Slyck Interviews Julien McArdle

The concept of free movies is typically associated with piracy. For Celsius Studio’s however, this documentary is purposefully distributed freely by the creator himself.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

Just like Star Wreck and Orange, this documentary is distributed under a Creative Commons License. So what? It’s a documentary on a topic that many are familiar with: piracy.

The documentary is labeled ‘Piracy Documentary’ and will be available on the Piracy Documentary homepage. It shows viewpoints from bands to the recording industry to fans and even sceners themselves.

It’s a small time movie with a big time topic. What better way to get a good look at the movie then to talk to Julien McArdle, the creator of the movie? Slyck interviewed Julien for a better insight onto the movie to be released very soon.

What motivated you to create a documentary like this?

I was quite unimpressed with the state of news reporting on the issue of piracy. Reporters seemed to rehash the press releases of certain organizations, never exploring the issue any deeper. At best, they’d get interviews, which consisted of pitting the opinions of a very eloquent lawyer against those of a pimpled-faced teenager that could barely put two words together. I wanted to change all that; especially as politicians in Canada were set to pass new legislation based upon what the news media fed them.

Being a student, you work with a limited budget. Some movie executives can argue that a full length movie costs upwards of 98 million dollars to create. How were you able to overcome this feat of covering the costs of making this movie?

Movies aren’t cheap to produce; and underground indy documentaries are no exception. With that in mind, I can’t emphasize how incredibly fortunate I have been to know some such kind people. These people dedicated a lot of their time to help me out with this documentary, and its resulted in me ending up with a narration, music, sketches, credits, and subtitles in foreign languages all being done for free.

But even so, I still spent a fair bit of money getting this movie off the ground. For instance, I spent over $100 on microphones, $200 on DV tapes, $150 on music, and that doesn’t even include the costs of traveling to Toronto and Montreal. Since I had close to $0 in my bank account before the project even began, I went deeply in debt rather quickly.

So there I was in early January, completely broke. Meanwhile I still had interviews to complete in Toronto/Montreal. It is at that point that my parents came to the rescue, and helped fund me to go to these places and gather the necessary footage. They are absolutely incredible people, and I will never be able to thank them enough for what they did.

As of today, I’m about $700 in debt. I have to pay the bank back by the end of the month, but I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to meet that deadline (yay for working 70 hours a week.) On top of work, I’ve received $350 in donations during the whole production, and that’s helped me a fair bit too. I’m just thankful that the spending phase of this project is over.

Also along the lines of being a student, you are also limited to time as well as other obligations. Was it passion that kept you on track through the stress of classes?

Well, its rather interesting how things turned out. At the end of my first semester I was dangerously close to being kicked out of my program at the University (greetz to all Physical Geographers/Geologists!). I had failed a statistics class, my third… or was it fourth… failure of a math class. In any instance, that stats class was a prerequisite to a supposedly far more difficult class – GeoStatistics. If I failed again, I would be kicked out.

So I made the conscious decision of only going for 4 classes in the new semester instead of the standard 5 or the 6 I had taken the previous semester. I also decided to stop working, living off the funds I had saved up (reason why I was close to $0 during the beginning of production), and concentrating all efforts on good grades.

Of course, that extra time was also the perfect opportunity for me to work on the film. So I wasn’t as pressured for time as many of my peers, and I was lucky in that way. It really wasn’t passion that kept me on track; that had died off months before along with my inner child. I really don’t know what kept me going though. I usually wasn’t particularly looking forward to calling organizations up to arrange interviews. I figure its the same kind of energy that people amass right before they go jogging; when they don’t feel like it but they know its for the best.

Oh and as it turns out, I ended up passing GeoStatistics with a B!

You were able to contact a lot of people throughout the process of making the documentary. How were you able to get in contact with so many people and how were you able to organize the interviews? Also, how were you able to get such an elaborate number of different people, especially a scener?

Surprisingly, most of the interviews I ended up with were people that
were recommended to me by other interviewees or contacts. These people in turn would recommend others that were experts on a particular subject of interest to the film. That’s how I got about 60% of my interviewees. The difficulty is to get that initial person that opens the floodgates to all the other interviewees. But once that happens, you’re golden.

The way I went about organizing interviews was pretty systematic. For corporations/organizations: I would call the media relations person of my contact. They would then ask that I return an email with a synopsis of the movie, the distribution, the audience, deadlines, etc. I would do so. Then, I’d hear nothing from them for a few days. I would call them up again, and see what was up. They wouldn’t be there, or if they were there, they’d announce that they would get back to me. A few days later, I would call them up again, and see what was up. Repeat, mix, stir, and I’d end up with an interview time. The process would take a week, upwards to a month.

Obtaining interviews with individual persons was a lot easier. I’d email them, they’d email me back saying “sure” and “when would be a good time?” A few emails later and an interview time would be set.

As for the diversity of the people – the limits are only set by your imagination. The biggest mistake one can do is to think that they can go too big by trying to obtain certain individuals. The worse that can happen is that someone says no – and when that happens, you simply switch to another person. That said, most people like to say yes.

Apparently, you had some legal problems with a track at the end and it delayed the release, could you elaborate what actually happened and do you have any opinion on this occurrence?

A song that had been used for the end credits of the film, which was recorded in 1929 and whose author/recording-artist are both long dead, was erroneously listed in a Public Domain database. The song was obtained from this database, and was used in the film. The day after the movie was released, I got a call from the organization in charge of music reproductive rights in Canada. The contact in that organization warned that the song was still under copyright, and I consequently promptly removed the film from the Internet. This was not a formal cease-and-desist order, but more of a kind warning.

Instead of spending 24 hours to re-render the movie without the infringing track, I simply decided to hold off until the final version of the film is complete. This final version will have improvements most notably in the audio/soundtrack/graphics dept., and will not feature the problematic track in question.

I am thankful that the person contacted me and let me know, and that I was able to immediately correct the situation.

Going in to this project, did you have any personal opinions on the issues at hand and did those opinions change by the end of the process or did it strengthen your opinion you may have already had?

This is actually a surprisingly tough question to answer.

Yes, my opinions did shift a bit. I realized that there was a lot more to this issue than either of the stereotypical extremes we’ve heard so much about. This is such an incredibly complicated issue, and the scope of it goes really beyond pinning the blame on just one thing or whatnot. I now stand in what I consider to be a much more balanced viewpoint, somewhere between the stance of “Copyright Maximalist” and “Pro-User Zealot.”

Were there any surprises throughout the interviews?

Well, not so much for myself as for my interviewees. I have the knack of making myself sound a lot more than I am when planning these interviews. I present myself as “Julien McArdle” from “Celsius Studios”, and we’re producing this big documentary that goes by the codename of “The Piracy Documentary.” So when people finally see me, this 20 year old with this dinky camera walk through their door, they’re a fair bit surprised. Initial reactions include anywhere from “So where’s the rest of your [film] crew?” to a simple yet effective “Oh.” Mind you, I still obtained the interviews nonetheless. ^_^

I think the most pleasant surprise though was when I had finished wrapping up filming Graham Henderson (president, CRIA), and we started talking on the issue of piracy. He had no reason to stay there and talk; heck he had just spent an hour of his time being interviewed; and yet there he was. Though you may disagree with his viewpoints, it was obvious that he *cared* about the topic at hand, no matter where his stance lay. I have to say though many of my other interviewees were like that as well, which culminated into quite a terrific experience on my end.

Was there anything you learned in the making of the documentary? Also, looking back on all the topics you covered – file sharing, copyright works, DRM, CD prices, blank media levy, TPM’s, Walmart, etc. – which areas have your opinions shifted the most? What changed your mind?

One thing I learned: even if you’re incredibly in debt, always make sure to have lighting equipment. It’ll really pay off later. Oh, and also never put in the battery in your lapelle microphone upside down, especially if you’re using that very mic to perform 4 interviews in Toronto. You might regret it. >.< My opinion shifted the most on the impact of file-sharing on the industry. I used to be skeptical on its effects; believing that a great many people used P2P to enhance their buying experience, sampling music and so forth. But when I went out and interviewed youths for myself, most said that they downloaded as a *replacement* to purchasing CDs/legit downloads. Their purchases of music had either reduced, or gone down to zero. It was quite a culture shock, and quite a different perspective to that in the upper echelons of the warez scene where there's far more respect for the artists and their income. You are planning on posting this under a Creative Commons License. What prompted this decision or was this all pre-planned for a number of reasons to make this a Creative Commons Licensed work? Also, why did you decide on a pricing structure of pay by donation?

Creative Commons was planned from the get-go. I wanted the movie to spread across P2P networks; I wanted people to share this freely with their friends. Money was never an objective for me, and I realized that many people that wanted to see the film might not have the means to pay to see it. So why cut them off?

I don’t regret this decision at all. People have been really forthcoming about helping me out for free, and I seriously doubt that that would of been the case had I began charging $30 to purchase the documentary. I might still go ahead and put up a DVD for people to buy, but people will always be free to get a DVD ISO and XViD download.

The Pay-By-Donation model gives people a flexible way to help contribute to kill off the debt I racked up making this film. It doesn’t prevent teens w/o Paypal accounts from watching the film, but it allows those that can and want to to help me out.

Having studied piracy in so much depth, what would your three point plan be if you were in charge of the MPAA?

Well first, I’d pass an amendment to the DMCA, adding an exception that would make it legal to circumvent TPMs in instances of fair use. That means making it legal to watch DVDs and legally purchased movies on any hardware, be it a Linux box or a Video iPod.

Secondly, I would look at breaking down the barriers in international distribution. Movies in Europe/Australia are released weeks/months after their launch in the US. This lag encourages piracy. Though piracy shouldn’t be accommodated, having simultaneous launch dates could only have positive repercussions. Release the movie in the US a little later if you have to, in order to get the releases in other countries all settled out.

Finally, I’d stop trying to push through technologies which only screws over legitimate content owners, and which will not ever actually put a dint in mass piracy. Microsoft OPM, I’m looking at you. I’m also looking straight at you, Mr. Analog Hole Bill.

What do you hope to get out of this documentary?

More informed politicians, for a more balanced legal platform. I weep when I think that their prime source of information to decide the future of our legal landscape is the news media. That the news media is even allowed to get away with such uninformed reports is a true shame.

I don’t want my documentary to be assumed as an educational tool. It has a slant to it, despite my best efforts to present balanced viewpoints. What I’d really much rather see is for politicians to use this movie as a springboard to do their own research.

For instance, the concept of DRMs is introduced for instance in this film. I’d be much happier having a politician go out of his way to rebuttal my film every which way he can using his own research, than one that just gobbles up the information I have in my movie without questioning it. Critical thinking. Its what we need more of.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The music industry has some tough competition: illegitimate Internet downloading. The solutions thus far have consisted of DRMs and shutting down the P2P networks. DRM, as far as CDs go anyways, really have not impacted the volume of piracy going on. But it has made it a pain for legitimate customers. Shutting down P2P networks is a futile effort – people just switch over to the next new fangled service. It can be made illegal, attempts can be made at filtering it, thousands of lawsuits can be launched – but the problem will not simply vanish.

I’d love to see the music industry winning by simply presenting a better alternative *without* conceding to the inequalities brought forth by piracy. Most notably, a Magnatune-style operation. People could stream the entire song/CD for free and instantly. No 30 second clip nonsense. That alone would be motive for people to switch, as it would be far quicker and easier to obtain music via a stream than to go through the trouble of downloading a tune. If they wanted to download the CD for themselves, they could spend 5 dollars (or what they want to give), and in exchange receive high quality (and non-DRMed) MP3s and/or WAV files.

This is a system which is already working. But it requires trust, and unfortunately, I feel that that’s precisely what the industry has been lacking in its own consumers. I just wish one mainstream label could try it out… someone… anyone… just to prove that it can work.

I’d also like to say that within the Internet-savvy community, the organisations representing the “music industry” are always portrayed as the bad guys. They aren’t. Their prime business model of revenue is endangered by out-of-control online distribution systems, and they’re acting to curb that whichever way they can. To expect them to stand idly by as this goes on would be illogical.

If they didn’t do anything, we would live in a world where P2P is accepted as a means to get music as a replacement to purchasing CDs or tunes online. Not as a sampling platform where purchases come later, but as a 100% replacement. There is no question in my mind that such an alternative would mean a heavy loss in profits to artists. So while I disagree with the actions undertaken with the industry to curb the filesharing issue, I do believe that something has to be done, and fast.

I don’t believe that stopping P2P is feasible or a wise decision. I believe that the business models have to change and accept the digital marketplace. Yes, that’s what the industry has been trying to do (they’re not blind nor stupid), but there needs to be more time invested into how to do it properly.

Editor’s note: would like to thank Julien McArdle for his insight and taking the time to participate in this interview.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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