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Wednesday, March 5, 2003

I'm Alright Jack

by Clinton Fein

No free, democratic nation can lay claim to greatness unless it has constructed a platform from which springs a moral compact that guides the daily conduct of the society and inspires the society to believe in civic trust. That “moral imperative” connects to every family, to every business, every university, every profession and to government as well. It is defined by what William Faulkner called “the old verities,” the words that define what this free and loving land is all about. Words like duty, service, honor, integrity, pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice.

No, this is not an aspiring presidential candidate in the mistaken belief that throwing around words like honor and duty into a sentence will make up for draft dodging days of yore, or a decrepit politician attempting to justify the relinquishing of control that literally flies in the face of her constituents and the constitution. These are the words of a man who is president of a powerful lobbying organization, and who, like the current occupant of the White House, colors his phrases with lofty concepts and religious references in attempts to sugar coat the realities and obscure the self-interest.

On February 24, 2003, Jack Valenti, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of the Motion Picture Association (MPAA), gave a speech at Duke University Durham, North Carolina. Dubbing it “Some comments on the Moral Imperative,” he raised the issue of corporate malfeasance, referencing “sordid stories of unbounded avarice” by “corporate executives, whose acts soiled the moral compact.” With the pun-rich aplomb of John Ashcroft, who on the same day announced a crackdown on web sites selling marijuana paraphernalia called “Operation Pipe Dreams,” (no doubt to reflect the seriousness of the orange security-alert level) Valenti challenged tomorrow’s leaders to consider the “interlacing of the moral compact, digital technology - and American movies.”

Indeed, morality and foreign films – those made outside of the United States – do not interlace as smoothly, and although separate and distinct from a moral standpoint, supposedly share the legal outreach of the jurisdictionally agnostic Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA. The DMCA represents the intellectual property equivalent of preemptive unilateralism by force, where hack attacks on suspicious violators are condoned and protected in the name of freedom and democracy.

Valenti’s desire to paint “a view of the collision of values brought on by the migratory magic of digital ones and zeros,” was little more than a MPAA position paper, blaming technological innovation for threatening to desecrate an ancient business model that borders on a monopoly, is inconvenient, tired and more creatively stifling than John Ashcroft setting up a surveillance camera in the studio of every artist in America. The MPAA’s ability to slap a NC17 rating on any movie that doesn’t meet the violent and sexual paradigms it believes are tasteful enough, serves as the best model for censorship since Senator Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist. Enacted, no less, to prevent government intrusion into content creation, as opposed to the organization’s well funded begging for government intrusion into content distribution. A hypocritical delineation of content versus conduct rivaling the United States military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Jack Valenti wants the same government that he desires keep its nose out of the creativity and innovation of the industry he represents to stick its nose into the creativity and innovation of industries that he doesn’t. The Motion Picture Association of America worked with Senator Fritz Hollings to craft a bill requiring implanting copy-protection technology in PCs and consumer-electronics devices.

In July 22, 2002, CNET’s Declan McCullagh reported on a MPAA backed bill by Representative Howard Berman that would allow content owners to launch technological attacks against file-swapping networks where their wares are traded and immunize copyright holders from civil and criminal liability who use technological methods such as hacking to “prevent the unauthorized distribution of their copyrighted works via P2P networks.”

While artists, including filmmakers, rely on protections ranging from First Amendment protection to fair use to create their art, the MPAA’s approach to address legitimate questions pertaining to intellectual property is not simply a case of letting the baby out with the bathwater, but rather like carpet bombing the bathtub with a blindfold.

The notion of Jack Valenti spouting about moral compact and Codes of Conduct, was it not comical, would probably come as close as possible to actually defining obscenity. His elitist terms speak literal volumes. If every “well bred” university student (or even the genetically inferior peasants at lesser educational institutions) was paid his salary to chirp a PR spin, perhaps they too, would be willing to purchase CDs on which only one of the twelve songs were worth listening to, rather than downloading the one they liked. Particularly when Valenti himself admits to the abusing of a forum titled “The Changing American Presidency,” to discuss the business strategies of Napster.

Lobbying organizations, such as the MPAA and RIAA, which used the fear and uncertainty from terrorist attacks to sneak in legislation tying the profits of the movie and recording industries to an egregious abridgement of civil liberties deserve nothing but derision. For an aged representative of that contingent to stand up and talk about moral compacts, and disdainfully dismiss technologies that, like it or not, have revolutionized communications globally and, like it or not, represent real, functional file swapping technologies – not “so-called” ones -- is beyond contempt.

Jack Valenti’s very presence and theologically tinged, highfalutin approach seems to resonate as successfully with the majority of those using this technology as a nude Hilary Rosen pin-up in a RIAA Swimsuit Edition might.

“They know they can find themselves in big-ass trouble if they're caught,” exclaims Valenti, expounding why would-be-leaders don’t steal movies from Blockbuster, but have no problem downloading media. After all, what self respecting “thief” or “pirate” -- as Valenti terms every evil file-swapper regardless of whether they're infringing copyrights -- hasn’t downloaded mega hits like songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “On Broadway” or bootlegs of “Walk Like an Egyptian”?

Clearly Valenti did not watch “Dude, Where’s My Car?” if he thinks quipping terms like “big-ass” will deliver the youth vote he’s seeking and home run the message. You don’t get someone who looks old school to pitch an old school package. Even RIAA sponsored pitches by Britney Spears have fallen on virtual deaf ears. Someone should force Jack Valenti to watch an illegally downloaded copy of “Death of a Salesman”.

Much like America’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld’s, criticism of “Old Europe,” or semi-lucid Charlton Heston waving his gun in the air in Columbine, all that’s missing from this pompous dinosaur, is a challenge to rip the movie industry’s old-school, technologically retarded business model from his cold, dead fingers. The resounding student response -- as well as the less educated, yet technologically-literate-enough-to-download crowd -- would likely be: “You RIP dude and we’ll rip.”

Jack Valenti ends his speech with the borrowed words of British philosopher, William Hazlitt, asking his audience: “What is yet to be put in place is a clear understanding of how to conduct yourself when you have digital power available to you that you will not use because it causes injury to others.” As Jack Valenti loses grasp of that very power perhaps he, more than most, can look in the mirror and ask himself whether his conduct and approach to technological innovation -- as well as the actions of the industry he represents -- demonstrates the finest of what “man” has to offer. Or whether the ability to fairly use or steal (depending who you ask) the words of more seasoned philosophers is all that’s left to cling to.

And that is truly a big-ass question.

Clinton Fein can be contacted at clinton@annoy.com


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