Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Dying Technologies and Our Cultural History

With my prior desktop computer, a Sony Vaio all-in-one machine, there was a built in DVD player.  My current iMac has about the same screen size but it it much thinner, so much so that you couldn't put a DVD player in it the way it is designed.  An implied assumption with its design is that video content will come in over the network. When such content is available, even if it is not freely available, that solution is okay though being the cheapskate that I am mostly I will refrain from paying the $2.99 for watching some video that I "rent" but do not own.  Here I want to consider the situation for videos that aren't available for online viewing over the network.

I now have a copy of A Murder of Quality to view, having read the book last week.  I like to see the film versions of novels I've already read, just to see what parts of the book get truncated and what other parts get omitted entirely, to fit into the two hours or so of movie.  Also in this case the book is from 1962 while the movie is from 1991 and I'm always curious whether the movie keeps the time frame of the book or not.   But I didn't buy the DVD from Amazon.  Instead I got it from the University Library.

It was available from the Oak Street (remote storage) facility that the Library maintains.  Patrons can request items from there and then have them delivered to a campus location for pickup.  I am not aware of the details in how the item got from the Oak Street facility to where I could access it, and in the summertime my sense is that many who work in the Library are under utilized, so that if it is mostly a people cost and if I restrict such requests to the summertime only, then perhaps I am not contributing much to social cost with my request.  I admit, however, I only considered this aspect after the fact.

I was driven much more by wanting to watch the video but not wanting to have to buy it from Amazon.  It's bad enough to pay ten bucks for the book (Kindle version).  But, on the other hand, there is on the box that contains the DVD a stamp that says "Return to Undergraduate Library," but that is crossed out.  This suggests to me that the Library originally procured this video for student entertainment, though there is a remote possibility (I think quite unlikely given that the story is a murder mystery) that it was for viewing in some class.  It seems to me a legitimate use for the Library to provide entertainment content to students, with the disk now at Oak Street an indicator that the demand for this particular content has dried up.  It is less legitimate, in my conception, for the Library to provide entertainment content for retired faculty and staff, even if now they are the population that is more apt to access such content from the Library, ergo my guilt feelings about social cost of providing such access.  (If the video were somehow related to research I was doing, it would be an entirely different matter.  That the Library should most definitely support.)

So far this has all been set up to get at the issues of this post.  Let me note (1) having served on a variety of committees with Librarians around a decade ago that I know they care deeply about preservation of any content that has been deemed important enough to get into the Library in the first place, (2) DVD is not a particularly robust medium as far as storage is concerned and that a variety of external factors can corrupt the content on the disk so that it is no longer viewable, and (3) the license under which the Library procured the DVD from the publisher almost surely precludes the Library from making copies of the video.

The video was produced by Thames TV, a British company, but as they don't seem to have a search box on their Web site I couldn't find whether they have plans to show the movie sometime in the future, or even if they still have the movie in their archives.  The video was released in the U.S. via the A&E channel and I did search AETV.com for the video but to no avail.   The video is available from Amazon for purchase, $8.00 for Prime customers.  Accompanying that listing is a message - only 16 left in stock, order soon.

What is the implication of that message?  If Amazon sells out can they get additional copies from the publisher or is that it?  They do have used copies for sale as well.  There are still used book stores to address this sort of issue for print material and then there are repositories like archive.org which could potentially host such video content, making it freely available to whatever potential audience would want to watch it.  But without some special dispensation to produce a current video format for that video that could be downloaded or streamed, the copyright on the thing would seem to preclude putting this content online at all.

Now let's move the discussion away from this particular video and instead consider movies that are of the same vintage or even older.  Originally the movie came out in analog format (VHS) for distribution after it was released in the theaters or shown on TV.  Perhaps it was never converted to DVD.  What of that content?  Might some of it already have vanished entirely?  If so, does that matter?  Why make a big deal out of it?

These same sort of questions apply to music.  I took an interest in these issues after my mother died and I was cleaning out her condo, where there was a collection of audio cassettes that my dad had amassed.  All of them were recordings of albums he probably got from the Boca Raton Library and most of it was folk music.  I wrote about this in a post from a few years ago, The role of music in our informal education - touching our parents in the afterlife.  As an adult child, I wanted to understand my dad more and one real way to do that was to listen to the music he listened to.  This sort of connection gave the music an importance that seemed very high to me, even if it wouldn't survive the sort of market test implied by my questions in the previous paragraph.

Because of my interest in this type of content I did some Web searches for it and ultimately found that several of the albums my dad had recorded were available in the Smithsonian Folkways collection.   But I also found, by doing searches on discographies of particular artists that only some of their music could be accessed in that collection.  What then of their other music?  Was it available in digital format or not?  If not, what if anything should be done about it?  I did enough searching to find a few albums in discographies that I couldn't find in digital format at all and convinced myself there were interesting issues to investigate here.

Sometime later a student who had taken a course from me wanted to do an independent study project under my supervision.  I gave her a few alternatives to choose from, which I would find interesting, one of those about the question of digital preservation, which is what she ended up doing.  There was some early flailing with the project, which is one of the first lessons that students should get when doing research of this sort.  How can you find a research question that is both interesting to ask and doable to answer?  This is her first post on the project, which illustrates these issues.

Ultimately, together we came up with a methodology where the results were suggestive, not conclusive, but nonetheless interesting.  She would identify an artist with an album in the Smithsonian collection, keeping a record of the artist's name and the link to the album listing.  This first step was supposed to signify the artist was once "important" for reasons that we didn't try to consider further.  She would then look to find a discography for the artist online.  In this case she would have to trust that these discographies were complete.  She would then search Spotify for whether each album in the discography was available or not.  Availability in Spotify was good evidence that digital preservation happened.  Lack of the availability, in contrast, might mean digitization did not happen, but it could also mean that the even if the content were in digital format that there were other impediments for Spotify to make the content available.  Her results are available in this spreadsheet.

She was graduating after the semester of this project, which limited how intensive the work completed was.  But there is enough in what she did to suggest that interesting content will be lost for future generations, content that is still under copyright.  While it is somewhat arduous to do this, people who have this content in analog format, vinyl or tape, should be empowered to digitize it if they can.  For example, ION offers a variety of equipment that could be used for this purpose.  But there is then the matter of what to do with the content in digital format.  Would the copyright holder object to it being placed in an online repository?  If not, how might the copyright holder communicate that to the people with the records and the cassettes? 

It is no longer possible to be proactive with regard to analog content that hasn't yet been digitized, whether music or video.  But it possible to do so for content that is available now on DVD or CD and it is also much easier to convert such content into a current online format.  What can be done to ensure that such conversions take place, well in advance of the content vanishing from the marketplace?

It seems to me that the "right" answer to this is fundamentally an economic one.  Copyright holders need the ability to monitor the demand for the content.  If there is sufficient current demand at a market price, the copyright holder has the right to distribute the content in any way that the copyright holder wants.  I would think that making it available for streaming would always be attractive, but I can see that if there are quite a few DVDs with the content that have never been sold, then the copyright holder might prefer only distribution of that.  (In effect, this is an argument that monopoly prices can generate more revenue, even if volume is reduced that way).

However, once the demand has dropped off sufficiently that the content has been relegated to the equivalent of the Oak Street facility in the copyright holder's archive, now storage and preservation costs may be larger than any revenue that  can be attained from sale of the disks.  Once this point has been reached the content really should enter the public domain, and somebody who has the DVD should be allowed to convert it into a suitable format for streaming or download.

Amazon.com has the past sales data to determine which is the situation.  They also have the wherewithal to convert the content and then offer it as part of their Instant Video collection.  Third parties, I am thinking particularly of the TCM channel and other channels that show oldies programming, might object to such release if they have licensed the content and plan to show it in the future.  So those interests would have to be accounted for.  Having done so there would be this residual of content that is very low demand for purchase that also won't be aired on TV.

This is the content that could be lost entirely if those proactive steps aren't taken.  Does anybody else care whether this happens or not?

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