Putting It Another Way: Music, Money, and Piracy

In a recent post, I talked about issues surrounding music piracy—i.e., the reproduction of music without the consent or compensation of the artist and other interested parties—in light of a column published by David Byrne in The Guardian.

In this post, I would like to put my views another way for, in the past, I fear I have too cavalierly dismissed lamentations over the rampant piracy of music.

Why should you be able to make money from musical recordings at all?

The ability to record and distribute or broadcast recordings of musical performances was until very recently in the many millennia of human music making impossible. Given the relatively brief span of its possibility, I often pondered why would anyone think that it would be forever possible, especially now that the ability to reproduce and distribute recordings has become ubiquitous and trivial.

The fact that you can magically copy musical recordings without altering their format (by, for example, going from vinyl to cassette or even cd) has changed the reality of what a recording is. It has gone from an artifact (record) to a formula, an infinitely reproducible mathematical model.

As a result, the perceived value of a recording has fallen to zero (although spending $.99 on iTunes or elsewhere does, at times, seem acceptable. Nevrtheless, even when a song costs about as much as a candy bar, spending $8.99 for collection of eight or nine songs can suddenly seem exorbitant).

And while musicians, engineers, producers and labels spend a lot of time and money on recording, it is sadly the case that the amount of time and money on producing something has little or no bearing on the perceived value of that something.

That’s Not the Point

The ease of piracy, of course, does not justify piracy, though it can explain why people don’t have many qualms about “stealing” (really, “illegally reproducing”) something whose perceived value is vanishingly small. Nevertheless, it took me a while to realize that the problem isn’t simply that people making music are not being compensated for the music they’ve made by people downloading it for free.

That is, if no one were benefiting from this process, the points I made above would, perhaps, have some validity (I only add the qualifying “perhaps” because, given copyright law, the people producing the music do have legal rights to its reproduction and said rights are undeniably violated in cases of unauthorized reproduction).

Unfortunately, that is not simply the case because someone is being compensated in this process: namely, the people who sell advertising on sites that make illegal downloads available and, by extension, the organizations or networks buying advertising on said sites.

That is exactly the point being made by posts such as “Artists, Know Thy Enemy” and “Over 50 Major Brands Supporting Music Piracy, It’s Big Business!” over at The Trichordist.

In Other Words

In other words, this isn’t just about “whining” that changing technology has made a particular business model (making and selling musical objects) untenable.

Instead, it’s about enabling entities figuring making money off the facilitation of copyright infringement.

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