Jonathan Taplin produced Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s first film, and has also worked with Bob Dylan and George Harrison. Prof. Taplin’s movies have won Oscar and Golden Globes nominations and been selected five times for The Cannes Film Festival.
He is also author of Outlaw Blues, which iTune describes as “one of the first Enhanced E-Books with more than 100 video clips embedded throughout the story of the American counter-culture” (Kindle edition here).
These days, however, as a media studies professor at the University of Southern California, he has been working on a different kind of book—Sleeping Through a Revolution: The Secret History of Internet Power, set to appear from Little Brown in spring 2017. Here’s a video related to the book.
Prof. Taplin’s opinions in the video should endear him to many in New York and Hollywood. As summed up in promotion for his 9:15 a.m. speech on March 8 for Digital Book World + Expo, he has formulated “a unified theory of content and digital change… the core premise of which is that Silicon Valley tech and libertarian values are devaluing content at the altar of digital change. He sees content creators as passively accepting that they must be the victims of the new digital realities and he rallies them to see what is happening. Taplin’s message has been honed in Hollywood, but it applies to New York’s world of books.”
In a recent TeleRead post, Associate Editor Paul St John Mackintosh said Prof. Taplin had unfairly demonized Amazon and the like in his section of a white paper for the Digital Book World Conference (snippet here). Is Prof. Taplin just an old media guy out to get the biggest bucks for New York publishers and the Hollywood studios? I personally think it isn’t that simple. Significantly, Prof. Taplin’s optimal copyright term would be 40 years at most. This is a far cry from, say, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.
It is not too late to hear Prof. Taplin in person and reach your own conclusions. You can register here for Digital Book World, held March 7-9 at the Hilton New York Midtown and save five percent with the code TELEREAD5 if you do so by March 6.
Below is a TeleRead Q&A via email with Prof. Taplin, including a timely warning: “If you want a view of what would happen to the creative arts in a Trump Presidency, just read the history of life for an artist in Berlin in 1934.” I’ve edited the Q&A for space and clarity.
Q. Exactly where in the Cleveland area are you from? How did growing up there shape your life and views?
A. I grew up in Shaker Heights in the 1950’s. Cleveland was something of a cultural desert, except for the symphony and art museum. When I started listening to folk music in the early 1960’s, none of the acts came to Cleveland. Even my early civil rights involvement was pretty proscribed there.
Q. To what extent has the right wing co-opted the values of the 1960s. How did it happen? You were right in the thick of the cultural revolution back then. As I see it, plutocrats and friends successfully blurred the line between corporate rights and individual rights. If you can work in some Ayn Rand mentions, so much the better.
A. The whole idea of the Internet was to decentralize power and harmonize these decentralized communities. But the libertarians don’t believe in any of that. Ayn Rand thinks that altruism is the greatest human failing. Peter Thiel thinks that monopoly is the only way anyone can make money on the Internet. The control of the Internet by a few giant corporations, whose business model is surveillance marketing, is so far removed from 1960’s notions of individual freedom as to be a joke.
Q. What’s your response to Paul Mackintosh’s post on your views of Amazon, in which he sees more positives for writers than you do? Why do you say there has been a $50 billion annual income redistribution from content providers to tech companies?
A. Paul Mackintosh is an academic poet, and, of course, he doesn’t care about the livings of musicians who actually expect to make money on the royalties from their work. I work at the University of Southern California and have never encountered a group of professionals with less regard for artists’ rights. He can put me down as a representative of old media, but obviously he doesn’t know me and know that I created the world’s first Steaming Video on Demand site in 1996 (Intertainer).
My $50-billion-a-year figure comes from the following calculation. First that there are more people listening to music, reading the news, watching movies and TV than there were in 2000. But since 2000 the annual revenues of the music business have declined by $17 billion a year. Newspaper revenues by $32 billion a year, Home entertainment (movies and TV) revenues by $9 billion a year. Assuming that expenditures have not declined, that money didn’t just disappear, it went to the monopoly platforms. Google’s market cap is now $540 billion, and Time Warner’s is under $50 billion. That order was reversed 15 years ago.
Q. Your thoughts on the pitiful amount that Americans spend on books and other text media such as newspapers? Would you believe, it’s just $100 a year or so per household, excluding textbooks, going by stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As I myself see it, the best way to raise that would be more money for libraries and other ways to expand the universe of readers. The commonweal is why I came up with the idea of a national digital library endowment, but if writers and publishers can benefit along the way, so much the better.
A. I think some sort of new Public Media System, perhaps modeled after the BBC, but for the 21st Century would be the way to go. This is part of what I am writing about ion my new book, Sleeping Through a Revolution. The public media system would include books, radio, movies TV.
Q. How do you feel about the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act? Has it hurt or helped creativity? Just how long should copyright terms be in regard to both individual writers and corporations?
A. Copyrights are too long. Forty years is plenty, then it become public domain.
Q. Your thought on DRM, especially in regard to books? When to use it? When not to? Has it actually hurt books and even publishers and writers by giving retailers too much power, thanks to its generally proprietary nature (which many think has gummed up the real-world implementation of the ePub standard)?
A. There are no technological solutions to piracy. The solution is for Google and YouTube to become part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Q. Just what are pros and cons of social media for creative people, both at the individual level and beyond? Your social media advice for young writers, musicians, artist and film-makers?
A. Useful, but never a substitute for great work. When the music companies started signing Vine and You Tube stars because they all had millions of followers, it never translated to good sales of music.
Q. Your experiences founding Intertainer, the first streaming video company in ’96? Just what did you carry? What happened to the company, and why? Just ahead of its time in terms of connectivity and hardware at the consumers’ end? Did you have any idea that Netflix would become as big as it did?
A. We were the victims of restraint of trade and won an antitrust suit around that. I’m not allowed to talk about the settlement, but we are all happy.
Q. Of course: your days with Scorsese and Dylan. How would they fare in today’s climate for creators if they were starting out? Would the current distribution of income have hurt them?
A. Dylan’s first album sold 4,000 copies in two years. In today’s market, he would have been dropped by his label.
Q. Your thoughts on Donald Trump?
A. Trump has threatened to “open up” the libel laws to make it possible for he as President to sue any journalist who writes articles against him. So he begins his campaign with the notion that the First Amendment has no meaning. But even before he gets to the White House, it’s obvious that the “chilling effect” of Trumpism already is working. Just ask Cheri Jacobus, a Republican political strategist who dared to criticize Trump’s refusal to join the debate in Iowa moderated by Megyn Kelly. Trump lashed out at her on Twitter and then his mob of Cyber-Brownshirts followed. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s Twitter followers, who number about six million, piled on. For days, they replied to his posts with demeaning, often sexually charged insults aimed at Ms. Jacobus, including several with altered, vulgar photographs of her face.” [Link added.]
If you want a view of what would happen to the creative arts in a Trump Presidency, just read the history of life for an artist in Berlin in 1934.
Detail: The title of Sleeping through a Revolution, as described in the DBW white paper, “comes from a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered at the National Cathedral two weeks before his assassination in 1968. King asserted that we were embarking on a technological revolution, but that many were asleep to the changes it would bring; and without some sort of moral framework, we would have ‘guided missiles and misguided men.’”
Related: Donald Trump Overwhelms G.O.P. Rivals From Alabama to Massachusetts, in the New York Times.