Bad but Appealing Copyright Arguments

Some people seem to believe that the problem with copyright law is the inability of people on the free culture side of the debate to compete with the large amounts of money that are being spent but the RIAA et al.

I think that a significant part of the problem is that many intelligent and well-meaning people are simply unaware of or unconvinced by the arguments. For example the Reid Report post titled “Paul Porter speaks truth to Black radio” [1] includes the quote “Only the United States, North Korea and Iran don’t pay royalties for performers on free AM/FM radio“. This point actually sounds quite reasonable and will convince many intelligent and well-meaning people who have an interest in politics – such as Ms Reid.

Cory Doctorow has written an interesting article titled “Internet ©rapshoot: How Internet Gatekeepers Stifle Progress”[2]. He describes how the big “entertainment” companies are failing to properly represent their customers or the artists who produce the content, and in the process creating monopolies out of companies such as Apple and Google.

Cory starts by raising the issue of cultural discourse, monopolies in the distribution of popular art will lead to control over the political process. Ironically the article that Ms Reid cited [3] mentions the issue of “pay for play” which led to “a steady diet of misogyny, violence and drug culture” on the airwaves.

Brendan Scott has written about a similar issue in Australia where the music copyright holders are trying to get massive increases in license fees from restaurants and other small businesses [4]. The expected result of this is greater use of classical music (which is out of copyright) and more interest in purchasing licenses from small musicians who aren’t affiliated with the music cartels. One of his main points is that playing music in public places (including public radio frequencies) is the major form of advertising for musicians.

Michael Tiemann writes about a Brazilian band that has been quite profitable by skipping the recording industry, providing the fans what they want, and selling CDs direct to fans [5]. This is one of many examples to illustrate the fact that the current music factory system is not required for musicians to make a profit.

Amanda Palmer has written an interesting blog post about how the Warner music group wasn’t getting as much money from Youtube as they wanted so they demanded that HER music videos be removed [6] (among many others). So we have a music studio that doesn’t even pay the artist (below a certain number of sales the artist gets no payment, selling 30,000 albums is not enough to get a cent) demanding that the music videos be made unavailable to fans when the artist wants them published. This is a travesty and if similar licensing schemes are implemented for radio stations then we can expect that some radio stations will be financially discouraged from playing music even when the artist would be happy to have it played for free!

In Australia we have an organisation that secretly taxes all viewing of material that they think is under copyright with a suitable license (they give no detailed information on how they determine the copyright and license status – they probably violate my license by taxing universities for copying posts from my blog). Educational institutions and other organisations that sign up get to pay them some money based on what they are deemed to have used. The money is then distributed to the creators in proportion to the amount of use their material received. The distribution rules state that any amount less than $50 per year for an Australian resident or $200 per year for a non-resident will be instead redistributed to other people [7]. Usually analysis of The Long Tail [8] comprises the majority of the sales if users are given enough opportunities to search for a product that is a good match for their requirements. This is the entire basis of businesses such as The Australian Copyright Agency (Copyright Agency Limited – CAL) seems to have a business model of taking all the revenue that might be “earned” by the creative people in the “long tail” and give it all to the top performers. If a similar system was implemented for the US music industry then it would be great for Michael Jackson’s estate, but bad for the vast majority of musicians.

It seems likely to me that the current situation with the music industry is fairly optimal for making a few very popular musicians very rich. The proposed changes for the US will make things even better/worse (depending if you are among the rich few or the majority of the population). One thing we need to ask ourselves is whether we want laws that will make a few people rich or laws that will give many people an adequate income for work they enjoy and which also enriches our culture. This correct decision seems obvious to me.

Can anyone think of other good points that should be raised when discussing such issues with people who don’t consider copyright to be a big issue?

7 comments to Bad but Appealing Copyright Arguments

  • A few year ago, I heard a lecture by this guy[0] about this[1], an economy where music is produced, enjoyed and financed without nary a copyright in site.

  • Raising points is all well and good, but for reaching regular users, one Firefox download beats all the free software manifestos in the world. Why not show your favorite music on Magnatune to musicians, music listeners, and people who need to license music for a game, movie, or public place?

  • etbe

    Don: I haven’t got into Magnatune. Recently I’ve been spending most of my casual music browsing time watching fan-made Youtube videos. I’ll have to try out Magnatune.

    Magnatune doesn’t count towards changing the political process – at least not unless it suddenly gets a dominant share of the music market. People will say “oh Magnatune is different to the others, let’s just make draconian new laws to protect the artists who don’t use it”.

  • etbe

    Brendan Scott has a good analysis of CAL at the above URL. It seems that they send much more money out of Australia than they bring in, and on average authors get a small fraction of the average wage from them. While publishers get the majority of money that they disburse it’s still not a lot. The amount of money that they spend administering the system dwarfs the amount that they pay authors.

  • @etbe, Magnatune counts toward changing the political process the same way the GNU Project counted toward changing the politics of software in the 1980s. You need a working example of programmers or musicians making a good living without the corporate welfare of unaccountable copyright expansionism.

  • john

    They, CAL, are also very keen on extending copyright into new areas, a long way from the original concept of royaltys mostly involving the re– use of something: re-play, re-read , re-sale and so on .
    Ever since the high court blank tapes ruling (1992) they have been working at creating other ways of turning individual copy-rights (where the right of use is controlled by individual rightholders),
    into a tax-like
    system controlled/owned by CAL.