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ABOUT The World ...  

Par Claude Chastagner, professeur d'anglais à l'Université Paul Valéry à Montpellier.

   Fan Power Battling for power on the Internet 

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  The locus of popular dissent in the Western world is changing. If the streets of major cities can still be used for political confrontations (witness Seattle 1999), new venues have appeared. The Internet is one of them, with a twist: it is both the place where the battles are waged and the stake of the conflicts. These conflicts flared up almost incidentally, when a few American teenagers opened Web sites to celebrate and share their passion for rock music, films, cartoons, or TV series.

Soon however, the entertainment industry considered that the sounds and images used on the sites constituted unacceptable infrigements of copyright and filed lawsuits against their founders. In turn, litigation triggered the protest of an increasing number of young people so that what started as mere expressions of fan interest is now likened to an ideological conflict, a youthful rebellion against the transnationals of the entertainment business and capitalism at large, in the name of political, artistic, and economic freedom.

The claims made by the media however (and indirectly by the transnationals themselves through their sheer reaction), that these youths are tantamount to revolutionaries, or at least rebels, need to be examined.

  Have these teenagers actually empowered themselves or are they only "manufactured individuals," the mere puppets of the culture industry, whose very rebellion is part of the plot? Can these events be seen as a reenactment of the students' movements of the late 1960s, with a genuine political involvement? How do they alter the use of the Internet and the concept of popular culture itself? Could their outcome seriously challenge the entertainment industry and dictate new business models? What part do Europeans youngsters play in these struggles? Here are some of the issues I would now like to address.

  Let me first sketch the origin and nature of these conflicts. It is in the music business that the challenges are the most serious, with the coming up of files-sharing sites like Napster and in its wake a few others (Gnutella, Scour, CuteMX, Freenet, iMESH), which offer a revolutionary means to access music through the Internet1. They enable their users to share songs and swap music files which they already have compressed on their computers' hard drives in MP3 format, with other users of the same sites, a free, simple, and fast process which at the time of writing, December 2000, had attracted 38 million users on Napster alone. Obviously, most of the songs thus exchanged are copyright protected, and, as a result, Napster and Scour were sued by the Recording Industry Association of America on behalf of the five majors (Time-Warner, Bertelsmann AG, Universal, EMI, and Sony) for tributary copyright infrigement, i.e., contributing to and facilitating other people's infrigement.

  If digitalised TV programs or films can be exchanged on some of these sites (Gnutella for instance), most visual documents are traded on specific fan sites set up by devotees of the Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X-Files, Star Trek, Friends, Star Wars and the like. Though the images circulating are usually outtakes or rarities with no real commercial value, industry giants like Fox, Viacom, Time Warner, or Paramount have attacked their creators by means of cease-and-desist notices, asking them to remove copyright material. The reason for suing given by the entertainment companies is that they are themselves liable if the work of members of the Screen Actors Guild appears on Web sites.

But there are other, less glorious motives, such as the networks' desire to sell related merchandise on their own sites (whereas fan sites are mostly nonprofit and noncommercial), or their effort to prevent the détournement and distortion that the images are subjected to by the fans.

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° Rubrique About The World