April 07, 2004
napster's historical precedent (opinion)
The film industry of Hollywood was built by fleeing pirates. Creators and directors migrated from the East Coast to California in the early twentieth century in part to escape controls that patents granted the inventor of filmmaking, Thomas Edison. These controls were exercised through a monopoly "trust," the Motion Pictures Patents Company, and were based on Thomas Edison's creative property--patents. Edison formed the MPPC to exercise the rights this creative property gave him, and the MPPC was serious about the control it demanded.
(this is an excerpt from Lawrence Lessig's free book, Free Culture)
As one commentator tells one part of the story,
A January 1909 deadline was set for all companies to comply with the license. By February, unlicensed outlaws, who referred to themselves as independents protested the trust and carried on business without submitting to the Edison monopoly. In the summer of 1909 the independent movement was in full-swing, with producers and theater owners using illegal equipment and imported film stock to create their own underground market.
With the country experiencing a tremendous expansion in the number of nickelodeons, the Patents Company reacted to the independent movement by forming a strong-arm subsidiary known as the General Film Company to block the entry of non-licensed independents. With coercive tactics that have become legendary, General Film confiscated unlicensed equipment, discontinued product supply to theaters which showed unlicensed films, and effectively monopolized distribution with the acquisition of all U.S. film exchanges, except for the one owned by the independent William Fox who defied the Trust even after his license was revoked.
The Napsters of those days, the "independents," were companies like Fox. And no less than today, these independents were vigorously resisted. "Shooting was disrupted by machinery stolen, and `accidents' resulting in loss of negatives, equipment, buildings and sometimes life and limb frequently occurred." That led the independents to flee the East Coast. California was remote enough from Edison's reach that filmmakers there could pirate his inventions without fear of the law. And the
leaders of Hollywood filmmaking, Fox most prominently, did just that.
Of course, California grew quickly, and the effective enforcement of federal law eventually spread west. But because patents grant the patent holder a truly "limited" monopoly (just seventeen years at that time), by the time enough federal marshals appeared, the patents had expired. A new industry had been born, in part from the piracy of Edison's creative property.