Monday, May 29, 2006

The Death of Copyright, New Art Forms, and World of Warcraft

There are at least three different ways in which the creator of intellectual property can get paid: Legal control over access, technological control over access, uncontrolled access with tie-ins. Copyright law is an example of the first, the Lexis legal database of the second, advertising revenue from radio programs and web pages the third.

Intellectual property in digital form is easy to copy. In a networked world, it is also easy to distribute. It is therefore likely that copyright enforcement will become increasingly difficult. Tie-ins are a good solution for some forms of intellectual property but not for all. That leaves technological protection, ways of selling access to intellectual property without letting the purchaser reproduce it.

There is an important limit to such protection: It only works for forms of I.P. that are not entirely revealed in one use. However strong the encryption on the digital file containing your song, a customer can still tape record it when he plays it—or record the signals his computer is sending to its speaker, thus eliminating the sonic middleman. However well encrypted your novel, I can still, if I really want to, photograph my screen as I read it and run the pictures through OCR software.

There are other forms of I.P. that are not fully revealed in one use. What I get from Lexis or Westlaw is not a download of their database but the answer to a query. I can make a copy for a colleague but it is unlikely to be of much use to him, since he wants answers to different questions than I do. A computer program can be similarly protected, by running it on a webbed server and selling not copies but access.

A movie is fully revealed in one use. But one can imagine movie substitutes that are not. When I first thought of the idea, I was imagining a movie that could be viewed from many different angles, at the user's option. Listen to the bad guys plotting—at the cost of missing whatever else is going on at the same time. Watch the same film again tomorrow, seeing different things. A sufficiently rich version could be both an interesting new art form and a protectable form of intellectual property.

While discussing the idea this weekend with sf author Jerry Pournelle—we were both on a panel at Baycon—it occurred to me that such an artform already existed. Indeed, I am already a customer. World of Warcraft and similar massively multiplayer online games are movie substitutes. Unlike a movie, the game is not fully revealed on one play. You can "film" today's quest—but if you want to do another quest tomorrow you will have to pay Blizzard for the privilege.

As increasing bandwidth makes it more and more difficult to protect movies by either legal or technological means, I expect that we will see more and more of a shift away from conventional movies towards substitutes that, like games, are different each time you play them.

There is, however, a countervailing effect. As it becomes easier and easier to replace actors with computer generated images, the cost of making movies, even quite elaborate movies, will fall. For the net result, stay tuned—for the next decade or so.


Mike Hammock said...

I look forward to the day when it is possible to tell real stories collaboratively in a MMORPG, in the way it is possible in a pen-and-paper RPG.

I'd say that is the biggest weakness of MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft, when compared to movies and other forms of entertainment: MMORPGs do not really tell a story. They do other things, of course. Other kinds of games do tell stories, but that is because they are linear and carefully scripted.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on MMORPGs; they do have a story of sorts. "There's a monster causing trouble over there; get together a party and go kill it" is a story. But it's not a very interesting story, and people don't really tend to role play characters in the way that actors in movies play roles (even in deeper, more involved quests). Character development tends to consist solely of leveling up. I think there is a difference between this and the kind of storytelling done in other media.

Games like Neverwinter Nights push things in the direction of real storytelling. It has some of the flexibility of a pen-and-paper game, as the DM can design custom adventure modules. He is still somewhat limited in his ability to respond to unexpected player actions, however.

The difficulty of making movies on the computer is indeed falling. Check out the game "The Movies". It has its own limitations, but you can make quite a few different kinds of machinima.

Samuli Pahalahti said...

When the cost of making movies falls enough, people can make full-length movies just for fun. Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning is a nice example.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree that something like a MMORPG can ever be a replacement for linear, passive (for the audience) storytelling. From the creator's point of view, they're totally different things. Some people want to tell complete stories, so they make films or write novels, even if there's no money in it at all. Plus some audience members prefer to be passive. Which does not mean there couldn't be hybrids, anywhere on the scale between movie and game, just that it wouldn't replace either extreme.

I wrote a rambling little essay a few weeks ago on computer games as art, as opposed to movies as art, that might be of interest. Go here to read it.

David Friedman said...

"Perhaps I'm being too hard on MMORPGs; they do have a story of sorts. "There's a monster causing trouble over there; get together a party and go kill it" is a story."

World of Warcraft goes a good deal further than that. There are linked series of quests that follow out a substantial plot line. And they make some effort to make the player feel as though he is really affecting what is happening even though, with extremely rare exceptions, he isn't.

Anonymous said...

Your faith in WoW as a new form of IP is misplaced. Yes, any content that's revealed in one use can be copied, but by a similar token any service provided on an access basis can often be provided by someone else for free, thus killing the profit potential. For example, people could set up their own, free version of World of Warcraft, as often happens in the open software community, and stingy people might choose to play it over the for-cash alternative. For Intellectual Protectionism to truly be effective, the work must be original, excellent, and frequently offered in varying forms. But then there's not much point in protecting it.

Anonymous said...

"Listen to the bad guys plotting—at the cost of missing whatever else is going on at the same time."

Not really on the topic of IP, but ...

There was a game called "Bad day on the Midway" that, I think, was trying to create this kind of "movie". You started the game by controlling the actions of a character of a young boy, but any time you met another character, you could switch to their point of view and control them and their actions.

When you inhabited a character, their thoughts appeared on the screen as you played; the young boy would remember things about school, and how he hated violin lessons or some such thing. Other characters would think other things.

Eventually, the game comes to a close, but if you play like me you haven't come close to seeing everything that happened, or to understanding why anything happened the way it did. So you start the game over and inhabit different characters who see and think different things. As you play again and again, you start to see the whole picture, and can affect the outcome more because of it.

Does anyone else know of other games that do this kind of storytelling? I thought it was neat, once I understood what the game was doing.

Jon Lawrence said...

The hardest part, from within the context of film production, is that producing a movie that has multiple storylines and multiple angles and all that user interaction and choice, while a wonderful idea, will cost far more than today's [already] very expensive production costs.

As a film industry professional, the costs are simply astronomical to produce content these days. Want to know what some of the largest costs are on creating a piece of IP like a film?

Legal costs & Insurance Costs. Specifically the things that try to protect us (the producers) from being sued by anyone who happens to want to litigate us.

In the context of my current project, just the *BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP* legal fees and insurance costs are over 10% of the total budget (over $1m).

So for anyone to speak to professionals simply making stuff for free? Not gonna happen. Amateurs, yes (and some pretty darn good amateurs at that), but professionals, no way.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, a group of Danish directors shot a movie, each using their separate film crew filming real time acting taking place at different locations one new years evening. The movie was then transmitted on four or five (I think) different TV channels, shoving each director's version. The viewers could then zap from director to director, being their own editors.

As a matter of fact, the movie was a complete flop. Never the less, somebody have already tried out your idea.

Lucas said...

the trend will be to turn intellectual 'property' into Actual Property. the intellectual is a necessary precondition to any property, though it does not constitute a sufficient condition.

art, having come some way towards abstraction, should reintegrate with the 'material' or spatial world. the theater itself becomes an integral component of the production. or the website from which its content can't be divorced.

Man has been largely successful thriving amid a world defined by scarcity. it should be possible to overcome the problem of a lack of scarcity too.