E-media As Performance

Posted: May 10, 2007 in Uncategorized
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A few days ago, someone using the moniker “John Doe” signed into the editor’s conference in the Baen Bar and posted an offer to resell at a discount his e-media purchased from Baen. This sparked a maelstrom of comments, none of them kind, and quickly branched into a discussion on DRM. (For those readers unfamiliar with E-Baen, purchased Baen electronic products are DRM-free.)

The posts brought to light a couple issues I hadn’t really considered before:

1) What exactly are the “normal” rights of a non-DRM e-media purchaser? I don’t own any e-media, but I assume there’s some kind of license associated. The general impression I got from the thread was that it’s not considered transferable, such as would be case when you sell a physical copy of a book, DVD or CD. But is that stipulated in the license?

2) Should e-media even be considered a product? Clearly, the organizations touting DRM think of e-media this way. On the other hand, the whole notion of a nontransferable product bears more of a resemblance to a consumable. So is e-media a product or not?

It seems pretty clear that we need to view e-media differently than we have been. At the heart of it, entertainment is really rented, not owned, per se. This is an idea explored a few years in the form of DIVX movies, but I think there may be the germ of a workable solution hidden in that unsuccessful implementation.

I think of traditional media as a performance, so why not e-media?

What is a “performance” anyway? I see it as the unique intersection of a presenter’s interpretation of some material and an observer’s interpretation of that presenter’s interpretation. Each of those aspects can vary from performance to performance, making each performance a different experience.

In some cases, such a reading a book, the presenter and the observer are physically the same being, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same. The observer just has a level of control over the presentation as well. For example, a reader can choose to skip long expositions he finds offensive, or skip to the end of a mystery to see who did it before returning to the middle.

The advent of DVDs has added a new twist: chains of multiple presenters. I often watch an abbreviated form of a movie I’ve seen before, by skipping past some of the chapters entirely, or moving around in a different order. (While this is technically possible with VHS tapes, it’s not very practical.)

In the music world, remixes are doing the same thing. Traditionally, a band might do a cover of someone else’s source material — clearly a case of creating a new presentation, often based on another presenter’s interpretation, rather than the source material. But a remixer uses the original presenter’s interpretation directly, and modifies it according to his own interpretation, thus creating a new presenter in the chain.

In this light, both questions can be reduced to:

3) If e-media is viewed as performance, how does that affect the rights of the observer with respect to the performance? (Do ownership rights even have any meaning in this context?)

Unfortuately, I don’t have answers, only questions.

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