“Only bad movies have to fear piracy”
This is a lovely story about creativity, the long tail, and who really needs copyright.
The story of Jerome Bixby’s “The Man from Earth“, a small-budget science fiction movie released on DVD in November, shows how piracy can help salvage, not sink, high-quality cinema.
Shot on digital video with a budget of less than $200,000, the film features a bookish debate among academics who get together for a farewell party for John Oldman, a college professor, who, for no obvious reason, wants to quit his tenure-track job and hit the road. As the party unfolds, Oldman makes a surprising emotional confessession: he is 14,000 years old, doesn’t really age, and has 10 doctorates—making him both the oldest and the smartest man on Earth.
What follows is an intense intellectual drilling by his colleagues—professors of anthropology, biology, archeology, psychology, and Christian literature—who try hard to spot inconsistencies in Oldman’s account of the world, based on what they know from their own disciplines.
Their passionate debate is heavy on both science and humanities and makes “The Man from Earth” a very appealing movie to smart—yes, nerdy—audiences. Even if you don’t learn anything new (which is unlikely), there is a good chance you will be asking yourself a lot of questions afterwards. It’s nerdy enough to get the sci-fi geeks to watch it, while its interdisciplinarity makes it accessible to general public as well.
But what is truly unique about the film is not just the controversial story of John Oldman. It’s the fact that the film producers have embraced internet piracy and thanked illegal downloaders for helping to spread the buzz about the movie.
In early November Releaselog, a popular blog that regularly posts links to movies, music, and software (most of which is copyrighted), ran a review (with accompanying download links) of “The Man from Earth”. The review generated a flood of comments. The movie obviously struck a chord with the geeky and anti-establishment community at Releaselog and prompted many (illegal) downloads.
Most crews would have wanted to sue every downloader. Eric Wilkinson, the producer of “The Man from Earth” turned out to be much more new-media-savvy. He thanked the Releaselog community for piracy and said they were helping sales.
According to Wilkinson, in two weeks that passed after Releaselog wrote about the movie, it rose from the 11,235th to the 5th most popular movie among visitors to IMDB, a popular online movie database featuring user-generated reviews and rankings (the movie was the #1 independent film and #1 science fiction film on IMDB). Most of the traffic to the film’s web-site came from Releaselog. The pirates were definitely to thank for the publicity that ensued.
Copyright advocates claim they are protecting creativity. True, some artists can still be encouraged to be creative 50 years under the stone, but that’s a small minority. Let’s talk about live creators. Well, the truth is that creative people don’t need copyright. Why? well, they can simply count on being creative. Smart creative people understand that in the current setup, the more people download, embed or otherwise copy your work, the better for them. That’s why they like giving it away. That’s what creative commons are all about.
So who needs copyright? logically, not those who live by their creativity, but those who live by comoditising it. Replicating it. Selling by-products and derivatives. In short, corps. In fact, copyright stifles creativity. How so? easy. Big machines have big running costs. Huge marketing budgets, huge legal fees on enforcing IP rights, many mouths to feed. Can’t take risks, because you need a stable stream of dosh. Creativity, on the other hand is a risky business. If you create something original, out of the box, unheard of before, well – most chances are its crap. If you did it in your garage after putting the kids to bed, no problem. If, on the other hand, you’re into the 6th or 7th digit on your publicity campaign – big problem. Hence Hollywood formulae.
Here’s an example from a case where I actually know what I’m talking about. I have 6 software patents. yeah, 6. Impact on my incentive? you’re joking, right? These patents are owned by Cisco. I don’t get a single cup of tea for all their worth. In fact, I can’t even make them worth anything: see, these are software patents, on my ideas, which I think are still worth developing, but I can’t do develop them, because the patent stops me from doing so. Not that Cisco will ever bother putting one hour of developer time into them. For them, these are chips in the stash, to be traded in mergers and acquisitions.
Anyway, back to film, and art in general. I say – if you respect it, steal it.