Review of Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright – Lucas Hilderbrand

In his latest book: Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape (2009) Lucas Hilderbrand explores the analog past of video nostalgically, and shows its importance and relevance to (new) media studies. Hilderbrand mainly focuses on the aesthetic, cultural and legal impact of the analog videotape era to create a refreshing view of the analog past’s heritage to the digital age.

The first chapter describes the industrial, legal and cultural history of videotape. It revolves around the desire of access, what he terms ‘aesthetics of access’. The second chapter offers case three studies, which is followed by an epilogue about YouTube.

The new media ‘revolution’ obviously didn’t start with the Internet; it started a long time ago with video. When analog videotape and VCRs were introduced and marketed to consumers in the seventies, they were able to record every television show they wanted, watch it later (called timeshifting), skip the commercials and more importantly create a bootleg. Although there were a lot of U.S. court cases in which the recording without permission from the rights owner was questioned, analog video had loose regulations.

Hilderbrand often refers to the famous Betamax case, in which Universal and Disney sued Sony for selling copyright infringing technology. Courts’ decision resulted in the existence the Fair Use policy, whereby timeshifting was considered to be a fair use. Sony couldn’t be held responsible for the inappropriate use of their machines.

Hilderbrand argues that the ‘fair use’ policy emerged from the consumers’ right to access, which over time turned into a defense for infringing copyright. Instead, according to Hilderbrand ‘fair use’ should be considered as a way to document history, personalize texts (audio/visual narratives) and distribute rare works. The way the audience accessed, altered and watched analog video should support this idea.

In the eighties Hollywood, bootleggers and the pornographic industry had discovered the potential benefits of VHS. Hollywood founded a new market instead of turning against it, bootleggers copied and distributed rare works and pornography was a widespread phenomenon.

Bootlegging a videotape isn’t just duplicating video. Hilderbrand argues there’s an aesthetic value added. With each bootleg, the audience becomes aware of its degeneration. Lines and glitches appear, the image can become blurred and the sound can change. This contributes to the video experience and can make it more personal. This is what Hilderbrand means by ‘personalizing text’.

Personally, I would have like it if Hilderbrand had addressed ‘remixing’ more clearly, not especially in the context of ‘personalized text’, but rather throughout the whole book. When I read that some VCRs had the possibility (through dubbing) to add a different soundtrack to the videotape, I coulnd’t help to relate it to the personalized music videos that today are everywhere on the web. In the digital age we’re almost constantly personalizing texts. While perhaps not mentioning remixing enough, Hilderbrand does however mention Creative Commons, but not necessarily as a fair alternative to Copyright when it comes to ‘personalizing’ texts.

He does illustrates ‘personalized text’ itself by using two splendid examples: A short experimental movie called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1989) and Joanie 4 Jackie (Miranda July – 1995), which is a feminist tape-sharing network.

Hayne’s Superstar is a film where the pop star Karen Carpenter is portrayed as a miserable anorectic Barbie doll that is influenced by “the media”, and contains the soundtrack by Richard Carpenter. Consider it a cult classic. It has been popular for being ‘banned’ due to the use of unauthorized material and for the way it circulated in the audience.

In both examples video tapes were being bootlegged, altered and distributed. However, the Joanie 4 Jackie project made it possible to share and deal with interconnected issues. Joanie 4 Jackie was a project in which women distributed chain letter video tapes in their network, adding footage to it when they receive the videotapes. While the Joanie 4 Jackie project ran in a determined social network, Superstar was distributed through personal connections. It could appear anywhere, in any altered version. Both case studies illustrate how the access to video has changed. Viewers turned into users of video.

The third case study (which is the first one in the book) is about the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. The VTNA was founded in 1968 by Paul Simpson. He approached the Vanderbilt University with the idea that he wanted to archive the news from ABC, CBS and NBC. CBS sued him for copyright infringement while the VTNA was part of their organization. However, eventually it was considered as an archive worth to preserve. It is a remarkable initiative that shows need to preserve cultural (video) history. Today the archive digitally still isn’t fully available to everyone.

Digital video as opposed to analog videotape has often more restrictions and more levels of mediation; videos might be locked with a DRM technology or are uploaded to the web from a mobile device and lose quality through compression. In the epilogue Hilderbrand analyses digital video on the post-broadcasting community website YouTube. He thinks YouTube is important for replaying pop-culture memory, but it’s limited, because of its fleeting access; video can disappear fast when the copyright owners has asked to take it down. It remains a matter of time and control.

Hilderbrand concludes that copyright should serve the public good; instead of using copy-prevention strategies for market purposes, we should look for a fair way to archive and preserve media. Copyright namely endangers the preservation of cultural memory.

Inherent Vice is an interesting read for everyone who’s involved with (new) media studies; it reminded me to be aware of mediation, the possible differences in accessing media, the aesthetic value of a format and the importance of the preservation of cultural memory. First I focused more on the music industry when I studied copyright’s survival, but now video tape has opened my eyes to an important history that could possibly change the future access to media content.

Lucas Hilderbrand is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Hilderbrand, Lucas ‘Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright’, Duke University Press, 2009

Official book page at Duke University Press
Interview with Lucas Hilderband by
watch: Superstar: a Karen Carpenter Story
Joanie 4 Jackie
Vanderbilt Television News Archive

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