Friday, July 15, 2011

On 800-pound Krakens and missing the boat

On her excellent blog Attempting Elegance Jenica Rogers has a great post about the current brouhaha surrounding Netflix and its recent announcement that it would be changing its pricing structure more or less to disincentivize its DVD business and shore up its streaming revenues in advance of what are going to be catastrophic increases in digital licensing fees over the next year or two as its current sweetheart deals with content providers expire.  Rather than express shock or outrage at Netflix, Jenica says the only surprise here should be that any of us-- especially those of us in the library community-- are still surprised:
Why is anyone surprised by this? Or outraged? If you’re an information professional paying attention to the information economy, why did you  not see this coming? Why are we doomed to repeat our shock and horror over and over and over again? What is with this naivety we have that somehow The Next Big Corporation won’t actually act like A Big Corporation about their information commodities? This is our world. This is the information economy. Elsevier, Wexis, the American Chemical Society, HarperCollins, Amazon, the RIAA, the movie studios — they don’t love libraries (or the consumer) the way we think that we should be loved. And they sure as hell aren’t looking out for our best interests. No one is. Only us.
This has been more or less my reaction as well.  The beauty of Netflix's streaming online video is that it so successfully flew under everyone's radar for as long as it did, but perhaps by doing so they actually did us a massive disservice.  For one brief shining moment Netflix seemed to be offering a product that embodied everything that the techno-utopians said the Internet should be offering us.  Instead of paying cable companies a cool C-note every month for a paltry selection of "on demand" television shows and movies (many of which we had to pay extra for anyway), the slayer of Blockbuster comes along and gave us a thousand times the selection for the price of a small cheese pizza.  How could Netflix not succeed?  It seemed to good to be true.

Guess what?  It was too good to be true.  No one expected Netflix to make such a bold end-run around the content providers and traditional lines of distribution--  least of all the companies that had been disintermediated-- but as soon as it became clear that this is indeed what happened and that Netflix represented a clear and present danger to the home entertainment market the battle lines were quickly drawn.  Internet service providers suddenly started to rediscover the joys of bandwidth caps (even while the prices of delivering hi-speed broadband services were dropping), while rightsholders began jacking up the aforementioned digital licensing fees or denying permission altogether for content that Netflix had originally been able to license for a song.

The old media dinosaurs may be slow on the uptake, but they can still be quite ruthless.  Personally I don't blame Netflix in the slightest for doing what they felt they had to do in light of such organized resistance to their business model, and I suspect that a lot of the animus currently being unleashed at Netflix for its pricing changes would be directed elsewhere if the company had done a better job of explaining to its customers exactly why it was doing what it was doing:  i.e. "They are trying to kill us."  Netflix instead chose to downplay the context of these changes, and thus missed a unique opportunity to enlist us in their battle to provide a better entertainment alternative.

There's an unprecedented amount of anger and mistrust towards traditional content providers out there right now, and I think Netflix underestimated how much they were tapping into that as part of their business model.  Whether or not they can regain the trust of those whom they have alienated remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, Jenica wonders if we as librarians are not yet again ignoring the window of opportunity that the Netflix fiasco has reopened regarding the proper balance of access to information and the fair remuneration to content creators and/or rightsholders in the new digital marketplace:
More important than my personal frustration, I think that libraries have a moment in the next 48 to 72 hours in which someone in our community could draw the line publicly connecting our information brokering challenges and The Netflix Thing. The public is furious about this, and there’s an advocacy moment that we should leap on. “Libraries are in trouble and suffering — just like you are.  This is part of a bigger problem, and we’re feeling the pain, too. Think Netflix and the studios suck? Check out THESE stories about ebooks!”
Jenica is exactly right-- this is part of a bigger problem.  And I think she's also right that we as librarians will collectively miss the boat in seizing the moment to address it.  This boat will be missed because we have not yet learned to advocate as a profession on the digital front, as we do on other issues such as the right to privacy and intellectual freedom.  Part of the reason for this is that a given library or consortium's access to digital content is dependent wholly on whatever individual contract it is able to secure with the provider, creating a divide-and-conquer situation in which our collective advocacy powers have effectively been disrupted.  But I suspect that the real reason that we're unwilling to to do so is the very real prospect of getting sued for testing the waters beyond what has been established as being absolutely safe.  This is the 800-pound Kraken that nobody wants to talk about, but it's lurking out there nevertheless, waiting to sink anyone impetuous enough to steer their boat out past the metaphorical bar.

We have been told over and over that we as librarians need to be more vigorous in our interpretations of Fair Use, while at the same time we are watching Georgia State get the pants sued off of it for doing just that.  Already our institutional legal counsels are as a whole gunshy about pushing the boundaries of copyright law-- what do you think will happen if the publishers carry the day against Georgia State?  No one wants to be a target, but unfortunately U.S. Copyright Law is designed such that the only way to fully exercise your rights to Fair Use and other perfectly legal exceptions to the rights of the copyright holder is to paint a bullseye on your chest.  Is it any wonder then that few if any individual libraries or librarians are willing to take a stand on this issue?

What we fail to realize as a profession, however, is that none of the other advocacy that we do as librarians will amount to so much as a hill of beans if we allow the digital future to be written wholly by other parties.  If we don't collectively demand a seat at the table on this issue, the content producers and their providers are perfectly happy with locking us out the restaurant for good.  How I wish we could permanently enlist someone like Cory Doctorow-- a friend of libraries and outspoken critic of current intellectual property laws-- to help mobilize librarians around this cause as he so clearly has with other issues, but fundamentally it rests on the shoulders of every librarian to recognize that our very enterprise is at stake here.  Like Jenica, I'm not optimistic at all that anything will happen this time around, but I still hold out hope that we will get our shit together before it's entirely too late.

UPDATE:  Who better than iCarly's Jerry Trainor to offer some closing thoughts on l'affaire Netflix...

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