Last week marked the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first true modern copyright law in the West, which was passed by the British Parliament in 1710. It established a copyright term of 14 years and, for the first time, brought the author on stage as the party in whom the right was vested, rather than the bookseller/printer who had dominated the trade both legally and commercially since Gutenberg’s time. The statute also made the term renewable for another 14 years if the author were still alive at the expiration of the initial period.
Last week also occasioned the passage in England of the Digital Economy Bill, which, for the first time, made ISPs legally liable for the actions of their subscribers and imposed on them an affirmative obligation to protect copyrights to which they are not party. The timing of the passage was surely a coincidence. It’s unlikely many in Parliament were aware of date’s significance. But it presented a striking juxtaposition nonetheless.
Prior to 1710, the book and printing trade in Britain (they were one in the same) was controlled by the Stationer’s Company of London, a royally chartered corporation with the power to enforce crown-sanctioned publishing monopolies (also called patents), regulate the import of books and see to it that no “seditious” or otherwise “objectionable” books or pamphlets were printed within the kingdom.
Back in 2008, explaining the lack of Blu-ray Disc drives on Apple’s newest line of notebooks, CEO Steve Jobs famously described the licensing process around the format as “a bag of hurt.” After this week’s announcement by the newly formed BD4C Licensing Group, he’s going to need some more bags.
The members of the new group, Toshiba, Warner Bros., Thomson and Mitsubishi, claim to own, collectively, a portfolio of patents ”that are essential for BD Products.” Though none of the four are known to have contributed much original IP to the Blu-ray spec, they do own a number of patents essential to DVD products. Insofar as the Blu-ray spec requires that BD devices be backwardly compatible with the older format, device makers are stuck (or stuck up, depending on which end of the deal you’re on), to the tune of $4.50 per Blu-ray player, $7.00 per Blu-ray recorder and $4.00 per Blu-ray drive.
Blu-ray media manufacturers and replicators are also on the hook, the group claims, for 4 cents per disc and 8 cents per BD/DVD flipper disc.
Back when the VCR first appeared, along with the video-rental market it spawned, it offered consumers something they had never had before in their home entertainment experience: do-it-yourself programmability. Renting a movie from the video store bought you not just two hours of entertainment. It bought you any two hours of entertainment–on your own schedule, continuous or not, experienced once or repeatedly–anywhere you had a VCR, which fairly quickly became anywhere you had a TV. In exchange for that flexibility, consumers were willing to suffer the inconvenience of a return trip to the video store.
The studios flattered themselves by insisting their content was “king,” and that their movies provided most of the value for renters. But the evidence says otherwise. For a decade and a half, consumers routinely put up with having to rent something other than their first choice of title because the basic value proposition of renting–any two hours of entertainment–was greater than the value of any particular title.