Sometimes it’s really hard to make heads or tails of the copyright wars.

The record labels claim that as long as people can download files illegally with impunity, they have no reason to pay for it and this could drive the industry under. This makes sense because, well, why pay for something when you can get it for free? It used to be that you bought a CD cause you wanted something physical and it was already fully capable of playing in a CD player. Now, though, MP3-playing CD players are commonplace and CD burning hardware and media are so cheap that the gap has not only closed, but MP3s have become more convenient.

On the other hand, you have consumers that used to argue that they used Napster because there was no legal way to get the music in MP3 format. If they wanted just one song, they’d have to buy the entire CD and if they wanted an MP3 they would have to rip it themselves (often using software that cost money) if they could. If the music labels would just offer what the download sites are offering for free, they would gladly pay. Of course, eMusic offered that, but that didn’t count because nobody heard of most of their artists. Then they could listen to the artists that they’d heard before on iTunes, but that didn’t count because it was DRMed. But now that’s not even the case.

A recent survey and sales figures from the British Phonographic Industry shows that both of these defenses are flawed, at least across the pond. Despite the extraordinary availability of legal downloads and legal access to music, about one in three customers are still downloading music illegally. Despite this, digital music sales are soaring.

So on one hand, clearly even in an environment where people can download music without much fear of getting caught, a lot of people are still happy to pay for it. Stripping the music files of DRM didn’t even seem to hurt as much as predicted. Of course, the music industry is still trying to put up barriers and it’s possible that it’s those barriers that are preventing people from illegally downloading all of their music. Thus, if they stopped trying and illegal filesharing became more socially normalized than it already is that sales would take a tumble. As much as we consumers would love to say “That won’t happen!” or “You can make up the money elsewhere!”, we’re not the ones betting our livelihood on this idea.

On the other hand, the ethical arguments in favor of filesharing are diminishing on a pretty annual basis. The music is available. A wide variety of music is available to sample if you want to try before you buy (in limited quantities for free or unlimited quantities for $5/mo). DRM is no longer required. Monthly subscriptions give you access to millions of songs to sample or listen to around the house. The only excuse left, really, is that they cost too much. That’s not entirely an excuse, though. Record labels are stuck into an old way of thinking wherein the purchase of each song ought to be a moneymaker. I really do find it likely that if they sold songs for a quarter a piece, people would believe that they’re getting a better value and ultimately would end up spending more money.

Increasingly, I don’t have a dog in this hunt anymore. If all of the record labels went out of business tomorrow, I would be okay. Musicians will still be musicians. I’d have to look harder for new bands, but in Colosse about 90% of what I was buying was from unsigned acts. On the other hand, if the record industry ever actually found a way to prevent piracy… well, Rhapsody is already the recipient of the lion’s share of my music entertainment budget and the rest I buy from independent MP3 retail sites. The main way that I could lose is if the record labels were to eliminate piracy and then turn around and prevent people from buying music. But even then, boycotting them would be the easiest thing in the world to do. I guess I could also lose if the record labels all went out of business but they (or some other organization) still managed to prevent artists from creating alternative markets for their product. I find that extremely unlikely.


Category: Theater

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6 Responses to Copyright: Everybody’s Wrong (and Increasingly, I Couldn’t Care Less)

  1. web says:

    The real purpose of DRM is not to “prevent piracy.”

    The real purpose of DRM is to prevent it from being a true purchase, and lock it in to a microspecific player device.

    I refer you to this XKCD strip that illustrates the point perfectly.

  2. trumwill says:

    If it was their main desire to prevent people from making illegal copies and not to restrict true purchase, what could they do differently? How do you prevent people from making illegal copies without inconveniencing (and limiting full ownership to) legitimate buyers? Anything that lets people back up, transfer media, and have free access to what they’ve purchased also allows people to illegally distribute their product.

    They have less reason to trust consumers to behave ethically than we have to trust them to behave ethically. I’m not saying that they’re right and we’re wrong, because that’s really not the case, but it’s just not so simple as to say that we’re right and they’re wrong.

  3. web says:

    Will,

    The fact remains that so-called “illegal copying” has always existed and has never shown any harm to the markets so far. In fact, the earliest use of the word “piracy” to mean “copyright infringement” was referring to people in London and Paris who’d set up rogue printing presses and were reprinting (on the cheap) the writings of certain authors.

    The other problem with this scenario is that there is (despite the protestations of nitwits and jerks to the contrary) such a thing as a legitimate, yet unauthorized, copy. The law has long accepted that people have the right, for instance, to keep a backup of recorded media. There’s also the respected right to space-shift media from one device to another, no matter how cumbersome. For example, a certain firefighter in a recent landmark Supreme Court case hired a friend to read aloud, and record, “copies” (thus space-shifted from page to audiotape) of his textbooks so as to be able to study and get around the disability of Dyslexia. The unfortunate reality of DRM is that its primary purpose is to screw the consumer out of their legitimate rights to this (MafiAA lawyers, for example, reacted to the possibility of a “circumvention legality exception” for pulling excerpts from a DVD into Powerpoint for quotation/illustration/educational “fair use” purposes by insisting that a copy rendered by pointing a cheapo camcorder at a small TV screen, widely considered unusable in modern standards, was “good enough.”)

    There has never in recorded history been a time when the ability to copy has been a problem, even when DRM did not exist. Despite the rumblings of industries to the contrary (the “don’t copy that floppy” campaign, music fears of “tape copying parties”, and Jack Technophobe Valenti’s famous “Boston Strangler” remark), it simply hasn’t occurred. Further, the effects of free advertising are strong. The music industry, for example, saw its strongest profits in the heyday of Napster and have seen a steady decline since that appears to directly correlate with only two factors: their lack of new releases and the increasing menace with which they have attempted to “crack down” on what they call “piracy.” The PC games market is dying, but nobody on the planet insists that piracy the cause – the cause is that video game consoles have rendered the PC secondary to anything but MMORPG titles, which (for obvious reasons of requiring a game subscription) are pretty much immune to “piracy” anyways. In fact, for over a decade now the cry from PC gamers has been for the companies to STOP trying DRM schemes, which inevitably do nothing to stop piracy but instead wind up making the game virtually unplayable on many machines.

    Is there an amount of illicit copying going on out there? Probably. Is it something that, absent DRM, would be any worse? Given the rate at which DRM is cracked and worked around, I have to say no. Is the “but it stops the casual guys even if it doesn’t stop the determined guys” argument workable? I again, have to say no. Breaking DVD encryption, Blu-Ray encryption, game console controls, PC game copy protection, or anything else is pretty much trivial. If it exists, there’s a toolkit for it and a google search will bring you the toolkit.

    At the bottom line, I believe that the law should always err on the side of the consumer. We sell people hammers to pound nails, even though they can potentially break windows or worse. By the same token, the technology which would allow for, say, making a DVD copy for use and keeping the original in a safe place (in case of attack of small child, chewing dog, roommate’s sizable posterior, or other destructive possibilities) ought to be legal even though it could, theoretically, be used for someone to make a copy to hand to their friend.

  4. trumwill says:

    At the bottom line, I believe that the law should always err on the side of the consumer.

    Of course you do, Web. You’re the consumer! So am I, so I don’t really disagree with you on this point. If piracy runs amok, our livelihoods aren’t ruined!

    But there is an alternate argument, which is that when we buy a CD we are buying a physical item. If that item gets scratched, why should we expect another? We don’t get another car if our car breaks down. If the physical CD doesn’t work exactly as we would like it to, well that’s no different than a car that doesn’t work like we want it to. If our needs change and we don’t want a CD anymore but rather want digital copies, well that’s no different than saying we don’t have a right to trade in our motorcycle for a van as our needs change.

    I disagree with the above paragraph, of course. To me, when I’m buying a CD, I am buying the music on the CD. But that’s just a point of view. A consumer’s point of view. A very convenient point of view because it means that I get more for my money. It’s really no surprise that consumers want the laws to favor them at the expense of content providers, just as it’s no surprise that content providers want the laws to favor them over consumers. No commandment on the matter was sent down to Moses on the Temple Mount. Art is its own thing and the ability to make digital copies of things with no degradation in quality and at almost no cost makes everything different. Even in the history of media and DRM with tape dubbers and VCRs, we are looking at something qualitatively different. There are key differences with everything else you might try to compare it to.

    I’m less concerned with law, though. I’m more concerned that we figure out a way that the consumers get what they want and the providers gets paid for their investments so that they can invest more and provide more content. Unfortunately, that’s easier said that done. There is far too much entitlement. Elements within the music industry believe that they are entitled to something any time someone listens to their music because of the pleasure it provides. Elements within their customer base believe that they are entitled for something because the record companies are mean. There are more reasonable people on each side, but ultimately the reasonable ones so mistrust the unreasonable ones on the other side that they end up allying with the unreasonable ones on their own side.

    This isn’t as big a problem for me for music because I really don’t care if the record industry goes down in flames. I am a bit concerned about what this could mean for the movie industry because a guy in a garage can’t provide me with movies the same way that he can provide me with music.

    -{This is a resubmission of a comment that got lost. It’s a lot shorter than the previous comment, which is probably better for everybody involved. However, I may have missed a point or two and reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks in further comments when I have access to a computer and the Internet}-

  5. john says:

    Saint Bono boldly speaks truth to Big Piracy here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/opinion/03bono.html

  6. trumwill says:

    Re: Bono

    Of course, the thing is that 24 is free and has been since it first aired. It’s ad-supported. If the networks are smarter than the music companies, they’ll find a model where they can keep the ad revenue and keep it available enough that illegally downloading it won’t be worth the trouble. Unlike music, the ad model for television actually has a proven track-record for working. The supplemental income from DVD sales is something new.

    That being said, movies are a bit more of a problem. They’ve been relying on VHS/DVD sales for much longer. Plus, as home entertainment systems get better, the premium that theaters have to offer over rentals declines. And unlike the record industry, we need the movie studios to get our product. So that presents a problem to the consumer as well as the content providers.

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