Sunday, March 12, 2006

Anthony Myatt's Analog Hole:

Please read today's offering and be amazed, as we wander purposefully from deep philosophical questions of art to corporate law, Hollywood "spec scripts", and the Analog Hole.

The New York Times has a very entertaining article about Anthony Myatt, who supported himself for years forging paintings by famous masters. (The link to the Myatt story is a newfangled “New York Times Blogger's link"; please email me if you have any trouble with it, ever.) Now out of jail, for forgery of course, Myatt sells “genuine fakes” of old masters; for less money to be sure, but he's doing well enough that someone else is forging his genuine fakes. If you owned a real Myatt forgery, obviously you overpaid for it, but if it fools you, how important is it to know it's forged?
Stories like these tend to raise deep philosophical questions like “What is art?” “What's the value of art?”

While philosophy can't help us much here, the heavy hand of business can. One recent Myatt painting is a Magritte knockoff titled “Ceci N'est Pas Une Magritte". The business world regrets that some old masters like Michaelangelo have fallen through the cracks, but Magritte flourished in the twentieth century. Someone must own the Magritte trademark; someone must own the Magritte style; those somebodies should be suing Myatt right out of business, making him destroy his Magritte knockoffs. That's what our laws encourage big companies to do, to stifle imaginative innovation. And without the competing art works, there'll be no difficult philosophical questions to ponder.

Now if that solution appeals to you at all, allow me to introduce you to the “spec script”. Writers who want to get into the TV business are expected to write spec scripts to show off their skills. A spec script is a script for any current TV show. It's unlikely that the owners of the given show will buy it and produce it, but since the TV world is generally familiar with its shows, people can more quickly judge your Hollywood Writing ability by reading your spec scripts.
I know about these from the Sam & Jim website. These guys have sold a pilot for a TV show to ABC (that will apparently not be produced). The news of their sale has made them a somewhat hot item, and their agent has told them that they need to write a new spec script, which they are doing, for the show House. What fascinates me is that we have exactly the sort of trademark and copyright violation here that I was talking about above. If you or I put a House script of our own on our website and called it a parody, it's quite likely the lawyers of House would make us make it down. But if you're a budding writer in Hollywood, the same script is okay. Why is that?

To clear up this muddle, we must look at the proposed “analog hole” legislation currently before congress. “Analog hole” is a somewhat misleading phrase for a problem. As the recording industry knows, when people distribute pirated DIGITAL copies of music free, there is no degradation in sound quality, even to the nth copy. Many attempts are being made (D'you remember “DRM”?) to prevent digital copying. But even if every recording device sold to us in the future will prevent us from copying commercial digital recordings, it will still be possible to make an old fashioned analog recording – at some loss of quality – and then digitize THAT and distribute it. The Analog Hole legislation attempts to prevent that by requiring analog copying devices to have lots of additional logic that almost certainly won't work, to prevent analog copies of commercial items. But in order to create and produce music recordings and films, people routinely utilize analog copies all the time. So if the new law requires all machines to prevent analog copying of commercial material, it will also cripple the recording industry.

Never fear.

The recoding industry solved that problem, right in the proposed legislation. The law would allow “professionals” to bypass the copy protection. Only us amateurs would be excluded. Strangely, although there are probably fifty million people in the world capable of creating interesting films, most of them will never qualify as professionals, a status to be reserved mostly for the convenience of a few inside companies. Which brings us back to spec scripts: these are obviously okay for the people who write them; they are professionals, often Hollywood insiders, and the entertainment establishment is happy to give them an exception.

And all this clears Mr. Myatt up for me also. Why, he's a professional now, isn't he? So his art must deserve to have some insider-specified worth.

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