DRM: a return to Edison and the MPPC

After releasing acclaimed films without digital rights management (DRM), Scottish Documentary Institute experienced no negative side-effects or rise in piracy. In the second of a series of posts looking at threats and potential of the digital space, Nic Wistreich compares DRM to the birth of cinema. 

Thomas Edison, photo by Louis Bachrach, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke (Wikimedia Commons)

The monopoly that created the independents that created the studios

Imagine having to pay a license fee every time you filmed something or screened your work. At the start of the 20th century, the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC) in America controlled patents around cameras, film and projectors, and demanded fees for anyone screening or filming anything. The MPPC were able to dictate what could get filmed and screened, telling a young Alfred Zukor who had just bought the rights to a big French success: “The time is not ripe for features, if it ever will be” (as described in Timothy Wu’s excellent Master Switch).

Zukor, who would later head Paramount, became an early rebel who refused to play along, as was Carl Laemmle who declared himself ‘an independent’ – the first to use that name. Laemmle wasn’t independent for long, his company Universal became one of the biggest studios on the planet, as did those from other ‘rebels’ and ‘independents’ Willhelm Fuchs (20th Century Fox) and the Warner brothers Jack, Sam and Henry. When Laemmle started to make ‘independent films’ without paying a licence, he was sued 289 times in a three-year period by the Edison Trust, and eventually fled New York to the west coast with Fuchs, Zukor, the Warners and others, further from the MPPC ‘spies’ and lawyers, and closer to the Mexican border if a quick escape was needed.

It’s hard to avoid the irony that the founding of Hollywood was driven by people trying to dodge the copyright and patents on technology. These patents had created an unhealthy monopoly, and had they prevailed they could have prevented America’s rise to dominate cinema (France at the time produced twice as many films as the US). And yet the film industry’s view of open video today – which similarly believes that video technology is too important to be owned, locked down and controlled by one company – has undoubtedly been damaged in the piracy debate.

One US producer, well respected for his web-savvy approach, confided to me in 2008 that he didn’t like open source, calling it "the same as piracy" - in spite of thousands of open source projects from Wordpress and Mozilla to Redhat and Canonical running large, multi-million dollar, legitimate businesses. Somehow the issue of open technology – which powers every website in the world through HTML and the majority of smartphones through Android – has become confused with a filmmaker’s right to chose the price of their film, when they are quite distinct subjects. An open license around technology is not the same as saying every film must also be shared for free: open technology is about freedom from monopolies, not freedom from profit.

Photo by James Gubera (Flickr/Creative Commons)Free as in speech, not as in beer

Nowhere is the confusion of open tech and piracy more entwined than in the subject of digital rights management, the copy protection added to content to attempt to limit the ways consumers can use that content. As an architecture that can stop you playing the DVDs you bought overseas on holiday when you get home, or moving your Kindle files between tablet and phone, or accessing purchased downloads after you upgraded your computer, DRM has long been unpopular with consumers, yet to much of the film industry has been viewed as an unfortunate but important way to limit the risks of piracy.

If you ever tried to copy or sample a rented VHS as a kid you might remember how in a pre-digital age, copy-protection succeeded in limiting small-level copying – copies ended up a technicolor mush. But in the digital era it’s redundant. At best it is an inconvenience: but no system exists that’s uncrackable as people can always digitise their audio or video output (or simply film the screen). And once a DRM-free copy exists, anywhere in the world, it destroys the economic value of the DRM-encumbered version.

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Pirates compete on quality, price, and availability

This summer, Scottish Documentary Institute used downloadable copies of I AM BREATHING for its theatrical Global Screening Day free from digital rights management (DRM) – and with no noticeable piracy or impact. In the first of a series of articles looking at some of the myths, challenges and opportunities around digital distribution, Nic Wistreich questions why it can still be so hard to pay to watch a film you want to see legally.

Anne Sweeney - Creative Commons - ©CES2009Perhaps no sector has been more involved in shifting the debate around video piracy than the TV industry. It seemingly began in late 2006, nine months after Steve Jobs had sold Pixar to Disney, joined their board and become more involved in their operations. Disney co-chair Anne Sweeney (pictured) declared at a conference that piracy was not simply a threat, but a competitor – that pirates competed on quality, price and availability. On all of these levels, she recognised, Hollywood was losing: "We don't like the model but we realise it's competitive enough to make it a major competitor going forward." Hulu launched five months later and competed on all three levels with free, ad-funded, flexible streams; the BBC’s iPlayer arrived not long after.

Piracy "better than an Emmy"

Then in August this year, Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes appeared to jump the shark when he announced that piracy was "better than [winning] an Emmy." Time Warner/HBO’s Game of Thrones is one of the most-pirated TV shows of the last few years, and possibly one that has gained the most free marketing from piracy. "We’ve been dealing with this issue for literally 20-30 years,"  Bewkes said. "Our experience is, it all leads to more subs."

The difficulty with Bewkes’ argument, when related to independent feature films, is that he’s talking about episodic TV. A percentage of the people who got hooked on early episodes and seasons of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead through pirate copies will subscribe to channels and services offering the latest episodes so they can watch them first. Their fandom expressed on Twitter and Facebook also builds awareness and might convince their non-pirating followers and friends to tune into those channels.

A Field in England

But one-off dramas, documentaries and features can’t benefit from these effects; a pirate stream or download will rarely translate into further money for the filmmaker other than occasionally through a future crowdfunding campaign, or platforms like Vodo or BitTorrent that let people Donate-After-View (DAV).

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The Grandfather of the Fantasy Coffin Trade


Benjamin Wigley tells us about his journey from discovering Bridging the Gap to his first feature documentary celebrating master craftsman and fantasy coffin pioneer, Paa Joe – and how we all can help him finish the film.

Prior to the Bridging The Gap programme, I had made In Search of the Vissarion, following a Siberian community convinced that their leader was the Son of God. I travelled out there on my own and came back with 30 hours of footage. I wasn’t able to get the support I needed in post-production and so the film took three years to complete under the guidance of my old filmmaking tutor. One year later a film with the exact same subject was made for True Stories. I was disappointed – but at least I knew I had found a good story.

At that point I had little faith in the filmmaking “system” and felt that people rose to the top through nepotism and good fortune. But when Noé came to the East Midlands and spoke about Bridging The Gap I was really excited about her response to my idea.

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Documentaries – Our Humanities

Once upon a time, Thierry Garrel was the most wanted man in the documentary world. Not just because being Head of Documentaries at ARTE France meant great budgets and quality audience but because filmmakers felt part of a documentary movement with a vision led by two passionate man, one Thierry at ARTE, the other one Alan Fountain, senior commissioning editor at Channel 4. C4 dared dreaming of being a publishing house and bringing voices across class and borders to speak out; ARTE created a cultural synergy between Germany and France which will not ever allow us to be enemies again. The current poverty and reduction of documentary programming on most channels makes some of us look back to those ambitious years with envy and nostalgia.

But now that Thierry is no longer the pope but one of the monks (as he put it), he goes round the world with his vows of creativity and his bowl of wit and happily shares his documentary insight with young talent. Thierry was our guest at the first Bridging The Gap workshop and got all participants and SDI staff to walk and bounce on clouds! Thierry circulated an inspiring article on humanities in documentary which we are sharing here. The original French version was published in the magazine Images Documentaires for their 20th anniversary in December 2012.

Photo-Thierry-Garrel_320.jpg“Prose has walked on foot for too long, and it seems to me that the time has finally come for poetry to get off the horse to let prose mount in its place,” wrote Lichtenberg more than two centuries ago. And Lukács seemed to respond – not without pessimism: “The form of the essay has not yet, today, found the path to independence that its sister, poetry, covered long ago: the path of development from a primitive and undifferentiated unity with science, ethics and art.”

I can't help but think, on this 20th anniversary of Images Documentaires, of the path documentary has travelled through the past two decades; before only a minor genre, peripheral and ancillary. It’s been a path towards aesthetic autonomy in its languages and at the same time a centrality in today's society.

Born as documentary, cinema throughout the 20th century was monopolized by fiction, its narratives, its imaginary universes, often formatted in story-factories that make our images and our legends in an industrial way. TV shows and the heavy media industries developed in a parallel fashion. It seems to me, however, that with the 21st century, cinema is in the process of rediscovering its original horizon and its primitive magic: the exchange and the sharing of experiences between humans through images.

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A great opportunity for non-financial valuation

Michael Franklin is a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Capitalising on Creativity and an industry consultant at Film Business Research. He wrote this response to Sonja Henrici's proposal of a 'Triple Bottom Line in Film?'


Sonja Henrici started a really interesting debate proposing a Triple Bottom Line in Film (TBL). The concept as I understand it involves adding social and environmental concerns, “people and planet”, to the profit bottom line. Sonja suggests the need for a template, or standard accounting practice that measures “actual cultural value”. One purpose of demonstrating “positive social action” or “positive audience engagement” is the gaining of rewards like “future investment, funding or sponsorship”. Reflection of a film’s impact additional to financial measurement is proposed as a potential avenue to satisfy funders and investors in the independent film business.

As Ben Kempas points out in comments on the post, the debate is timely given the attention on film funding in Scotland at the moment. Any institutional funding or investment for film must have a strategy behind it and underpinning such a strategy must be the intelligent use of data. As a consultant on the Virtuous Circle initiative of the Scottish Documentary Institute and an academic researcher dealing with this topic, I was kindly invited to contribute some thoughts. I am particularly focused on how the film market becomes digitally mediated through various metrics.


Amazing data visualisation of traditional metrics for film evaluation by Tom Evans (atacatcalledfrank) – could we do the same for social impact?

Clarity of Objective

There is great merit in exploring non-financial valuation frameworks for creative works. Documentary film is a perfect example and many fiction features could also claim similar worth. However, this is an area fraught with complexities and enticing tangential asides. A great deal of policy literature on public funding investigates attempts to capture the non-financial returns on cultural or creative investment. This is a broad topic that falls in and out of fashion, but is yet to define stable results. The BFI reported on cultural value of film in 2011 and the general topic continues to attract attention of institutions like the RSA. But if the aim of this initiative is a practical outcome, these wide debates are diversions and crucial distinctions need to be made to define a goal more narrowly.

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Mum Goes Viral


Duncan Cowles, currently a volunteer in our team at Scottish Documentary Institute, made a video that, within 24 hours, had more than 350,000 views on YouTube. Can he teach us how to make things go viral?

Let me start off by saying that The Lady with the Lamp was a complete accident. It has been however, my most successful accident to date.

For those of you who haven’t seen the film here it is. (It’s only 3 minutes 49 seconds so if you don’t like it, you've not wasted too much time.)

On what was probably the only day I hadn't washed my hair in the entire year of 2010, my mum came into my bedroom to inform me that my bedside lamp was not quite up to house standards, and that I should invest in a new one. Unbeknown to her I’d been in the middle of filming what was (from what I remember) a really exciting video blog for my second year film at Edinburgh College of Art, Pooling Together

Anyway, I more or less forgot about the whole experience until editing where I re-discovered my mum’s interruption. I called my brother through to my room to show him. His reaction told me that at least those who knew my mum would appreciate the footage. So I took the film, at the time creatively named LAMP and showed my classmates and lecturer David Cairns alongside my hand-in piece.

“Should I bother putting effort into a film ever again?”

The general consensus was that it was miles better and more entertaining than the film I’d spent eight months making. “Should I bother putting effort into a film ever again?” I asked myself.

Showing my mum and some visiting family members was the next step. Safe to say they all (Mum included) got a good laugh out of it, and my Grandma suggested a new title, The Lady with the Lamp, named after Florence Nightingale. I was all set to attempt submitting to film festivals.

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Triple Bottom Line in Film?

So here's an idea.

Last week I attended the Global Entrepreneurial Leaders conference, in short GEL, organised by the Scottish charity WildHearts and hosted by RBS in its campus-like headquarters in Edinburgh. As a filmmaker, it is rare to find yourself in the presence of politicians, billionaires, bankers, accountants, school kids, teachers, the third sector as well as an inspiring businesswoman from Uganda – at the same time. At the core of the conference was the idea of compassion in business and celebrating 'entrepreneurial spirit' in Scotland and beyond as a way out of economic and emotional poverty. 


How did I find myself there? A free ticket. Why I got that is less interesting than how GEL made me think and feel. Listening to WildHearts' thought leader and founder Mick Jackson (a former musician), to big-name representatives from RBS (Chris Sullivan), to the Scottish Government (John Swinney) and to Tom Hunter (pictured), digesting the discussion of entrepreneurship and values among business leaders, I got a sense that perhaps the film industry has a way to go itself, implementing 'compassion' in its processes.

Even I catch myself thinking, well, "I work in documentary, aren't we contributing enough 'compassion' or social impact, by just doing what we're doing?"

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Ramallah Stories

Last week Noé Mendelle was at Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival, presenting the best of our STORIES series – short films coming out of intensive documentary workshops we've run with British Council in the Middle East. And it brought back her memories of going to Palestine for the first time for the RAMALLAH STORIES and DOC EXPRESS workshops.


Photo: Isra Odeh

As you may know, in order to reach Palestine, you need to go through Israel.

First thing to do for myself and Flore was to get new passports. Travelling with our stamps from past trips to Libya and Algeria, that will not do. However much you prepare for such trip, it is never enough.

Tel Aviv airport is a spacious and rather subdued space: dull architecture, sparse images and whispered sounds. Of course, extremely well organised and controlled. At passport control, we get questioned about the purpose and destination of the visit before getting allocated a visa. My questioning was brief, and quickly assumptions were made about my "Jewishness" due to my name. Flore on the other hand had to sweat a bit more.  It was only at control number 2 that we both realised that had been given different visas. Mine got me through with a smile and a nod, Flore was once again questioned. On the return leg of our journey, it was even more accentuated. Every time, Flore's luggage had to be thoroughly checked, and she got questioned while I was receiving apologies for the delay. At the last check I was swiftly directed to the luggage X-ray for Israeli people while Flore was taken to a different queue, hidden from mine, and once again had to go through the rigmarole of more questioning and checks. Nothing threatening – but by the end of this trip we learned enough about Israeli psychological games at first hand to shift from feelings of sadness about the conflict to anger at this constant reaffirmation of their power and occupation.

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"Show, don't tell"

To support the opening of our new Bridging The Gap call we are publishing blog posts from the four filmmakers selected in the previous call. They will give you tips for a good application.

Valerie Mellon is a documentary filmmaker based in Glasgow with a special interest in bringing science to new audiences. After studying biomedical engineering at London and Cambridge, she has spent ten years in radio and television production, primarily at the BBC, making programs such as Dragons' Den, The One Show, Men of Rock, Addicted to Pleasure and the Grierson Award and Scottish BAFTA winning After Life: The Strange Science of Decay. Inorganica is her first film-festival short.

Valerie_Mellon2.jpgScience and filmmaking have always been important to me. Inorganica is about a Glasgow-based scientist who is trying to create life in the lab from scratch. If he succeeds he will have discovered how life on earth could have started. It has implications for design and engineering and throws up all sorts of religious arguments and questions. It's a topic that affects all of us and I felt it was an important story to cover as it happened.

So that's my first tip for choosing a story – make sure that you will definitely see something change during the two months you plan to film. Find a story that fascinates you. Then in your pitch document, make sure you explain why this film absolutely has to be made, and why it has to be made now.

When I applied for Bridging The Gap I wasn't sure that I'd get to make the film, but I was hoping to be chosen to attend the workshops. They were fascinating and extremely useful because you get to work with all the other participants. There were filmmakers from lots of different backgrounds, with different skills, coming at life and filmmaking from different angles. All the shortlisted ideas were developed and refined with the help of very experienced directors and producers. Scottish Documentary Institute will surround you with the best people available. And my next tip is simply; let them help you. Film is a collaboration of lots of ideas and different people's passions.

The final pitching day is very intense – by then you've been thinking about the film non-stop for some months and you only have very short time to let it all out and explain it all in a coherent way. You’ll also have to convince the panel you can do it. Try and remember the thing that made you want to make the film in the first place. What first excited you about the subject? What are you really trying to say with your film? And what does it say about you and your personality?

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It sure ain’t for the pension plan

Running up to the opening of our new Bridging The Gap call on 2 September we are publishing blog posts from four filmmakers selected in the previous call. They will give you tips for a good application.

Maurice O’Brien is a journalist-turned-filmmaker who has been making factual programmes since 2005. As an assistant producer he was a joint winner of the Grierson for Best Historical Documentary for 1983 - The Brink Of Apocalypse in 2008. Most recently he has been directing short films about culture and current affairs for the BBC’s Newsnight, One Show and Culture Show programmes. 


I was actually a failure at Bridging The Gap the first time I applied. Though I made it through to the last eight, attended various workshops and even made a trailer for the proposed film, ultimately I didn’t get the funding to make it a reality. Pretty disappointing: but I got so much out of the experience I decided to apply again last year with a different project. 

Being realistic definitely helps… The first project I had pitched was about a beaten-up old passenger ferry that sails around Lake Malawi, which was always going to be a bit of a stretch in terms of both budget and also convincing the commissioning panel of my personal connection to the story.

Buffalo Dreams premiered at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and is now hopefully going to start travelling around the world. It deals with the many obstacles faced by a family who aim to become Scotland’s first commercial bison farmers. My reasons for making it were partly inspired by my farming roots back home in Ireland.  But for me, the film is also about how far we can afford to go to make our dreams a reality – something I think all filmmakers ask themselves at times.

I’ve always been worried that filmmaking would become ‘just a job’, a career path rather than a passion, which is surely the reason we all get into this crazy business in the first place (hell, it sure ain’t for the pension plan).

The beauty of Bridging the Gap is the creative freedom it provides, the encouragement to think 'widescreen'. To imagine your film playing in a cinema is to approach it in an entirely new way. 

Yes, it probably helps if your proposal has key words like ‘journey’, ‘jeopardy’, ‘conflict’ and so on… but think about the potential for magic as well. What imagery are you going to put up there, what feelings do you want to evoke in that captive audience? As I realized during some of the workshops, it’s about inciting curiosity and emotion rather than offering up simplified answers. 

Filmmaking is all about posing questions, you just have to ask the right ones...

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