02.04.12

The Copyright Bruhaha

Posted in About Technology, Political Opinion at 12:37 am by Administrator

Is making a copy of a digital movie theft? How do content creators get paid for their work in the digital era? These questions have polarized people into roughly two groups; The status-quo group is of the opinion that people who don’t pay for digital content are “thieves”, The pro-free information group is of the opinion that “information wants to be free”. Occasionally, in the midst of the law suits, raids and fulminating polemics there will be the voice of reason, but not often.

Let us look dispassionately at the issues. I see the issue this way:
1. Artists need to be compensated for their efforts.
2. Consumers want content in a cheap convenient way.
I don’t think it is any more complex than that. Notice, I did NOT say “Middlemen need to make large profits off of creative content”.

The Middle Man

The real problem is the middle man. Before the digital era, the music and movie industry needed an infrastructure to create and distribute songs and movies. Let’s take the pre-digital production of a music album. A record label would identify a talented band, arrange for the recording of an album in an expensive studio, produce the album, market the album and arrange for the band to get advances on earnings. The band in turn would often sign away the rights to some or all of their music in consideration of the benefits of being sponsored through the then-expensive process of getting their music out to the public. Today, it is a different landscape. Let’s take the post-digital production of a music album. First of all, an album is no longer the quantum of consumption. Now consumers can and do buy one song that they like. The band can product their own music with low-cost off the shelf computers and software. The band can design their own art, put the music on a public web site for download and even process their own payments from customers. Most importantly, once the music is digital it can easily be passed from person to person at no charge. To be sure, the issue of marketing their music and making their product visible to the public is still difficult. But it is clear that the middle man no longer has the central role in the selection and production of music.

The now-obsolete middle man still has a formidable, yet dwindling, infrastructure and fortune to expend on trying to stop this change in entertainment consumption. It is something akin to the buggy whip industry using it’s resources to force each new automobile owner to buy a buggy whip. The auto owner doesn’t need a buggy whip! Eventually, inevitably, the buggy whip industry will die. It won’t matter how many congressmen they pay off, or how many law suits they bring against “criminal” automobile users. Buggy whips are no longer needed.

This Has Happened Before

What’s even more interesting is that this has happened before in the entertainment industry. Not once but several times! Before any recording technology existed a singer would sing to a live audience and get paid for that performance. Music was copyrighted and published on paper so people could play the music in their homes on a piano. Then the record player was invented. Some people certainly must have believed that this was the end of live music. In fact, quite the opposite happened. The dissemination of music allowed more people than ever to enjoy a performance. The sale of records brought even more revenue to the industry. The renown of a singer was enhanced so live performances were more lucrative. But what should not be overlooked is that the recording technology added value to singing. It made music portable, reproducible and available in locations previously impossible. This is important. The new technology brought new benefits. The new technology didn’t harm the music industry, indeed it made it more lucrative and ubiquitous than ever!

Following with our music example, next came radio. There was a concerted effort to prevent music from being played on the radio “for free”. Once again, the new technology had a positive effect bringing more music to more people in more places. The money poured in.

More recently, it became possible to tape music. Again, the industry was up in arms, warning that this technology would allow people to “steal” music. And again, the technology had the opposite effect. More people heard more music in more places arranged as they wanted to hear it and more money poured in. I won’t go through the tedious exercise of repeating how this process occurred when CD-roms, mp3s, iPods and now the Internet came along. Each of these new technologies does the same thing. It brings more music to more people in more places in the way the consumer wants to experience it AND more money will pour in. However, the money will not pour in to the obsolete middle men unless they embrace the new technology. The buggy whip industry is dead.

Substitute ‘movie’ for music, ‘television’ for radio, ‘VHS tape’ for cassette tape and one sees what happened in visual entertainment.

Now E-Books Join the Fray

Now we are seeing the same thing with books. I love books! I like to hold them and collect them and read them. But, e-books offer enhancements that are impossible with bound books. For example, I can immediately get the definition of a word I don’t understand. I can instantly translate a foreign language passage or I can link to Wikipedia and get details about an historical character. I can carry hundreds of books with me on vacation. I can loan a book to all my friends instantly. Yes, I just wrote that! Is it stealing to take advantage of the flexibility of the new technology? To my mind it is not stealing just as listening to a song on the radio is not stealing.

Digital Benefits

Here are more benefits of e-books (and e-music and e-movies). If I like a song (or book or movie) I can easily find similar works and procure them instantly. I can share my opinions about a song (or book etc.) with my friends. And, this is interesting, I can share my opinions about a song (or movies) with strangers. As a consumer I can find out what other people think about a work. I can find out what other works the artist produced and I can download them. I can even sample a bit of those works to try and determine if I find them entertaining.

For a producer, the barriers to creation of new art have been significantly lowered. Will this mean that more crummy art will be produced? Certainly. Tell me you haven’t watched a crummy commercially produced movie! Now, in the digital realm, I can read reviews, sample and otherwise vet the quality of an entertainment product without going to the effort of going to a movie theatre and paying to see the movie. The nature of digital media make sorting through the content very easy.

Certainly, all of these systems for determining the quality of music, book and movies have been available for years. After all we have had critics for as long as the human race has existed. What we haven’t had is the brutal efficiency of the digital realm. I no longer have to depend on a handful of critics in the press. I can be my own critic and I can find friends and strangers who are critics I trust. I can also sample a product in the comfort of my home, as I sit in my PJs.

In short, digital products offer extensive new benefits. Sound familiar? So did every other new technological innovation throughout history. Each time a new technology appeared, a different revenue model had to be worked out. Which brings me to the next item; How does the artist get paid for his or her creation?

How Does The Artist Get Paid?

How then does the artist get paid for his or her creation? Again, we need to cleave off the obsolete middle-man. Apple Computer came up with a viable system for music, which they are expanding into video and books. By using iTunes, and allowing customers to procure music instantly at an impulse-buy cost, Apple has created a vast working market place. The money is pouring in, just like it did with each new innovation: vinyl records, radio, television, VHS tapes, CD-roms, DVDs, MP3s, iPods, iPads, laptops and now The Internet.

As a customer I no longer need to drive to the record store, the book store, the library, or the movie theatre, unless I really want to. As a customer I no longer am paying for expensive distribution and production, unless I really want to. As a customer I select that which is pleasing to me and I no longer have to pay for content that is bundled on an album, unless I want to. Why then, as a customer, shouldn’t I benefit from the lower cost associated with putting digital content on the internet where I can get it? I no longer have to pay for the paper, the book binding, the bookstore, the trucking of books, the overhead of unsold remainders and so on, unless I want to.

The artist can sell me product directly now. Or select a low cost new middle-man, such as iTunes. The irony is that more money than ever is to be made. The only loser is the middle-man who is unwilling to provide the consumer with the new benefits from the new technology. The only loser is the middle-man who insists that things shouldn’t change. Things will change.

Piracy

The existing dying infrastructure in entertainment is going under kicking and screaming. Their ill-advised prohibition of digital music worked just as well as the prohibition on beer. It forced law abiding consumers underground and pushed the new profits directly into the hands of criminals who provided the obvious. Pirated music is no bargain, really. What the customer really wants is a high-quality well-organized digital product at a fair price. If it is easy and priced as an impulse-buy, then most people will take the path of least resistance and pay. And, here is the interesting part; when the digital consumer is better able to evaluate more music, and find music similar to his or her tastes that they might normally never encounter, more music will be sold.

There will be a limited amount of piracy when music is well organized and all the benefits of the digital format are available at the fair price. When this happens the volume of music sold and the increased satisfaction of the customer, will more than replace any losses associated with the new technology. Substitute the word ‘book’ or ‘movie’ for music and the same thing is true.

Summary

It makes no sense to make criminals out of your customers! The way out of this mess is for music, movies and books to be made available for a reasonable impulse-buy price. Indeed this seems to be happening with outlets like iTunes and Amazon.com. The distribution mechanisms need to provide every benefit of the digital realm, such as crowd-sourced criticism, instant availability, product sampling, the ability to locate similar pleasing products and, it has to be said, no Digital Rights Management. The existing industry needs to resist the temptation to sue their customers for simply obtaining a desirable product the industry is unwilling to provide. And the existing industry needs to understand that this new technology is making the old distribution and revenue models obsolete. A new way of selling entertainment to the public is happening and the smart content owner will take advantage of the enhanced revenue the digital technology can provide.

Take a lesson from history and see how each new generation of technology was actually a positive development for the entertainment industry. Digital media is a positive development for music, books and movies.

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