Intellectual Property, the personal battle

October 25th, 2007

File-sharing, in particular, peer to peer (P2P) networks distributing copyrighted material.  Obviously, this is a hot-button issue for the music community and is an subject that I’m torn on.

Despite the grumblings of the RIAA, MPAA, IFPISPA, etc., there are both pros and cons to P2P networks.  The obvious negative is the loss of revenue both to the companies distributing material, as well as the artists, film-makers and programmers.  If used scrupulously, the benefits can go towards both the consumer and towards small labels and independent artists.  Another benefit can go to artists who are actually good, but more on this later.  First I’ll look at why people pirate.

Basically I see five reasons on why people violate copyright laws.

  1. They feel the media being produced is over-priced for what they are getting.
  2. They don’t feel that the money that they spend is going either to the artists that produced it, or in a fair proportion (to what the distributor keeps)
  3. They don’t view the copyright laws as being fair to the consumer or in some cases, to the original artist(s).
  4. They feel that media, as a whole, is of low quality, and the only way to weed out the good content from the bad is to try it for free first.
  5. They’re poor and/or kids and/or anarchists/communists.

I have never been a guy who says pirating is bad, especially for items I personally view as being over-priced.  The position of the copyright cartel has always been “If you think’s it’s too expensive, you only have one option.  Don’t buy it.  You shouldn’t have another option of ‘Steal It’”.  This would be a fair argument if a boycott would actually be effective, but I don’t think this is feasible.  If you like a musician and they are on “Label X”, you have to pay what “Label X” demands.  In essence, it’s a very specific content monopoly.  Sure, you can choose to not support that company/artist/etc, but that doesn’t fix the problem of why it’s so expensive to begin with.

This leads me to the second item, how are the profits, that are paid by consumers, split? About a half a decade ago, when Napster was the file-sharing juggernaut, Courtney Love (of all people) wrote a great article for Salon.com in support of file-sharing, based almost completely on the fact that record labels are fleecing the artists.  One of the figures she throws out there is that a major-label artist, if they are lucky, make 20 cents per CD.  So, if the writing credits for a four piece band is split evenly, and this band sells a million CDs, each of those musicians take home a whopping $50,000.  If the CD is sold at $10 a pop, less a $2 per CD production cost (the actual printing cost is much lower), that leaves 7.8 million dollars in revenue for the record label and other parts of the “machine” and 200k for the band.  That is ridiculous.

It’s at that point, as an artist, you ask yourself, would I be better off if my art were free to the masses?  How would I make money?  Fact is that most artists live off touring and merchandise sales as opposed to CD sales.  For many artists, record sales represent a very small portion of their income, and in some cases, even represent a loss.  The problem is that this is a catch-22.  In order to get people out to a show, they need to know who you are (usually) and for them to want to buy your merchandise, they need to know who you are (usually) and the money from the record label’s deep pockets usually helps get your name out.  So in order to give away CDs, you need to go on tour.  In order to go on tour, you need money.  So you’re stuck. Radiohead can afford to give their music away because they have an established name and will get paid once they hit the road, because people will show up.  Joe Noname can’t.

The third item is a peculiar one.  While I do think there should be limits on corporate copyright ownership, I do not think personal and estate copyrights should have the same limits.  While I think lifetime plus 50 years or 75 years from publishing (which ever is shorter) is a reasonable amount of time for personal copyright, the current copyright laws are out of whack. 

For example, the music for the “Happy Birthday Song” was written in 1893 by a school-teacher.  It was published in as “Happy Birthday” in 1924, and in 1935, the sister of the original artist won the copyright back from the 1924 publisher.  It’s been 72 years since it was “officially” published, 83 years since it was originally published and 114 years since it was written.  Current law gives 95 years from date of publication until it goes into the public domain (allegedly to help protect Mr. Mouse).  This means that the happy birthday song will not go into the public domain until 2030, 137 years after it was written.  The original artist died in 1916.  The song generates $2 million a year in royalties, of which Time-Warner, current owner of the copyright, gets to keep a sizable portion.

I can empathize on the fourth item, lack of content quality. Who wants to buy a product, lured in by shiney packaging, only to be crushed when they find out that the product is not as good as they would have thought. Movies are good example of the try before you buy system. You can easily rent a movie from a video store, for a nominal price, and if you like it, you can purchase it on DVD. Many video games used to have robust demos where you could get a good idea of how fun a game is within the demo, but even shareware demos have gone the way of the dodo. Worst off is music, where you may hear one good single on the radio, only to be disappointed upon shelling out cash for the full length. If honest people are using P2P as a sort of underground try before you buy network, the people/groups who produce exceptional material will thrive, while talentless hacks are filtered out of the system

Last, but not least, there are those that will pirate just because they're too poor, too cheap or idiologically opposed to intellectual property, and attempting to "convert" them by restrictive DRMs will only force them to become craftier. However you can "convert" the poor and the cheap by keeping media prices down.

In the end, I don't think that P2P networks are bad, as it mainly exists because the current system is so fatally flawed. Would I rather support a flawed system, or force change upon the industry? I'm not making money either way, so I might as well try to buck the system. Steal when I need to, and support the independant artists who aren't being raped by media conglomerates. Until the media companies realize that their treatment of the buying public and the artists that produce their content is shameful, they will never change.

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