In an age of digital technology and renewed anxiety about media piracy, Inherent Vice revisits the recent analog past with an eye-opening exploration of the aesthetic and legal innovations of home video. Analog videotape was introduced to consumers as a blank format, essentially as a bootleg technology, for recording television without permission. The studios initially resisted VCRs and began legal action to oppose their marketing. In turn, U.S. courts controversially reinterpreted copyright law to protect users’ right to record, while content owners eventually developed ways to exploit the video market. Lucas Hilderbrand shows how videotape and fair use offer essential lessons relevant to contemporary progressive media policy.
Videotape not only radically changed how audiences accessed the content they wanted and loved but also altered how they watched it. Hilderbrand develops an aesthetic theory of analog video, an “aesthetics of access” most boldly embodied by bootleg videos. He contends that the medium specificity of videotape becomes most apparent through repeated duplication, wear, and technical failure; video’s visible and audible degeneration signals its uses for legal transgressions and illicit pleasures. Bringing formal and cultural analysis into dialogue with industrial history and case law, Hilderbrand examines four decades of often overlooked histories of video recording, including the first network news archive, the underground circulation of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a feminist tape-sharing network, and the phenomenally popular website YouTube. This book reveals the creative uses of videotape that have made essential content more accessible and expanded our understanding of copyright law. It is a politically provocative, unabashedly nostalgic ode to analog.
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Inherent ViceBootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright
By Lucas Hilderbrand
Duke University PressCopyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBe Kind, Rewind: The Histories and Erotics of Home Video
In a VCR user's guide from 1981, the author imagined a scenario of video dubbing that bordered on the stilted dialogue and implausible situations of pornography:
In order to copy a tape yourself, your options are to buy, borrow or appropriate a second VCR.... Who knows what romantic possibilities may be uncovered as you search for a second VCR. In the old days, borrowing sugar afforded a convenient excuse to meet that lovely lady or handsome man next door. Now, modern technology has provided us with a much sweeter line, "Do you mind if I bring over my Betamax and make a dub tonight?"
Although it's perhaps unlikely that someone would respond, "Come on in," to such a flat-footed seduction, videotape seems to have inspired its share of innuendo. It is, after all, a reproductive technology. In another account, this time as the video rental boom was reaching its fever pitch, video negotiated more pervasive hookups without the need for pickup lines; the New York Times quoted a video store owner as saying, "Closing time is like closing time at a bar. People get desperate, and they'll go home with anything."
Not only did such blatantly sexualized references pique interest in home video when it was a new and alluring technology, but such curious associations have recurred and lingered even in death. More than twenty years later, an academic "autopsy" of the VCR queerly anthropomorphized the technology by eroticizing it:
With us but a short while, you demonstrated that the sexual architecture of film was malleable, and although gendered, always incorrectly so, in excess of the binaries we wished to believe human bodies confined themselves to.... You showed the world what sex with the movies really felt like; you initiated us into the deep satisfaction of holding a tape in one's hand, sticking it in the slot, and making it play.
These speculative, journalistic, and retrospective accounts suggest that VCRs were once objects of passion for some users. Or, as the longtime exploitationeer and adult film entrepreneur David Friedman succinctly asserted, the home video market was "founded by pirates and pornographers." Videotape has always been a deviant technology, one connotative of vice, at odds with the entertainment industry, a technology in which users can witness the literal degeneration of recordings. This chapter begins and ends with hot-and-bothered discourses of videotape, which have perhaps perverted more quotidian experiences. In between, I examine the technological genealogy of which video is part and the ways that the video market shaped adoption, uses, and meanings for home video. Although I engage video's technological history at some length, I emphasize the materiality and aesthetics of videotape, which tend to fall out of industrial histories of the technology. In addition, the film studios attempted to reform consumer behavior toward renting and purchasing content, but such marketing never entirely killed off home taping and allowed a marginal collector culture to emerge. Meanwhile, mainstream consumptive uses coincided with the rise of amateur and celebrity porn. The erotics and everyday experiences of videotape cannot be divorced from the technical and business institutions that have made home video possible and have wielded considerable power over its uses. But just the same, these official histories offer little insight into the aesthetics and affect of the technology. Thus in this chapter I solicit strange bedfellows in an attempt to offer a multidimensional history of analog home video. This chapter climaxes, so to speak, by reading the lusty associations that bootleg videotapes have provoked and the ways in which they suggest an analog video aesthetic. In analog media, aesthetics and access often exist in an oppositional relationship. But what I call the aesthetics of access in the introduction can also be an eros of access, as some audiences have fallen in love with analog imperfections. This is nowhere more evident than in the published celebrations of bootlegs that romanticize analog video.
Formats and Components: A Technological Genealogy
Audiences may be most aware of technologies when they are new-marketed as performing new functions and requiring new skills to use them-or when they have become old, displaced by new models or different devices that draw attention to what has been lacking all along. Similarly, technologies become most exciting when their uses are illegal-or at least contested. Once adopted and allowed, technologies seem pretty mundane. Thus, looking back at initial advertisements and commentary helps historians understand what was perceived as innovative or unfamiliar about a technology, while retrospective accounts suggest what was once peculiar may have become passé. Once the newness has worn off, users belatedly become hyperaware of ingrained technologies through their breakdowns and failures. Thus my research on video has led me to these liminal moments: its prehistory, its broadcast era, its adoption by artists and community groups, its marketing by rental outlets and studios, and its circulation on the fringes of polite society. Not all of these appear prominently here, but all have informed the versions of history I present.
Videotape generally-and home video in particular-has not been granted the status of a medium. In part, this may be because videotape is a dependent technology: it requires a recording and playback deck, and a VCR has little use value unless it is patched into a television monitor (tuned to channel 3 or 4) on which the recording can be watched. It also requires content, whether homemade, taped off-air from broadcasts, or rented from a video store. Whether seen as a technology for expanding viewership of broadcast television or as the afterthought of feature films' releases, home video has not been conceived as something independent and therefore worthy of attention. Put another way, videotape is a storage device, a category of functional technology to which users don't usually ascribe the status of a medium. Yet, I suggest, videotape has been something more than just a dependent storage device; it has transformed relationships between users and screens and, through its limitations and artifacts, has introduced its own aesthetic qualities as well. That it has been eulogized and eroticized further suggests its cultural importance as a medium. Perhaps a more accurate term than medium is format: the specific version of a technology, one that reformats everything it records.
"Video," broadly conceived, will continue to exist; videotape and videocassettes, however, may not. As the analog-to-digital technology transition is well under way-or even a done deal, in the minds of many-it seems essential to retrospectively examine and reclaim analog videotape as a distinguishable and now disappearing format. At the end of the VHS era, we can now approach it as a historically significant format. Videotape was arguably the key component of the first wave of technologies that changed how viewers used their television sets and expanded their viewing options. Before the VCR, the television monitor was a receiver for network and local broadcasts. With the VCR, and arguably building on it, viewers' options expanded to include timeshifted recordings ("timeshifting" means taping television broadcasts for later viewing), original cable programming, rented movies, home movies, video games, and later video on demand and shared online video clips. As one media historian points out, the VCR, HBO, and video games all debuted in 1975, and by 1978 they were visibly cross-marketed. The VCR led the pack as the most widely and quickly adopted way of transforming television, though increasingly such technologies and services are not so much individual media as components of a multidevice home entertainment system.
It may be illuminating to offer some statistics up front to reveal how and where video went home. VCRs were once the most quickly adopted new consumer entertainment technology, and yet, though they were on the market as early as fall 1975, in 1982 just more than 5 percent of U.S. television households had acquired VCRs. The increased availability of prerecorded videos containing feature films drove the VCR boom of the mid-1980s. The adoption rate eventually grew to nearly 10 percent in 1983, surpassed 25 percent in 1985, surpassed 50 percent in 1987, and eventually surpassed 75 percent in 1992. During that time, prices for machines steadily declined, while the number of video rental stores grew. DVDS debuted in 1997 and essentially hit similar adoption rates in half the time; I would speculate that such numbers indicate a cultural move toward accelerated adoption of consumer electronics of all stripes as much or more than that DVDS satisfied an actual market need.
Although home video is often thought of as an East Asian, North American, and Western European phenomenon, its cultural impact has been significant worldwide, especially in territories with strict media regulations or regions with little infrastructure for local media production. And, perhaps counter to ethnocentric expectations, the Middle East had one of the most accelerated adoption rates for VCRs. For instance, Kuwait saw 85 percent penetration in TV homes by 1983, compared to less than 10 percent adoption in the United States by this time. Although the videocassette technology is essentially the same worldwide, tapes and players have different regional codings, making them incompatible. (Note that this marks video formats as significantly different from audio ones; an audiocassette or disc plays the same in every country.) The rationale for such distinctions may be related to different television standards in different countries, which would in turn necessitate different input signals, but one of the goals of such incompatibilities is to impede global exchange or transnational piracy. Thus analog video (like scrambled cable signals) regulated uses of technology through encryption regardless of legal rights well before digital rights management.
In historicizing and arguing for the specificity of videotape as a format, I turn now to its constituent parts-its components. I start where video started: with audio. Video expanded out of audio technologies scientifically, commercially, and functionally. The use of magnetic tape, standardized plastic cassettes, and even the types of buttons appeared first for audio. Although this historical review may not exactly be sexy, it is at times romantic: music and mix tapes were important and affective common content for tapes. From audio, I turn to video, introducing how it shifted from a broadcast to a home entertainment technology and the very literal way plastic cassettes shaped the ways consumers used video. I then attempt to capture a bit of the lived-in quality of home video by turning attention to the boxy contraptions and entertainment center furniture. I suggest that the videotape's taken-for-grantedness may be because it has in turn been adopted as just another component of how users interact with television on a daily basis, one that has blended in even when it clashes with its surroundings.
Audiotape and Cassettes
In recording and in broadcasting, audio technology has typically preceded audiovisual technology; therefore any history of videotape must remember the relationships between audio and video. In fact, in many ways, video is more closely related to audio technologies and practices than to celluloid, despite direct connection in terms of marketing and content. Because moving-image content transitions between the two platforms so fluidly, this fact bears repeating. As a film historian who stresses the connections between film and video writes, "The two technologies evolved separately, not successively.... Video is not cinema; it only looks like cinema. Its technology is essentially the technology of sound transmission, recording, and reproduction." (Not insignificantly, a seminal aesthetic reading of video positions sound before image.) Audiotape preceded videotape both in the laboratory and in the home; video's development in the lab and its adoption in the home have been informed by sound recording and playback practices. Academic studies of magnetic tape recording have emphasized its impact on production, aesthetics, and distribution within music studies and on technology and political economy in media studies. These cultural histories and theories of audio reproduction demonstrate how common recording practices have been established through misuses (or unintended or unimagined uses) of technology. As early as the nineteenth century, audio recordings reoriented their users' perceptions by initiating a separation of the senses-isolating sound from vision or touch-and listening to recordings became a learned aesthetic practice, what Jonathan Sterne terms "audile technique." Over the decades, trends in performing and methods of listening-creation and reception-also shifted and developed in relation and response to developing recording technologies.
Magnetic tape technology was a post-World War II phenomenon in the United States and Japan, where it was originally developed for broadcasting and business uses and only later became convenient and affordable enough for widespread domestic uses. Thus its development might be considered central to postwar industrial economies and symptomatic of a rise in consumer cultures. The industrial development and market exploitation histories of magnetic tape have been described in depth elsewhere, so I will offer an abbreviated account here. Magnetic audiotape was first manufactured in 1934 in Germany; within four years, tape and the Magnetophon deck were the standard format for recording Reich-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft radio programming. At the end of World War II, U.S. Army electronics specialist John T. Mullin discovered the German Magnetophons and sent two to the army base at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and two to his home in San Francisco. Thus the technology was pillaged from the Nazis and imported to the United States as the spoils of war. In 1946 Mullin gave a public demonstration of the technology to the Institute of Radio Engineers. Ampex, which had been making aircraft motors, switched gears to producing professional sound products, thereby capitalizing on a new postwar market. In 1947 Mullin demonstrated the technology to Bing Crosby, who left NBC for the Mutual network so that he could prerecord radio shows without having to interrupt his golfing hobby. Although "liveness" was prized by broadcasters for its immediacy, quality, and authenticity-as well as a method to ensure local stations' dependence on centralized national networks-resistance to prerecording eventually succumbed to tape's advantages and became standard practice in radio and later in television. Magnetic tape technology was developed to be invisible, so that prerecorded programs were formally indistinguishable from live ones for audiences (though the programs' contents may have been less timely or topical). Transparency and fidelity were considered among the technology's highest virtues for broadcasting and recording professionals. Consumer recording models followed from high-end technologies, typically miniaturized for both reduced cost and user convenience at the expense of fidelity. Memorex even marketed consumer-grade videotape on the basis of its verisimilitude with the famous early 1980s ad campaign "Is it real or is it Memorex?"
Magnetic audio recording technologies were available for office and home uses by the late 1940s, but until the late 1960s they were only adopted by niche users for dictation, hobby recording, party games, and high-fi music reproduction. General users, it seemed, didn't have the need or desire to make their own recordings. And, as the audio historian David Morton has asserted, users were often put off by hearing their own voices played back. Morton also suggests that television, which would eventually drive video recording, initially inhibited home sound recording. "In the early 1950s, television sales skyrocketed and many consumers had to choose between these two fascinating toys. Most chose television" over audio recorders. Finally, in the mid-to-late 1960s, the introduction of 8-track cartridges and compact cassette tapes for recording music-and eventually as a format for buying prerecorded music-boosted consumer adoption.
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Table of ContentsList of illustrations ix
Part I. Videotape and Copyright
Introduction: The Aesthetics of Access 1
Video Clip: Diasporic Asian Video Markets in Orange County 27
1. Be Kind, Rewind: The Histories and Erotics of Home Video 33
Video Clip: Chiller Theatre Toy, Model, and Film Expo 73
2. The Fairest of Them All? Home Video, Copyright, and Fair Use 77
Part II. Case Studies
3. The Revolution Was Recorded: Vanderbilt Television News Archive, Copyright in Conflict, and the Making of TV History 115
Video Clip: Experimental Film on Video: A Frameworks Debate 157
4. Grainy Days and Mondays: Superstar and Bootleg Aesthetics 161
Video Clip: Tape Art 191
5. Joanie and Jackie and Everyone They Know: Video Chainletters as Feminist Community Network 195
Epilogue: YouTube: Where Cultural Memory and Copyright Converge 225