(1) consumers in search of entertainment
(2) producers native to the online environment
(3) Propagandists, proselytizers, whistleblowers, advertizers
(4) those trying to break into the industry mainstream
(5) industry professionals
Consumers form numerically the most important part of the online video population, but consumption a problematic term for cultural goods, as it is always in part productive. Culture is a relational good, and its market is characterized by a surplus of production. Works which succeed must be adopted by users who promote them by talking about them, incentivizing others to experience them as well. Advertising campaigns can be seen as mechanisms whose aim is to kick start this process, but the abiding importance of the relational aspect is witnessed by cultural institutions such as the NY Times bestseller list or the Top 40/100 in music or what have you. In the online environment , this importance is magnified due to the formation of many specialized communities and the possibility to amplify one’s own cultural preferences and recommendations. This productive viral aspect to consumption is essential, because absent the finance needed to generate attention on the scale practiced by the industry, open video producers must fin other means of acquiring visibility. In addition, consumers ultimately finance/provide the revenue stream fora large part of production, be that indirectly as an advertizing market, or directly through payment or donation. Users can also be key distributors as in the case of p2p networks, on which more later.
Those who come to online video production without any offline experience constitute an important part of film output. They are least likely to have incentives in line with industry models or to accept the accompanying norms. Making money is a minor concern, as they are simply taking advantage of what the technology affords them the possibility to do. Socialized in an environment with little interest in copyright rules, they make use of all materials available to them and are the fulcrum of production for what a lawyer would describe as unauthorized derivative works. This output is important as it in turn reshapes the experience of the audiovisual environment, altering again the normative baseline.
Amateurs have widely varied motives but that of commercial success is marginal. Important originators of images, this is a group which have exited sine the earliest days of cinema and whose ranks have expanded with the growing accessibility of cameras and other necessary technologies such as audio recorders, projectors and editing equipment.
As in other areas of online production, the profile of the amateur has significantly blurred. Where previously TV/Motion Picture industry practices kept amateurs at arms length with requirements such as ‘broadcast standard’, the promiscuous online environment enables more mobility for amateur production.
Distinguished from other producers by their motivation set, we could also add another group here, namely those whose production has always been driven by other incentives: proselytizers, educators., whistle-blowers. From the Rodney King camera operator – whose output is driven by being a witness, present at the scene at the right time – to the independent video activist to religious proselytizing, to the incidental producer.
Producers of advertizing, promotional and corporate videos etc have a simple incentive to produce: they are paid to do so and work on commission.
Former and current students of film and video provide a source for original productions. Their motives vary: the desire for visibility (a prerequisite for career advancement); urge for peer review; knowledge that in any case the offline environment provides little in terms of rewards for short and experimental works. Within online communities these individuals bring additional reserves of knowledge and experience and are important for the purpose of developing a ‘community of practice’.
Lastly there are the professionals; whilst sharing some of the motives of the preceding category: inability to secure offline rights sales; curiosity to experiment with the greater distribution range offered by the online environment; desire to build a community around certain subject matter (Outfoxed)
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What am I?
Alan Toner, intellectual property and communications researcher, living in Central European Time. You may have met me long ago at New York University, where I was once a fellow at the Information Law Institute and the Engelberg Center on Law and Innovation, read something I wrote for Mute or Diagonal, or conspired in the shenanigans around the World Summit on the Information society when I worked with WSIS: We Seize!, or through Steal This Film.
Leave a comment on an article if you want to get in touch.
Current Interest: Tracking of users via browser, mobile, or any other digital prosthesis. I believe that users need a universal opt-out from practices that put their web-reading habits in the hands of third parties – Do Not Track. Our online environment should be redesigned to make ubiquitous commercial surveillance impossible, just as it should make the political surveillance revealed by Snowden impossible. Those who believe that such observation brings them benefits are free to hold that point of view, but it just shouldn’t be hardwired into the architecture and should be a matter of free and informed choice.
Earlier I followed developments at the new-born European Observatory on Infringements of Intellectual Property Rights, and its first major project: the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive (IPRED 2), which will propose new criminal sanctions for IP offenses. The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure page dedicated to its previous instantiation can be found here. I’m also interested in ACTA and support the work of the people from Knowledge Ecology International, La Quadrature du Net, the FFII.
And I’m always interested in the conflicts around peer production, p2p and piracy.If you’re interested in this subject you can download and watch Steal This Film, and check out our searchable archive of interviews, built on an early version of pad.ma.
Since 2008 I have participated in a network organised by La Ex promoting alternatives to traditional copyright thinking, am a signatory of their Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge, and a contributor to their work on Sustainable Models for Creativity in the Digital Age.
In 2005 and 2006 I spent time in Argentina, looking at disputes in the field of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. At some point I’ll get back to this area, in the meantime, check out GRAIN.
Hedonism and the need to maintain some connection with material culture lies behind the occasional investigative wine tangent: how it’s made, the story it tells, and of course, how it tastes. Responsibility for this vice can safely be attributed to Critical Wine, a network of small producers in Italy who presented it in a political/cultural context that I found… compelling!
Here are links to some blog entries which I think are important:
- Akerman, Branco, Deneuve et al. Against Three strikes/Hadopi Law in France
- Three strikes Law against P2p in France (Hadopi)
- Anthropology Ethnography of P2P: A Day in the Life of a User
- 0xdb movie database goes live
- Resuscitating Alternatives to Copyright
- Intellectual Property Enforcement, European Style: Dogma Internally, Coercion Externally
- Search & Destroy: Enforcement in Eastern Europe
- Not Just Information: Sharing Physical Resources
- A 2016 Almanac
- The Machinic Sewer
- A Yahoo User’s Journey through the Unknown
- Filmpiraten Crush Austrofascists (at first instance…)
- Pirate Residuum
- Readings from the Book of (library) Genesis
- Cyberspace – the Fifth domain of Warfare?
- Demystifying AdTech
- The Hymn of Acxiom
- Knowledge is born free, yet is everywhere in chains…
- Adam Curtis in Berlin
- Baking Privacy and User Choice into the Web with Do Not Track
- civil liberties
- Data Protection
- European Court of Justice
- european directives
- european regulations
- european union
- material culture
- open video
- Pirate Bay
- Pirate Party
- social cooperation
- steal this film
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