November 2006


The Australian Government last year had been talking up the opportunities for digital content such as mobile content in Asia.

In August this year however, the Department of Industry and Tourism decided to cut export assistance to the industry, according to the
Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association (AIMA) .

Ultimately, this means that the Department will not be renewing the subsidy it gives to the Association’s Brisbane office to support the industry’s export promotion activities.

The article gave no mention about the activities and the relative success that the association and the Brisbane office in particular has been having with it’s efforts to promote exports, and whether the decision not to renew funding was due to public funds being redirected, or poor performance of the association in promoting the digital content overseas. Information on AIMIA’s TradeStart (in conjunction with Austrade) can be found here.

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With the gradual acceptance of the term ‘creative industries’ and its increasing ubiquitous use to refer to any industry that might be ‘cool’, ‘creative’, or ‘cultural’, it is healthy to see some fresh criticism of the relevance not only as an industry, but as a key government policy.

In an article Making Monkeys of us all in Thisismoney.co.uk, Dan Atkinson questions the metrics and the logic behind the UK Government’s push to make the nation creative.

Atkinson attacks claims of increased job growth in the sector, quoting the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts the Government’s own publication, which stated jobs in advertising and games development have dropped and the number of feature films being released have fallen, all amid ‘increasing international competition’.

Atkinson also mentions an Ofsted (the UK education watchdog) statement about the education system failing students at the secondary school level. While he stops short of directly attributing the decline in ‘creative jobs’ to poor education, Atkinson has demonstrated, if implicitly, that a robust and relevant education is imperative in boosting a nation’s creativity.

Also in the firing line is the recent ‘snobbish’ disdain for manufactures in favour of copyright goods, arguing that ‘it is rather harder to copy an Audi than an Arctic Monkeys CD’.

A century ago, Britain ascribed all sorts of artiness to the mysterious Orient and prided itself on its hard-headed Western know-how. Now, we cheerfully let India and China make things while daydreaming about creativity.

While it’s consumers that copy CDs (other auto manufacturers are rather more likely to ‘copy’ an Audi than an aspiring owner), the article does question the limits of the economic value of intangible products, and the ability to claim ownership of and rents from ideas, information, and knowledge that are becoming increasingly detached from physical vessels that once contained them.

In an entry last month, I made mention of imminent changes to copyright laws doing their rounds through federal parliament in Australia.

In the last few weeks, they have been causing a stir, according to an article in the IT section of The Australian on November 2, with the Internet Industry Association making claims that all sorts of activities we now enjoy will become illegal, and copyright lawyers that The Australian chose to speak to saying that many of these are already illegal under current law.

One thing that seemed to be agreed on however, is the new laws don’t go far enough to allow users to format-shift their CD tracks to MP3 players. From a legal standpoint, syncing your Pod with your PC creates an extra copy, infringing copyright law.

So, creating extra copies for personal use of CDs you bought, recording musicians at a concert you paid to attend – all these would (continue to) be illegal, which is disappointing. Words from John Perry Barlow (of the Grateful Dead fame) spring to mind (in an article “Selling Wine without Bottles“)- saying he didn’t mind fans bringing tape recorders to concerts. They would take home a (low-quality) recording of the event, but they will have paid for the experience of attending the concert. The atmosphere of the concert cannot be recreated simply by replaying a sound or video recording of the event. Being the only real-time source of your intellectual property is where the value lies, according to Barlow.

Perhaps the scarier thing for users is that the new laws apparently allow you to be fined even if you weren’t aware you were breaking the law…

Chinese censors have approved the new Bond movie ‘Casino Royale’ without any changes, according to a movie executive quoted in The Chronicle Herald.

While this is reportedly the first western film to pass through unscathed by the censor’s scissors, more alarming perhaps is figures that suggest only 20 foreign films are allowed to be screened in Chinese cinemas each year.

While other countries also use cultural arguments to regulate the amount of foreign content passing through their borders (Republic of Korea specifies a number of days cinemas must screen Korean movies; Australia requires free-to-air broadcasters to show 55% Australian content between 6am-12am), it seems to be a considerable restriction on the import of foreign films. It wouldn’t be surprising to see film distributors using DVD more (or at least trying to) as a way to circumvent both regulatory bottlenecks in supply and a reduced demand due to piracy.

Flick back to my earlier entry about Warner pulling out of Chinese cinemas. China appears to be putting controls both on the ownership of cinemas and the films that they screen. At least the Bond film being passed by censors suggests that Chinese officials are becoming less concerned about the content of those films coming from the West (or alternatively, that western producers are taking care to tailor content not to cause censors to block their movies!!)

In 2003, the Media Development Authority (MDA) in Singapore launched the “Media21” strategy – a comprehensive strategy to turn Singapore into a ‘global media city’ and make it the major hub for media and digital content in Asia.

Three years on, the industry appears to have grown according to MDA CEO Christopher Chia. In an interview with TV Asia Pacific in October, Chia reported that an estimated 1,000 jobs had been added in 2005 alone (no source for the stats) and a number of collaborative productions had been announced.

The focus of the MDA’s efforts appears to be on transforming Singapore’s (digital) content industry from one that primarily serves the domestic market with any international sales being projects done on consignment, to an industry that is not only fully internationalised but one that produces ‘made-by-Singapore’ content. Ultimately, this means content that is clearly distinguishable as Singaporean, and content that local companies hold copyrights for (as opposed to undertaking work that has been outsourced by foreign companies).

As Chia explains, the MDA encourage the development of ‘high-quality and exportable made-in-Singapore’ content across various genres through several development schemes and facilitate co-productions between local media companies and international partners. Considerable effort appears to have been made to boosting the digital-cinema and HDTV distribution technologies.

But finance-based development schemes, the sustainability of the industry’s capacity to produce compelling local (yet exportable) content also depends on the broader economic and institutional settings that not only facilitate business transactions but also develop the creativity of workers in the industry. A government’s approach to education, combined with its political institutions, can have a significant impact on a nation’s ability to create content and a culture that appeals both to the domestic market and also to international audiences.

Warner Bros. (Time Warner) have announced on Wednesday that they will be withdrawing from their investment in cinema complexes through China, after a change to the foreign investment laws required Chinese interests to hold a majority stake.

The news, which was reported in various publications (china.org.cn, Herald Tribune) indicated that Warner had been allowed to hold a majority share of cinemas in major cities, resulting in them holding 51 percent investment with the rest held by Chinese investors. Yet changes in 2005 forbid foreign interests from holding a majority share of investment in cultural industries, of which cinema is included.

China is not the first country to restrict foreign participation on the basis of preserving cultural identity (Korea’s cinema quotas are one example, Australia’s local content requirements for free-to-air television broadcast are another), but it is questionable whether placing investment restrictions on foreigners at the distribution/exhibition level will boost the production and consumption of high-quality local content.

While the imperative to  promote and protect (to a degree) cultural heritage is understandable, restricting foreign investment is not necessarily going to deliver for local cultural industries. While I am not championing the interests of US-based multinationals, it could be easy for the actions of Chinese policymakers to be interpreted not only as a reversion to protectionism, but as a way of developing local industries by allowing foreigners to establish businesses only to force them into the hands of locasl – not by compulsory acquisition but by requiring Chinese interests to take a controlling stake.

Alternatively, news in the International Herald Tribune (from Bloomberg – link above) suggests that Warner may have another strategic interest in exiting the cinema business. In an effort to thwart bootleggers, Warner are considering releasing movies in China on DVD at the same time they screen in the US, indicating that they view cinema’s as an ineffective (or less profitable) distribution channel by which to exploit the earning potential of content they hold copyrights for.

Among the countries in Asia (including Australia and New Zealand) who have been eager to promote the digital content industry as a key driver of growth in the economy, Vietnam has entered the fray, with the government poised to set revenue targets for the industry of US$400 million by 2010. While this may not seem much compared with the industry’s size in other nations such as Australia or Japan in particular, industry revenue there is growing at 35-40% according to the Nhan Dan. The government’s DCI masterplan hopes to increase this growth rate to 50% per annum, according to iConnect Online.

One serious issue here is how big a role the government can (or should) play in ‘promoting’ the industry. While digital content is emerging as an industry earmarked for strategic support, no mention has yet been made as to whether this support will entail subsidies and tax concessions for local firms or multinational enterprises to setup, or more structurally-oriented policies that provide funding for industry-specific training and education, and relax financial and investment regulations.

If, as the Nhan Dan article suggests, that industry growth is already as high as 35-40%*, can the government do anymore to increase the importance of the industry? Other than reconfiguring structural and regulatory regimes that inhibit the growth of new and high-growth sectors such as digital content, the industry may benefit from being left to their own devices.

According to an article in Vietnam Net Bridge, this appears to be case, with the Government recognising the need for both training courses and the development of broadband infrastructure to support the industry’s development. The iConnect article also makes mention of the government’s plan to develop ‘legal corridors and copyright protection’, which are currently lacking. While the government may very well introduce financial incentives to grow the industry, the policies mentioned thus far appear to be  on track to provide the industry with the structural and institutional support it needs to continue developing.

(*the Nhan Dan article makes no mention of this growth rate being annual or over a 4 year period. Articles from VNA indicate that this is annual growth. This extraordinarily high growth rate can be explained from the very small starting point of the industry.)

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