Public domain and piracy: Once Upon a Time and my epiphany
November 20, 2012 | 11:15 am
When I was visiting relatives over the weekend, I had a fairly potent reminder of the enduring power of the public domain—and I finally succumbed to the inevitable realization, that in some cases, piracy is just too much work.
On Saturday night of our stay, it turned out we didn’t have time to watch Marvel’s The Avengers as I’d hoped we could. So my sister-in-law instead introduced me to the first episode of an engrossing ABC television series called Once Upon a Time. The premise is that Snow White’s Wicked Queen worked a curse that trapped well-known fairy tale heroes and heroines in the “real” world with no recollection of who they really are—but a young boy has realized the nature of the curse, and brought the woman destined to break it to the sleepy small town of Storybrooke, Maine, where…ah, but that would be telling.
This series is a great example of why we need the public domain. Fairy tales have entertained us for hundreds of years, and by the time we’re grown we’ve been exposed to them so constantly and repeatedly that they form a touchstone of our culture. They’re part of the commonly shared experience of almost everyone who grows up in the USA, or the western world in general. And because the original versions of them are well within the public domain, there’s nothing preventing people from putting them into new stories that show them to us, and show us to ourselves, in a new light. The miniseries The 10th Kingdom from a decade or so back is another great example of such a use.
Though in a sense, this is somewhat ironically undermined by the show itself. One of the characters is specifically referred to as Jiminy Cricket—who was largely invented for the Disney animated adaptation of Pinocchio and does not exist (at least, not by that exact name or in such an important role) in the original public-domain Adventures of Pinocchio novel. (Which technically isn’t even a “fairy tale” at all itself, in the traditional sense…though we’ve come to accept it as one for being in the same Disney-animated company as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella.)
Because ABC is owned by Disney (the same as Marvel is, come to think of it), the series could of course make free with Disney’s non-public-domain characters as well as the public-domain ones. More than a little ironic given that if Disney has its way nothing will ever enter the public domain again!
Regardless, I enjoyed the show. I’ve only seen a few episodes so far, but it does a remarkably good job creating a real-looking fairy-tale world on a TV series budget. It also has more than enough likable (and hatable) characters and sufficiently interesting writing to keep me coming back to see how the tale unfolds. So I wanted to watch more of it. However, Amazon Prime didn’t have the episodes available to watch for free—whereas Netflix did. And that’s where my realization came in.
I signed up for Amazon Prime chiefly to take advantage of the inexpensive, fast shipping, and to be able to try out the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library with my Kindle Touch (if I ever come across a book I want sufficiently to be able to check out, anyway), but I’ve also enjoyed a few of its free streaming movies. However, to my great annoyance, its selection is nowhere near as good as Netflix’s, but I disliked the idea of having to pay another $8 per month on top of all my other expenses, when I don’t even have as much time as I’d like to spend watching these shows anyway.
But on the other hand, both my iPad and my Zeepad have Netflix apps (my iPod Touch would, except the older version that was all that would run on it got wiped out in a backup, and of course there’s no way to get an older version from the Apple store). And there wasn’t only Once Upon a Time but also a couple seasons of Burn Notice I need to catch up on—which Amazon Prime also doesn’t have. And a bunch of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, too…and Doctor Who…
I will admit, the ways I’ve watched these shows in the past haven’t always been as above-board as might be preferable. They tend to involve running BitTorrent clients and filling up space on my hard drives, and maybe burning stuff to DVD-ROMs to save space…DVD-ROMs which I’ll probably never end up actually watching again anyway. It’s a hassle to wait for the stuff to download, and to manage space so I don’t run out of room. My self-justification was that it wasn’t all that different from having a friend tape the stuff off the air for me, as people have done for me (and I’ve done for them) in the past.
But then, as I contemplated putting in all that extra effort, and trying to figure out whether I had enough space remaining on my hard drive, and really not looking forward to it, I had an epiphany: It’s just $8 a month. Spend the damned money and don’t worry about it.
More than ever, I think that the Netflix philosophy will be what kills piracy more than all the legislation and litigation in the world. Do you want to spend hours waiting for stuff to download, worrying about who might be spying on your download as it happens, how to manage the space on your drive, and so on? Or would you rather spend a few trifling bucks a month and get instant access to the “celestial jukebox” without having to worry about all that? Sure, Netflix has some disadvantages—it requires an always-on decently-fast network connection while you’re watching; you can’t download and view off-line. You don’t “own” the library, and even then it doesn’t always have all the titles you want. And you can’t watch on Linux yet (without jumping through a lot of technical hoops).
But on the other hand, you have nearly as good access to any movie and TV show it does have as if you did own it and it was sitting right there on your shelf—and you only pay the cost of a single bargain-bin discount Blu-ray from Wal-Mart every month for that access. So it’s not as if you’re buying a whole bunch of electronic media at full price that you think you own but the store might take away from you at any time.
And movies aren’t the only form of media experimenting with this. We’ve got a sort of “Netflix for music” in the form of Spotify. So why don’t we have a “Netflix for e-books”?
I’m not talking about the public library checkout access we currently have, or the rather laughable one-book-a-month-from-minor-and-self-publishers of the Kindle Prime library. I’m talking about some institution where we pay a monthly fee and get the same sort of “read whatever, whenever” access as Netflix gives us to movies. The fee could go to compensate the publishers and authors whose books we check out, just as our Netflix rental fees compensate the people who make movies and TV shows, which might go some way toward avoiding the reluctance the major publishers are showing toward free libraries that want to check out their books. If I could pay $8 a month to read any book I wanted at any time, even if I couldn’t “own” it, why wouldn’t I want to do that? After all, I don’t “own” any e-book I buy anyway.
Regardless, I’m happy enough with Netflix so far. The image quality is good, and it has most of what I would want to watch. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about messing around with BitTorrent anymore (at least, not as much). And it’s going to let me watch some great shows in a convenient, hassle-free way. Shows like Once Upon a Time. I can’t wait to see what happens next!