Desktop Critic: Unexpected Lesson in Europe

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Last October, I flew to Austria -- birthplace of Mozart, Freud, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was one of four U.S. instructors brought to a boarding school in Salzburg to present an intensive four-day arts workshop. My art form: drama.

I'd spent ten years conducting musicals in New York, so I thought I'd be in good shape. Unfortunately, only a handful of my students had ever seen even a musical, let alone a play. In fact, this multinational group had only one dramatic cultural reference in common: American movies. I smacked my forehead -- doh! Suddenly I knew exactly how to get 30 kids excited about acting, character, and structure. We'd make movies -- iMovie to the rescue!

We borrowed three DV camcorders and the dean's FireWire PowerBook, which we loaded up with a copy of iMovie 2 that we bought and downloaded from Apple's Web site. After offering a full-day classroom session about lighting, sound, and camcorder technique, I set the kids loose. Each group of ten kids had three days to write, direct, film, and edit a five-minute movie.

The results were outstanding -- and screamingly funny. (My favorite: Young Arnold Schwarzenegger . The star was a hilarious kid from Russia who's about as macho as Woody Allen. You get the idea.) We stayed up all night editing.

On the day the movies were to be shown, however, we ran into a snag: we couldn't output the finished films back to tape, to show at the closing presentation for students, parents, and faculty.

To understand how we wound up in this mess, you may need a strange lesson in very recent European history.

When it became clear that DV camcorders could make copies of copies with no quality loss, the European movie industry reasoned that, soon enough, piracy would run rampant -- and no one would buy movies anymore.

Under pressure from the movie industry, most European governments enacted a peculiar law: If a camcorder has video-input capabilities, it's classified as a recording device, and it's subject to a huge additional tax. Camcorder manu-facturers, in an attempt to keep their consumer lines inexpensive, responded by removing the digital-input feature from their consumer DV camcorders. These models have been, as the Internet punsters say, "nEUtered." (You have to pay the equivalent of $4,000 or more for a camcorder with working DV inputs.)

So there I was, hours before show time, trying to explain a moronic predicament to 30 unhappy faces: that even though we'd been able to send our video to the Mac for editing, we couldn't now return it to the camcorder for playback. The law designed to protect corporate profits ended up suffocating the creativ-ity of a group of young moviemakers.

We wound up hooking up the projector to the PowerBook's video-out jack and playing the movies in iMovie 2's Full Screen mode. The audience cheered and roared with laughter, but inside I was bumming out. As any iMovie jock can tell you, playing DV movies straight off the Mac's hard drive involves an unfortunate trade-off: you have to choose between a clear-but-jerky picture or a smooth-but-blurry one. Only transferring the movie back to your camcorder unlocks the pristine, gorgeous DV footage you really have.

In his book Code (Basic Books, 2000), Lawrence Lessig writes that software code is often a more effective behavior control than legal code. That's exactly the issue here. Electronically speaking, all European DV camcorders are capable of recording incoming video; the lock that nEUters them is only in the software. It didn't take long for Europeans to figure out how to defeat it. Web sites explain how to dis -disable FireWire recording using a special remote control; video shops in many European cities will perform this surgery for a fee.

It's a lesson worth studying, because U.S. manufacturers are once again preparing to shoot themselves in the same foot. Fear of piracy led to the hobbling of MP3 players and high-definition TV, and surely other gadgets will present the same issue.

But why? The arguments are the same ones we heard when VCRs first appeared. "Oh, no! No one will go to movie theaters anymore!" In fact, just the opposite has occurred -- the net result of VCRs has been a staggering increase in the world's appetite for movies.

For our story, there was a happy ending. In the weeks following the arts workshop, the Austrian school found a guy with a Sony DV camcorder he'd had un-nEUtered at a shop in Vienna, so the kids were finally able to transfer their movies to tape and show them to their friends.

But overall, the practice of nEUtering camcorders in Europe is a failure, aimed at preventing a problem that, as the VCR example shows, may not even exist. Let's take the lesson: when lobbyists and pliant bureaucrats drive gadget makers to cripple their wares, they're firing clumsy bullets at a phantom enemy.

DAVID POGUE ( ) is the author of iMovie 2: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press/O'Reilly, 2001).

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