Digitising VHS: Piracy or Protection?

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Here at Video Cultures HQ, we’ve been talking about the use of digital technology and the Internet as an archiving tool for video content that has never been released in any high resolution format such as DVD or Blu-Ray. In recent years, a number of ‘link sharing’ websites have sprung up online giving rise to communities of film fans who digitise their old VHS tapes so that their favourite films are not lost to the ravages of time. They then share this material over the Internet with like-minded fans.

What are your thoughts on this practice? Is this simply a flagrant violation of copyright or are there some deeper cultural rituals at work here? After all, who hasn’t discovered a great film or a great album by having a cassette copy thrust into their hands by an eager friend? Are these sorts of communities providing a virtual upgrade on the word of mouth recommendations we all used to receive at our local video shops?

In an age when there is little need to have a conversation in order to rent a movie, download a film on demand or stream a movie from Netflix, should we view communities such as these as people with no respect for the ownership of intellectual property, or as film lovers trying to protect forgotten works from extinction? Can we honestly say that the routine of digitising obsolete VHS tapes results in lost income for the content owner?

The argument is that these kinds of online sharing routines destroy the industry’s ability to make money and therefore damage its ability to make new products. The archivist might suggest that using technology in this way gives the next generation of film fans an opportunity to discover material they would never normally have been exposed to and thus increases the chances of commercial success when older films are eventually remastered and released in a modern format.

Historically, there has been fear in both the video and music industries about home taping on cassette. This was, of course, further transformed by the arrival of digital technology that could produce perfect copies at a low cost. In music, an enormous percentage of all of the albums ever recorded are rotting in vaults because there is no financial incentive to make them available. Could the free market research carried out by this new breed of digital archivist be one of the greatest assets the video industry ever had? Or should film fans seek out those video shops that remain open and instead support them with their custom? Are there even any shops in the UK still carrying obsolete video formats for rental?

In its broadest sense, this is a debate that continues to rage today as media producers try to understand the Internet and its impact upon their existing business models. No doubt the answer lies in the grey area between these two polarities. What are your views on this?

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