Jack Valenti is wrong about everything

(I’d like to thank Timothy Wu, Eric Brander, and everyone at Wikiquote for helping me pick out quotes for this article)

I have previously said some mean things about Jack Valenti, late head of the MPAA. I am not here to unsay these things, because Jack deserves to have some harsh words thrown at him. After all, he’s the guy who famously compared the VCR to a serial rapist and killer:

We are facing a very new and a very troubling assault on our fiscal security, on our very economic life and we are facing it from a thing called the video cassette recorder and its necessary companion called the blank tape. And it is like a great tidal wave just off the shore. This video cassette recorder and the blank tape threaten profoundly the life-sustaining protection, I guess you would call it, on which copyright owners depend, on which film people depend, on which television people depend and it is called copyright…

I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.
– from these hearings discussing home recording of copyrighted works, given before the House of Representatives, 1982

“Mr. Chairman, if we don’t prevent people from recording shows from off the air, they will rape our profit margins and murder our business model!”

But where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and someone capable of saying something that wrong in front of Congress has almost certainly said all kinds of other wrong things. So let’s have a look at the other wrong things that Jack Valenti has said.

There is no fair use to take something that doesn’t belong to you. That’s not fair use…Now, fair use is not in the law.
– from this interview with Peter Rojas
What is fair use? Fair use is not a law. There’s nothing in law.
– from this interview with Derek Slater

Let me just remind everyone that fair use is defined in law and it’s considered very important by many people. Jack himself displays some knowledge of the reality of fair use later on in both interviews, but it’s clear that he doesn’t like it. Now, it so happens that I don’t like “fair use” much, either. My problem with fair use is that it’s too weak. In the words of Larry Lessig, “fair use in America simply means the right to hire a lawyer to defend your right to create”. That’s not enough for me. But for Jack, it’s just too much that fair use exists at all, and if he had his way, he’d do away with it.

Copyright term extension has a simple but compelling enticement: it is very much in America’s economic interests.
– from this testimony before the 104th Congress

Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine disagree, and they’ve made a thorough case here. They’re not the only ones; Rufus Pollock has made a case that optimal copyright terms ought to reduce over time, and that the current optimum is probably 15 years (I still think the optimal term is zero, but I’m an edge case). But in the face of a long tradition counting such members as Thomas Macaulay and Thomas Jefferson and now bolstered by respectable academics and economists, Valenti dismisses them all and declares that his view – the opposing view – is “simple but compelling”. You’d like to think so, wouldn’t you, Jack?

Whatever work is not owned is a work that no one protects and preserve. The quality of the print is soon degraded. There is no one who will invest the funds for enhancement because there is no longer an incentive to rehabilitate and preserve something that anyone can offer for sale. A public domain work is an orphan. No one is responsible for its life. But everyone exploits its use, until that time certain when it becomes soiled and haggard, barren of its previous virtues. How does the consumer benefit from the steady decline of a film’s quality?
– from the same testimony before the 104th Congress

Evidently, Jack never heard of Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive, or any number of people who happily take upon themselves the task of preserving and sharing knowledge and culture, especially when that culture is in the so-called “public domain”. He talks about information as though it were a physical thing that could wear out, ignoring the fact that information is naturally renewable, and that culture grows in value the more it is shared. A public domain work is “owned” by everyone, meaning that everyone has the opportunity to protect, preserve, rehabilitate, and enhance it. If you want a really good study of how the “public domain” helps make works available when copyright fails, look no further than the analysis of Paul Heald, who wrote a couple of papers showing how old books and music just tend to disappear until their copyright expires, at which point they come surging back to life (Christopher Sprigman provides a good summary). In short, Jack is wrong, and we have the data to prove it.

But you’ve already got a DVD. It lasts forever. It never wears out. In the digital world, we don’t need back-ups, because a digital copy never wears out. It is timeless.
– from the interview with Derek Slater

Here, Jack is failing to understand the utility of digital information. No copy lasts forever, and digital copies are no exception (bit rot: if you’ve been waiting to copy that floppy, it might already be too late). What makes digital special is how easy it is to make copies. A digital file is like an amoeba; by itself it might die easily, but it can reproduce at a fantastic rate, and even if they all start dying, you can make new ones as long as you have one left. Libraries have clued in to this and have organized the LOCKSS Program: Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. Back-ups are what give digital copies their timeless quality. Would you condemn the digital world to die just to prevent copies, Mr. Valenti?

I have said, technology is what causes the problem, and technology will be the salvation of the problem. I really do believe we can stuff enough algorithms in a movie that only the dedicated hackers can spend the time and effort to try to plumb through those 1,000 algorithms to try to find a way to beat it. In time, we’ll be able to do this, because I have great faith in the technological genius that’s out there…
It may be possible to so infect a movie with some kind of circuitry that allows people to copy to their heart’s content, but the copied result would come out with decayed fidelity with respect to sound and color. Another would be to have some kind of design in a movie that would say, ‘copy never,’ ‘copy once.’
– from the interview with Peter Rojas

Ah, DRM. Good folks like Mike Masnick have worked very hard to explain why DRM is bad from a business point of view. But since Valenti is talking about technology, let’s take a more technical point of view. There’s one big technical problem with DRM: it’s impossible. If you’ve ever wondered how hackers keep beating DRM systems so quickly, here’s Cory Doctorow to explain:

In DRM, the attacker is *also the recipient*. It’s not Alice and Bob and Carol, it’s just Alice and Bob. Alice sells Bob a DVD. She sells Bob a DVD player. The DVD has a movie on it — say, Pirates of the Caribbean — and it’s enciphered with an algorithm called CSS — Content Scrambling System. The DVD player has a CSS un-scrambler.

Now, let’s take stock of what’s a secret here: the cipher is well-known. The ciphertext is most assuredly in enemy hands, arrr. So what? As long as the key is secret from the attacker, we’re golden.

But there’s the rub. Alice wants Bob to buy Pirates of the Caribbean from her. Bob will only buy Pirates of the Caribbean if he can descramble the CSS-encrypted VOB — video object — on his DVD player. Otherwise, the disc is only useful to Bob as a drinks-coaster. So Alice has to provide Bob — the attacker — with the key, the cipher and the ciphertext.

Hilarity ensues.
– from this talk

The talk gives some more background on crypto theory, so do read the original if you’ve still got questions. But the important info is all there: in order to be able to watch the movie, the customer has to able to unravel those “1,000 algorithms” on the DVD, and if they can unravel those algorithms to watch the DVD, they can unravel them to copy and share it as much as they please. And then there’s things like the analog hole, and network effects (if just one person cracks the DRM, they can share their liberated info with the whole world). In short, Valenti’s hope of technical “salvation” is a pipe dream.

Now, back to Valenti:

If Congress lets cable systems retransmit local broadcast stations it will not only be magnifying and sanctifying a terrible injustice, but it will have created a huge parasite in the marketplace, feeding and fattening itself off of local television stations and copyright owners of copyrighted materials. We do not like it because we think it would be wrong and unfair.
– from testimony given before Congress in 1972, quoted by Edward Felten

Let me get this straight: if you broadcast something on the open airwaves for everyone to see, and someone receives it and copies it and retransmits it, that’s a “terrible injustice”?

No. No way. A terrible injustice is when you can’t feed your family because you used up your life savings paying off the local protection racket. If you’re going to take your signals and broadcast them for all the world, you don’t get to complain when someone else records them and uses them. This is the same crap that he tried to pull on the VCR, but the difference is that when he tried this argument on cable, people bought it, and cable was forced to pay retransmission fees (Timothy Wu provides historical background and analysis in this paper).

Regarding the VCR, I like this statement from Murray Rothbard:

If I buy a VCR and a blank tape, I should be able to tape a movie or other program off my own TV set. If the TV or movie people don’t like it, they should jolly well have to lump it.
– from this call for papers

I apply that same logic to cables, and say that if a cable company owns a set of cables and a good TV antenna, they can record and retransmit whatever they like, and the TV and movie people can just sit on their hands and deal with it. But Valenti was never content to do that. He knew how to get our government to give him his way, and he served the MPAA well, much to the detriment of the rest of us.

Now, if I may undercut myself a little, I don’t actually disagree with everything that Jack Valenti said. He also said a lot of things against censorship. He advocated the rating system we’re all familiar with as a way to communicate to people what was in a film, so they could make their own decisions. I like that, and I’m glad he did that. He routinely said that he wanted parents to be in charge of what their kids saw, and I thank him for saying so, and for working to make it so.

But to end this on a high (low) note, let me quote Jack saying one more wrong thing:

I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently, because Lyndon Johnson is my president. For I know he lives and thinks and works to make sure that for all America and indeed, the growing body of the free world, the morning shall always come.
– from an address to the Advertising Federation of America, 28 June 1965

Oh, don’t make me laugh.

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