Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pareto Disimprovement

Last weekend my parents were going to see a production of "War Horse."

"What's 'War Horse,'" my sons asked.

"She them the Saturday Night Live version," Crazy Jane suggested. (She enjoys comedic theory, and during a discussion a couple months ago, that skit came up and I showed it to her.)

I searched for the video and found a link on YouTube, complete with thumbnail shot, but upon clicking we discovered it was no longer available. So we tried Dailymotion, which is foreign and so often less compliant with American copyright laws. Same result. Then we tried Hulu, where we saw it originally. Same result. Finally, we tried NBC's official SNL page. The skit has its own webpage, but no video loads on the page. In taking down the video, they couldn't be bothered to remove its dedicated page.

This had happened to us the week before when I tried to show the kids "Helmet Head" to explain the use of the saying, "Soapy water?! Soapy water was the FIRST thing I tried! And then it was the TENTH thing I tried! And then it was the HUNDRETH thing I tried!" A video I'd seen for free on NBC's website just months before was gone.

This is a Pareto disimprovement. I am worse off and NBC is no better off. Because it's not like there's some money-making platform for the "Helmet Head" sketch. I'm not an anti-copyright libertarian; I think monopoly profits are a useful incentive to innovation. But since NBC is not selling access to the material somewhere else, there is no loss occurring. All that's happening is material is being kept locked up. Instead of copyright leading to a flourishing of the arts, it's producing the opposite: once-accessable art is effectively destroyed.

I understand taking it down from YouTube and Dailymotion because NBC needs to assert its control over the material. I understand removing free access if there is paid access somewhere else. I understand removing free access if the costs of providing that access are positive (NBC's not a comedy charity). But there is no paid access available elsewhere and the costs of creating a webpage and leaving it alone should be less than the value of the advertising space available on the webpage. Even without ads, NBC would be creating new fans who would pay for the material elsewhere (this is the explanation for why musicians still make money more than a decade after Napster). Instead, NBC is using real resources to make sure the world is less enjoyable. Which makes me rethink my support for intellectual property rights in the first place.


Stephen Harkleroad said...

Don't forget the not-implausible scenario that by restricting access to content, they create a pent-up demand that might not otherwise exist. It's possible that the level of income they'd get from providing it streaming and ad-supported is less than shilling a "NOW AVAILABLE FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE AIRING" $20 DVD of assorted sketches.

I generally agree with you--I think most decisions like this are more because of stupid lawyers and puckered-ass media executives and less about valid business decisions--but it's not unheard of.

The Man Your Husband Is Worried About said...

True. But I assume they'd make more money from having it continually available on an advertising-heavy website than they would from periodic DVD sales. Especially because DVDs have such a high price discontinuity. I like Rob Lowe's "Helmet Head" sketch, but that one sketch isn't going to get me to pay $20 for a DVD, so they get zero dollars from me.