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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Music industry: stop whingeing

OK, a little off-topic here, but having sat through a lot of hand-wringing during the Media session at the Telco 2.0 event this morning, I thought I'd stick my oar in as well. There was a lot of discussion about banning P2P filesharers, DRM, ISP responsbilities, traffic-shaping and so on, particularly about music. We had the esteemed presence of 1980s singer Feargal Sharkey.

Now don't get me wrong - I produce content myself, and I don't like it when fake spam blogs rip of this site, and I also take steps to protect my published research from illegal copying.

But at the same time, I absolutely disagree that the whole of the Internet industry should be paying much attention to a very small minority, worried about a very small amount of what the Internet is about. I've written before that content is just a small, special sort of application, and the more I think about it, the more my opinion is confirmed.

There is no reasons that music piracy should drive government policy or Internet regulation, any more than software piracy or the online sale of fake pharmaceuticals. However, the entertainment industry tends to enjoy cosier relationships with policy-makers (the French President's wife being a musician, for example, while UK Business Secretary Lord Mandelson is closely linked with the content industry).

Ultimately, the music industry is designed to be (a) noisy, and (b) emotive. That's it's job. So it should be no surprise that they tend to be louder and more emphatic when it comes to shouting about its concerns.

Yet I cannot believe that anyone entering the music industry in the last 10 years has done so expecting to make $$$ from record sales. All the musicians I know are well-aware of the score. They've probably illegally downloaded music themselves. They know the value of live performances, which have been incredibly strong in recent years. If they want to exercise their creativity for purely money-making purposes, they'd be writing iPhone apps instead.

I'm not aware of any decline in the number of bands being formed, despite reducing music sales. A quick glance around the web suggests that musical instrument sales are still pretty robust too.

Bottom line - while piracy is definitely bad news for the record labels, it doesn't seem to be too apocalyptic for performers. But irrespective of the rights and wrongs (and I'm not especially animated one way or the other personally) the noise generated by the music industry is far out of proportion with its overall importance. Turn it down, please.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dean,

I must say I agree with most of what you are writing on this topic. To produce legislation to protect one business paradigm cannot be good in any way. Time is changing our society, companies and business models has to change too. However, there is something deeper in this issue which really becomes difficult to deal with when you think about it. This deeper aspect really touches democracy and is very seldom discussed.

Let me give an example. Person A creates some work of art. Writes a song, records a song, shoots a movie, writes a book (or a technical report!). Person B gets hold of a digital copy of this.
To me, it all boils down to the fact that if B distributes the content (or application, the wording doesn't really matter here) which B don't have permission to do from the person A, person B is actually saying; "Well, I think that you (the author, composer, singer, guitarist, architect) should not make money by selling your work of art when it can be distributed on the internet, your business model has to be something else. I don't know what model that would be, invent something! Hold a concert! (Interesting if you are an author..) But I (person B) has decided that you (person A) do not have the option to make money by selling digital media."

Taking all legislation and business models aside, there is something immoral in that kind of reasoning. What gives B the right to decide how A should make money on his work? It is like that we are saying that the efforts of a designer who designs a nice table is worthless, it is only when a carpenter has actually built the table that the design achieves value. Does that mean that you can only be a designer if you build the table yourself? In a more general term, what does it really say about a software company? If it is ok to copy an mp3 file, why shouldn't it be ok to copy Photoshop?

It really doesn't add up. I have absolutely no interest in supporting current business models, but we need to stop a bit and think what we actually want to assign value. Does technology only have value if it can distribute ads? I don't have a good answer. Perhaps we are way beyond that kind of discussion now. But I refuse to disregard this fundamental issue just because copying and redistribution is so easy. If I do it, I want to do it for the right reason, not because the simple fact that I can.

While I agree with most of what you are writing, you are avoiding this, to me, real fundamental issue. Why should the rights of person B have precedence of the rights of person A?

Daniel Enström

Dean Bubley said...


Thanks for your thoughful comments. However, having read through it a couple of times, a thought struck me:

"What gives B the right to decide how A should make money on his work?"

Well, if that's the case, how is copying different from competition or substitution? [apart from legality, obviously].

Is a competitor or inventor of a substitute product not "stealing" his rival's opportunity?

Google, for example, has decided that other companies should not make money selling location data, by providing a means for people to get it for free.

Now clearly, location data isn't intellectual property that can be stolen, but the *effect* is similar - ie it forces others to change their business models.

Secondly - while I acknowledge the apparent injustices here, I'm getting a little tired of what, in the greatest scheme of things, are relatively *minor* injustices getting such disproportionate prominence. Arguably, they are getting in the way of "the greater good" because they clog up the entire innovation and development process, worthy though they might be.

Just as certain planning & construction projects can get mired for years in minor complaints and appeals, I see the same thing happening here. Occasionally it's necessary for governments to be a little harsh and issue compulsory purchase orders or otherwise expedite their decisions.

"Sorry, that tough, but it's not worth derailing the whole Internet industry. Deal with it."

Nobody cares now about the fate of 15th-century storytellers & minstrels & poets, after the first printing presses were invented and enabled copying of their stories.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dean,

Thanks for your reply. You are obviously right that my example has several holes in it, but I think you miss the point. Google doesn't copy maps and redistribute them, they first buy their maps (now they make them on their own, I think) and decide to offer them for free. If they would have just copied the maps from e.g. Tele Atlas or Navteq and redistributed them for free (without reimbursing/agreeing with the actual creators), then the example would hold. But they didn't. That's fair play in my book (although I wouldn't like to invest in TomTom nowadays.) The difference between copying and reinventing is huge and I think that we have a big problem if we cannot separate that. Nothing stops my neighbour to record a better version of the song I have recorded and to put that on his CD, but I think everyone agrees that he shouldn't be able to put my recording on his CD even if he gives away it for free, right?

Once again, my issue isn't with keeping business paradigms, they must be born, live and die, just like everything else. I haven't bought a CD in years (iTunes and Spotify all the way). And in my country, they have passed laws which enables record companies and movie studios to conduct private investigations to track down file sharers; absolutely horrific. Insane. But I won't let my argument be highjacked by the politicians. My issue is about putting value in "intellectual property" as in compositions, recordings, authoring etc. To me, this is a much deeper question than just business models, it is about assigning value to the creators. Would your reports only have value if you established a business model which would enable companies to put ads in the margin? Or to revenue share with the ISP which routes the traffic to your webpage?

Thanks for the discussion!