People in the rest of the country might not be following the big intellectual property story here, but if you are in Los Angeles, it's hard to disengage yourself. Even those with non-commercial public rhetoric specialties, such as running public health campaigns, are acutely conscious both of the potential change in prime-time programming and the impact on the regional economy. As for me, I won't be crossing any WGA picket lines this month . . . not that it would seem to matter much, since I haven't been on a studio lot in years and didn't even have a working TV until just a few months ago.
But I do think that digital rights advocates -- especially those who live in Southern California -- should at least consider supporting the writers for film and television during the strike, even if it has been described as a conflict "between millionaires and billionaires" that ignores the rise of user-generated content and the role that principles of free culture play in all aspects of collective story-telling.
On talk radio I've even heard some appealing-sounding anti-residuals arguments that make analogies between the enterprise of creative writing and making industrial products. The logic goes that cranking out prose is like cranking out widgets, and you should only get to profit from the first sale. Certainly, that seems like a reasonable position at first glance, in a world where even fabric manufacturers are crazily pushing intellectual property claims to the point of absurdity by trying to take away their customers' rights to refashion and re-sell their products. But those making the anti-residuals argument are often those who also want to tie copyright privileges to companies rather than persons and proponents of systems in which copyright never expires. Writers need material; they often struggle with the same difficulties that academics do in using works that should be considered orphaned or in the public domain. Scribblers and digital rights advocates are sometimes on the same page.
Admittedly, it's annoying that writers are ignoring my good advice and largely sticking with a media model that's got to change, but I'm heartened to at least see them using digital media for labor activism in some relatively smart ways. First, there's the WGA YouTube channel, where you can see videos of WGA members testifying before Congress about product integration and media conglomeration, along with black-and-white footage that hearkens back to the visual aesthetic of the dark days of blacklisting and McCarthyism. From friends' conversations at dinner parties, I also know that strike captains are using e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and a number of distributed communication networks to alert guild members to their assigned picket line locations. (My favorite part of the WGA page has to be its section on "free information to writers," which includes story guidelines from government agencies.)
It's also true that WGA bigwigs Patric Verrone and John Bowman have been personal friends for over two decades, but I would still argue that letting the Writer's Guild lose by doing what the broadcasters want viewers to do would ultimately be a victory for the MPAA and the RIAA rather than the consumer, since union leadership seems to be genuinely interested in developing viable alternative delivery systems -- such as micropayments -- and in pushing for greater transparency about how online ad revenue, "lifestyle marketing," and the sale of customer personal information to marketers really works. Now, maybe Bowman and Verrone are talking to me the way that I talk to my relatives who are A) Southern, B) Republicans, C) political lobbyists, or D) all of the above in order to avoid conflict with a digital rights advocate in polite company, but perhaps the same mainstream media sources that are slamming these two because of their leadership roles in the walk-out might have a vested interest, given the rise of the conglomerated multinational infotainment business that the WGA is also resisting.
For example, here are some tidbits from an official FAQ sent to me by friend and local strike captain John Aboud of Colton and Aboud, a man who certainly knows his Roman rhetoricians. (An FAQ is, of course, a common web genre, so the appeal to the digital masses may not be surprising.)
The Writers Guild has for many years attempted to engage the companies who employ writers in a serious conversation regarding fair compensation for use of our work in the new media (which refers to all digital delivery systems: internet, cell-phones, etc.). During those years, Internet streaming became commonplace, the words webisode and mobisode appeared in dictionaries, and Tivo-like delivery systems started to explore their full potential with the ultimate goal of one day replacing DVD’s.
. . .
Working writers envision another, brighter future. They know that the disappearance of the DVD market is inevitable, but they’re excited by the tremendous opportunities for fairly compensated employment in the new media, where series and movies may soon be created solely for the Internet.
In this collection of "talking points," they also point out that studios are being fundamentally hypocritical in how they use language about piracy or make demands for payment for Internet-based consumers.
On digital downloads: Internet downloads are the future of the industry. Studios demand compensation for shows made available to the Internet. But they refuse to share the profits with the writers, actors or directors who created them. That’s not fair.
On “free” promotional use: When a fifteen-year-old posts a movie or television show on You Tube, the studios accuse him of piracy. When they take our work, use it to attract sponsors, and then post it on the Internet to make a profit, they call it promotional use.
However, as you can see below, there are some union statements that simply parrot the party line on intellectual property.
On tradition: Payment to artists for re-use of their music, plays, short stories, novels, etc. is a centuries old, equitable system that has served Western culture and civilization well. Without it, who knows what great works of art and literature we’d have missed? Producers can try to do away with this venerable tradition, but they do so at the peril of one and all.
Yipes! Where is this hokey language about "centuries old," "Western culture and civilization," and "venerable tradition" suddenly coming from if the mediascape is also radically changing? Would scholars of the history of print media even say that it is accurate? What about the free culture tradition that emphasizes community or family entertainment? What about the limited scope for the ownership of intellectual property in the Framers' original Constitutional vision?
Even Cicero believed in adapting to changing times. I won't be crossing any picket lines, and I will be critical of the mainstream media slant on this labor dispute, but here I would demand a re-write.
(See the United Hollywood blog for updates on all the collective bargaining action. And thanks to the Oakleys for not suing me for stealing their intellectual property in the form of the fabulous family photograph above.)
Update: According to this morning's Los Angeles Times, "Countdown to a walkout," claims that a "fateful e-mail" from the East Coast cut off 9th hour negotiations in LA with a 12:01 strike announcement, since synchronous computer-media communications give precedence to the earlier time zone.