The Media Library in a Post-Disc World

Jason Mittell's picture

Repost from Just TV


I’ve read a number of articles like this one, speculating on the potential future of the Blu-ray disc as media platform in the wake of online delivery of HD content. As a consumer and viewer, I’m heartened by this, as I’ve not jumped on the Blu-ray train yet. Moreover, I see a lot of potential in subscription-based downloads for allowing and nurturing alternative content - much like HBO, a subscription based model allows innovative creators a chance to let a series develop without ratings-driven scheduling and promotion becoming the central question for sustainability. What might you pay monthly for a subscription to the Joss Whedon Channel - not with a constant schedule of content like a TV channel, but on-demand access to any new productions or archived work?


But as an educator, I’m fearful. At Middlebury, we have a collection of thousands of DVDs to be viewed on-site or checked out for teaching and research. While physical media are fragile, I know what we have and can generally depend on being able to access it for years. The same is true for CDs, books, magazines, and any hard copy publications or releases. This has been shifting in the print world, as journal subscriptions make less and less sense in the era of JSTOR and other full-text databases. While it’s true that we might not be guaranteed future access to such titles electronically, academic publishers recognize the needs of libraries as the primary market and thus I feel more or less confident that there will be a reliable way to gain access to necessary titles for decades to come.


Moving image media are completely different, however. The library market is not only an afterthought for film and TV distributors, it’s an impediment to marketization. The first sale doctrine allows libraries to lend physical items that have been purchased, which also enables the video rental aftermarket. Hollywood has never seen this as a benefit, as the library and rental market provides potential consumers with videos without direct renumeration (although I’d argue that the majority of these renters/borrowers would never purchase the item, and that many might discover a title via loan that then spurs future purchases). So for the media industries, a way to avoid first sale and require licensing, purchase, or subscription for each viewer is a huge upgrade - and thus there is a direct incentive to find profitable models not dependent on physical media like DVDs and Blu-rays.


In many ways, the current DVD era is an exception to the traditional role of media libraries. When I started grad school in 1994, our official library was the archive, with a good but semi-random collection of film prints that may or may not be able to be screened in class. The video collection of television programs was a gray market hodgepodge of over-the-air recordings and film transfers with a few commercially-released VHS and Laserdic titles, plus the faculty’s personal collections. Today, nearly everything I might want to screen is available on DVD at my library, and I own almost nothing myself (although certainly the scope of the field is shaped by the gaps and absences that don’t get official release). My entire pedagogical approach is enabled and based on the relatively new notion that a library can provide access to the history of American television and media, even at a small college in rural Vermont. What would change if this access were tied to online streams not physical objects? A whole lot.


And how might a library deal with this? First sale doesn’t apply to downloaded files, as it requires "copying" to transfer it to another computer, even if its via a secure stream or encoded with protections to avoid further copying. So if I ask my library to purchase a video download, what do they do with it? How can they make it accessible to students and faculty as we do with DVDs? And how might an institution deal with video on-demand or other subscription systems that are designed solely with the individual consumer in mind? How can we know that titles that we purchase or subscribe to today will be accessible when we need them in class? Questions abound.


Plus DRM can interfere with legitimate fair use and educational practices - for instance, I wanted to show Dr. Horrible to my class this past fall before the DVD was released. I’d purchased the show on iTunes, and thus "own" it. But Apple’s DRM prevents me from making a DVD copy of it, meaning that I can only screen the program through my computer and thus cannot make it accessible to students who miss class. As an alternative, I decided to just point students to Hulu to watch the series on their own. This solution is obviously convenient and flexible for students - but it also means I’m mandating that students watch advertising and turn themselves into commodities. Additionally, it avoids the group-viewing big-screen experience which I find important pedagogically.


All of this is just to say that it’s important that educators and libraries get involved with the policy making and decisions that are shaping the future delivery, access, and archiving of digital media. A number of us are involved in pushing for exemptions to copyright laws to allow us to do our jobs - but the future business model for Blu-ray and online video won’t be decided with rulemaking procedures unless the educational community somehow pushes legislators to ensure archival and educational access. Perhaps this is already happening, and I welcome any links or pointers to show me how to get involved. But from where I sit, I’m concerned that the next technological wave might drown my discipline.