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Writers Versus Web 2.0


Here in Southern California, the effects of the Writers’ Guild strike were immediately palpable. The lines at Starbucks were longer Monday and tables filled with would-be writers staring into space, while the cardio equipment at the gym has been working double-time.

But the greatest effect of the WGA strike will be in how these negotiations lay a roadmap for the future of Web 2.0.

What’s at stake in the writer’s strike is much more than a pay dispute between Hollywood elites (although that’s part of it….). The winners and losers will extend far beyond the two parties negotiating in the hotel ballrooms of Los Angeles. The public’s access to content online is at stake in these negotiations and if an appropriate balance cannot be struck, the real losers may end up being the web-browsing public—that’s to say, you and me. Although I fear the prospect, ultimately, it may require action by Congress to sort these issues out.

Marc Andreessen, who has been around the internet a lot longer than I, thinks that this could be a turning point where amateurs take over the studios and leverage Web 2.0 to make the concept of “studios,” producers and writers all things of the past. It’s an interesting idea but I’m not so sure it’ll actually come to pass. To date YouTube’s stars have only monetized their online fame when they get picked up by those very studios Andreessen thinks are going away. Even internet diva Perez Hilton relies on the mainstream media to feed his publicity whoredom.

Meanwhile, the TV networks and the movie studios have figured out that if they put their content online on websites like YouTube or Hulu, people will do their marketing for them. If they put their content on iTunes, people will pay for it. And the writers, justifiably, want to be compensated when this happens with what are know – fondly in many cases – as residual payments.

Anyone unfamiliar with the concept of residuals need only dig up the old Seinfeld episode, where Jerry starts getting checks for pennies here and there when his work is aired in Japan. The writers want to start cashing such checks whenever their work is shown on the Internet. That’s what is at the core of their strike today.

The dispute between the Writers and the Producers reminds me of the war waged by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists nearly a decade ago.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I had to go into the office, and was the only one there. Our offices in Sherman Oaks had no working television or radio so the only way I knew of to get news of the terrorist attacks was to go online. To my chagrin, none of the local news stations had streaming radio. In fact, just about the only streaming radio I could find that day was a public radio station based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Puzzled as to why the radio stations were not putting their content online, I talked to some of my friends in the business. They told me that they had stopped streaming radio content because of a dispute with AFTRA. The radio “actors” were demanding to get paid for their commercial work, but if local radio streamed their content online, they said, the stations could not quantify the distribution online in order to pay for them. The bottom line was that because the actors wanted to be paid for works distributed online, none were, and no content was distributed over the Internet – setting back Internet radio for years.

Of course, that is the radio industry’s side of the story, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, yet the history here should serve as a cautionary lesson for the writers and producers as they bargain today. Today, the producers are claiming that there is no way to monetize content distributed online, and therefore no way to base a residual payment system. In the Wild West of Web 2.0, there is some truth to this, but the argument is in part a petard.

Studio-produced content can be and is monetized on the internet when I pay $1.99 to download an episode of Desperate Housewives from iTunes or when I have to sit through an ad to get free highlights of last night’s Colbert Report. The writers are correct to think that they deserve a share of these revenues. The question is how?

In the world of Web 2.0, things aren’t so clear cut. Let’s say that as a contributor to AOL’s FanHouse, I embed a YouTube video of the Simpson’s episode where Homer realizes that obesity is a disability to make a point about Notre Dame Football Coach Charlie Weis. Who owes the royalty to the writer—Fox Studios who produced the TV show, Google, which hosted it on YouTube, the 17-year old who uploaded it to YouTube or Time Warner who is selling ads on the page where I embedded it?

Before the lawyers get a chance to answer this question, you can bet that the crackdown on copyright enforcement for online video will be stepped up to the point where it will be as difficult to find TV or movie clips online as it was for me to find a radio station on September 11.

And that’s a shame. Because the freedom that we enjoy on the web today shouldn’t rip off those who come up with the good ideas – hey, even this column – but it should drive away an interested and growing audience either.

Resolving the residual mess caused by Web 2.0 may take more than negotiations between writers and producers. As any generator of online content knows, ideas flow freely, and usually without links back to the original source. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the landlord doesn’t take flattery as a form of payment. Congress may have to step in and sort out the copyright standards for Web 2.0 before the residual debate can be truly resolved online–and when was the last time Congress was able to get anything right?

Share  Posted by Scott Olin Schmidt at 9:41 AM | Permalink

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