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It’s a sad fact that despite having written sketches, plays, online series, and actual half-hour sitcoms that were broadcast on the television and everything, the thing which has most excited my parents was getting credited on The News Quiz. There is no prouder moment for a middle-class parent than when their child is writing additional material for Sandi Toksvig. Providing them with grandchildren pales into insignificance when your name is read out in the 6:30 slot on Radio 4.
And when I say ‘my parents’, I mean ‘me’. It was great fun: a furious whirl of reading papers, trying to squash the news into something vaguely amusing, and saying “Can anyone think of anything that rhymes with Andrew Lansley?”
It was exhausting and pressurised, having to produce joke after joke about occasionally abstruse economic stories, but it was also exhilarating. It was a real thrill to sit in the BBC Radio Theatre and listen to the show be recorded, hearing the instant reactions of the audience to the jokes that made it into the script. And to get to be in a Green Room with Jeremy Hardy.
Topical comedy is difficult and draining because yesterday’s brilliant joke is, today, a reference nobody understands. The fact that it dates so quickly means that there’s a huge appetite for new material, which also tends to mean that there are opportunities for newer writers, some of which I’ll list here.
Topical comedy was my way into writing comedy, it allowed me to develop my skills, hone characters, learn a lot about how to craft a joke, and get paid (a little bit) whilst doing it. If you write a good topical joke or sketch there are lots of places you could try to sell it, and you’ve a better chance as a newcomer than in almost any other field.
Stage Shows – Both The Treason Show and News Revue have open submissions policies and pay for anything they use. They won’t pay a lot and it will take a while for the money to arrive, but if it is funny and you send it to them, they are very likely to use it. Then: congratulations, you’re a professional comedy writer!
The Treason Show also holds meetings for its writers where (if you are Brighton-based) the director will tell you what they are looking for. It is well-worth going along to one or the other show to see what sorts of things work and don’t work, if you can make it.
These two shows provide a great apprenticeship in topical comedy. The first sketch I was ever paid for I sold to News Revue, and if one of the two shows doesn’t like your sketch you can always send it to the other. If the worst comes to the worst you can do what I did and become a writer-performer, get cast in the shows, and then refuse to go on unless they use your work*. This is blackmail. It is also very effective if you do it once the audience are seated.
Youtube – If you’ve written a sketch or a topical song that isn’t suitable for the other shows, or that you want to perform yourself, Youtube is a great way of doing it. Nowadays, if there is a certain amount of interest in your video (I’ve found that about 1,000 views over a couple of days seems to be the trigger), Youtube invites you to join its affiliate programme. You can then stick an annoying advert over the top of your sketch in return for money. Again, the financial rewards are fairly minimal, but it is at least a way of making something from your writing. Here’s what a video looks like when it has been whored out:
However, if your video contains any profanity, then they will not approve you for the affiliate programme. Instead you will be hunted down by a pack of slavering obscenity-hounds and have your remains fed to the crows. As happened with this video, which I forgot I had sworn in the middle of.
Radio – Newsjack has open submissions, and you should be sending them stuff. A series is running right now. Go away. Write a good joke, work out which of their segments it could be useful for and send it in now. Better still, write lots of good jokes and send those in.
Recorded For Training Purposes also has an open submission policy (or has had in the past), so keep an eye open on Writers’ Room for when that opens to submissions. Submitting to these shows is an excellent way to get your work in front of the eyes of joke-hungry producers. Following Jason Arnopp would be a good way to learn more about RFTP.
Comedians – If you are good at writing jokes, topical or not, you may well find that there are comedians who are willing to buy them from you. Keep an eye on the forums on Chortle, or advertise yourself there.
Online – BBC Comedy Online currently produce topical sketches, although their turnaround times for submissions tend to mean that if your jokes are bleeding-edge in their topicality this might not be the way to go. However, you can always make it yourself, and then see if they want to buy it. Other sites have, unfortunately stopped commissioning, and, with the demise of Comedybox and Funny Or Die UK, you may be better off making things yourself and putting them on Youtube for a while.
TV – There aren’t really many ‘open opportunities’ here, as such, but there will be occasional sweeps for ‘new talent’, and I got my first proper TV work (not that my appearances in Smile as The Queen weren’t proper, but you know…) from doing topical jokes.
If writing gags for TV floats your boat, why not follow Aiden Spackman, who is something of a god at that sort of thing…
Twitter – Twitter is a great place to practise gag-writing. 140 characters is a little limiting, but it encourages brevity and can give you an instant barometer of how funny people found something with the ‘Your Tweets, Retweeted’ tab. Note: clicking this can also be a tremendously dispiriting experience.
So, whilst topical comedy is hugely ephemeral and can require an enormous amount of thought and concentration for something that won’t be funny in a week’s time, it is still an area in which new writers can get their work performed, and can even make a little money out of. It’s tough, brain-scrunching work, but there are real rewards in terms of credits for getting it right. And a crushing sense of defeat and humiliation for getting it wrong.
Go forth and satirise…
* There are slightly different opportunities for writer-performers, and I’ll do a separate post on those next week.
I have been dreadful at letting people know what I’ve been up to recently, so here’s something of an update:
1) Dick & Dom’s Funny Business: Many of you will have seen me being Gary the Useless Lion last week (for those who missed it, the iPlayer link is here). I’m recording another episode this week, so there will be more Gary on your screens in the very near future…
2) The News Quiz: This week, I’m writing additional material for The News Quiz. It will be on at 6:30, Friday, BBC Radio 4. It would be delightful if you could listen…
3) Short Story: The table of contents has been announced for the anthology which will contain my first short story to be published in an actual book. Those of you who are aware of my erudite wit, and waspish, allusive prose style will be unsurprised to learn that the book is called: The Zombie Feed Vol. 1 and will be published later this year…
I shall blog about all of these things when I have more strength / booze. Nanight.
In September the In The Gloaming podcasts won the Parsec Award for Best New Podcaster. We jumped around like victorious loons for a few seconds, until we remembered that we hadn’t made a new episode since March. And that we had no upcoming episodes in the pipelines.
To the outside observer In The Gloaming looked cold and dead, and only we knew there was still a flicker of humanity inside just waiting for the right time to blossom. It felt like being Nick Clegg.
There were lots of reasons that we hadn’t been able to do as many episodes as we’d hoped. People’s schedules clashed, they got work or didn’t get work at the wrong times, we weren’t getting as many downloads as we might have hoped (the episodes had been listened to about 6,500 times at that point). However, most of the reasons we weren’t able to churn them out on a monthly basis were self-inflicted, and could have been avoided with a little thought early on in the process.
So, here are my tips about what NOT to do, if you want to make an audio drama podcast of your own:
Don’t bother making audio trailers – One of the first groups of people to be interested in what we were doing was one comprised of people who were doing the same sort of thing. People like 19 Nocturne Boulevard or Wormwood. And they often wanted to swap audio trailers, little snippets that could be stuck on the end of another show to spread the word. We never bothered to make these because we were too busy making the shows themselves, and thought they probably wouldn’t be worth the time in the number of new listeners they brought to us. We were wrong. There is a very small group of people used to listening to new audio dramas as podcasts. Get them involved from the beginning. Be generous with your time and effort with other podcast producers. Trying to forge the path completely on your own is hard and lonely. These are people who would like to advertise your podcast for free. Let them.
Be half an hour long – This was, in some ways, an intentional error. Part of the point of In The Gloaming was to prove that we could make half hour shows of radio quality. We wanted people’s response to be ‘This should be on the radio’, and to prove that it was ready to be. However, people often split up their listening to a podcast, catching a few minutes on their way into work, so broken shows work well. Narrative comedies that require unbroken attention (including any magnificent aural soundscapes you may create) ask a lot of the listener, and finding half an hour to listen to an episode (forgoing half an hour of television or proper radio or actual interaction with other humans) can be difficult. It suited our purposes, but it was far from ideal for in Internet show. If you’re planning on doing audio dramas or narrative comedies, why not think about ten- or fifteen-minute episodes? They will be easier for people to find the time to listen to.
Don’t have a business plan – This isn’t quite true. We had a plan, it just wasn’t a hugely good one. It was (as I outlined above) Get Picked Up By The BBC. When that didn’t materialise the next obvious option was to look for a sponsor. However, those things we’d designed to make it more like a radio show made it less effective on The Internet, and so we didn’t have the subscriber numbers we needed to get a sponsor. We had a little income from the tip jar – enough to cover the podcast hosting – and we had a merchandising site, but nothing people wanted to buy on it. There were successful revenue streams: live shows, signed scripts, etc. However, by the time we had worked out how to fund the shows, we had stalled on producing them for long enough that the momentum was gone. The lesson here is: at least have an idea how you’re going to make enough money to cover your costs, and always implement your business plan quickly. You may well have a number of people willing to support you financially, so give them a way in which they can. Speaking of which:
Fail to make the things people want to buy – In our case: CDs. We’ve had lots of requests for CDs. People want to give them as gifts, people who aren’t au fait with downloading, people who want to show their support. There has been constant demand for CDs of the episodes. I did try to get this set up at one point, using Lulu, but found that they made all their CDs in the US, and then shipped them to England making them hugely expensive (even though we were only charging $4.00 each for them). I then wanted to add some audio liner notes to each one, a little extra that wasn’t available on the website, but never got around to recording them. The fact that there was no UK service that would do what we wanted and that I couldn’t be bothered to fulfil orders myself meant that we missed out on the one revenue stream that seemed promising.
Underestimate the amount of time it will take – Each In The Gloaming took a few days to write, a day to record, and two or three days to edit. That’s at least a full work week out of every month. When you’ve got children (or, you know, a job) that’s just not feasible. Perhaps we’ll do them quarterly in future, but monthly doesn’t seem like we can do it at all.
Post irregularly – We started with a monthly schedule, but soon got bogged down with diary incompatibilities, and just the sheer amount of work it was. The fact that we couldn’t be relied upon to produce podcasts every month meant that a lot of the momentum we started with dissipated. Set yourself a schedule and stick to it. Don’t stick to two-thirds of it. Stick to it, no matter how difficult it is. Then sit back, learn lessons, and plan Season 2.
Don’t collect emails – We never had an email list or any promotion beyond writing a blog. This is silly. Do better than us.
Don’t allow embedding – It took us six months to find a service that allowed easy embedding and sharing of mp3s on Twitter and Facebook. We went for a paid service that was not as good as what we could have got from WordPress, and didn’t offer the stats or functionality. We’re now faced with the rubbish options of continuing to use a (paid) service that isn’t as good as other ones or to change the website RSS feed, and risk losing all of the subscribers who are attached to the old feed. Do your research about how you’re going to distribute your podcast before you set up a standing order…
Basic, fundamental errors. Tonnes of them. We couldn’t have been more dim if we’d just dribbled into the Internet whilst smashing ourselves in the face with a flat-iron.
However, we’ve had more than 100 downloads a week, every week, for more than a year. We were asked to perform at the World Horror Convention 2010. It’s led to other bits of work, and to the selling of some of the short stories written for the site. The live show is getting a full run in the Brighton Festival next year (Friday 13th May, for those who want to book tickets). We’ve won awards. And we’ve got a producer attached, who’s making an In The Gloaming feature film, which should be out next year.
That’s how not to do it. Go and do better…
Over at Go Into The Story, they have – like Jesus in the desert, if I recall the story correctly – recently finished reading 40 screenplays in 40 days. It’s an impressive list of scripts, and it’s almost inconceivable that anyone could read them all and not learn something. Almost.
However, there’s an odd trend which you can see if you look at many of the readers’ comments. In looking at some of the greatest examples of the art of screenwriting, crafted long before the Vogler Memo or Syd Field ever started telling people the one perfect way to write a screenplay, many of the readers feel justified in taking the scripts to task for not fitting their idea of what a screenplay should be.
Here’s commenter John S, talking about the screenplay for Some Like It Hot:
Also the first coincidence points to the other problem I had: the set up was needlessly long. The characters and story could have been sufficiently introduced all in one action set-piece (either the funeral shoot out or the garage shoot out). You’d save pages and eliminate the need for the first coincidence.
He goes on:
But Billy Wilder wouldn’t listen to me then and I doubt he cares now.
That’s right, John, and nor should he. He and I.A.L. Diamond wrote one of the funniest movies of all time, in which there’s never a dull moment, and that has come to be regarded as one of the finest examples of the feature-length comedy. You’ll forgive me if I applaud his decision not to take advice on his screenplay from comments left on a blog post.
And that’s not an isolated comment. On Witness, Network, and Psycho there are comments about the protagonist not being introduced early enough, the scene description being too dense, and it being unclear who the protagonist is. In every case, no matter how successful the screenplay or the film, there were frenzied attempts to explain why it wasn’t a good example of the one, true screenplay format that we’ve all been taught you have to strive for.
Too many old screenplays just seemed to break the rules.
A couple of months ago I was working in a writers’ room. During a brainstorming session, someone came up with a really nice moment. Someone else’s response was “That’s great. That can be our Act II turn.”
We didn’t have any characters yet. We didn’t have a plot or genre yet. We hadn’t even yet nailed the premise, but somehow we were confident enough to start flinging around where the act breaks were, where the story beats were. Before we even had a story.
I’m starting to think that screenplay theory is simply there to give people without any creativity some sense that they can contribute to a creative process. As long as a producer can say that “the inciting incident doesn’t raise the stakes enough” they feel that they are, no matter how vague, numinous, and unhelpful the jargon, helping to ‘break the story’. Getting their hands dirty in the muddy trenches of narrative. Kicking some story ass. Breaking that tale’s spine open and feasting on the jellied marrow of structure. Hell, yeah.
This is not to say that I think that these rules don’t have their uses, but I do think that if a great film doesn’t fit your paradigm then perhaps it’s your paradigm that’s broken. Not the film.
I first read Syd Field almost a decade ago, and decided that his analyses of screenplays were almost useless. He ignored scenes that didn’t fit what he was trying to say, and made his rules so general that the only consistent thing you could take a way was: In a film, something happens to somebody; they struggle with it; it gets resolved one way or the other.
As far as it goes, that’s generally true. However, as soon as you start talking about anything more specific: about ‘midpoints’, a ‘save the cat moment’, and what should happen at the bottom of page ten, then you are clearly spouting arrant nonsense. These are not rules. These are things that can be seen usually in some genres of screenplay. And they have become a self-fulfilling prophecy as more screenwriters and readers know the paradigms and assess the value of scripts with them in mind.
These ‘rules’ do have uses. They can help you see where an aspect of your script that you’re not happy with is falling down, by trotting out the standard answer to problems at around page so-and-so. They are helpful when getting notes from producers and readers because they provide a common language and analytical tool with which to look at a script.
My fear is that because it is such a simple tool to use, everyone feels like they can use it. Story is no longer the purview of those who try to create stories. Any development exec can see what’s wrong with your script: you’ve failed to state the theme on page 5.
In Tales From The Script, Larry Cohen says:
Used to be two people would come into a meeting and work on a script with you. Now eight people come into a meeting, and they’ve all got yellow pads, and they’ve all got their opinions, and most of their opinions are bad, and most of them took Robert McKee’s writing class.
I worry that these paradigms have become self-reinforcing. Because they are easy to understand, and you can check ‘quantifiably’ if someone has written to them, they have become a standard way of assessing how good a screenplay is. Not how well-told it is, whether or not the story touches someone’s heart or mind, or if it is something that has never before been seen on screen, but how well it fits the model.
A startlingly original script may get people’s attention, but it would be hard to be optimistic about it making its way through development unscathed. Are we simply not telling wonderful stories because they don’t fit our ideas of what stories should look like?
I’ve used the paradigms myself. They are a great way of breaking down 120 blank pages into smaller, do-able tasks, all the while ensuring that you will not stray too far from what people expect.
However, I’ve found that the real moments of life, the ones that really lift a script, have come from being surprised by the characters or by my just going with a vague sense of the sequences that will happen. These chance moments, the exciting moments of discovery often lead down blind paths, or to having to massively rewrite the opening to accommodate them, but they are the moments of which I am most proud. At which something different or surprising has happened.
My scripts, when written strictly to formulas are like a pub roast. They may be well-prepared; the meat may be well-sourced and nicely rare; all of the trimmings may be there, but there’s something missing. They don’t come blasting in from the kitchen on a wave of steam and sweat with the love of a home-cooked roast. You don’t get the sense that someone (maybe you) has spent the best part of a day peeling, basting, chopping and Yorkshire-pudding-makinging because they love the company of those around them.
To change metaphors, my paradigm-dominated scripts are beautiful children, but fragile. They’re geishas. They will move around within the cloistered walls of my low ambition for them, but they will never learn to run because I’ve bound their feet too tightly.
Well no more. From now on, I’ll let my scripts run and yell and run sticks along the railings when I’m out with them. They’ll paddle barefoot. There’s time enough for shoes later…
- 40 Days of Screenplays, Day 3: “Some Like It Hot” (gointothestory.com)
I’m now doing occasional book reviews for Hackney Hive. The first one’s up now: Hard Time by Shaun Attwood
Gambling’s for losers.
Not the sort of gambling you do with a few friends, a couple of bottles of whisky and a deck of cards, that’s good gambling. Of course it is. But loser-gambling. That shit’s for losers.
The kind of gambling that involves dressing in a velveteen track suit and hauling your enormous arse onto a tiny stool to pump your hopes and dreams into a machine that may as well just be cackling at you, whilst dispensing actual turds into your grateful cup. The kind of gambling that means it’s impossible to buy a paper on a Saturday because of all the broken lives queueing in the newsagents, hoping for a win this week to wash away all of their bad decisions, all of the things that haven’t turned out the way they want them to, all of the failed relationships. That’s loser-gambling.
When the odds are 14-million to one against you winning? That’s loser-gambling.
It’s the kind of gambling you keep doing because you’re not losing a little. You’re almost-winning a lot. It’s the reason you get money for getting five numbers right instead of six, that the slots line up so tantalisingly close to three cherries. You didn’t just lose, you almost won. You were so close. You almost won. You’re not losing, you’re almost winning! You should try again…
And back they go, time after time: never learning anything, never stopping to think about how much time and money they are investing in something that has not happened, and that probably never will. Losers.
I don’t play the Lottery. That’s why I felt so smug when I won.
It wasn’t a huge amount, and it was to be paid in kind – I was awarded £55 for script reading services from ScreenSouth – but it was enough. I’d got some Lottery money (or its notional equivalent) without even buying a ticket. Technically, I’m a good cause. And a winner.
If I’m honest, I’ve had a few setbacks in the last year. I haven’t blogged about them because the relentlessly upbeat nature of writing blogs tends to single out anyone not gladly taking the punches and bouncing back up again as a freak, loser, and weirdo who doesn’t understand how lucky they are.
Writers’ blogs are, at least in part, an advert for how easy and fun they are to work with. They are filled with tales of the latest commission, how grinding down and doing the work and ignoring the bad stuff will get you through. It’s inspiring and helpful and good advice. However, it doesn’t make it the easiest forum to admit your failures in.
Since last May, a number of projects I have been commissioned to write has been pulled before they were finished. These range from web series to corporate writing to even some promotional work that involved dressing as a gangster in various Travelodges around the country. Month after month, project after project has fallen through at the last minute, or when work was well underway.
Add to this the pitches I didn’t get, the ideas I got asked to submit that just weren’t what people were looking for, the auditions I didn’t do too well in…
When some regular writing I was doing was abruptly cancelled at the end of June, I really felt as if it were probably time to give up. I’ve got two young children, who absurdly insist on having food every single day. I wondered about how selfish I was being in pursuing a career that was so unpredictable, and so dependent on the whims of others. I wondered how often and how massively I would have to fail before I took the hint.
I sullenly pondered jobs sites online, and railed against a world where getting a few things on telly doesn’t automatically make you ‘a writer’. Or, at least, doesn’t keep you there for very long. I spent a couple of days just gnawing at the bits of my face I could reach with my bottom teeth and snarling at people who came near.
And then I won the Lottery. At least, it felt like a win.
Over the next couple of weeks, buoyed by the knowledge that someone, somewhere still thought my stuff was good enough to, at least, read, I took a deep breath and got on with what had to be done. I hustled.
I phoned production companies, sent shameless emails, pressed scripts upon people, and generally made a nuisance of myself. And it worked. And no matter how maudlin I was, how self-pitying I was, and how close to despair, all it took was a few good meetings to make it feel like the most wonderful job in the world again.
I got a couple of new commissions, was cast in some new things, had some good reviews and coverage and did a terrible corporate gig. Things were looking up. That little win was all it took to get me going again.
And that’s when I had a revelation. All of that time when things were falling through: I wasn’t failing, I was almost succeeding!
Not like those stupid loser-gamblers.
Ha. Losers. I pity them. I really do…
I’m not really sure why it’s taken me this long to hear about The Bechdel Rule. Maybe it’s because I spend most of my time in a shed, thinking up knob gags, or maybe it’s something to do with the patriarchy. Either way, I suck.
The Bechdel Rule is pretty simple, and is explained in the video below:
1) Have two or more named female characters…
2) …Who have a conversation with each other…
3) …About something other than a man.
Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? And, to tell the truth, I was feeling pretty confident that my scripts would sail through.
After all, Class, the sitcom I wrote for CBBC, would pass easily (although all of the female characters were played by Sam & Mark – still, technically a pass). The Meeting passes, and every episode of In The Gloaming has a woman as a central character, and one is set within a women’s football team. I do night-feeds, I buy my daughter toy cars instead of princess dresses, I’ve read Germaine Greer’s books for fun. This was going to be easy…
I pulled out the spec I finished last month, smugly flicked through it, and… oh. Apart from this one it was going to be easy. It had two women in, but they didn’t meet until the end when they fought over a man.
I pulled out one I wrote years ago that I still use occasionally as a calling card script. Surely, this one would… have no women in at all. Well, one dead one in a flashback montage (In your face, Robert McKee!), but none who were, you know, alive…
What about the short I wrote that won the Nisi Masa Screenwriting Award. That must… not even mention any women. At all.
Out of five feature scripts, one would pass the Bechdel test, and that one was an adaptation of someone else’s story. Of all the shorts I’ve written only one passed because of a brief bit of expository dialogue at the beginning.
Here’s what I find odd. For any other medium – radio, podcast, stage, web series, television – I have no problems on the whole in unconsciously passing the Bechdel Test. But as soon as I start thinking in terms of film, I appear to assume that male characters are more interesting, or more suited to the medium, or something… And I find that a little worrying.
Of the projects I’ve got lined up, only one feature script passes the Test, and that’s a horror film. I have a feeling that horror films probably don’t really count, as they might be filled with women, all of whom are liable to be horribly murdered at any second.
So, I’m going to be doing a little rethinking, a little cross-casting in my head, because no matter what the political considerations, ostensibly ignoring half of the population of the world must necessarily close off a lot of dramatic options. If nothing else, this will help me find more ways into and out of a scene, and more possible interactions between my characters.
I realise some people will think that this is ‘political correctness gone mad’. Those people are dunces, and should be pitied. This is a way for me to add necessary depth and thought and interest to my writing. This might help me write in a way that will produce better things, things that will be less-inclined to the already-seen, the cliche. This might get me through that rough bit of rewriting where I can’t see how you can change anything, but am unhappy with the way it is. This will help me write better scripts.
It’s also only right to do what I can to make sure that a medium I love doesn’t ignore most of the population of the world. The most that includes my daughter.
Thank you, Alison Bechdel. This is going to be fun.
In what I’ve written on the Digital Economy Act I’ve focussed on a few main objections: that the drafting of the legislation was influenced heavily by corporations whose interests are not necessarily the same as those of writers; that it gave draconian new powers without proper scrutiny; that it will not (can not) work; and that, if successful, it will end up making writers worse off.
These are, on the whole, practical objections, but there is a range of contentious issues. In this post, Wayne Myers does a good job of amassing some of the data that challenges the premise of the Act. (There is a link back here in the post, so do try and avoid getting stuck in a Mobius loop of DE Act blog commentary…)
Here’s an open letter from Steve Lawson to the Musicians’ Union. He makes a forceful case about why he thinks his union is on the wrong side of the argument. He is so infuriated by it, he is contemplating leaving his union.
Personally, I think this is an argument we need to have within our unions, to convince them that the interests of their members are not necessarily the same as those of the large corporations who sometimes hire them. I also think there will be huge dividends for a union that catches up with our digital economy: in new members; the opening up of new business models and revenue streams for its existing members; and just, in this instance, being right…
Whatever other differences we might have, the fundamental disagreement between Bernie Corbett and me can be boiled down to one essential point. He thinks it is wise to disconnect people from the Internet if they are suspected of infringing copyright. I think it is stupid.
Bernie characterises those who disagree with him as thinking of disconnection as something that is wrong, a breach of a human right. I, however, think it’s stupid, backwards, foolish, boneheaded, counter-productive, not-thought-through. Here’s why:
The argument runs that, in the 21st century, people are consuming more and more of their media online. Some people consume some media illegally. Therefore we should stop them, and the people with whom they share an Internet connection, being online.
This fails to take into account the fact that a family who has been disconnected because someone has infringed copyright aren’t doing the following. They aren’t downloading TV or songs from iTunes. They aren’t buying books or DVDs from Amazon. They are not listening to songs on Spotify. They aren’t watching ad-supported videos or reading blogs which are supported by GoogleAds. They aren’t bumping up viewing figures through iPlayer, 4OD or ITV.com. They aren’t downloading free samples of the things creators make to advertise what they are making. They aren’t watching movie trailers. They aren’t emailing each other links to exciting and interesting things they have found. They aren’t clicking the ‘donate’ button on my or anyone else’s website. In short, they aren’t consuming media any more.
So creators cannot make money from them any more.
In a world where more and more is consumed (and paid for) online, preventing people consuming (and paying for) things online is foolish, backwards, all of the things I said above…
Internet disconnection works directly against writers, musicians and artists being able to get their works in front of audiences, and paying audiences. In the last five years a number of models have emerged for ‘monetising content’ (ugh!) At present, the residuals and tips and ad revenues make up a small but growing part of many creators’ incomes, and more sophisticated models are being developed.
Reducing the number of people who have access to my work is not the same as working on my behalf, Bernie.
In general the argument seems to be: disconnection will significantly reduce piracy; reduced piracy will lead to significantly greater revenues for media companies; greater revenues for media companies will lead to their commissioning significantly more things. These are all accepted at face value (without evidence) by supporters of the Bill. I don’t think a convincing case has been made that any of the above is true.
On the other hand it is definitely true that reducing the number of people with access to the Internet reduces the size of the market for (some of) the things I make. It certainly impedes them finding my work, or my finding them.
It’s only if you accept all of the contentious industry-wisdom syllogism above that you can think disconnection will be effective, fair, or wise. I don’t. I believe it is profoundly stupid.
***UPDATED – see bottom ***
Bernie Corbett, General Secretary of the WGGB has taken the time to expand on the arguments I criticised in an earlier post. I’m going to post his response in full below, and thank him for responding at all to a member’s concerns and for such a full response.
I am not going to have Internet access for few days, so shan’t answer any of his points until next week. Here’s Bernie’s post:
Well I shall respond to Nathaniel’s reply (which is 200 words longer than my original piece). A considered argument deserves a considered response.
I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him Nathaniel, by the way. Those of us who have been around a bit recognise this repetitious “Mr Corbett this, Mr Corbett that” dodge – it makes Nathaniel sound polite, even respectful, while subliminally he is making me appear pompous and old-fashioned. Don’t be formal! You can call me Bernie.
The DEB has been much-debated in Parliament, it just happens that this took place in the House of Lords, which spent long days picking through the bill with some expertise and made numerous improvements. This is not the time for a constitutional debate, suffice it to say that a hereditary element in the Lords is anathema, a largely appointed house is an outrage against democracy, and I support a fully elected chamber. But most observers do not deny the effectiveness of the Lords as a scrutinising and revising chamber, and it played exactly that role in this case. “Tawdry and secretive” it was not.
Having said that, I do agree that the bill should have had a full airing in the Commons (and I would have said so but I was trying to save space and get to the point). Perhaps the bill would have been massively amended, and Nathaniel would have approved of it, had it not run into the buffers of the pre-election “wash-up”, but somehow I doubt that and I think this argument has been used just because it is available. We haven’t heard this objection in relation to the Finance Bill, the Flood Bill, the Children, Schools and Families Bill or the other measures that have followed the same procedure.
I am not against petitions, and have signed hundreds, but be honest – they are part of the apparatus of protest, not debate. We quote them when we agree and we ignore them when we differ. Fifty thousand people signed a petition to change the Olympic logo. Twenty-five thousand signed a petition for the Pope to pay his own expenses when he visits the UK. Does this prove anything?
No amendments were “shoved in at the behest of the BPI”. Anybody who has been following the passage of this bill knows that literally hundreds of amendments were proposed and lobbied for by all kinds of interest groups, and it took a lot of patience and careful argument to get them taken seriously, let alone incorporated.
Everybody seems to be against Parliamentary lobbying nowadays – except, that is, when it is their own opinions and interests that are being lobbied for. As a veteran of this sort of thing, I grind my teeth at the huge amounts of money and influence big business can bring to bear compared with those representing workers and the disadvantaged – let alone individual citizens.
One voice of big business is the BPI, although as well as the major record labels it does represent lots of small ones as well. Confusingly the initials denote “The British Recorded Music Industry” (it used to be called the British Phonographic Industry) and it is best known for running the Brit Awards. But in this case, when Nathaniel mentions the BPI he is really referring to the “Creative Coalition Campaign”, specially set up for this bill, which along with the BPI also includes the TUC, Unite, Equity, the NUJ and several other unions (including the Writers’ Guild). You may say all of these unions, and other organisations representing creators, were dupes of big business, but if you do you ought to present some evidence. I don’t believe there is any. (For what it is worth, I and the Writers’ Guild supped with the longest of long spoons.)
The point about people “accused” of file-sharing, not “convicted”, is a superficially attractive one. But it depends how heinous an offence you think file-sharing is. We are used to automatic penalties for minor infringements – this is the territory of parking tickets, speed cameras, etc. Modern society couldn’t cope with putting all these through the courts. A few people appeal, whether they sense an injustice or are just trying it on – and a surprisingly large proportion of these appeals are successful. But the vast majority of people know it is a fair cop and they pay up. I don’t think file-sharing is a major crime requiring a judge and jury, like murder or armed robbery, and yes I do think an automatic procedure – with safeguards – is appropriate and workable.
Nathaniel might argue that the bigger problem is the seriousness of the penalty. I don’t think it is disproportionate. Some people (though not Nathaniel, as far as I know) have gone so far as to say that a speed restriction or suspension of internet access amounts to a denial of a human right. I would see it more as an inconvenience.
A human right? How does that work unless it is also a human right to own a laptop and have high-speed access to an ISP? What about the five and a half billion people in the world with no prospect of either? At least in the UK if you get cut off you can always pop down to the local library or internet cafe.
Some people have argued that honest, non-infringing citizens could end up carrying the can for the actions of their teenage offspring (not much new there, I’m afraid) or of piggybacking neighbours or wifi tourists. But couldn’t such HNICs tackle such issues on receipt of the first or second warning, if necessary by simple encryption or password measures?
I stick to my view that this part of the bill has been talked up in an almost hysterical way, and that this hare has been set running not by well-intentioned civil libertarians, but by copy-left-creative-commons fundamentalists who believe everyone should have access to all digital material without permission and without payment. As the trade union representative of people who earn their living by writing, I would be failing in my duty if I did not attack such crazy notions.
Nathaniel, whom I do not accuse of such insanity, has missed my main point, which is that the whole penalty issue is a justified but small component of a much bigger change in behaviour and expectations that is needed not only from the public and consumers, but also from professional writers, performers, etc., and from publishers, producers, distributors and retailers. No Act of Parliament is going to bring that about, but I believe the relentless logic of the digital revolution will. The winners will be those who adapt early.
At this point Nathaniel’s arguments begin to slide downhill. He trots out some familiar urban myths and starts attacking the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, to which the DEB bears little resemblance. The less said about Lawrence Lessig the better, in my view, but it is true there are huge issues around Google/YouTube and the like. The one thing we can’t do is ignore them or wish them away. We have to engage. Trade unions are not utopian institutions – they react to real events and they make deals to maximise the benefits to their members. The Writers’ Guild – a tiny and ill-resourced organisation – has been remarkably successful in this for the past 50 years (just look at the situation across Europe where no such guilds have established themselves). We are not going to stop now, just when a whole new set of challenges and threats has emerged.
I have no time for the Royal Mail argument – it is an old favourite but it is a canard. One of the besetting problems of dealing with the digital world is the way people continually try to make analogies with the analogue world, sometimes even the pre-Gutenberg world. It isn’t the same. Nothing is the same. That is the whole point about revolutions. We are all going to have to adjust our thinking and make difficult compromises. Our bookshelves, our TV aerials, our channels and schedules, our repeat fees, our royalties and our copyright laws are all headed for the museum, along with hand looms, steam engines and supersonic airliners. And the Royal Mail, I’m afraid.
Equally I don’t buy Nathaniel’s paranoia. There are lots of issues around surveillance and state-owned personal data, and I won’t get into all that today, but I don’t believe we live in a fascist state and I don’t believe we are heading for one. I have known many photographers over many years, and I can’t remember a time when they weren’t harassed and mistreated by the forces of authority. When I was editor of The Journalist, a quarter of a century ago, nearly every issue reported an example. Remember the miners’ strike? Wapping? The fact is, whether it is photographers, demonstrators, black people or whoever, the police simply reach for the legislation they have most recently boned up on. This is not about anti-terrorism measures (which we do actually need). It is about police behaviour and accountability – another subject for another day.
At the end of his riposte, Nathaniel gets philosophical – I am not being sarcastic, I think he poses the right question: “Is ownership the only valuable facet of creative work?” It sounds like a rhetorical question, but it shouldn’t be. Nathaniel doesn’t offer an answer, but I shall.
In the old world the author was the owner of the work, until forced to transfer ownership to an exploiter, who in return would pay the author a small fraction of the money earned by exploiting the work. In the new world this system is already collapsing. We are nearing the point where authors and creators can realistically publish their own works, if they wish, although there will be many circumstances where they still want someone else to do the production and exploitation for them.
But in the new world, as soon as a work is published, ownership becomes meaningless. The digital artefact is owned immediately by everybody and by nobody. The issue is: must all creativity become amateur? If not, by what means can authors and creators receive rewards to enable them to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families? That is the question that creators’ trade unions are uniquely responsible for answering (nobody else will do it). And in the Guild we believe we are finding answers.
In my view the jettisoning of Clause 43 from the DEB means it will be harder, and take longer, for answers to be found. Those who are currently jubilant may think differently in a couple of years’ time if we end up with a new copyright act drafted by a Tory government on behalf of global corporations. Don’t be dispirited. Let us work together – in the Writers’ Guild, in all the unions – to ensure that this remains just a bad dream.
We didn’t get our revolution in 1926, nor in 1968, but we have got one now and I for one relish it.
***UPDATE – As well as the comment in the section below, I raise another practical issue with Bernie in this post ***