Information wants to be free – but Viacom is holding it hostage

Last night during dinner I went to watch Tuesday’s Daily Show online, as I frequently do, only to be confronted with a bizarre pop-up ad about DirecTV (which seemed to have nothing to do with me, since I don’t have DirecTV, or, indeed, a TV at all) and a message saying that full episodes were not currently available online. I did a couple of Google searches trying to find out what was going on, but my roommate said, “It’s just a contract dispute – they’ll work it out in a couple of days. Let’s watch something on Netflix instead.”

Turns out this contract dispute – over how much DirecTV pays for Viacom content – has been dragging on for a while. Viacom evidently thought it might come to this, registering its Facebook propaganda page “WhenDirectvDrops” on June 15, weeks before the July 10 deadline. According to the Washington Post, Viacom wants DirecTV to pay 30% more for Viacom channels; DirecTV has refused; both sides are spinning the story – Viacom blaming DirecTV for “dropping” content, Direct TV claiming they are “protecting consumers” – hoping viewers will forget they are caught in a dispute between profitable corporate giants. While Viacom posted DirecTV’s customer service number on its Facebook page and in its ads, encouraging viewers to call and complain, DirecTV was telling its customers where they could watch the full episodes of popular shows like The Daily Show for free online – and Viacom responded by blocking the full episodes.

Why should you care? Because this is what can happen when information, software, and services are controlled by companies primarily interested in profit. Many libraries (including my own) saw something similar this week when Meebo, acquired last month by Google, reached its own drop-dead date yesterday. And don’t forget those big price increases for databases and e-journals – when one of our products changed publishers and increased in price by 100% we had no choice but to can it. It goes away if you don’t pay.

Hopefully my roommate is right – that these two megagiant corporations will “work it out in a couple of days” – because, with no real rights to content which is protected by laws that favor intellectual property owners over viewers, users, and readers, that is our only option. I’m not trying to argue that we have a right to watch Jersey Shore online for free, or ought to. (Tweeter Courtney Mattison told the Associated Press the dispute was “costing her a couple hours of reality TV per night” – and you could argue she is better off.) But Viacom could decide to keep free full episodes offline and force consumers without subscription cable to turn to paid online viewing services, other media providers could follow suit, and then we are that much closer to an information environment where the only way any content is available is through a pay-per-view license negotiated between the company and the end user because we have created the legal and technological structures that make this feasible, profitable, and, even, acceptable.

I recently discovered the beauty of the Kindle for iPad app – I can download a book right to my iPad and start reading it right then! no waiting! But, of course, the Kindle license agreement (which Amazon can change, but I can’t) allows Amazon the ability to pull back the content at any time – content that I am paying for but not purchasing. Now, I’m not likely to want to refer back to my copy of New Moon (Book 2 of the Twilight Saga) and might never miss it, but if the book was a textbook, and the giant textbook publisher got in a dispute with Amazon, and Amazon decided to hold all the books hostage until it got enough readers to call and complain…

This is old ground, of course. Is paying a little bit for access to electronic information for an unspecified amount of time good enough? Most of the time, it probably is, it might even be fair, and most people, including me, might be perfectly willing to do it. But the problem is that this model gives me no real rights to the information. It’s as if I had no stake in it, which, while that may be true for online streaming of Jersey Shore, is less true for my copy of the Best American Mystery Stories of 2011 and is definitely NOT true for the last album I “bought” on iTunes.

You might say, well, then, buy print if you want those rights. Buy CDs. Or check the DVD out of the library. But the reality is that physical media is not only often less attractive to users (I like reading books on my iPad, I’ve discovered), it’s also becoming less available (how many of you live in college towns without a bookstore?), and it’s only a matter of time before it’s not available at all. Libraries are ditching print for online, too. Universities are adopting electronic textbooks. And without any revisions to copyright law that protect the interests of information consumers, libraries and end users are both at the mercy of the publishers’ willingness to negotiate and/or keep the promises they make to never do what they reserve the right to do.

We operate on good faith with our vendors (“it’s a trust relationship,” a rep from Innovative once told me). But at ALA last month I heard Cody Hanson talking about the process of choosing a commercial discovery service for the University of Minnesota Libraries. He wasn’t able to disclose yet what that discovery service was, but he told the audience that these products are “as different as they are similar,” and what makes them so different are not just their features, but the business models and “nature” of their vendors. I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, but as I look at my library’s portfolio of e-products, where, by the end of this month, two-thirds of our subscription databases will come from just one vendor, I sure hope I can trust in that vendor’s good nature. Because there’s precious few other providers we can direct our patrons to, and I don’t really think that making a Facebook page and giving them an 800 number is going to be enough.

About afry

Amy is the Electronic Resources Coordinator at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the instruction liaison for the Art Department. She received her library degree from the University of Illinois in 2003 and has been a librarian at academic libraries in Missouri, Minnesota and California.

2 thoughts on “Information wants to be free – but Viacom is holding it hostage

  1. Great post, Amy! I have similar fears, too — as convenient as electronic content can be, it’s scary to think that we are increasingly paying for content we may not always have access to. I sometimes feel bad about complaining that I can’t check out ebooks published by certain publishers from my public library, or that I have to login to my account for print book and ebook holds separately, because it seems a bit entitled to whine about such a comparatively small inconvenience. But while of course I want authors and publishers to get paid, these systems just seem broken. There has to be a better way.

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