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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.

The Stakes

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) Amateurs
(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)

more anon

No origination required; physical equpment commonplace; low/no budge

June 19, 2009 Posted by | /, cinema, open video, social cooperation | 4 Comments