11 March 2009

More Rent Seeking from the Film Industry

Every time the music or film industry tries to get politicians to beat-up the public for them and politicians line up to oblige, it brings home just how corrupt our political system is. The motion which has been signed by eleven MPs from across the political spectrum attempting to criminalise the use of a video recorders in a cinema is a perfect example [1].

The argument in favour of the motion uses all the typical grubby strategies:

It trots out the uniformity argument - because it's common for it to be a criminal offence on the continent, we should make it a criminal offence too. Well, if that's the way it's going to work, we might as well do away with parliament and any sense of self-determination and meekly follow the international average.

Then the British Video Association mouthpiece trots out the comment that "It's very strange that the government will not change the law. The film industry makes a lot of money for Britain and we are not, unlike some others, asking ministers to bail us out." Ok, so now it seems that because the government is throwing money at some industries, it makes other industries think that if they don't take money, they can demand some legislation of their choosing instead. The comment ignores the fact that the whole mire of copyright legislation is in effect a bailout for the film industry. The difference is that instead of the money being taken by the treasury and handed back out as a subsidy, the government simply grants a monopoly to the film companies which allows them to collect the subsidy directly from the consumer as monopoly profit.

The most nauseating comment in the piece is the usual accusation that "The trade in copied films is known to fund other types of organised crime, including human trafficking and drug dealing." I don't know whether the BBC have regurgitated an industry press release without thinking about it, but the argument is stupid. It at least made some logical sense when it was supposed to be terrorism that was funded by unauthorised copying, because terrorism is a loss making activity. Human trafficking and drug dealing, on the other hand, are activities that people get involved in because there is profit to be made from them. The implication that they might cease to be viable if they weren't propped up by sales of illicitly copied films is laughable, especially when an increasing proportion of those illicit copies are shared online with no cash changing hands. On the other hand, the trade in authorised copies funds organisations which lobby politicians and offer them inducements to introduce draconian rent seeking laws, which sounds at least as unappealing as funding illegal activity.

I'm glad that the response from the government was opposed to the motion, I just wish the wording had been a lot stronger.

1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7936852.stm


Martin said...

We may see more such action from the music industry too: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7936712.stm

The article you linked to says that:
"The use of video cameras in cinemas is currently a civil, rather than a criminal, offence.

This means staff can eject customers for it but police cannot arrest them. "

Surely that's good enough? No person would be made enough to torrent half a film.

Mark Wadsworth said...

"The film industry makes a lot of money for Britain and we are not, unlike some others, asking ministers to bail us out."

Woah! Stop right there! Have you never heard of Film Tax Relief?

http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/films/reforms.htm>Film Tax Relief

Or The UK Film Council?

http://www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/funding>The UK Film Council

Or ever actually watched the closing credits and noticed that UK films are "co-produced" by Film 4 or the BBC?

Paul Lockett said...

Martin, looking at that article, it seems that the FAC is, unfortunately, taking the same rent seeking approach on behalf of artists that the BPI has on behalf of the record labels. The one chink of light I can see is that the FAC seem to be just as intent on attacking the record labels as they are on attacking the consumer, if not more so. It seems like the artists are seeking the same kind of business model that the internet has brought to porn, where it has become a kind of cottage industry, with the large brands losing out as performers increasingly sell directly to the consumer. If that happened in the music industry, I think it could bring some benefits, not least because artists are less likely to risk their popularity by taking legal action against fans, or calling for draconian laws, in the same way that they more faceless record labels have.

The make-up of the FAC board intrigues me. The presence of Billy Bragg, who has previously taken a fairly strong pro-copyright stance, doesn't fill me with confidence, but in contrast, Dave Rowntree has been quite vocally opposed to term extension and the criminalisation of file-sharing and artists such as Radiohead and Marillion, who are represented, have shown a willingness to embrace new technology rather than attack it. If the approach of the latter group comes to dominate, there might be some good news amongst the bad.

Paul Lockett said...

Mark, it's a good point and when you add in the fact that the films which generate the most revenue are generally produced outside the UK, it seems unlikely that the help given to the film industry is anything but revenue negative for the British public.