What It All Means: Disco Copyright

I’m still working on my first few full-item posts, and so today I’d like to show a video I did last year which used the record-player/8-track/cassette player/radio combo unit I found at a garage sale last year.

I was around six years old when my dad brought home our first VHS player.  I remember the first video we watched was the old Disney movie Blackbeard’s Ghost.  I quickly took to the new device and was fascinated by how you could record stuff off TV and watch and re-watch it to your heart’s content.  The main problem was that most of the movies we watched were rented from a video store (which in Guatamala City, where we lived, consisted of a place that taped American movies off cable and then rented them out (thanks SEVISA!)), and so the movies always had to be returned to the store at some point.  So I put my small mind to work on that problem and I remember the day I figured it out.  If only we had TWO VHS players!  The one could play the video on the TV, and then the second could record that same movie off the TV, and the movie would be TRAPPED on the second VHS tape!  I would find out later that this was more or less what you could do to copy VHS tapes, but at the time I was thrilled by this thought of being able to copy something you didn’t own and then also own a copy.  It wasn’t stealing because you could still return the original!  It was a victimless crime!

It’s now 2012 and I understand a bit more about copyright law and all of it’s vagaries.  I know that when I buy software or a movie or music I’m not purchasing a physical item, but rather the license to consume the content (and only in selective situations).  I know there are many complicated repercussions for artists and corporations to either allow or disallow copyright infringements.  And I know that most regular folks out there seem pretty content to interpret all copyright laws to their own liking and everyone has a slightly different place where they draw the line.

However, the point of this post isn’t to discuss the legality of torrenting or piracy, but rather to think about  the act of copying.  The Xerox was a way you could copy a book without paying for it.  Any audio recording device is a way you can copy audio from live music to pre-recorded tapes or CDs or MP3s and distribute without fees.  The VHS opened the floodgates for recording live TV and other VHS tapes.  The interesting difference between all those methods and modern digital ones is that all of the early forms of copying assumed generational degradation.  I remember watching movies that had obviously been copied two or three times and the tracking could never quick fix the white lines of static around the corners.  I recorded songs off the radio on cassettes which got muddier each time I transfered them to another mix tape.  I’ve read smudged and grainy Xerox’d articles out of books in college, and it’s a large step down from the original.

The quality of an MP3 or ebook or AVI file stays consistent regardless of how many times it’s copied.  There is no loss.  And while I like what that’s done for the future and the media industries, it also makes me a little bit sad.  There is something comfortingly physical about static lines, Xerox smudges, and radio DJs talking over songs.  Each copy was unique.  It carried with it a history and markers of the time and place of it’s copy.  It isn’t quite the same as seeing the HDTV.x264-EVOLVE.[eztv] tag at the end of a downloaded video file.  Anyway, this is mostly what this video is about.

PS- It’s not 100% clear from the video, but the disco ball is actually set in the top part of the record-player/8-track/cassette player/radio combo unit.  It really is a bizarre structure.  I will do a full post on it later.


5 thoughts on “What It All Means: Disco Copyright

  1. Our memories differ…I was sure the first VHS tape we watched on our own machine was “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and it had an intermission in it…where someone (hehem) made us run around to exercise before we could watch the rest…

    • I remember that as well, but I can’t remember which was first. And part of me thinks both videos might have been rented at the same time. Although if I really try to remember, I think we might have borrowed uncle bills VCR before we owned our own, and I’m thinking that our two memories might be of two different times, one when we were borrowing and one when we finally hot our own.

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