The future in home entertainment technology is ever more rapidly approaching as headlines herald "mega-mergers" between and among cable, computer, electronics, telecommunications and entertainment conglomerates. The rapid development of interactive computer technology and the imminent availability of an infinite number of cable channels means that the electronic information superhighway is just over the horizon. The entertainment marketplace of the future could consist solely of a wall of interactive computer catalogues; consumers will go shopping with a compact disc and a credit card. With the addition of computer modems and/or fiber optic cable hook-ups, the consumer would not even have to leave home to choose music, video games, and movies stored in a central databank, and with the "virtual reality" apparatus, viewers may be able to experience the sensation of actually being in a film and partaking in a gunfight with Clint Eastwood or experience the sensation of sex with Marilyn Monroe. The ramifications of this global computerized information network, and other related technological developments, will be enormous for the entertainment industry, the legal community, and the world.
Telephone software already exists which will allow a consumer to listen to 90-second samples of a favorite recording artist's new album, and then, by touch-tone selection, order it shipped to him and have it charged to his telephone bill. Not only does this software facilitate sale of product, it compiles a consumer profile on the purchaser which can then be provided to record label marketing departments. This software has the capability, once appropriate fiber optic cable is in place, to transmit the product directly to the consumer at the push of a button.
For better or for worse, the arrival of computer driven consumption is eventually going to reshape the way business is conducted, from the way product is packaged, shipped and marketed to the way radio is programmed. Businessmen and lawyers in the entertainment industry will be confronted by new concepts in copyright and contract law not currently addressed in existing contracts. These delivery systems also raise new concerns regarding privacy and free speech.
Entertainment companies will soon be able to transmit their wares digitally instead of trucking them, dealing in the transfer of information rather than the shipment of product. Given the entertainment industry's investments in pressing plants, warehouse facilities, and distribution networks, this transition may not be an easy one. However, such a system will ultimately economize on packaging and transportation expenses. It will also eliminate the ecological issues surrounding the wasted plastic and paper used to package CDs and videocassettes.
With the advent of electronic distribution of music, the most basic concepts that govern contractual relationships will be effected. Fundamental movie and record contract issues could be completely eliminated from recording contracts.
With the coming of the one-world, global marketplace, transfer could be instantaneous and worldwide, and the issue of reduced "foreign" royalty rates payable to actors, artists and performers could be abolished. Sales figures for product could be compiled with absolute accuracy, and sales charts released on a daily rather than a weekly basis. Whether retail record stores and video outlets will disappear completely or continue to survive (the way radio continued to endure despite the advent of television, or people continue to go to the movies even after the arrival of home video) remains to be seen.
A particularly troublesome issue with respect to direct computer driven consumption is how to prevent the consumer from copying the transmission and circulating it (the way some computer software programs are currently copied from PC to PC in any given business office). An anti-copying code still needs to be developed and programmed into each album or movie transmission.
As we move into the future, barriers will continue to come down between telephone companies, cable TV, and video programming companies. The development of digital fiber optic networks will provide consumers with more choices and easier access to hundreds of channels as well as electronic home delivery of audio and video programs. Most troublesome is the fact that digital technology will make it possible for the consumer to make a virtually identical copy of any audio transmission royalty-free. Record companies and artists will increasingly find their products being transmitted and sold by way of cable networks or via computer modems and, yet, be precluded from collecting any revenue because such transmissions will arguably be deemed to be "broadcasts". As previously mentioned, even though these new broadcast and cable companies transmit record company product to consumers for their own commercial gain, they have no clear obligation either to secure record company permission or to compensate the label or the artist for the commercial use they make of the copyrighted works.
One apparent way to circumvent this problem would be for each major record label and movie company to develop its own cable TV channel which would allow viewers to order movies, albums and other related merchandise directly. Then, for example, the record label or movie company could charge the consumer a retail price equivalent for the transmission of a particular album.
Although such a solution has its obvious benefits, there is a downside. Operation of such a venture could prove to be costly and burdensome, specifically for a record label. In addition, there would still be nothing preventing a cable operator unaffiliated with a particular artist's label from establishing its own competing home-shopping music cable network, and then undercutting the prices offered by the artist's source label. In fact, it would be fairly easy for such an unaffiliated competitor to offer the transmission of a particular artist's album at a lower price because it does not have to bear the record company's financial investment in recording costs. Since the competitor would argue that it is merely broadcasting the product, not selling copies, the artist and its label could be without legal recourse. The competitor would only be liable for performance royalties which, at this point in time, are not payable on the sound recording.
Electronic distribution also has certain disturbing ramifications of the "Big Brother" variety. Popular culture has always thrived on decentralization - on garage bands, basement tapes, and independent film releases. If the larger entertainment conglomerates control the central databanks, what would the consequences be for independent releases and street music? Government intervention analogous to FCC regulation may be necessary to insure fair access to the databanks. New technology raises other questions: - What effect will credit card ordering directly through computer or cable hook-ups have on rights of privacy?; Would the databank also compile a wealth of personal information on each consumer?; If so, who will have access to this information?; Will centralized distribution make suppression of disturbing or "obscene" work much easier?; Will works be automatically transmitted in edited form? If so, who will decide what is suppressed and how a work is edited?
With respect to interactive technology, myriad intellectual property and related legal issues will be raised. If the consumer is enabled to manipulate the characters, the story line, and the action in a movie, movie companies need to consider how all of the alternative versions would be copyrighted. Since, in effect, the viewer would now be the creator of some essential portion of the work, the viewer might have an argument that certain derivative rights vest in him by virtue of his contribution to the work.
Interactive technology pundits predict that, with the advent of "virtual reality" apparatus, viewers will be able to truly experience a film by inserting themselves into the action and manipulating it such that the viewer could partake in a gunfight with Clint Eastwood, a prize fight with Sylvester Stallone, or experience the sensation of sex with Marilyn Monroe. As a preliminary matter, the manufacturers of the applicable interactive software would need to get appropriate clearance from the movie companies before altering the copyrighted works. However, with the proliferation of multi-national, vertically-integrated entertainment conglomerates, the company doing the altering might already be the owner of the copyright in the film (as was the case with "colorization" where Ted Turner had purchased certain films and later had them colorized). Nevertheless, supplemental legal issues would still be raised: If the viewer were to knockout Stallone, would this in some way subject the viewer to legal action by Stallone for disparagement of the actor? In the case of the Marilyn Monroe scenario, could intercourse with her image be said to violate certain privacy rights in some way, and who would assert those rights?
The ramifications of the new computer and communications technologies are simultaneously exciting and frightening. The next wave of technological developments is almost upon us and it is best that the entertainment industry and the legal profession confront the pertinent issues, review the relevant revenue streams, and resolve the outstanding legal issues now in order to capitalize on the coming changes as expeditiously as possible.
Wallace Collins is an entertainment lawyer. Tel: (212) 661-3656; www.wallacecollins.com. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before attending Fordham Law School.