Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Brief Foray Into Telecommunications

So tomorrow I begin a course at Boalt Hall on Telecommunications Law taught by Howard Shelanski. I'm quite interested in the subject matter and apart from my above-average rate of consumption of various media, I consider myself a novice to the legal terrain. I'm hoping it will be a type of professional calling. I am taking Patent Law, Copyright Law, Trademark Law and Constitutional Law as well, so many issues from one class often blend into issues from other classes.
The following are two observations I've been mulling over the past few years about the way in which certain markets have been developing. I suppose both of them are only tangentially related to my coursework, but they are issues that I've been wondering about.
Observation 1:
Recently I have been pondering the way in which markets for movies, television, music (and other consumable goods) are starting to converge in very interesting and distressing ways. It is not the idea of convergence that bothers me, but convergence based on proprietary models. This means that if we want devices that merge more than one media function (a computer, a digital jukebox, a television, a radio, and DVR), we're probably going to have to purchase the devices and the content from just a handful of huge companies who are intent on making it difficult for me to mix and match anything.
It boils down to how companies are going to use differences in formats and employ various digital locks to make people pay for every use possible. I suppose this has implications mostly on copyright and anti-circumvention law, but I think it falls into the category of telecommunications as well.
Take for instance the new Motorola RAZR V3C from Verizon, which I recently upgraded to. In terms of aesthetics, it is spectacular (though I think it is a little too thin. In fact, it is so thin that the battery itself is very thin, resulting in poor battery life. The thinness actually forces the rest of the phone to become very wide, making the wide and wafer-thin phone difficult to hold up to your ear. Anyway, enough about the phone itself . . .). The RAZR has a mini-USB port on the side of it. Of course, the phone has no mini-headset jack, so of course I have to purchase a whole new set of accessories for the phone (like a handsfree microphone). So I broke down and bought a handsfree set.
Intent on not making anymore purchases, I figured I had a mini-USB cable at home, so why not just plug that into the phone and transfer files, songs, and pictures and also charge my phone via my computer? Well, the powers-that-be have conspired to cripple my phone. I can't use bluetooth nor the USB cable to transfer music or pictures. Instead, I have to log onto Verizon's website and upload a picture and send it to my phone (which, not surprisingly costs 25 cents per message).
What if I want a song on my phone or a custom ringtone? I can't just drag one of the songs from my own library; I have to pay for that too. And if I take a picture myself with the cameraphone and want to put it on my computer, I have to send it via Verizon's shitty network and pay more money to them. And guess what, Verizon just unveiled it's new V-Cast music network so that if I want to listen to music on my cell phone, I have to pay for that too now.
What if I want to transfer my phonebook from my old phone or from my Outlook address book? I have to buy a software suite from Motorola for 30 dollars. And guess what, the software suite is bundled with the same crappy USB cable and a set of drivers I need. This is pay per use at its apex. It's greed personified.
Well you know what's happened? I stopped caring or using any of the features. I don't care if my phone can take pictures, send or receive pictures. I don't care if I can watch shitty movie clips on the V-Cast network nor do I care if I can listen to music. I'll just use the phone as a phone. And you know what else? I worked three times harder at finding the drivers on the web and got my own USB cable to work to charge the phone and use it as a dialup modem.
Just to spite Verizon, I have my laptop hooked up as a modem hours at a time on nights and weekends. All it costs me is minutes, which are free during those times. If Verizon wants to treat me like a cash cow, I'll go ahead and clog up their network as much as I can. Here's to abusing Verizon. Cheers!
Observation 2:
A slightly related observation. If the market is moving in the direction of a pay-per-use or a subscription model, then what happens to advertisers?
It used to be that the whole purpose of broadcast television or radio was to attract listeners and then sell them things via advertising. It was nothing more than a delivery method for goods and services. But as people make more and more attachments to the programming itself, they are demanding less or no commercials and are willing to pay for it (like a movie station on cable TV or satellite radio or Internet radio).
So what sort of mystifies me is this: what happens to the advertisers in this shuffle?
Let's use an example. Let's say a station broadcasts a TV show and has no commercials because the station is available only to subscribers. The subscribers pay money and that helps fund the station. The station also makes money by releasing DVD sets and various other CDs. Well if the viewer and broadcaster are happy with this setup, it is a kind of self-sufficient relationship. So what happens to the whole body of corporations who want to sell us products and services? How do they enter the equation of the subscription model?


Willie said...

For your second point, broadcast companies can always use more money, and so while they might eliminate commercials, you bet there's going to be a shit load of product placement which is just as bad, if not worse than commercials.

A.H. Rajani said...

Actually, now that you mention it -- most massively multiplayer videogames have many types of advertising built in. like in the games they will have digital billboards where people can purchase ad space. what's even more interesting is that gamers like the advertisements b/c they feel it makes the game more realistic.

fyall said...

I wonder if you've read Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat. Friedman, obviously, is a free trade guy. He's impressed, on a macro level, by the increasing interoperability of business systems and operations. Free trade organizations like the WTO have established a framework that now allows for interoperability across borders.

Perhaps America's legal system is, on a micro level, erecting barriers. Maybe? Is that where you're going with bullet one? Each device is protected from competition such as third-party software? Am I reading that right?

It'll be interesting to see how your opinions develop over the semester. Keep us posted.

A.H. Rajani said...


I don't think blame goes on the legal system per se. I think just like any system of rules, business interests can take advantage of them and manipulate rules.

I consider the legal profession to be a service industry. Sure lawyers make their marks w/ impressive feats of philophical gymnastics and further the art of jurisprudence, but most of us end up working for some business entity or personal entity who wants something from the system and hire a lawyer to advocate on their behalf.

i have not read friedman's book, though i've listened to a few of his lectures and extended interviews about the book. i think his idea is provocative--and somewhat accurate on a technology-centric scale. but somehow he's posited India and China having some power w/ the world being flat, somehow ignoring huge swaths of Asia and all of Africa ...

I think the world is still full of huge mountains. and you know what, I'll take some responsiblity for that--as a lawyer to be, as a college graduate, and most notably because I'm an American.

fyall said...

Well, yes, it's business interest driving domestic American law. It's arguably also (American) business interest driving international law. Right?

I believe many economics professors argue that "all economics are micro" and most politicans argue that "all politics are local", so it's interesting that the legal frameworks controlling larger trade issues (cross-border) would be so different from those controlling small trade issues (cross-device).

It's hard for me to tell which legal framework is more mature. Thoughts?

A.H. Rajani said...

I'm no expert in international trade. But my impression is that international law regarding big business, contract law, and intellectual property law, is watered down considerably from their local counterparts, which are often more complex and nuanced.

At the same time, I would say that "law" pertaining to digital devices like mp3 players and such, is still in its infancy. Lawyers are great at taking new technologies and morphing (analogizing) pre-existing law so that it can apply to new situations. So with respect to the cell phones that brought this discussion on, many in the field are combining trademark, copyright, contract, software and anti-circumvention law in very interesting ways.

I think this is a good time to stop b/c I have no idea what we're talking about anymore.