Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Cinema File #218: "Downloaded" Review

The Internet is incredibly awesome. Not only does it provide a platform for insightful movie review blogs and vulgar movie podcasts, more broadly, it represents the one arena of modern life that still affords actual intellectual freedom to those who seek it. Now, that might sound strange considering how many corporate hoops you've probably had to jump through today alone to manage your online life, be it via your ISP, the various pop up ads you've had to close, or the many social media sites whose terms and conditions you've had to navigate to "express yourself." But that's only one facet of this amazing Internet thing. The confluence of the digitization of media and the lack of boundaries to Internet ethics has created an environment where any enterprising nerd with a DSL connection can get literally any piece of information they want, proprietary or otherwise, completely free. Whether you call it file sharing or piracy, the power this has taken out of the hands of the mighty and placed into the hands of regular people is undeniable. As seen in the new documentary Downloaded, one of the dominoes that led inexorably to this point was the tiny, unassuming late 90's start up company called Napster.

Downloaded follows the history of the company from one college kid's dorm room to the middle of a Congressional investigation and back again, attempting to expand outward from the story of a couple of scruffy guys with a dream of free music into a larger discussion about the consequences of that dream on the recording industry and the world. Or at least, that's what I would assume the intent was, but I have to wonder if the point of this exercise might have gotten lost in all the 90's nostalgia. Apart from just how earnest and in many cases naive the people behind Napster were as their stars rose and fell, there's very little that's new to be learned in any of this, and most of the time better spent dissecting the cultural shift born out of the events in question is instead spent on what comes across as an almost sycophantic admiration of the documentary subject. Sean Fanning and his crew of lovable misfits aren't one side of a multi-faceted issue with many valid points across the spectrum of opinion - they're heroes, thrust into a battle they never asked for, but who fought valiantly with computer code and start-up cash to pave the way for our collective victory over the tyranny of Metallica and the RIAA.

That's not to say that I think Metallica or the RIAA ever had any valid points, its just that I wish this movie would spend at least a little bit of time trying to find out if there were any arguments counter to their narrative that did hold water. Personally, whenever I hear record industry people talking about what file sharing did to their profit margins, I can't help but feel a bit of schadenfreude remembering the pre-peer to peer days when their monopoly over media distribution was absolute. Hearing them complain of the piracy revolution is like hearing old white men complaining about the 60's, and how that cultural shift brought woman out of the kitchens, gays out of the closets, and blacks out from the back of the bus, as if civil rights were a zero sum game where a gain for one is always a loss for another. "Sure the system was skewed in favor of a small exploitative class" they might say, "but we were that small exploitative class, and now that we're on equal footing with everybody else, things just aren't fair anymore." Predictably, the few representatives of this viewpoint sound about as much like Mr. Burns as you would expect, but its all so one-sided that if I didn't know any better, I might suspect the lack of balance was an attempt to obscure the truth.

The interviews are mostly fun and engaging even if they aren't all that really informative or groundbreaking, and despite my other problems, the doc is an easy sit and wraps up on a positive note before it overstays its welcome. The biggest problem is that the subject of Napster is only important insofar as it informs the current media landscape, and Downloaded never seems interested in tackling this state of affairs beyond a general observation that file sharing is here to stay. A more interesting topic might have been how the music industry has responded to their need to monetize digital downloads in recent years, and how they have acquiesced to online music availability through sites like Spotify and Pandora (and on the movie and television side, Netflix, Hulu, and other VOD subscription services). For all their gripes about intellectual property theft, the artists don't always have it much better under this new industry approved system even as peer to peer music downloading is at an all time low, often having their music forced onto these free online radio stations by their labels whether they like it or not, where they receive less in residual payments than traditional sources like terrestrial and satellite radio.

I for one have never really been able to buy the comparison between file sharing and theft, if only because the digital nature of media being shared is different from a physical copy of the same thing. Downloading an album off of the Internet isn't the same as swiping the same CD off the rack at a record store, because the download is without limit, while the CD represents inventory costs and opportunity costs for the lost sale. A download is only theft if you can assume with 100% certainty that the person downloading would have bought the physical copy if the free option weren't available, but I suspect for the vast majority of people, the vast majority of downloads represent the choice between getting it for free or doing without, at which point there was never any potential sale to lose in the first place. Whatever costs and losses do exist would seem to be more than balanced out in the great moral scale of things by the benefits to new, up and coming artists who often find file sharing to be an invaluable tool for exposure and brand circulation, allowing independent artists to achieve a level of success that used to be determined only by the gatekeepers of the increasingly irrelevant corporate system.

What has changed so much for the better since Napster is that now, it is the consumer who decides the value of what they consume (ironically invoking the purest form of capitalism that I imagine the RIAA execs might extol when it isn't biting them in the ass). Maybe they'll decide that the music they listen to isn't worth a dime, or maybe they'll decide its worth the price of a concert ticket or a t-shirt (which is where the actual artist makes most of their money anyway), or maybe they'll be loyal enough to kick a few bucks back for an iTunes download rather than going to a file sharing site to get it for free. Sure, the greedy as sin Lars Ulrichs of the world won't be happy about, but then they should never be happy about anything. That I've been compelled to go on another soap box completely independent of my initial review subject is only illustrative of how trifling the film Downloaded truly is. I wouldn't be so provocative as to suggest you download it illegally if you have any interest rather than spending money on it, but at the very least I'd suggest waiting until you have a free, ethically acceptable option if you desperately want to see it.

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