Wednesday, August 22, 2007

MP3s just want to be free

Cory Doctorow has an interesting piece in Australia's asking why the music and movie industries are so dead-set on cutting their own throats by attempting to suppress modern distribution systems that could, potentially, be very lucrative for everybody concerned.

Hollywood loves sequels -- they're a safe bet if the franchise is already successful. But you'd have to be nuts to shoot a sequel to a disastrous flop.

The Napster debacle was the entertainment industry's biggest-ever flop. That disaster took place six years ago, when the record industry succeeded in shutting down the pioneering file-sharing service. Record companies show no signs of recovery.

The disastrous thing about Napster wasn't that it it existed, but rather that the record industry managed to kill it.

Napster had an industry-friendly business-model: raise venture capital, start charging for access to the service, and then pay billions of dollars to the record companies in exchange for licenses to their works.

Yes, Napster kicked this plan off without getting permission from the record companies, but that's not so unusual.

The record companies followed the same business plan a hundred years ago, when they started recording sheet music without permission, raising capital and garnering profits, and then working out a deal to pay the composers for the works they'd built their fortunes on.

The point that Doctorow makes is that every time the recording industry "wins" a round against new technological distribution systems, it drives entertainment consumers to new alternatives that are harder to shut down and run by people increasingly less willing to discuss deal-making.

The public wasn't willing to wait for Sony and the rest to wake up and offer a service that was as compelling, exciting, and versatile as Napster.

Instead, they flocked to a new generation of services like Kazaa and the various Gnutella networks. Kazaa's business model was to set up offshore, on the tiny Polynesian island of Vanuatu. Kazaa bundled spyware with its software, making its profits off fees from spyware crooks.

Kazaa didn't want to pay billions for record industry licenses -- it used the international legal and finance system to hopelessly snarl the RIAA's members through half a decade of wild profitability. The company was eventually brought to ground, but the founders walked away and started Skype and then Joost.

Meantime, dozens of other services had sprung up to fill Kazaa's niche -- AllofMP3, the notorious Russian site, was eventually killed through intervention of the US Trade Representative and the WTO, and was reborn practically the next day under a new name.

Interestingly, Doctorow doesn't delve into arcane discussions about the rights and wrongs of intellectual property rights protections. He dwells, instead, on the practicality of denying people convenient access to material they want without offering a viable alternative. Inevitably, he says, convenient technological solutions will arise, no matter what legal regime is in place.

Plenty of entrepreneurs are looking at easing the pain and cost of setting up your own mythtv box. The only reason that the barriers to widespread adoption of BitTorrent and mythtv exist is that it hasn't been worth anyone's while to capitalise projects to bring those barriers down. But once the legit competitors of these services are killed, look out.

The thing is, the public doesn't want managed services with limited rights. We don't want to be stuck using approved devices in approved ways. We never have -- we are the spiritual descendants of the customers for "illegal" record albums and "illegal" cable TV. The demand signal won't go away.

This strikes me as the most compelling argument against attacks on peer-to-peer file sharing, YouTube and the like. Fundamentally, it's much easier to tailor legal arrangements to suit the societies they serve than it is to engineer societies to conform to preexisting business models and artificial (yes, artificial) though useful constructs like copyright. If people want electric light, it makes no sense to insist on selling them lamp oil, and if they want (and can create easy access to) shared music and video files, it's just smart business to find a way to make money off of that desire rather than wage a losing campaign to bludgeon consumers into purchasing CDs and DVDs.

I say this as a writer who, frankly, has benefited from traditional copyright protections. I very much like being paid for my work. Yet I was an early user of Napster despite my misgivings about the morality of the set-up. Sharing song files was just so easy compared to buying entire CDs for the one or two tracks I really wanted to hear, especially when there were always whispers of some new format lurking in the wings, ready to do to my CD collection what CDs had done to my LPs. It was impossible to resist the lure of getting what I wanted when I wanted it.

People's wants, needs, desires and abilities evolve; law and business have to change to keep up.

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