Sunday, January 22, 2012


To hear organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and various software companies tell it, they are losing untold billions of dollars to digital piracy. This is, in the words of a certain MSNBC personality, bull-pucky.

Let's look at the numbers being tossed about on this. The MPAA touts on their website a study by The Institute for Policy Innovation. I poked around their site and found a movie industry report that claimed "U.S. movie companies lost $6.1 billion in 2005 to piracy . . . [which] translates into total lost output among all industries of $20.5 billion annually. It also finds that lost earnings for all U.S. workers amounts to $5.5 billion annually, and 141,030 jobs that would otherwise have been created are lost. In addition, as a result of piracy, governments at the federal, state, and local levels are deprived of $837 million in tax revenues each year."

Look, I'm no statistician, but that sounds like guesswork multiplied by wild assumptions and divided by the square root of any random Senator's IQ. I'm not saying that piracy doesn't cost these industries a pretty penny, but it's nowhere near the apocalyptic levels they regularly regurgitate into any open microphone. You see, they are basing these ludicrous numbers on the fantastical assumption that every song, movie or computer program that is obtained by 'piracy' would otherwise have been purchased at the suggested retail price. This is wildly optimistic. Many people download pirate copies as much because they can, as from any desire to own them.

For example, say I find myself with access to a pirate copy of Adobe Photoshop. I play around and use it now and then, but does that mean without illicit access that I would otherwise have plunked down $500 for a legal copy? Not in a million years! Photoshop is a cool program to diddle with, but unless you really must have the high end features it offers, there are any number of alternatives that are far easier to use and far cheaper. Some even free! So Adobe wouldn't have lost a sale to me because I never would have actually bought it! It's the same with songs or movies. Sure some guy might download every movie ever made featuring Kate Beckinsale from a file sharing site, but how many would he have realistically ordered from Amazon if he didn't have access to the pirated copies? Very few, I'll wager. In fact, probably just the ones where she's dressed in leather or spandex!

I'd be surprised if these numbers were even in the same time zone as reality. None of these industries are being bled to death by piracy, despite their piteous cries. They suffer far more from their inability to adapt to changes in content delivery than to the loss of a few sales of the latest Justin Bieber album. Repeatedly these analog industries have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age. First it was music, then movies and now publishing. Each time it was the same story and each time the industry in question wasted, and in some cases continues to waste, years and gobs of money fighting what they should have been rushing to embrace. The real losses from piracy come from places like China and Thailand and are of the old school variety; guys selling cell phone quality DVD copies of Avatar from a back alley in Bangkok! No argument that piracy in general is wrong, but current attempts to address it by threatening entire websites due to one piece of unauthorized content are of the 'killing an ant with a shotgun' variety. I don't think we need to shut down YouTube because someone posts a funny cat video with an unauthorized Lady Gaga soundtrack, do you?

More information and links regarding SOPA and PIPA anti piracy bills can be found HERE

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Little Spin-off that Did

Quick, what series holds the title of longest running American SciFi series? Nope, it's not ST:The Next Generation, Voyager or any of the other Trek iterations. Curious? Well, way back in 1994, Director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot, 2012) helmed a movie called Stargate. It starred Kurt Russell, James Spader and Jaye Davidson, fresh off his big role in The Crying Game. The film was a solid success, earning nearly $200 million worldwide, a good sum for the early 90's. Though it was a 'hit' movie, it would be its TV descendants that would leave the bigger mark.

If you never saw the movie, it was centered on an archeologist named Daniel Jackson who was quickly becoming a laughingstock for claiming that the great pyramids were landing platforms for aliens.  After a particularly bad lecture he is offered a mysterious job on a US military project. He finds himself trying to decipher symbols on a large ring shaped artifact that had been discovered in Egypt back in 1928. His breakthrough allows them to activate the 'Stargate' which promptly opens a wormhole connection to another identical gate on another planet. The movie plot takes off from there and, as you would expect, vindicates Jackson's theories and action, romance and special effects abound.

As successful as the movie was, no sequel ever materialized and in 1997 the story was revived as a Showtime series as Stargate: SG-1. It would, after season 5, move to the SciFi Channel for the rest of its run. They took the general plot and made a few tweaks that opened up the 'universe' a bit and allowed the kind of freedom a series would need to thrive.  Surprisingly though, the vast majority of the structure remained, including many of the core characters, though all but a couple supporting actors were recast. The updated storyline had the secret project becoming 'Stargate Command,' a super secret operation that was run from twenty some odd levels beneath Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.  The 'SG-1' of the title refers to the first, and most elite of the Stargate teams made up of the two primary characters from the movie, Dr. Jackson and Air Force Colonel Jack O'Neill along with two newly created characters. Captain Samantha Carter, an Air Force officer and astrophysicist, and T'ealc, an 'alien' who joins the team following the series pilot. 

Much like the way Star Trek: TNG continued for a few more seasons after Deep Space 9 debuted, SG-1 still had two seasons ahead of it when they spun off Stargate: Atlantis. Atlantis was based on an alien city located far off in the Pegasus galaxy and actually spent its first season cut off from Earth. Atlantis ran for five seasons before being shuttered to make way for Stargate: Universe. Universe took place on an alien starship that was on an automated, unmanned exploration mission far off in the universe. The humans arrived onboard, via stargate, while escaping disaster and becoming marooned on the ship with minimal supplies and limited understanding of the ship and technology. Universe only managed two seasons before being cancelled. There was also a short lived animated series called Stargate: Infinity, which I never saw.

Both SG-1 and Atlantis held to a similar, successful formula that focused on a small group of interesting and likable characters exploring and often fighting for their survival as well as the survival of Earth itself on occasion. Universe was a completely different beast and I believe that's what spelled its doom. Whereas SG-1 and Atlantis were both adventure series, spiced with humor and sprinkled with a bit of drama, Universe was a heavy drama spiced with adventure and an occasional pinch of humor.  I was only able to manage about half a season before I gave up on it. Personally I found it way too dark and brooding where every character was deeply flawed and there seemed no real good guys. Think  'Stargate: Galactica'. I much preferred the lighter tone of the first two series. Both SG-1 and Atlantis had some interesting characters with their own quirks that were fun to watch. The writing was very good and the special effects were excellent, especially for cable TV show. Even the various sets were much better than you might expect. Another thing that set the first two iterations apart from some other science fiction series was that they weren't above taking gentle shots at sci/fi in general and Stargate in particular from time to time. For example a later episode of SG-1 had one character comment about a really corny line, a line that that character herself had delivered verbatim in one of the first episodes of the series. 

If you haven't seen Stargate: SG-1 or Stargate: Atlantis, or if you never really gave them a chance when they were in production, I highly recommend checking them out on Netflix sometime. Both series are available via disc and streaming. The first few episodes of SG-1 are a little rough in places, like pretty much every sci/fi series, but it quickly settles in as a top notch bit of science fiction. They may not have gotten as much attention as Star Trek, Babylon 5 or others, but SG-1 and Atlantis are well worth your time!