Concernin’ Pirates.


Virgin Media’s ‘block’ display, shown when trying to access the Pirate Bay site.

Piracy! It’s the hot topic of the moment, with copyright owners worried about losing revenues, and unscrupulous governments seizing on the issue to pass draconian legislation over that uncontrollable global bugbear, the internet.

I’ve posted on this topic (tangentially) before, when the US government was salivating over controlling the internet via the SOPA and RIPA acts. But today it came up as a topic when a couple of friends on Facebook posted this blog piece from David Lowery, lecturer in music economics at the University of Georgia and founder of alt-rock band Camper Van Beethoven. Lowery wrote the piece in response to a post from 21 year old National Public Radio intern Emily White, in which (as he saw it) she seemed to feel free of guilt for having illegally obtained over 11000 songs while only having ever purchased 15 CDs. It’s an interesting piece, with a considered viewpoint from a man who has very good reason to be expert in this field. Take a moment (or two, it’s quite long) to read it.

Back yet? Good. After reading that, I responded with a few brief comments to my friends on Facebook. Brief in the sense that Tolstoy novels are – you’ll be used to that if you’ve read this blog before. But I thought them worth posting here to reach a wider audience, so here goes…

Lowery’s piece has a few thought-provoking points, but he glosses over some of the murkier areas. As it’s written from a US perspective, the specific points about copyright laws and royalty payments ignore vastly differing rules in other territories. As with so many legal/financial issues, the global nature of the internet makes concrete arguments trickier to make.

Secondly, it’s worth reading the original post from NPR’s Emily White that Lowery is responding to – he completely mischaracterises it in his own piece. Far from ‘stealing’ the 11,000 songs in her music collection, she goes into great detail about how she obtained it. Much of it was recorded from promos at the radio station she worked at (‘home taping’ but NOT illegal downloading), and a lot of it was obtained via swapping mix CDs with her friends. Sound familiar? At her age (21) that’s how I obtained a lot of my music. That was in 1991, and it didn’t kill the industry.

Probably her most ‘heinous’ act is receiving a surprise gift from her prom date – he loaded lots of music onto her iPod. OK, that does rob artists of royalties. But who’s to blame there – her, or the boy who copied the music as a surprise gift?

If you read Emily’s post to its conclusion, she’s not asking for ‘free stuff’, as Lowery rather patronisingly puts it. She’s arguing for an online service that can be subscribed to, by which any music can be played at any time. Lowery’s right about Spotify’s miserly royalties to artists, but such a service, with fair payments, is the obvious way to properly monetise downloading/streaming of all media.

It’s already working very successfully for films and TV with Netflix and Hulu. Extrapolated for other media, that’s the obvious way to go. It could easily work for ebooks as well, rather like a library service – either stream the book to your device, or be allowed to download a file that has an expiry date. If you’re paying a fiver a month to such a service, why would you bother searching out illegal, dubious quality downloads and filling your hard drive with them?

I can see why Lowery is so exercised by what he perceives in Emily’s post – she has acquired a lot of music without paying for it (though not by the means he implies). But her circumstances are unusual, particularly the access to free promos from a radio station.
Having read both pieces, neither is spot on in a workable, totally ethical way (though ethics tend to be subjective). But to me it looks like Lowery, like many others, has failed to properly grasp the way the technology has/will affect the issues at hand. Emily White’s post is far nearer the mark.

It’s true that artists – of any stripe – should no more work for free than anyone else. Sadly there’ll always be some piracy, but the problem here is that the pirates have worked out how to exploit the technology first. What’s needed is to come up with a legitimate model of giving content creators their fair share. Lowery does make some good points, but nobody’s found a definitive answer to that one yet.

And it’s worth remembering that music as an art form has existed for millennia, but recording music is a relatively recent phenomenon (c. mid 19th century). Before that, music was all about the experience of a performer and a physical audience. At that point, musicians always got paid what they deserved – even if it was rotten tomatoes! The advent of recording caused a seismic shift in how the ‘industry’ was organised, and we’re currently living through another. Problem is, many people (including, I think, Lowery) are viewing the issues very much from a 20th century perspective.

Indeed, perhaps even the 21st century issues we’re so concerned with are becoming passe now, as the culture of experiencing recorded media continues to shift faster than businesses seem able to anticipate. Apparently, one of the arguments often raised by ‘the pirates’ is that, with the huge capacities of personal media devices, piracy/theft is the only way to fill up all that space if you’re not a millionaire.

That may not be a justification, but it’s interesting to note that the memory capacity of iPods is actually tending to get smaller. Partly this is because spinning hard drives are being abandoned in favour of flash memory, which doesn’t (yet) have the same capacity.
But more significantly, because people are tending more and more towards streaming their entertainment rather than keeping a permanent copy of it clogging up their device’s memory.

That seems to be the future; both media companies and hardware manufacturers are playing catchup, but Apple seem to have figured it out already, with internet-intensive, low-memory devices like the iPad.The only stumbling block is access to the material when outside the range of Wifi networks, but 4G (and the increasing number of free public Wifi services) should help there.

But what about material that (for whatever reason) is deleted and no longer available? What about downloading or free streaming of material that you bought once and then lost in a theft? What about music bought secondhand from a charity shop, where no royalties go to the artist?

I’m by no means an innocent on such issues. I’m keenly aware of the problems caused by depriving content creators of revenue (though David Lowery’s attempt to tangentially link that to two fellow musicians’ suicides is a tasteless attempt at emotional manipulation). As I said earlier, ethics are a subjective thing, and the conscientious have to come up with some code of conduct. The trouble is, until legislators, businessmen, and even artists can come up with a consensus on how best to legitimise downloading and streaming, that code of conduct feels like it’s up for grabs.