The Role of Copyright Infringement in the Creation of Hollywood

In the first decade of the 20th century, Thomas Edison's film production studio joined with 9 other companies to form the Motion Picture Patents Company(MPCC), a trust that aimed to have a monopoly over the making, distribution and showing of films across America. The men he partnered with were typical upper-class business of that era, uptight and overly formal, just like Edison. While financial domination of the market was a side effect of this monopolization, the main goal of this process was to stop lower - middle class gangsters (usually Jews from New York) from producing and distributing films, men who did not have the same moral standards as the heads of the MPCC. The MPCC would create predictable films that promoted social conservatism (loyalty to the family, the company and the state). The films created by the gangsters however had no such messages and instead were designed to entertain and titillate the audience - usually breaking the bourgeois norms championed by the MPCC.

Looking at the issue entirely from the standpoint of the formal culture, you would think that there was no way these renegade Jews could survive in America. Edison denounced the films as "smut", while the Chicago Tribune said that the theaters they were shown in (nickelodeons) were "without a redeeming feature to warrant their existence" and that they "ministered to the lowest passions of childhood." Formal state power also came down on the side of Edison - a judge in Chicago argued that "these theaters cause, indirectly or directly, more juvenile crime coming into my court than all other causes combined." The Mayor of New York city at the time, George McClellan Jr. was so horrified by the effect of these nickelodeons on the populace that he made a call for them to be shut down.[1]

But the informal, lower class culture loved these low budget theaters. By 1910 over 10,000 nickelodeons existed in America, with over 300 nickelodeons in New York City alone, and more than 100 nickelodeon theaters each in Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. In 1910, an estimated 26 million Americans attended the nickelodeons on a weekly basis, a figure that accounted for 20 per cent of the nation’s total population.[2] This incredibly popular industry was a direct affront to not just the bourgeois values held by the upper class, but also to the monopoly of the MPCC. The equipment owned by the Jewish gangsters who made and distributed the movies was technically illegal as it violated the patent monopoly, as was the projector used in the nickelodeons throughout America. This blatant disregard for the intellectual property of Edison could be seen as one of the first instances of mass scale piracy - individuals en masse disregarding the control of patents over a particular technology and using that to distribute cheap movies throughout the United States. While this was not at all on the level of modern day piracy unleashed by the information technology revolution, it was driven by similar market forces. The sheer number and popularity of nickelodeons, combined with the distribution method of movies (no theater had a monopoly over the movies that were being shown) meant that the main thing the nickelodeons had to compete on was price. The outcome was movies distributed as cheaply as possible throughout America (a nickelodeon charged its customers 5c for a viewing, which despite a lack of inflation was still was a tiny amount of money). In disregarding the intellectual property enforced by Edison and creating a truly open market, the owners of the nickelodeons created a situation in which entertainment was distributed as cheaply as possible (while still being able to make a profit).

Much like the pirates of the computing era, there was a strong backlash by Edison to this movement. Edison first tried to restrain them using legal means - however this was insufficient to stop the proliferation and popularity of nickelodeons, so he hired thugs to go into the New York neighborhoods which housed the production facilities that created the movies and either physically intimidate or outright destroy the production facilities. Buildings were burnt down, equipment was destroyed and films were seized. However being owned by gangsters the Jewish population actively resisted the attempts, resulting in street battles over the production studios where they were filmed and the nickelodeons that showed them.
The threat of physical force however was still enough to move these New York Jews moving out of the city. However they went West to the neighborhood of Hollywood in Las Angeles, where they could take shelter in California's easy-going to patent infringement, as well as taking advantage of the beautiful and diverse local environment, along with the proximity to the southern Mexican border. The independents, unrestricted by a severe morality and driven by market competition were forced to create entertainment for the masses, instead of the uptight works made by the MPCC.
Eventually the MPCC collapsed. There were several reasons for this collapse - the patents on the equipment used to create, distribute and show films expired in 1913, the first World War cut off the European markets which was an important market for the films created by the MPCC. Finally a federal court decision in 1915 ruled the MPCC to be a monopoly, and in doing so stripped it of its control over patents. Without strict control over what could be shown in the marketplace, the MPCC could no longer compete with the Hollywood Jews, some of whom who ended up founding the biggest motion picture companies of the 20th century (Universal Pictures, Paramount, Fox and Warner were all started by Jewish men). As Neal Galber put it, Hollywood was "founded and for more than thirty years operated by Eastern European Jews".[3] Film as an industry originally came out of proto-pirates who disregarded copyright and actively fought against those who tried to enforce it. The parallels to the early battles of the 21st century over copyright enforcement are obvious - the claim that P2P torrent software and services like Napster led to innovative, pay-what-you want stores like Bandcamp and paid streaming services like Spotify has been made many times over by those in the anti-IP camp. This does not just apply for the end product - people have been acquiring illegal or free software for the purposes of creating whatever art they choose for over a decade now. Now instead of having to go to a Jewish gangster for the purposes of creating a film, I can instead torrent some video editing software, acquire an inexpensive camera and microphone and begin shooting. Of course the chance that I will become successful is highly unlikely, but thanks to pirates who disregard the intellectual property claims of corporations, I can take my chance without having to invest too much on the software side of things.

I will not end this post by accusing Hollywood of being hypocrites and that by repressing those who circumvent their IP monopoly they are effectively doing to others what Edison did to them at the turn of the century. Such outcry will go unheard and to be truly honest, they do not care about such things. Remember that the original Hollywood Jews were not just pirates railing against intellectual property, but also gangsters. Why shouldn't they try to protect the massive investment they have made into franchises, actors and equipment? To tell them that they should give up the struggle for intellectual property would be like telling a man swimming across the English channel to stop moving.
That being said, I see no reason why we, the people should have any issue with pirating what these companies produce, with taking the software required to create such products and doing whatever we wish with it. We are currently in an MCPP situation when it comes to the monopoly exerted by entertainment industry through copyright. I see no reason why we should toe the line, other than for the threat of state violence which can be avoided if you know what you are doing. Let us act, just as they did by disrespecting the norms of society, by shrugging off intellectual property and by pursuing our self-interest, be it profit or self-expression and see where that takes us.

Cover image sourced from Wikipedia Commons and belongs to the public domain

  1. All of the unsourced quotes in this paragraph have been taken from Thaddeus Russell's brilliant book, A Renegade History of the United States ↩︎

  2. Merritt, Russell (1976). "Nickelodeon Theaters 1905-1914: Building an Audience for the Movies ↩︎

  3. Taken from a review of The Founding Fathers of Hollywood: AN EMPIRE OF THEIR OWN by the LA Times ↩︎