January 18, 2008

Free software goes Hollywood

Author: Bruce Byfield

As the Writers Guild of America's strike enters its fourth month, one of its key issues -- the sharing of profits from online distribution -- is encouraging the rise of new production companies that are exploring alternative methods of production and distribution. Along with Hollywood Disrupted and Founders Media Group, these new companies include Virtual Artists, whose goal is to bring free software developers and Hollywood writers together to experiment.

Virtual Artists started in early December, when Free Software Foundation director Henry Poole was attending a wedding in Los Angeles. At a party at the house of Poole's business partner Brad Burkhart, he started talking to Aaron Mendelsohn, whom Poole describes as "the second youngest member of the Writers Guild board and a member of the negotiating committee for this strike." Poole's comments about alternative online distributions led Mendelsohn to invite him to address a group of writers on the subject.

"A couple of weeks later," Poole says, Brian Behlendorf, best known as the founder of the Apache Project and Collabnet, "hosted a similar get-together in his home in San Francisco. We brought a few folks from the free software community and also some folk who understand online community building. At that point, we started to have discussions about disruptive technologies."

From these discussion, Virtual Artists was born. According to Poole, the new company has four interests: "distribution systems for distributing media through computers, televisions, and mobiles; software for collaboration; community-building software that gives power to the audiences for them to participate in a direct relationship with the creatives; and helping the creative process for traditionally produced materials.

"We're looking at building an alignment between writers and free software developers and new media workers," Poole says. "It's the alignment between the writers of code and the writers of content that we're focusing on."

Besides himself and Behlendorf, Poole declines to name any of the other members of the free software community involved with Virtual Artists, except to say that a member of the Miro project attended the meeting at Behlendorf's house.

However, the lineup of movie and TV writers interested in Virtual Artists represents what Mendelsohn is referring to as an "A-list" of Hollywood writers. Besides Mendelsohn, they include such movie writers as Academy Award winner Ron Bass (Rain Man and Joy Luck Club) ; Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovitch and Pocahontas); and Terry George (Hotel Rwanda). TV writers involved include Neal Baer (Law and Order); Ton Fontana (Homicide and Oz) and Tony Award winner Warren Leight (Law and Order and Criminal Intent).

"Everybody has the opinion that this kind of thing would be a tough sell to the writers," Poole says. "Actually, it's been quite easy. The writers are completely excited by this. They're used to work-for-hire. They don't have any ownership at all. And with, for example, a Creative Commons license, they can own their own work."

Certainly, Virtual Artists has had no trouble raising the $200,000 in seed capital it sought from writers. In addition, Poole says, "We're having discussions with other folks to the tune of $30 million," including traditional content distributors -- although he concedes that "they're not going to drop their current business" quite yet.

Reactions from other player in the TV and film industry are not yet forthcoming, but Poole observes that "right now, everybody's close-lipped because of the writer's strike." However, he says, "The truth is, we're interested in partnering at such point with traditional industry."

Alternative models

Poole makes no secret of the fact that Virtual Artists is going to be experimenting. "There's going to be a lot of learning along the way. There's a lot of things we don't know yet." For instance, while he tends to advocate Creative Commons Licenses, he is still unsure of exactly which license might be used. He admits, too, that more traditional licensing might be necessary for projects that are distributed through the existing channels.

However, as an example of the sort of experiment that Virtual Artists might consider, Poole cites Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films, who distributes his work using Creative Commons licenses. When Greenwald produced The High Cost of Low Price, his documentary on Wal-Mart, he showed it in private homes across the United States, and built a list of interested viewers. When he came to produce Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, he emailed those on his list, "and within 10 days, he had raised $250,000, which was enough to finance the production and development of the movie," Poole says.

By contrast, Poole suggests that Google is "not experimenting that much right now" on YouTube and Google Video. Google records the number of viewers that videos have -- and, at least potentially, who those viewers are -- but "they're not really sharing that core asset they have with the creators." If Google chose, it could use that information as an alternative distribution channel for major productions, but, because it is hoarding that information, it would really be "taking the place of the studios ... becoming the intermediary between the creatives and the audiences" instead of letting the two interact directly.

"What we're looking at doing that's innovative," Poole says, "is that we're looking at sharing, and setting up a system where the artists know who their audiences are and where they have the power, the ability, the tools, and the knowledge in an environment that is consistent with respect and privacy."

The free software connection

At the same time that Virtual Artists assists creatives to gain control of their works, Poole envisions the company becoming a partner of free software projects and enabling them to bootstrap their development process.

"A whole lot of folk are building the components of [potential] distribution systems," says Poole, "and they're looking for the right partnerships to take those projects out far and wide. And these projects really need a lot of capital to keep up. You've got groups like Blowtorch that have inadequate funding. And for the free software community to keep up, they need to put quite a lot of engineering time into it."

Exactly which projects Virtual Artists will work with is still uncertain. Just now, Poole says, "We're reaching out to maintainers of free software projects and finding out what their road maps are. As we develop our own projects, we're going to look for an intersection between what we need to do and what they need to do, and we'll find ways to finance their initiatives to do what needs doing."

However, Poole is certain that free software projects will be essential to Virtual Artists' success. "There are certain things you can do through code," Poole says. As [Lawrence] Lessig said in his book, [Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace], 'Code is law.' We can set the rules by developing the right work flows for what we want to do in having those relationships with the audience, and figuring out the right ways to monetize."

Common goals

Virtual Artists is still in its earliest stages. Besides the questions of whom to work with and the near certainty that some experiments will fail, other problems will undoubtedly arise.

For instance, one problem participants are already facing is a lack of common language. Poole cites the example of "development." "Development in the film business is basically the early work," he notes. "Development in software is actually production. There's a language that needs to be developed between free software and Hollywood, because, right now, terminology has different meanings."

Poole also suggests that, in the free software community, "There's just a real lack of trust" of the film industry.

All the same, he remains optimistic, believing that the differences between Hollywood creatives and free software developers are minor compared to what they have in common.

"The thing is, we're all struggling with the same epic story, all looking for the economic justice behind it all. The big corporations have a habit of control, whether they're doing it to software writers or creative writers, it's the same story. So they really have a lot in common. We're pulling together some really innovative and creative people who want to experiment, and we're going to look for ways that really resonate with everybody."

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