Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Controlling Content

A friend of mine reminded me of a post that I wrote many years ago (five, by my reckoning) with which I no longer entirely agree.

The post was entitled, “Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now” and it’s main line of argument was that people should not try to control where their content appears on the web.

My reasoning was threefold. First, if people are citing your content, or, really, reproducing lengthy citations from it, on their site then (a) that may fall under the doctrine of “fair use” and (b) as long as they are attributing it to you and linking back to the original, that should be fine.

Second, I invoked John Perry Barlow and asserted that “giving it away” was the wave of the future and that companies should share content freely and focus on making money from inimitable products or services. As an illustration, I referred the Grateful Dead’s willingness to allow taping at their concerts while charging for attendance at said concerts.

Finally, I argued that, since every page on the web is literally one click away from any other page, the very notion of a “site” is questionable. That is, in a sense, the web is the site, so quibbling about where content appears (on this site or that site) misses something fundamental about how the web works (or, more accurately, how the very nature of the web calls into question the absolute location of any particular piece of content).

Dissenting from Myself

As I mentioned, I wrote the original piece a long time ago and my thoughts on copyright and control of content have in the interim shifted somewhat.

For example, a little over two years ago I started working for an online publisher and came to experience first hand what it’s like when someone scrapes your content and publishes it in it’s entirety to their site (and not always with proper attribution). Aside from blatant issues of copyright infringement, there is an actual business impact to this sort of thievery to the degree that the stealing site reaps the SEO reward of your content, on the one hand, but can also bring Google penalties down on your site for publishing “duplicate content.” (If any SEOs are reading this and I’m getting this wrong, please school me in the comments.)

My thoughts on digital copyright have also been influenced by Robert Levine’s book Free Ride, in which he convincingly argues that, rather than a question of free speech or freedom of information, the people calling most vocally for “freedom of content” are actually huge businesses (Google and Apple, among them) who sell services or products that benefit from unlimited access to content. If you can fill an iPod with music you downloaded illegally from the web, or use Google to find such music, the argument goes, then the content creator’s loss is the gain of Google and Apple.

Finally, I think that, underlying my argument, was the notion that “content is going to be stolen, so don’t build your business around ownership of content,” which is really more an expression of resigned acceptance than an actual argument.

All That’s Solid

We live in a world in which things that used to be concrete—books, records, movies, etc.—and relatively difficult to reproduce and distribute, now exist as configurations of electricity that can be replicated at will and accessed from anywhere. The obstinacy of matter that once offered some protection to works of imagination, intellect, technical proficiency and physical prowess, has evaporated.

We are in the midst of dealing with the repercussions of this technological turn of events and the end is not yet in sight. Organizations and individuals are experimenting with a variety of methods for tracking, tagging and getting paid for access to content, but there is no perfect solution yet that can prevent people from “taking” whatever content they like. In fact, these people can easily feel little guilt for doing so because, in the end, they aren’t “taking” anything at all; they are merely copying or reproducing, as I said, a “configuration of electricity.”

Should someone who has recorded a piece of music or written a book or produced a film be able to control access to their work? I believe that they should.

Can they now? Not entirely.

Will they be able to do so in the future? I am not certain and tend to think that, if the work can be copied and distributed electronically, then it will always be, to a greater or lesser degree, beyond their control.

Image from the Public Domain